Music and dance rituals were an important aspect of temple worship in ancient India. In this pretext it was also a common Hindu tradition to dedicate or commission young girls to gods. These girls called ‘Devadasis’ were then separated from their families and trained in music, dance and a unique lifestyle within temple gates unlike their counterparts outside. Their life was from then on, one of service to the gods.
When a Devadasi attained puberty, she was married to the deity in a religious ceremony. From then on she would become a temple prostitute. Indian temples always had the patronage of Kings who ruled the country and in many instances devadasis became the concubines of the kings. In other cases, devadasis lived with their patron who provided them with property and wealth.
Marriage was forbidden for Devadasis who were eternally bound to the deity. However Devadasis became available to anyone who was able to ‘afford’ their keep.
The word ‘Devadasi’ means ‘Servant of God’. The girls dedicated to become Devadasis were mostly from poor, lower caste families for whom devoting one child to the god only meant less pressure on the family’s meager finances. Devadasis were considered blessed as entering into wedlock with the god protected them from widowhood. As a result of these reasons several young girls were pushed into prostitution, under the safe banner of religion.
Traces of the Devadasi system can be seen in many parts of India, particularly in South Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It is believed that the Devadasis of Orissa, called ‘Mahari’ did not practice prostitution but devoted themselves to temple service and had special duties assigned to them.
With the decline of monarchy in India and with the invasion of Moghul and British rulers, the Devadasi system began to deteriorate. Christian Missionaries who worked in India, Social Activists and Reformers also had a share in putting an end to this grotesque Indian custom. The Indian Government banned the Devadasi system in 1988. However in spite of this, the Devadasi system continues under cover in India.
Under the burden of poverty, many young girls are still commissioned as Devadasis though Indian temples no longer have music and dance rituals or dedication ceremonies. These girls are married to the god and then sent for prostitution in red light areas. Unlike olden days, most of these girls do not have regular patrons and suffer under many men before succumbing to AIDS and other venereal diseases.
The children born to Devadasis are forced to follow along the footsteps of their mothers, since they live alienated from main stream life and are rejected from social institutions. This creates a vicious circle in which many young girls in India get trapped even today.