Caste away

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2007, 12:00am

It's 1am, and the stream of visitors to Mumbai's red-light district of Kamathipura is thinning out. For more than six hours, Ramani has been sitting on a stool in the brightly lit doorway of one of the brothels on the main street, waiting in vain for her first customer of the night.

'In the past three days, I have only had one customer. It's because I am not among the most attractive girls here any more. But where shall I go now? I cannot beg on the street at this point in life,' said the 27-year-old prostitute, her face painted with garish makeup.

Ramani did not choose her profession. From the age of three, until she was 17, she was what is known in India as a devadasi - a girl given to a temple as a religious offering to serve the temple deity, so her family can be blessed with good luck.

Literally, 'devadasi' means 'servant of god'. But once she became a devadasi she had to give sexual favours to men in the local community.

'When I was three, my poor parents offered me to Yellamma [a popular deity in the south Indian state of Karnataka] and I became a jogamma,' she said, referring to the other term for a devadasi which means holy girl or holy woman. 'At 17, because of my two illegitimate children I was forced to become a prostitute, and at 27 I am nearing an end of my life because of HIV, amid this filth.'

Ramani's story is similar to that of thousands of prostitutes in Mumbai, where an estimated 60,000 women and children operate in Kamathipura and other identified red-light districts. At least a quarter are estimated to be former devadasis and half or more of the city's prostitutes are HIV positive.

According to an estimate by NGOs, in the four southern Indian states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, at least 250,000 former devadasis are working as prostitutes in urban and rural areas. Despite laws against dedicating children to a temple, the practice secretly continues in remote villages.

Acting on India's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report published last year, the federal ministry of women and child development asked all states in August to strictly enforce the ban to prevent dedication of children as devadasis. The report also said at least half of all devadasis ended up as prostitutes and 95 per cent of devadasis who were not in urban prostitution were earning less than 1,000 rupees (HK$195) a month.

Veerappa Unoor, a farm labourer from Bijapur in the north of Karnataka state, had four daughters and dedicated his youngest, three-year-old Channamma, to a temple at Saundatti, north Karnataka. In return he hoped to be blessed with a son and prosperity.

After her dedication one full-moon night at the temple of the goddess Yellamma, Channamma was renamed Renuka, the other name of Yellamma.

The dedication meant the social status of her family was elevated as villagers began coming to Renuka seeking blessings, financially benefiting her family.

As is the tradition, she was forced to have sex with a man as soon as she reached puberty: she was 11. A 57-year-old businessman was chosen by the village priest and other community elders through an auction in which the successful bidder paid 5,000 rupees, which was shared among the priest and other village elders. A gold ornament was offered to the village deity and Mr Veerappa received 6,000 rupees after his daughter was sold to the businessman.

'The old man had a wife and two other jogammas as his sexual partners,' said Renuka. 'It was humiliating to be the third mistress of a man who was one year older than my grandfather. Powerful religious authorities and village people forced me into such relationships and I had no ability to escape.'

Renuka said she was dumped by the businessman, who acted as her patron, weeks before she gave birth to her first child, forcing her to become a full-time prostitute. 'My poor father was financially too weak to help me. First I worked in my village [as a prostitute]. One woman trafficker paid some money to my father and brought me to Mumbai where I was sold to a brothel and I became a bonded prostitute. I had no financial help or support from the temple. My only option was to become a prostitute.'

The system of dedicating children to temples goes back centuries. A book, written by Indian scholar Chanakya in the 4th century BC, narrates stories of devadasis in Indian temples. Nine out of every 10 dedicated children are girls; a boy given this way is known as jogappa. The practice is more prevalent in the south and Hindus believe the act can bring a family fortune, protect them from disaster or help them find a way to heaven.

According to the Mumbai-based Indian Health Organisation, a medical NGO working among HIV-positive former devadasis, at least 15,000 children are still being dedicated as devadasis in southern India. 'To avoid possible legal action, dedication ceremonies have moved from the main temples to smaller temples in remote villages and the houses of the priests,' said the women and child development ministry in August.

Since she is already dedicated to Yellamma, a devadasi is not allowed to marry. Until the beginning of the last century most Hindu temples in south India had devadasis. They would sing and dance in the temple every day, apart from carrying out other temple chores and religious rituals. In almost all cases, the priests and other temple officials sexually abused the devadasis.

Some sociologists said the dedication ritual was invented by the upper-caste ruling elite to have religiously sanctioned sexual access to lower-caste women - the caste most devadasis belong to.

'Hundreds of years ago, devadasis used to simply serve the goddess they were given to by helping out in the temple. But over the centuries, powerful men took advantage of these women, and slowly made the sexual side of things acceptable and 'official',' said sociologist Chambanna Angadi.

'The Yellamma myth has been conveniently twisted by the upper-class people and priests to conclude that if a girl from the lower caste dedicates her life to Yellamma and, in this way, in fact, to the temple priests, she will be reborn as a Brahmin [upper caste].'

Towards the end of the 19th century, Indian social reformers began campaigning against the devadasi system and, in 1934, the British Raj outlawed the practice. After independence, the Indian government twice banned the system - the latest legislation being pushed through in Karnataka in 1982.

Although anti-devadasi laws have been in place for decades, punishment is rare.

A member of India's National Commission for Women, K.Shanta Reddy, recently said: 'All local governments are against the practice of dedication of children. But the biggest impediment to the elimination of the evil of the devadasi system comes from the powerful upper class of society who control not only the economic and social activities but also the minds of the poor in villages.'

To prevent devadasis and their move to prostitution, some years ago the government began offering 10,000 rupees to any man willing to marry a devadasi, but with little success.

'It's difficult to find a man who has the gumption to marry a devadasi who is known to have been with many men and often has one or more illegitimate children,' Narayan Huggar, a flower-seller in Saundatti, said.

NGOs and government agencies have initiated rehabilitation projects to help devadasis learn vocational skills such as tailoring, weaving and candle-making. But such programmes have met with little interest from younger devadasis, the main target of such projects.

'As young prostitutes, they often enjoy a somewhat lavish lifestyle and earn good money. Through formal rehabilitation they cannot earn that much and so they find such [rehabilitation] packages quite mundane,' Palanisamy Muthupandian, a Chennai-based social worker, said. 'Since they believe they have a divine mandate for it, they don't feel any moral pressure to leave the profession - it makes rehabilitation of the devadasi prostitutes more difficult.'

Most agree that poverty is the root cause behind the continuation of the devadasi system. 'Poor harvests, illness and other tragedies - they believe all misfortunes are a result of god's retribution,' Mr Angadi said. 'Because of a decade-long drought, widespread alcoholism among men and hounding loan sharks, miseries in dalit [low-caste Hindu] families are always constant.

'Unless we succeed in improving the socio-economic landscape of villages, we cannot make the poor parents stop dedication of children [to temples],' he said.