“We are but slaves to the men, always being available to them. We don’t want such a fate for our daughters,” declares Lalita Bai (40), seated on a reed mat in her modest one-room house in Chinchansur in Aland taluk, about 20 km from Gulbarga.
She recalls her initiation into the devadasi system: “I was only four years old. They tied red and white beads around my neck and I was dedicated to Goddess Mapurtai. I was too young to know what was happening. When I was growing up, I tried very hard to understand why my mother had inflicted such a curse on me. I was told it was to fulfil a vow, but what kind of vow was it that condemned me for life?” she says, voice thick with unshed tears.
A long pause later, Lalita continues, “At that age, I did not know what was happening to me. By the time I attained puberty, I cried and cried, creating a scene every time I was violated. But who would listen to me? By then I had eight children — four boys and four girls. Later, I became the ‘property’ of a man who stayed with me as long as there was flesh on these bones,” she says.
The man — a rich landlord — soon moved back to the safe zone of “family-life” with his legally-wedded wife and kids. A monthly pension of Rs 400 from the government is now Lalitha’s only steady source of income.
Lalitha’s friend Bandavva (52) listens to her. “My father had a severe eye problem. My parents prayed to the goddess and promised to offer me to her if his eye sight was restored,” she says. A few years later, Bandavva became her maternal uncle’s mistress. He soon walked out on her to marry a girl of his parents’ choice. “As for me, I can’t think of another marriage. Moreover, who will want leftovers?” she asks.
Mallavva’s story is equally poignant. A pretty, outspoken and smart young girl, she was kidnapped from Chinchansur and taken to Bangalore. The brave girl tricked her kidnapper, found her way to the railway station and returned home safely. But before she could get over the traumatic episode, her parents had decided her destiny. “They told me that they had vowed to dedicate me to Goddess Yellamma if I returned home safely! Can you imagine my fate? I valiantly escaped from the devil only to end up like this,” she laments.
Mallavva, Bandavva and Lalita Bai are gritty survivors of the devadasi system in Karnataka, an ancient practice which once might have won them a future of comfort and respect, but actually doomed them to a life of exploitation.
Although the practice has been declared illegal, it continues to secretly flourish in pockets of Karnataka. And cast a shadow on the lives of all the women who are touched by it.
“It hurts us when our children are singled out. In school, they are discriminated against. It is as if no one wants to give them a chance to a better life,” says Lalita, who adds that she is fiercely determined that she will not allow any of her daughters to follow in her footsteps or become another Heera Bai.
Heera Bai was just 10 years old when her grandmother, a devadasi, initiated her into the practice while her mother was a mute witness. “I wish my mother had strangled me as soon as I was born,” says Heera (58). “As long as I was young and attractive, I was used. Then, I was discarded.”
Women like her try to eke out a living by becoming jogathis. They take to begging near the temple. They go from house-to-house on Tuesdays, Fridays, full moon- and new-moon days, carrying the paradi — a round basket made of bamboo — on their heads. Those who are too old or ill to go around the town, seek alms in front of the Yellamma temple.
Despite their tragic circumstances, many of these courageous women are determined to give their daughters a better future, even if it calls for adopting ingenious means.
“I had a practical problem when my daughters had to be admitted to school. The school records ask for father’s name. My name is Laxmavva, I merely wrote Laxmana, and the matter was solved,” says Laxmavva (46).
“We’d rather kill our girls than making them devadasis,’’ insists Lalita. It is this fierce protectiveness that encourages one to hope for a better future for the girls and their brave mothers.