Devadasi as the term itself suggest are known as the ‘Servant of God’. Women before attaining puberty are married to the temple deity. These women are known as ‘Devadasis’. This system was started in the 6th century. Devadasi at that time held a respectable position in the society. But nowadays this system is associated with prostitution.
Beginning of the Devadasi system
Devadasis are recognised by various names across India. Although there are no traces of these traditions being practiced in any of the ancient literature books. It is believed that this system was first practiced during the times of Gautam Buddha. In the 7th century, it was practiced in southern India during the reigns of Cholas, Chelas, and Pandyas. Later, it became part of Maharashtra, Odisha, Karnataka and in other parts of India.
Yellama: The devadasi goddess
Renuka was the daughter of a brahmin. She got married to Jamadagni and had five sons. Every day she used to get water from Malaprabha for her husband’s worship and rituals. One day, while fetching water from the river, she saw some young boys playing water sports. Looking at them she forgot to reach home on time. When she got back home empty-handed her husband got very angry. Fuming with anger, he ordered their sons one by one to punish their mother. Four of them refused by giving various excuses. Their fifth son, Parshuram, chopped her head into various pieces. These pieces were moved to various regions. Renuka took rebirth as Goddess Yellama.
Devadasis are dedicated to Goddess Yellama. It was during the Saundatti Festival, also known as the Yellama Devi Fair, that most of the girls were given up by their parents to become Devadasis. From October to November, parents on a suitable date according to them gave up their girl child to become a Devadasi and serve the deity.
Who is a Devadasi?
The word Devadasi is made up of two words. ‘Deva’ which means ‘God’, and ‘Dasi’ that means ‘Servant’. Therefore, a devadasi is a servant of God. Only a girl who has not attained puberty can be a Devadasi. After a ritual known as Pottukattu that is similar to a marriage is performed. A girl gets married to the temple deity for the rest of her life. That is why they are considered ‘Nitya Sumangali’. They are freed from all the adversities of widowhood.
Devadasis lived in temples for the rest of their life serving their deities. While living there they learn religious rites. rituals, music, dance, and a total of approximately sixty-plus artforms. Their main aim was to serve the deity. Dance and music are an integral part of worship in temples at that time. Devadasis also danced and sang for the deity.
Practice in India
Deva Adiyar, Ganikulu, Saini, and Mahari are some of the terms used for devadasis in different part of India. As per the records, Amrapali was the first devadasi. During the time of Buddha, she was declared nagarvadhu by the king.
In the Chola empire, devadasis held a respectable position. They were given more importance than the king’s wife. In Odisha, they were known as Maharis of the Jagannath temple complex. They were not allowed to have sexual relationships. But records show that some of the Maharis have children. In Karnataka, Yellam cult is one of the oldest places where the devadasi system started in the 10th century.
Social Status of Devadasi: Past vs. Present
In the past, Devadasis held a respectable position in the society. They were called at weddings for performing. Tali (Mangalsutra) made by their hands was considered good. They were given more importance than the Kings wives. They traveled with the Kings to various places.
During the Colonial era, this system was criticized. It was linked to prostitution. Devadasis were forced to register themselves as prostitutes. Many reformers considered it a social evil. They were blamed for spreading venereal diseases by the Britishers.
Most of the time, when parents can’t afford to manage their families. They often gave up their girl child to become a Devadasi. There were instances when mothers forced their daughter to become a devadasi. In this way, men who take sexual pleasures from a devadasi takes care of her family’s financial needs. But he is not bound to take care of the child (if the girl gets pregnant). In this way, apart from serving the deity, they were partially getting into prostitution.
At present, girls are forced to become devadasis. Most of the time they do it because their mother and her mother are also a devadasi. And raising voice against them will not be accepted by the society. They are fighting for their rights and demanding for reservations for their children. So that they do not suffer like them.
Abolition of Devadasi System in India
Soon after independence, The Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act was enacted. Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy was the man who played an important role in passing the Devadasi Abolition Bill that later converted into the Madras Devadasi Act. It gave legal rights to Devadasis to get married. It also termed the practice of giving girls to the Hindu temple as legal.
In 1988, this system was abolished in the whole of India. But till date it was in Practice. Thousands of them are living in NGOs. While some of them are engaged in prostitution to earn a living. This makes them prone to Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs).
From the colonial rule till today, this system is criticized by social activists, National Commission for Women, and Human Rights Activists. They are still fighting against this practice because it is still illegally prevalent in some parts of India.
Author: Anjali Datt
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