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You are here : home > Indian Culture > Indian Customs and Traditions > The Temple Dancers

The Temple Dancers

The tradition of converting young girls into Devadasis is a religious practice prevalent in the southern parts of India. Parents marry their daughters off to a temple, and when the girl attains puberty she is expected to perform sexual favours for the upper-class men of the society - at least initially. Later on the devadasis become public property, and anyone with the money, whether truck drivers or landlords, enjoys access to their bodies. This heinous practice is largely thrust upon dalit women, who are otherwise thought of as untouchables - but apparently not when it comes to having sex with them. 

Who were devadasis originally? 

In some parts of India, a few centuries ago, a practice developed under which some women were made wives of god and named devadasis or jogins. These wives of God lived in or around the temples, performed duties at the temples and participated in religious functions. They were an integral part of many large Hindu temples. In addition to their religious duties, the devadasis were a community of artists. They presented dance and music performances at the temple as well as at private functions. It was customary for the elite to invite devadasis at marriages and family functions. 

The devadasis developed and preserved the classical dances of India. Bharatnatyam is a modern incarnation of the sadir dance performed by devadasis of Tamil Nadu. Odissi was performed by devadasis of temples in Orissa. The contribution of devadasis to music is also significant.
 

Two Stages of Conversion

Dedication: The first stage or First Pattam is dedication, which consists of an elaborate ritual and culminates with the devadasi wearing a necklace made of white or red beads. According to human-rights activists, as many as 15,000 girls in rural areas are dedicated to God each year. The dedication ceremony, Muttu Kattuvadu (tying the beads) or, is similar to a marriage ceremony. The place of dedication and cost depend upon the economic status of the parents or the would-be-'paramour'. In some cases 'Gharwalis' (mistresses of urban brothels) sponsor the dedication ceremonies of those girls who would be expected to join their brothel.

Deflowering: The next stage or Second Pattam is that of deflowering the girl. The deflowering ceremony is generally conducted after the girl's first menstruation period. While devadasis were originally deflowered by the temple pundits, as time passed, they slowly started being sold to the village landlord. He would patronize the dedication ceremony, and then go on to deflower her - thus effectively completing the process of dedication of the innocent girl, and throwing her to a life of forced prostitution. The girl, who is at an age when she is barely able to comprehend the changes of puberty, is forced to have sex with a middle-aged man chosen by her parents
 

Prostitution in the name of religion

Parents of a devadasi usually receive proposals from local landlords or businessmen. Usually parents prefer to have upper caste well-to-do men deflower their girl. These 'clients' contact the parents of devadasi through senior 'jogatis' who serve as mediators. If the client wishes, the devadasi may become his personal concubine, and he may or may not forbid her from entertaining other clients. Other clients leave the devadasi after deflowering her, and she then becomes public property.  
 

Cultural Foundation

Traditional beliefs, coupled with economic compulsions compel parents to sell their daughters to temples. The daughter then goes on to support her family with her earnings. At times of draught and famine, parents dedicate their daughters to the temple to appease the gods. Parents even take mannats - vowing that if their wishes get granted, they will dedicate their daughters to the temple. 
 

Health Hazards

The devadasi women are often physically weak and suffer from various sexually transmitted diseases and reproductive tract infections. Birth control is considered taboo, and this results in numerous unwanted pregnancies. Crude methods such as inserting an oleander milk coated stick into the uterus of the pregnant women are resorted to, to abort the child. At times the abortion does not prove affective, and the child is born handicapped. Often these devadasis go on to dedicate their own daughters - especially those with physical abnormalities (blindness, leucoderma, etc.) to temples, as they have no other means of earning a livelihood. Thus the vicious cycle, which begins in a temple and ends in a rape, continues.

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