‘If a young woman wore a blouse, knew how to read and write, and talked freely with a man, then she was presumably called a devadasi.’ Devadasi is a Sanskrit term, in which ‘deva’ means goddess and ‘dasi’ means servant. Devadasi is a female who is dedicated to worship and serves a deity or a temple for the rest of her life. This dedication takes place through a much-decorated ceremony known as Pottokattu, in which the woman is married to a specific God (Yellamma) and is expected to perform arts such as dance and music for the deity, for the rest of her life. This marriage ceremony bars her from getting married to any of the mortal beings and thus she is presumed to be free of widowhood. She reserves a high social status for herself as she is believed to be Goddess Laxmi because of the fact that she was married to a deity and secondly she is the woman who had the power to have control over her natural human impulses. Though she begs for a huge lot of respect and social identity, all of this costs her sexual exchanges. So, Devadasis were women who had highly accomplished artistic practices but their worth was calculated on a monetary basis, and also her relationship with other men is transactional in nature.
The footprints of this system can be traced back to the 6th century AD, but this practice became popularly prevalent when one of the queens of the Somavamshi Dynasty decided that in order to honor the Gods, certain women who were trained in classical dancing, should be married to the deities. The first mentioned instance of a girl being a devadasi can be attached to a girl named Amrapali, who was made nagarvadhu by one of the kings of that time. Many such instances can be found in the writings of Kalidasa who was a popular Sanskrit writer of the Gupta Empire.
The advancement of this practice was not with the view of making this a sexual activity in the veils of being a servant to the goddess, but gradual changes in history brought about the change in the lives of these women who were the wives to the immortals. The subjugation of these women to sexuality began when the missionaries started criticizing these women instead of appreciating the dancers they were. They were left to the exploitation of the priests, kings, and landowners and became strictly ‘The Temple Prostitutes. Later on, with the advent of British Rule, the kings who were the patrons of the temples lost their power, and thus these servants to the temples as well. They were commonly and popularly equated with prostitutes by the British colonials and gradually lost all of their social status and respectful identity. They were also associated with the spread of the communicable disease syphilis and were highly condemned for the same. There was a stigma attached to them that trapped them and their coming generations in the vicious circle of the prevailing beliefs.
These adversaries are not easily and consensually accepted by the people, but their acceptance is backed by numerous reasons, some of the major reasons being:
- Economic hardship:
The disinterest of men in a particular devadasi after she has crossed a certain age left her totally upon herself without any moral or economic support, which gradually lead her to employ her future generations in the same business-like hers.
- Religious belief:
Since devadasi was married to a deity, it was a religious stereotype that if a family would devote their daughter to Goddess Yellamma, she would bless their family with good fortune.
- Social status:
Since in the earlier times, Devadasis were given a higher status in society, many economically weak families believe that devoting their daughters will improve their social status.
There are numerous laws formulated for the betterment of devadasis and their protection from this vicious activity, they are as under:
- Bombay Devadasi Protection Act, 1934
- Tamil Nadu Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947
- Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982
- Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1988
- Maharashtra Devadasi (Abolition of Dedication) Act, 2006
- Various acts have been formulated to stop abandoning young girls in name of a tradition of sexual exploitation and prostitution 2018
Formulation of laws for every problem occurring now and then is very simple in a country like India, but it severely lacks in its implementations and follow-ups. Despite all these laws in place, The National Commission for Women, in India, reported that there are more than 400 thousand devadasis in India and mostly present in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The life expectancy of devadasi girls is also low compared to the average of the country. No matter how many laws are being derived, they are not able to fulfill the basic demands of these women and their implementation is not enough to help these women come out of this business. It is said that once a devadasi is sold, the right of her first night is taken away from her, in the best-case scenario she will have a permanent patron who will look after her, but this best scenario is also very rare. Most of them are left pregnant by their patrons, out of which no one is ready to take the responsibility for the child. Half of them are the ones who went through that sexual trauma at the age when they weren’t even ready to make those sexual choices. All they want is, firstly, a name for their children and secondly, an authority to choose the rest of their lives, to choose if they want to be a part of this pathetic religious belief or not, to choose to whom their body will belong to, to choose that who will be a man to that woman. But unfortunately, these not-so-big demands of these women are going unanswered and ignored by the officials, and their living conditions are worsening day by day, hour by hour, second by second.
The inherent presence of loopholes in the execution of the desired laws is one of the major drawbacks our system and our country suffers. This is the need of the hour to find a way to address these loopholes, conduct surveys, and provide appropriate follow-ups for the situations being addressed by that particular law. Not only can the laws but there be various dimensions of solutions for this problem. Awareness among the people can be one, setting up of NGOs can be another, and also these people can be helped through various government policies in place. But now it’s high time that this issue should be answered and appropriate solutions should be evolved because, for far too long, the Devadasi system has exploited women in the name of God. The practice has materialized and resorted to preying on the bodies of struggling women, where their families are compelled to sell their daughters to survive, and this tradition is clearly human trafficking. And above all this, forceful prostitution is a sin and can never be justified, even when done in the name of a so-called religious practice.
Author(s) Name: Tattvi Pandit (Nirma University, Ahmedabad)
 Ankur Shinghal,’ THE DEVADASI SYSTEM: Temple Prostitution in India’ (2015) 22(1) UCLA Journal of Gender and Law<https://escholarship.org/content/qt37z853br/qt37z853br.pdf> accessed 07 June 2022.
 Nagappa.B.E.Dr. Rajendra Prasad. N.L.,’ The Role of NGOs for Control of Devadasis System in Ballari and Koppal District’ (2019) 22(12) JETIR<https://www.jetir.org/papers/JETIR1912045.pdf> accessed 07 June 2022.
 Bombay Devadasi Protection Act 1934, No.10, Acts of Bombay Presidency, 1934
 Tamil Nadu Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act 1947, No.31, Acts of Tamil Nadu Presidency, 1947
 Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act 1982, No.1, Acts of Karnataka Legislature,1982
 Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act 1988, No.10, Acts of Andhra Pradesh Legislature,1988
 Maharashtra Devadasi (Abolition of Dedication) Act 2006, No.33, Acts of Maharashtra Legislature,2006
 Jayna Kothari, Deekshitha Ganesan, I. R. Jayalakshmi, Rohit Sharma and Aadhirai S ‘Intersection of Caste and Gender: Implementation of Devadasi Prohibition Laws’, (2019) CLPR <https://clpr.org.in/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Policy-Brief-on-Devadasi-Legislations.pdf> accessed 07 June 2022.