Becoming A ‘Servant Of God’
Devadasis are Dalit women sold into sexual slavery. Is this the end of a cruel tradition?
By Carla Power
June 25 — You can tell the “servants of God” from the other Dalit women outside the Hindu temple in Manvi, a village in northern Karnataka, by their jewelry. They’re wearing red beaded necklaces with silver and gold medallions.

  THE NECKLACES SYMBOLIZE THE BONDAGE that defines devadasis girls from the lowest caste whose parents have given them to local goddesses or temples as human “offerings.” Married to God before puberty, the devadasis, many of whom live in the temples, become sexual servants to the villages’ upper-caste men after their first menstrual period. In some villages, devadasis are kept as concubines by the men who bought them. In others they are public chattel, who can be used by men free of charge. “Only in this aspect do Untouchables suddenly become touchable,” says Sister Bridget Pailey, a nun who does social work among devadasis in Karnataka. “The upper castes wouldn’t drink from the same glass as a devadasibut they make use of her body.”
        Yellama was 9 years old when her parents sold her for $4 to an upper-caste man. He gave her a sari and a blouse, and paid for the alcohol at the initiation celebration. After that, she became his unpaid concubine, begging for money and breaking stones for construction sites to support herself. “Whenever I think of it, my blood boils,” says Yellama, who says she is now “about 50 years old.” Still, she won’t rip off her own gold- and black-beaded necklace: “I can’t take it off,” she says. “Once it’s tied around your neck, it’s a symbol of a bond.”
Religious duty often ends up as prostitution; many Dalit women leave the villages to earn money in the filthy brothels of Bombay.

        India can’t seem to shake off one of the cruelest traditions of its hidebound caste system. Dedications of devadasi girls have been supervised by village priests in southern India for thousands of years. The British tried to outlaw the tradition, and the Indian government has banned it, too. But according to human-rights activists, as many as 15,000 girls in rural areas are still dedicated to God each year. “The parents simply don’t see any other possibility,” says Pailey. “Somebody has to be dedicated, or the goddess will be angry.” Religious duty often ends up as prostitution; many Dalit women leave the villages to earn money in the filthy brothels of Bombay.
        Activism and education are starting to change attitudes. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd have been fighting devadasi practices there for 20 years. Young girls used to be dedicated naked, wearing only garlands of neem leaves. Pailey’s activism has changed that: now they go to dedication ceremonies clothed. Through painstaking work in rural villages, Pailey is trying to teach communities that there’s something wrong with the system. In many places, there’s no stigma associated with being a devadasiin fact, it’s a respectable solution for poverty-stricken Dalits.
        Talema was dedicated by her mother after her father died. “I find it very difficult to stomach,” she says, sitting on a neighbor’s mud porch in Manvi. At her dedication ceremony, she had no idea what being a devadasi meant. “When the high-caste man came to me,” she remembers, “I began to wonder why my mother did this.” Her mother, Mariama, says that dedicating her daughter was the only security she had for her old age: “Now, at least, there’s someone to give me a little water when I’m dying.”
        If devadasis get angry at their parents for selling them off, they tend not to express it openly, says Pailey. Instead, it emerges in depression or aggression, often directed against their children. Recently, a few devadasis even spoke out against the system on All-India Radio. The government has stepped up efforts to wipe out the devadasi tradition, too. As a result, dedications are no longer performed at temples, but in secret. “My parents had eight girls, and wanted a boy,” shrugs Narzama, a devadasi dressed in a faded red sari, cradling her toddler outside the Manvi temple. “I don’t want it for my daughter. I want my children to become educated, and then I can marry them off.” In Manvi, perhaps this generation of devadasis will be the last.
       © 2000 Newsweek, Inc.

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