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From Sacred Devotion to Illegal Vocation

An instagram I posted in 2012 about the Devadasi, hash tagging #moderndayslavery

“Whores in History,” “Sex Slaves,” “Prostitution and Beyond,” — to name only a few. These are the books I was given when asked for literature on the Devadasis while researching at the Sophia College Women’s Center. I was 16 years old, I had never traveled, and this was one of the first times I had heard much at all about prostitution and sex trafficking as a global human rights issue. When my mentor at the college described to be the practice of the Devadasi, I was appalled at first. She described them as the “prostitutes of god,” subjects of the immoral system of the sex trade. However, little did I know that nearly six years later I would be researching the same topic, only to discover the complicated layers of colonialism and religious and moral rhetoric that has been subjected upon this group for the last century.

The Devadasi were once honored and devote members of society. They played different roles spanning ritual, warding off the inauspicious, recreating the divine story, and played roles of comfort entertainment for the temple’s elite. Whether it was for the tradition needed in the kings court or the evocative Bhakti for temple worship through music and dance, they were extremely well trained and talented. However, according to one Devadasi scholar, the issue was that they “needed royal patronage to sustain such an institution. With the decline of the temples during the era of the Raj, some were reduced to prostitution” (Abhi).

However, the Devadasi were not always sex workers on the fringes of society. The identification of devadasis as prostitutes rose out of the attempts by Anglo- Indian courts to classify them within the legal framework of the wider patriarchal society that was seen as normative and acceptable (Parker, 566). This was problematic because typically they did not fall under the purview of these laws of the wider society that was called Hindu Law by the British, such as the Code of Manu which details many types of marriages, because the Devadasi ran their own matriarchy, giving them the ultimate power and agency to do what they please without the control of a husband, brother, or son. They had access to education, inheritance rights and right to adoption, which women in general did not have (Kannan, 250). This independence is exactly what scared the British of their potential for power.

Activists involved in the Dalit women’s movement explain that the nexus between caste and forced prostitution is quite strong and that the devadasi system is no exception. Most Indian girls and women in India’s urban brothels come from lower-caste, tribal, or minority communities. Like other forms of violence against women, ritualized prostitution, activists believe, is a system “designed to kill whatever vestiges of self-respect the untouchable castes have in order to subjugate” (Abhi). However, the Devadasi would not be in the position they are today, subject to the endemic of ritualized prostitution and categorized as sex slaves if it weren't for their rigid outlying and immoral reputations casted on them by British Rule.

The extremely moralized and religiously backed anti-trafficking discourse brought to India by the West in recent years has developed to treat these women less as victim of abuse and more as violators of law and thus challenges women’s right to move and migrate within their free-will. As far as caste system survives, religious prostitution will remain in India, forcing the Devadasi from their native temples to the slums and streets. In an interview I conducted with Dr. Lata Pujari from the Sophia College Women’s center in Bombay when I visited in 2012, she explained that presently the Devadasi tradition is not as prevalent in the metropolitan cities, but the hidden existence of this tradition is very much there in rural Maharashtra, and many other parts of India. Pujari claims, “The increased access to higher education and job opportunities have reduced its density in city, whereas in rural areas exploitation of women is still happening through this tradition” (Pujari, interview, 2012). The financial stability, fulfillment of the religious norms with gain of merit are the key points for the continuing existence of this tradition.

The Indian government has come up with many ways to attempt help the Devadasi assimilate back into life. The state of Maharashtra passed the Devadasi Tradition Abolition Act of 2005 (Pujari, interview, 2012). Under this Act, the government set up a rehabilitation scheme for Devadasi women. Around 3,900 former Devadasis receive monthly allowance of Rs 500 under the Devadasi Survival Scheme. According an article published by the times of India in 2011, ”If these former Devadasi are to be brought into the mainstream, then it is essential to erase their past vocation, which is considered a stigma” (Times of India). However, policy implementation alone is not going to de-stigmatize their cultural implications of the Devadasi as merely prostitutes, it is of equal responsibility of society to accept the Devadasi into mainstream culture. If the Devadasi practice were to be returned to its respected, religious, and ritualized role as it was pre-independence, a critical post-colonial lens and feminist standpoint must be applied to the groups existence today in order to critically engage with tradition of Devadasi.

About Jess

Jess Bird is a junior at Scripps College majoring in Politics with a concentration in South Asia and Development, and minoring in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She hopes to return to India next winter after graduating with no plane ticket home!


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