Goddess YellamaSometimes I love the BBC. The World Service, sometimes, rocks. At least, it has brought to my attention an atrocity in the name of “culture” of which I was not formerly aware. If you weren’t either then please listen to today’s “World Today“* or at least read this article.

To be filed under: men hate you, even when they are banging on about goddesses. Also under: “tradition” is no excuse.

(* Select “International version”, click on “World Service radio Programmes” and then “World Today” – Devadasi article starts after 20 minutes, alternatively this page may soon get updated with the latest programme)

Some snippets from the article:

  • “Being devadasis means we are slaves of the goddess. We have to visit this temple. We wear necklaces of pearls to show we are bound to Yellama. We give blessings and perform her rituals,” says Imla, a devadasi in her 40s who is swathed in a pink and yellow sari.
    When girls dedicated to Yellama reach puberty they are forced to sacrifice their virginity to an older man. What follows is a life of sexual slavery, they become sanctified prostitutes. The money devadasis earn goes straight to their parents who often act as pimps for their daughters.
    “My parents didn’t have any sons, so there was nobody to earn the family a living,” says Imla. “Instead they turned me into a whore. I don’t even remember when I started because I was so young. My parents thought at least they’d get some money from me.”
  • Shoba… comes from a long line of devadasis. Her grandmother was one, her sister is too. Shoba remembers how, when she was 13 her parents dressed her as if for marriage. They auctioned her virginity to the highest bidder.
    “When the first man arrived I thought he was going to marry me,” Shoba recalls, “but he slept with me and then never came back. I realised this was now my trade. Every night I was sold to whoever paid the most.”
    “I can’t get out of the system, even if I say I’m not a devadasi any more nobody will come forward to marry me,” she says. “I keep telling other people not to make their daughters devadasis, you are abused, it’s a horrible life.”
  • Sacrificing their daughter’s life has enriched Shoba’s parents. “Someone had to continue the tradition. It had to be my daughters,” [her mother] shrugs. “Because Shoba earns so much money she has been able to build us a house, and she bought these fields. So what’s the big deal?”

According to the BBC, anti-slavery campaigners estimate that there are at least 25,000 devadasis in the state of Karnataka alone. This article by Zoya Zaidi, citing a report commissioned by the National Commission for Women (NCW) in India, suggests that there are not tens but hundreds of thousands of women in religious sexual slavery. They are forced into this life by their parents for a variety of reasons, but ultimately as a result of poverty and because of the low status of women in Hindu culture.

This article by K. Santhaa Reddy together with this lengthy report by Anil Chawla give some historical background and more details about the life of a devadasi.