The Women Worshippers of Goddess Yellamma in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh Kumudini Pati, Independent Researcher.

Who are the Devadasis, the worshippers of Goddess Yellamma? Girls dedicated to offer service to the Gods? Temple caretakers ? Skilled and honorable women learned in the classical arts? Consorts of kings, wealthy men of high lineage, patronizing the temples? Or mere prostitutes who were been exploited by temple priests and wealthy men under the garb of religion?



Here we will study the Devadasi Cult of South India, the women who were traditionally dedicated to Goddess Yellamma or Renuka, mainly from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where the tradition is being carried on in different forms. We try to understand the complex socio-economic dimensions of this Cult, its contribution to the arts, its relationship with religious beliefs, local superstitions or blind faith, as well as some of the myths surrounding the Mother Goddess Yellemma1, who is the main female deity to whom the girls are offered as Devadasis. The Devadasi Cult became weak after British rulers along with reformists and abolitionists abolished dedication of women in the name of religious faith.
Laws were put in place to end the practice. But did the lawmakers understand the agency of these women or their spiritual commitments? We cannot say that the practice is dead; rather it has transformed into a thriving business centering round the mortal bodies of the Devadasis, around the Shrines of Renuka and Yellamma as well as city brothels in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra. Some of the Devadasis became labourers for ( illegal) iron mining in Karnataka, daily wage agricultural labourers and coolies while others began to run self-help groups. Some are even running human rights organizations or organizations for helping devadasis to return to normal life. Though, traditionally the Devadasis were highly respected women and enjoyed a status much higher than the wealthiest of housewives, were highly competent dancers, musicians and singers and were next only to the temple priests, the practice was made illegal through laws which were
originally aimed at prohibiting the use of devadasis as prostitutes. In later times, the Devadasis became an exploited lot and mostly belonged to the Dalit or lower and intermediary castes. Some exceptions were there from Talawar. Gurav and Kuruba castes, but they gave up the practice in course of time. Though laws have been formulated to prohibit the practice, beliefs surrounding the cult are so deeply entrenched in society and economic compulsions are so strong that the practice flourishes to this day. Many of the older Devadasis, who have lost their trade because of age, either end up forcing their daughters to dedicate themselves or are adopting little girls and offering them as Devadasis so as to sustain themselves economically. At the same time, for poor families, it provides some kind of social justification for giving away their daughters. Goddess Yellamma (Renuka) temples are the centres for the ceremonial offering for the wealthy and local temples or homes used by those who want a quiet inexpensive function but the police and administration have to turn a blind eye to the celebrations so as ‘not to vex the Gods’ or the temple bureaucracy and also not to incur the wrath of the rich and powerful upper castes, while earning a fast buck from priests and agents of brothels who are involved in the practice. What steps have to be taken by the Government or dalit and women’s organizations to end the exploitation linked to this tradition through campaigns, provide alternative sources of livelihood to the devadasis, and help their children to get education as well a life free from stigma and poverty, remains a vexed question, yet to be addressed.

Mayank Rai

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