By P. V. Swati:
After centuries of traditionally imposed prostitution, young girls in Wadia village near Palanpur are, for the first time, getting ready for a mass marriage. Wadia is known for being the ‘village of prostitutes’ in Gujarat, where young girls are trained to provide sexual services as soon as they attain puberty. Seven girls above 18 years of age will take part in the mass marriage.
Wadia has a population of 750 people of which 100-odd women are believed to be involved in prostitution since pre-Independence days. The men of the families often live off the women’s income, pimping clients.
The fate of girls in the village of Wadia might be on a road to transformation, but what about the countless number of women in India who are still engaged in forced temple prostitution under the garb of traditional customs like the Devadasi system?
The caste system is in Hindu religion has many manifestations. It has not only divided the society into various layers of graded hierarchy but has also created inhuman practices in the name of God. One of them is the Devadasi system prevalent in different forms all over India.
This cult is prevalent even today throughout India with some regional variances. Young girls are dedicated or married to, not a mortal-man, but an idol, deity or object of worship or to a temple. The barbarism of the tradition reflects in the very rituals it involves. The initiation ritual is said to include a ‘deflowering ceremony’, known as Uditambuvadu in some parts, where the priest would have intercourse with every girl enrolled at his temple as part of his religious ‘duty’. So much so that a Marathi saying states “Devadasi devachi bayako, sarya gavachi”, meaning ‘Servant of god, but the wife of the whole town’. The Devadasi is from the lowest caste, whose parents have given them to local goddesses or temples as human ‘offerings’. She has to remain unmarried, and maintain herself by ceremonial begging to make ends meet.
There are various myths around this inhuman practice. This system is based on the traditional belief in Andhra Pradesh that evil over the family or the village can be avoided by dedicating a girl in the family to the temple deity. As soon as she reaches puberty, she becomes a concubine for the feudal gentry in the village.
In Maharashtra, these women are made to sacrifice their first-born daughters. When she becomes of marriageable age, she is formally married to Khandoba, the deity and becomes his ‘nominal wife’.
In Karnataka, there is a traditional belief that when there is famine, drought or an epidemic, to appease gods and goddesses, a lower-caste girl is dedicated to the local goddess Huligamma. The Banchara, Rajnat, Dommara and Bedia tribes in Madhya Pradesh also practice traditional prostitution.
There has been an influence of the Devadasi tradition on the Muslim community as well. Some Muslim sects started offering girls to dargahs. The girl is then married to the Qu’ran. After the nikah is performed, the girl is called a bibi and is condemned to lead a life of prostitution.
Married to God before puberty, Devadasis or Joginis, many of whom live in the temples, become sexual servants to the villages’ upper-caste men after their first menstrual period. In some villages, men who buy them keep them as concubines. In others, they are public chattels, who are used by men free of charge. Socially, they are outcasts and they do suffer from severe venereal and sexually transmitted diseases. A majority of Devadasis, after reaching a certain age, migrate to towns where they join brothels and become commercial sex workers.
Some of the states where the Devadasi practice are still prevalent have tried to eradicate it through state laws like the Bombay Devadasis Protection Act, 1934, the Prohibition of Dedication Act, 1982 of Karnataka and the Andhra Pradesh Prohibition of Dedication Act, 1988.
However, the practice lives on in the states in South India mainly in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Districts bordering Maharashtra and Karnataka are known as the ‘Devadasi belt’ of the country. According to the National Commission on Women of India, it is estimated that around 2,50,000 Dalit girls are dedicated as Devadasis to Yellamma and Khondaba temples in the Maharashtra-Karnataka border.
There is a separate residential area allotted for the ex-Devadasis families, which is outside the village just like the Dalits. All the families of ex-Devadasis are headed by women. Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka Government have also allotted a few acres of land to each Devadasi family. But the stigma attached to their identity cannot be removed through these mere rehabilitation programs.
Village communities are not ready to accept ex-Devadasi families. So, the Devadasis, through the support of the local NGOs, organise themselves to form cooperatives. Through this, they have started income-generating activities. Very few of them are able to get married legally.
But, this move out of the traditionally prescribed structure cannot be without obstacles. The decision to marry girls in Wadia has not gone down well with the male touts of the community, as young girls fetch a higher price when first introduced to the trade. Fearing they will lose the girls, they have made some threats to the organizers. A local guardian of the girls and leader of Vicharti Jaati Samuday Samarthan Manch, which got the girls and their families ready for marriage, has also filed a complaint with the police.
Nevertheless, there is a ray of hope. The women of the community have built a support system for themselves and are determined to move out of the oppressive flesh trade they have been caged in for centuries now. The example of the Sarania women in Gujarat should be seen as a breakthrough and should inspire women suffering under the Devadasi system to move out of these traditional shackles.
Update: In an earlier version, ‘venereal’ was misspelled as ‘venerable’. It was corrected after Jia, a reader of the article, pointed out the mistake in a comment.