Of Divine Bondage

Eva Bell

© Copyright 2004 by Eva Bell


Though the pace of change is not as swift as one would have it, women in India are indisputably on the move. Their clamour for release from the galling shackles of tradition and superstition is beginning to be heard, even from pockets of rural India. A chorus of voices rises up from cities and villages, from high-rise buildings and hovels, from field and factory, for the right to exist with dignity.

Theirs is not the strident voice of militant Feminism, nor the wail of the woe-begone. They have learnt that unity and bonding empowers them to demand and bring about change. Their voices are optimistic and hopeful of a better tomorrow. Social change must keep pace with a country that aspires to be counted among the scientific and technological giants of the world.

A visible change is already evident in the sphere of sex and spirituality. Bizarre cults that claim to provide the most sublime experiences in religion but are wickedly demeaning, are now threatened with extinction. Women’s groups, social organizations, and legislation have banded together, to fight and render impotent the amours of the Gods.

Temple prostitution dates back to many centuries, and was prevalent in many parts of the world. Dancing was considered a divine art, brought down to earth by celestial messengers. It was quickly incorporated into temple rituals, allegedly to please the Gods, but in reality for the sensual gratification of male worshippers.

Many mythologies believe in the existence of good and evil spirits who have the ability to engage in sexual commerce with men and women. Stories of nocturnal visits by gods and goddesses for sexual gratification, have been bandied around. From this belief sprang the practice of offering pubescent virgins in marriage to Gods. Herodotus made mention of a chamber in the Tower of Babel which contained a bed, and was reserved for girls selected by God himself, where He could cohabit with them.

The temple of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Sex, situated on the Acrocorinth, had a thousand prostitute-priestesses at any given time. It became such a notorious place that the word ‘ corinthianize’ became synonymous with sexual immorality.

In south-east Ghana, the ‘Trokoski’ system was prevalent for more than a century. It was introduced by elders of the community, to atone for the sins of members of the family, such as murder, rape, or violation of tribal taboos. A virgin who had just attained menarche, was offered to the shrine to live there till she died, and be serviced by priests. However, if the girl begat any children, it was not incumbent on the fathers to support them.

The fight against this abominable ‘Trokoski’ system was spearheaded by the Church, the Media and NGOs. They strove for nearly five years until in 1996, they were able to liberate these helpless girls from the clutches of the priests.

In India, the custom began in the 17th century, and is still secretly practiced in Karnataka, Andhra, Maharashtra, Orissa and Rajasthan. Though at present it is prohibited by the Law, the enforcement machinery drags its feet over imposing punishment, for fear of being branded irreligious.

The background of this custom is based on the sensual sin of a Goddess. However, there are slight variations from region to region. At the Renukamba temple in Yellapur, notorious for nude worship (bettle seve) by women, girls between nine to fifteen years of age are dedicated to Goddess Renuka, on a night of the full moon, in the eleventh month of the Hindu calendar. This coincides with the lunar eclipse. As the ceremony is now prohibited by law, it is not conducted in the temple precincts anymore, but clandestinely in the surrounding hills.

The story goes that Goddess Renuka, mother of Parasuram ( incarnation of Vishnu, second God of the Hindu Trinity) was bathing in the river Varada, when she became entranced by the good looks of a youth. A sage Jamadagni ordered Parasuram to behead his mother for her lustful thoughts. The Goddess dropped her clothing and fled to the safety of a cave, but her head rolled away and was lost.

After her beheading, the distraught Parasuram begged the sage to restore his mother to life. But her head was not traceable. So a low caste woman called Yellamma was beheaded, and her head fused with the body of Renuka, Thus the lower and upper castes were merged into a new life. She now became Goddess Renukamba or Yellamma.

The Brahmin priests and other upper castes spurred by vested interests, swore that mythology was indeed fact, and claimed that if low caste women were dedicated to Yellamma, they would be reborn as Brahmins. Nude worship originates from this tale. Female worshippers identify with Yellamma the patron Goddess, when she fled naked into the cave during the course of being beheaded.

In the North, devadasis (handmaidens of God) are supposed to be incarnations of Urvashi, the celestial dancer at the court of Lord Indra. Once while dancing at court, her eyes lingered too long on a handsome young lad called Jayantha, the son of Indra. Carried away by her sensuous thoughts, she missed a step. The ever-vigilant sage Agasthya flew into a rage. She was banished to earth, to perform before ordinary mortals. Out of one Urvashi in love, were born a thousand devadasis.

Girls devoted to temples are usually the offspring of devadasis. It is a hereditary cult. But there have been instances where elderly women without daughters, have adopted girls from other families, and initiated them into the cult. They belong to various low castes, and have been exposed to the licentious lifestyles of their mothers from infancy. But there are a few exceptions where high caste parents have also dedicated a daughter to temple service, in fulfillment of a vow.

In Bihar, the pilgrimage centre at Baidyanath Dham is well known for its temple dancers. This is a Shiva temple where infertile couples flock to pray. If a daughter is born, she may be offered to the temple in fulfillment of a vow, or as a gesture of thanksgiving.

The dancers here are tribal women who perform a particular dance called ‘’Dhumkaria.’ They are part time dancers and not expected to reside within the temple precincts, but are under the care of their parental home. They receive payment for their services, and may be gifted with land, jewels and houses. They are also permitted to marry and have a normal domestic life. However, prostitution is an occupational necessity.

The dancer is dressed in a simple white home spun sari with a red border, worn like a midi, and tucked in tightly at the waist. White flowers adorn her hair. An hour before closing time, she enters the temple with a band of musicians, who play flutes, drums and cymbals. The purpose of the dance is to entertain Lord Shiva and lull him to sleep. It is a nightly performance.

What begins as a slow form of adoration, builds up into a frenzy of foot work and rhythm. It assumes the complexity of a Tandava, the cosmic dance of Shiva. The ‘Dhumkaria’ is the only rendition of Tandava by a woman. She further enlivens her number by balancing vessels filled with water on her head, and flaming torches in her hands. This is also a hereditary occupation.

Though ‘Dhumkaria’ has been banned by legislation since 1960, tribals find ways to beat the ban, as the practice is sanctioned by religion. The dance can surely be taken out of the context of religion and promoted as an art.

The Mangeshkar temple at Goa was also once a haven for devadasis. Initiation into this hereditary profession was called ‘seja.’ Legend had it that princes from heaven came down to earth to marry these ‘naikins.’ But not anymore. So the custom of marrying a princely dagger came into practice. Their conviction that they were specially selected by God for His service was unshakeable.

The Jaganath Temple at Puri has its own version of temple dancers. There is no legislation banning them as in the South, because they are an inseparable part of the Jaganath culture. They flourished from 1890 to 1950, and the priests maintained that there was no immorality involved. The devadasi of Jaganath was wife, consort and servant rolled into one. She was supposed to be the epitome of purity, because she represented Goddess Mahalakshmi. She was only paid a pittance though she had to perform an assortment of 155 rituals during the day, like waking him up, bathing, clothing, feeding entertaining and tucking him into bed.

Once a year, when he went off to another temple in his ‘rathyathra’, for an extra-marital fling of ten days, the devadasi (representing Mahalakshmi) would greet him on his return, and also berate him for his infidelity. And once every 12 to 19 years, when his wooden idol had to be replaced by a new one, and a ceremonial burial was performed. The devadasi went into ritual widowhood until the installation of a new idol.

The devadasis of Puri also don’t live in the temple compound but in cheap quarters somewhere near by. According to legend, Jaganath once took the form of a panda, and followed the devadasi home at night. He left behind his shawl as a token for favours received. So the shawl became a part of the devadasi’s costume.

However, the poverty of these wretched women is so grinding, that despite the proviso of purity, they are kept by priests or patrons. But they believe that their purity as Mahalaxshmi is not sullied by their earthly dalliances.

Devadasis in Puri have almost disappeared, not because of any moral rectitude or legislation, but because of poor economic benefits.

In the olden days, the devadasis were the only women who were literate. They learnt poetry, music and dance. They had pleasing manners and could make polite and intelligent conversation. The devadasis of the North probably had an edge over their southern sisters, in beauty and bearing. Their movements were supple and artistic, and their demeanor modest. Many a British officer was ensnared by their hypnotic charms. No wonder the British didn’t do anything to abolish the system!

The young women were under the supervision of a hawk-like old mother, who monitored all their movements. They had a strict dress code, and no part of the torso could be exposed. They believed that by concealing their physical assets, they could play havoc with the imaginations of men, and set their groins aflame.

The old mother also sent them out for private performances and ceremonies. Many even found rich benefactors and moved out of the temples.

Towards the middle of the 19th century, the Princess of Tanjore was married to the Prince of Baroda. She took with her as part of her dowry, a bevy of devadasis. People of distinction while visiting one another, always had devadasis in their entourage. To go without them showed disrespect to the host.

Gradually however, there was a deterioration in behaviour. Religious fervour was lost in the struggle for survival. They were exploited as sexual slaves. The costumes became cheap and gaudy and the heady perfume of attar clung to their bodies. Attitudes became suggestive, and gestures vulgar. Their songs grew bawdy and obscene. Illiteracy and supervision have played a large part in the perpetuation of this evil practice. Men with leprosy believe that by giving a daughter to the temple, the Gods will cure them. “To have intercourse with a prostitute is a virtue which takes away sin,” is an oft-quoted saying attributed to a book on Hinduism. “If adultery is kept secret, it is a matter of small importance. It is the publicity of it which is sin.”

Girls to be devoted are washed in the temple tank, then dressed in new clothing or a garment of neem leaves. They are then consecrated by tying red and white bead chains around their necks. In the South, there is a ‘thali ritual,’ where the girl’s dress is tied to the deity’s garment. Thereafter, she is confined to the temple and its courts.

There are whole communities like the Dommarus on the Andhra-Karnataka border, who prostitute their pubescent daughters to God. The men are indolent, and pimp for their daughters and wives. They live off the earnings of these ‘basavis,’ and squander their lives drinking, bootlegging and gambling.

Devadasis are called by various names – jogtis or basavis in Andhra, Rajasthan and Orissa; matangis in Kerala; paropathis in Tamilnadu; or devakis in Nepal. Hindu priests offer prayers twice a day, prior to which the idols have to be bathed. In ancient times, this was done with great pomp, commensurate with the wealth of the temple. Water was carried on an elephant’s back, under the escort of a Brahmin, in a procession of musicians and devadasis. Today water is probably used from the temple tank on the premises, and all the fanfare has been dispensed with. The water with which the idols are washed is collected as thirtham (holy water) and given to devotees. Devadasis are administered thirtham only after the first batch of devotees is served. The devadasis dance and sing in the temple at least twice a day on special occasions.

Being married to Gods or Godesses doesn’t shield them from human predators. Granting favours is part of their profession, and the temple Brahmins claim them. Later, they may be sold to the highest bidder who may keep them for a few months, then pack them back to their parents for transmission to red light areas. Forty percent of girls in brothels are devadasis.

This system is a blot on the face of our country. It focuses on the vulnerability of illiterate women. This is nothing but prostitution legalized as religion. Though the first legislation against this system was passed in 1930, it had little impact. The Devadasi Prevention of Dedication Act was passed in 1947 by the Madras Government, which was followed by the Devadasi Prohibition of Dedication Act of 1987. Karnataka and Andhra enforced it in 1982. But in Maharashtra where the prostitute population is the highest, and HIV/AIDS is most prevalent, the legislation was delayed. Even so, the failure of the mechanism to ensure redress has emboldened devotees to continue this despicable practice.

However, it is heartening to know that many organizations are involved in trying to eradicate this menace, and rehabilitate those who have been rescued. Women’s commissions and social organizations are becoming vigilant and more vocal. They are creating awareness among these women, that what is being done in the name of religion, is degrading and exploitative. They educate them about the various schemes available for rehabilitation. Village level meetings, street plays and songs, and films are used to create awareness. Though there is still so much work to be done, the results are encouraging. Some time ago, on a night of the Full Moon, (Randi Hunnime) in a village called Saundatti, 2800 devadasis made a public display of wearing bangles when they should have been breaking them to identify with Goddess Renuka in her period of widowhood. The ceremony was witnessed by a large crowd of people, who by their very presence provided tremendous encouragement to these women who broke free.

Earlier, through the untiring efforts of a doctor turned social worker, women with matted hair were given tonsures. . It was believed that girls with such matted locks were reincarnations of Renukamba. “Not everyone gets matted hair,” insisted an old devadasi, “ Only if the Goddess wants you to be her dasi, does she bestow you with such locks.”

Such a girl could not marry, but had to go around begging on Tuesdays and Fridays. Anyone trying to shear her locks would be cursed by Renukamba. Once the girls were convinced that this was no divine gift but a combination of filth and fungus, they gladly came forward to have their hair cut.

Many banks have adopted villages and financed families of devadasis, to take up gainful employment like dairy farming, piggery, poultry, vegetable and fruit gardening. Animal husbandry and horticulture departments have extended their support. MYRADA has been collaborating with the government, to take away girls dedicated to Yellamma for vocational training, career guidance and rehabilitation. There is even a Devadasi Marriage scheme which offers cash incentives up to 10,000 rupees, to those who come forward to marry them.

However there are reports of parents complaining that their daughters are not safe anymore. So there is an increase in child marriages, as parents wish to pass on their responsibility to the marital home.

In the final analysis, it is these women themselves who must have the courage to extricate themselves from this ‘danse macabre.’ Feminist activity must begin at the grass roots to be truly effective. They must take courage in their hands and step away from superstition and exploitation to dignity and clean living. The dross must be exchanged for respectability, and illiteracy for a good education.

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