Manjula, 26, is gripped by pain every time she thinks of what a middle-aged partner, chosen by her parents, did to her when she was a teen. “I was forced to submit my body even when I was menstruating. He used to take me to isolated places to hide his cruelty from the world,” she says. Manjula is among the thousands of girls caught in the exploitative Devadasi system, practised in 14 of 30 districts in the state, even three decades after it was banned.
Devadasi system is a religious practice whereby girls are ‘married’ or dedicated to god at a young age. It is generally marked by muttu kattuvudu, a ritual in which a neck chain with beads is tied to the girl. These Devadasis, meaning ‘servants of god’ in Kannada, are not allowed to marry, stay alone or with parents, and make a living on their own. Essentially, this regressive system forces women into a lifetime of sexual slavery. And, girls from scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities are the victims of this exploitative system.
Manjula was as young as six years when her parents dedicated her to god at her Basavanadurga village in Hospet taluk of Ballari district. Little did she know that ‘marriage to god’ or becoming a Devadasi was nothing but allowing strange men to control her life, physically and emotionally. As per the custom, her parents found a partner soon after she attained puberty. When the assault from her partner turned savagely violent, she stood firm and opposed. Though her parents empathised with her, that didn’t stop them from finding another partner who, again, was double her age.
“He first came to my house on the day of his daughter’s wedding,” Manjula says with a wry smile. It’s been over seven years into the relationship and Manjula is a mother of two, a six-year-old and a toddler. And now, her partner wants to part ways as he feels he is too old to continue the relationship. “I will again be forced into an alliance, which will eventually bring me the title of a prostitute,” she told DH. “My Madiga caste did not stop men of other caste and religion from having a physical relationship with me. But will they, or anyone for that matter, ever consider marrying me?”
Devoid of blessings
While her father repents his decision, her mother wishes Manjula gives birth to another child. But both of them can’t think of getting her married to a human being as she is a ‘sanctified soul’. The Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982, which came into effect in 1984, clearly underlines every Devadasi’s right to get married. But superstition and social pressure don’t allow them to marry, for people believe tragedy would befall the family and the village in that case. More than anything else, no man is willing to marry a Devadasi.
Being the only child of an illiterate couple whose family followed the Devadasi system forced Manjula into sexual exploitation. Her father’s three sisters are also Devadasis. While mass dedication of girls in the places of worship has gradually stopped after the Act came into effect, the families do the rituals clandestinely, with the help of a priest or a senior Devadasi called the jogini, making it difficult to track such cases. T V Renukamma, secretary of State Devadasi Mahila Vimochana Sanghatane, a forum fighting for their rights, points at the need to tighten the enforcement of law, “While loopholes in the Act are a concern, poor execution makes it quite ineffective. Most of the officials are clueless about the existing clauses.”
Mokshapati, a project officer who oversees Devadasi rehabilitation programmes in Davanagere and Shivamogga districts, told DH, “Though we get complaints, mostly as anonymous calls, the cases don’t stand due to lack of evidence.”
Manjula choked a sob as she narrated the incidents that beset her in the last one decade of her defenseless life. “Under any circumstances, I can’t challenge the male prerogative over my body. At the same time, I can’t claim any rights over him. He takes extra care to ensure that this relationship remains hidden from his wife with whom he has several children. How do I tell my six-year-old that his father will never accept him as an offspring and he is allowed to put just the mother’s name in his records?”
The responsibility of raising the children is on the mother as this system permits the biological father to hide his identity and be free of any responsibility. The partners visit them as and when they feel like. Unlike in the past, men these days move on after a few years of courtship. Ironically, the system doesn’t give this freedom to the woman. That men don’t even take care of the basic financial requirements of this ‘family’ adds to the agony of Devadasis, who generally work as daily wagers to eke out a living.
As a pregnant, Manjula had to go the hospital alone, face insensitive questions and feel helpless all-through. She had to sell her muttu, a Devadasi symbol tied to her neck chain, when her son was sick, to meet the treatment expenses. There are 36 Devadasis in Basavanadurga village and each of them has a story of struggle, hardship and endurance to share.
Three decades after the Devadasi Act came into effect, everything looks irreproachable on the surface. But as we enter the colonies of people who are at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid in the villages of Ballari, which has the highest number of Devadasis at 9,733, realisation dawns on us.
Over the years, the system which has socio-cultural roots has degenerated into an exploitative one, suppressing generations of women. While the government figures indicate that there are 46,660 Devadasis, or ‘former’ Devadasis as the government puts it, in Karnataka, a study by the National Women Commission in 2016 suggests that there may be over one lakh ‘Servants of God’ in the state.
Even now, a considerable number of girls and young women are initiated into this system every year. Researchers have noticed a departure from the traditional rituals and the system taking different forms depending on the social, geographical and economical factors. While the system is followed by many communities of the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe, studies indicate that over 80% of the Devadasis are from the Madiga community (scheduled caste).
The root of many evils
Once the cultural icons of society, Devadasis now struggle for a life of dignity. Prostitution and begging are the two main evils associated with the system. Either the circumstance or the mafia pushes Devadasis into flesh trade. “In addition, wherever development projects have come up, we have seen a large number of young girls forced into prostitution in the name of this system,” says Bhagyalakshmi, founder of Sakhi, which has been rescuing and rehabilitating Devadasis and their children in the 15 villages of Hospet taluk for the past 18 years. While begging is customary for Devadasis, abject poverty forces them into it in old age.
Sexual exploitation makes them susceptible to HIV infection, sexually transmitted diseases, uterine problems, mental illness and various nutrition and hygiene-related ailments.
While religious beliefs, societal pressure, poverty and hereditary play a major role in the dedication of girls, reasons such as single child, physical and mental challenges, illness and failed relationships also result in them being dedicated to god. At times, if the family refuses to dedicate a girl child despite societal pressure, relatives or village men rape her to force her into this system.
Savadatti Yellamma in Belagavi district, Huligi Huligemma in Ballari district, Uchangidurga Uchangemma in Davanagere district and Chandragutti Renukamba in Shivamogga district are the four main temples that are identified with the dedication ritual. The manager of the Uchangidurga Temple trust has noticed girls and their parents paying a customary visit to the temple after dedication. “While we can distinguish them based on their costume, muttu and the padlagi (the bamboo basket used to seek alms), they blatantly deny when asked,” he says.
Renukamma remembers a case as recent as in October when a girl’s family, including the victim, was arrested in Davanagere for conducting the ritual. Though the girl’s parents have submitted an affidavit stating she will be married to a suitable groom within six months, Renukamma is not convinced. “There is no proper follow-up to ensure that the girl doesn’t undergo this again. Sadly, many educated girls refuse to give a statement against the system due to superstition and societal pressure. And officials are least bothered about what transpires afterwards,” she told DH.
Most of the volunteers in the field point at one particular clause which considers the parents of the victim as offenders. Many a time, a man — a relative, villager or even a stranger — who wants to have a relationship with a girl coerces the parents to dedicate her, but the Act doesn’t implicate such perpetrators. While her parents are in custody, the girl becomes an easy prey to them. Kenchamma, a Devadasi-turned-crusader, in Harapanahalli, and Iravva in Uchangidurga, feel that there is a mafia which identifies vulnerable women and pushes them into this system. While young girls were dedicated in the past, now, those who are in their 20s are also forced into this. The fact that no one has been convicted for dedication in the last three decades shows how weak the Act and its enforcement are.
The story of B Ratnamma in Hucchanahalli of Davanagere district sheds light on how societal pressure pushes these women off the precipice. For over 10 years, she was a victim of ‘Sidi’, a ritual linked to Devadasis in this region. She was forced to perform the ritual in which her back was pierced with an iron hook and she was suspended from a pole, even as the entire village watched her. This horrific experience took a physical and emotional toll on her. In 2012, she picked up courage to approach the district administration through Renukamma. The officials responded immediately and the lone woman stood against the entire village and announced that she would not undergo the ordeal anymore. After six years, in 2018, the same woman expressed her willingness to do undergo the ritual, for she feared her health deteriorated after the refusal, while the villagers blamed her for consecutive droughts. And, police force had to be deputed to prevent the ritual.
After years of campaigning and persuasion, the previous government agreed to consider a new bill to address all the issues faced by Devadasi families. Accordingly, after one-and-a-half years of field survey and consultations, a team led by Devadasi families, with the guidance of Talasamudayagala Adhyayana Kendra of the National Law School of India University, prepared The Karnataka Devadasi (Prevention, Prohibition, Relief and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018. The draft was submitted to the state government in February, but there is no progress so far. When contacted, the Department of Women and Child Development said that the Bill is under examination.