Life of the present-day Devadasis

In Mehboobnagar district of Andhra Pradesh or Bellary district of Karnataka, there are separate residential areas allocated for the families of ex-Devadasis. These areas have been habilitated outside the villages, just like the bastis of the Dalits, who are considered untouchables. They are totally segregated from the main village.

However, the former has been habilitated through a government rehabilitation programme while the latter by the dominant castes. But giving a few acres of land for rehabilitation of the ex-devadasis does not erase the stigma attached to their work.

Most of the devadasis in South India hail from the Madiga community, lowest among dalits and shoemakers, animal skinners and scavengers according to Bhagya Lakshmi, social activist and director of the Sakhi Trust. In Karnataka alone, there are an estimated 23,000 temple slaves, of which over 90 percent are Dalit women. Herself the daughter and granddaughter of devadasis, who spent her childhood years working in a mine, Manjula believes the systems of forced labour and temple slavery are connected in a matrix of exploitation across India’s southern states, a linkage that is deepened further by the caste system.
The families of the ex-Devadasis are woman-headed, since no one was prepared to marry them or accept them back into their own families. They are also never accepted by the village community, although they have been exploited and used by these very people. But the children of the exdevadasis mostly go to school. But everybody knows that due to social stigma attached to the profession, teachers and other children would segregate them, treat them with contempt and even call them bad names, i.e., children born out of wedlock or those whose fathers were not known. An ex-Devadasi recounted her experience of having to write ‘God’ in the column where the father’s name was to be mentioned, in an admission form for her child. Many devadasis end up with sexually transmitted diseases, which are not treated because of poverty. Many also end up with AIDS and die. Dedication of girls to the devadasi cult gives some kind of religious sanction for prostitution.
Many poor low caste women are sexually exploited through this system. Soon after the initiation, the devadasi begins to lead a life of a cheap prostitute either at a nearby brothel or a city brothel. By the time she grows old, her market value goes down because of younger entrants. Then she is thrown out of business and is of no use to anyone anymore. The main issue then becomes that of survival. Some might sell flowers and incense sticks etc. near the temples; some may have to do other kinds of odd jobs in mines, agricultural fields or factories etc. and some even end up having to beg for alms.

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