• What is the Future of Betis of Devadasis?

    The present-day devadasi system is a continuation of the custom of dedicating girls to the life of a devadasi by the lower castes.

    Yogesh S

    January 28, 2019

    Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

    On 24 January 2019 Divya (name changed), a girl from Lingadahalli of Bagewadi taluk and Vijayapura district was allegedly gang-raped and killed. Divya belonged to a Dalit family in the village and her mother was a devadasi. She was attacked by unidentified men while the elders were out at work and her body was hung from the thatched roof of her hut to appear like a suicide. The photographs of the crime sight, however, show her feet flat on the floor. Speaking to Newsclick, Huchangi Prasad, a Kannada writer and a Dalit rights activist from Davangere, said that these findings show her death as a murder. He also noted that the local police was refusing to file an FIR. The Dalit organisations in the region are protesting to get the case registered.

    Prasad said, “the fact that the police is refusing to file an FIR raises various questions about the case and the media which is otherwise always ready to “break” news, but has now turned blind to the case.” In the email to Newsclick, which brought the case to our notice, the writer-activist wrote, “Dearest, Baba Saheb Ambedkar, I do not think Divya, who was like my sister, would die the way she did if the Constitution written by you was being followed.” As he rightly observes, such a case, happening just a few days before the 70th Republic Day bears testimony to discriminatory and violent practices like devadasi system that is still in practice.

    According to Grace Nirmala Mallela, “there are around one million devadasis in India; about 90% of them belong to the Dalit communities and lower segments of the backward classes. While talking about devadasis, the story of their “eventual decline” in society is reiterated. However, it is important to note that it is not as black and white as it seems. Why are women of a specific caste and class dedicated to gods? – This has been widely discussed question for a long time now. However, the larger question, as Prasad points out, is: In these times of women empowerment of the governments declaring “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” what is the future of the betis of devadasis?

    Artists and Sex Workers

    The present-day devadasi system is a continuation of the custom of dedicating girls to the life of a devadasi by the lower castes. In her article, “The Devadasi, Dharma and the State”, historian Janaki Nair, writes that the devadasis were and are different from Basavis. She refers to the work of Ananthakrishna Iyer’s on Mysore Tribes and Castes in the early 1930s, to note that, “The bedars, dombars, holeyas, madigas, kilakkyatas and voddas often dedicated their girls as basavis at the local temples.” This practice was prominent among the families with no sons and those who were struggling to meet their daily needs.

    Although the dedication of girls below 18 as basavis was made an offence under Section 372 of the Indian Penal Code, the law was not absolutely against it. One of the reasons for this negligence as Nair points out could be because “the basavi's duties within the temple, however, were only nominal.” In Iyer's words "they did not prostitute themselves promiscuously for hire as the devadasis". Thus their “links with the temple institution were far more tenuous than those of the devadasis,” whose performances remained central to the temple rituals until the last decade of the 19th century.

    It is often said that the Devadasi were associated with the artistic performances and offerings to the divine in the temple. Yet Nair argues, “there are no known direct references to dancing in the temple in the oldest books of dance theory, the Natyashastra and the Abhinaya Darpana.” Interestingly, she continues, “Inscriptional evidence from medieval Karnataka is more revealing. This was first mentioned in the 11th-century collection of stories, the Kathasaritsagara. The available historical records and evidence reveal that it was only in the 11th century that the devadasis became the artists of the temple and the royal court.

    Before the 11th century, when temple women were assigned specific duties, the word “sule” (meaning prostitute) only existed in inscriptions. It was only in the 11th century, when the temple as an institution was expanding, that the word “patra” (meaning singing/dancing girl) was gradually attached to them. The word “devadasi” itself is conspicuous by its absence in this period (Though it was still present in the inscriptions of neighbouring regions as well as in the 'vachana’ literature of the Virashaivas). By the 12th century, when the temple as an institution had expanded considerably not only in size but in the complexity of rituals performed, specific duties were assigned to temple women. Indeed, the temple complex increasingly came to resemble the king's court, and the devadasi's relation to the deity approximated the courtesan's relation to the king.”

    Thus, both arguments, one claiming that the devadasis enjoyed a status of importance, and the other, that they were sex workers, have an element of truth in them. First, the Devadasis received grants from the temples and the kings, thus owning wealth. However, Nair cautions us against such oversimplification, “We must not exaggerate the power enjoyed by devadasis, who despite their relative autonomy nevertheless remained dependent on that triad of men within the political economy of the temple, the priest, guru and patron. Yet, since her sexual services were embedded within the wider cultural sphere of symbolic and material exchanges in the temple, the devadasi enjoyed a position quite distinct from those of proletarianised sex workers.” The genealogy of the present-day form of the Devadasi system draws back to not the wealthy and powerful artistic authorities but to the Basavis of the lower castes.

    The demand for the abolition of the devadasi system in both Madras and Mysore presidencies has remained active since 1869. The torch bearers of this demand were the upper caste Hindu men, for whom, a devadasi represented immoral practices in the temples.  According to Janaki Nair, this could be because by then the devadasis had grown into wealthy and powerful women and the upper caste male sensibilities refused to be economically and socially subordinate to these lower caste women. Whatever the reason for the demand, in 1909 the Mysore government passed an order to completely abolish the system.

    The Betis of Devadasis

    As explained earlier, the Devadasis who were part of the temple rituals declined with the decline of the power and role of the temple complexes. However, the dedication of Basavis continued. Even to this day, on a particular full moon day called Bharat Hunnime, thousands of girls are dedicated to gods and goddesses in various places in Karnataka. The Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act had come into effect in 1982 abolishing the devadasi system. The Act, however, criminalised the devadasis. Instead of criminalising the practice of dedicating a five-six-year-old girl to the temple, the Act criminalised the girls for being dedicated. This shows the hold that the upper and dominant castes, pujaris, pandits and religious heads have on the state.

    On 12 February 2016 according to a report in The Hindu, a Supreme Court bench of Justices F.M.I. Kalifulla and S.A. Bobde directed all States and Union Territories, especially Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, to strictly enforce the Centre’s order to check “undesired and unhealthy” practice of forcing young girls into becoming devadasis. Irrespective of the legislation in place, the system continues with the patronage of landowning classes, upper and, dominant castes and religious leaders. As Huchangi Prasad observes, “devadasi system is an indication of the upper caste Hindu society’s refusal to retract from Manu’s laws meant to oppress women.”

    In the recently concluded conference, the devadasis reiterated their 12-point charter of demands which includes effective abolition of the devadasi system in the state and a compensation of Rs. 5000 per month as pension to all devadasi women. So far, the women have launched many agitations and protests in the state. After the mass dharna in Bengaluru on June 12, 2007, the then state government was forced to provide pensions and social security measures. However, the pension amount was a meagre Rs. 1,500 per month.

    The devadasis are now demanding a survey to secure social benefits for the children of devadasis. At present, women who are 45 years old and above get the pension. They are demanding that the age limit should be brought to 24-25. Another major demand is that the children of the devadasis should get inheritance rights over the property of their biological father.


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    Yogesh S is part of the editorial collective of the Indian Writers' Forum.

    Co-published with NewsClick.

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