The woman sat in a deserted corner of a crooked alley, next to a ditch that carried kitchen waste from people’s homes. She wore a torn green saree. Her breasts were bared, her skin sagged and her eyes darted about, as if in search of something. Her left leg was blackened with gangrene and she had to drag it on the road to move around. In one hand, she held an oversized stick that she used as a cane, and also wielded to shoo young boys who approached her every now and then to tease her.

No one in the locality of Somavar Peth in the town of Gokak, in Karnataka’s Belagavi district, knew her name – they called her “hucca”, Kannada slang for crazy.

They only knew that she was a devadasi.

Devadasis are a community of women in South India who, in an tradition dating back at least to the ninth century, are dedicated by their families to the goddess Yellamma, often as children, or even infants.

The devadasi system has undergone many transitions over the years. In earlier centuries, these women typically lived on temple premises, spending their days maintaining it, while also regularly dancing at temple functions for the deity, as well as priests, local zamindars and upper-caste men. They also engaged in sexual liaisons with landlords and other dominant men in society.

Up to the nineteenth century, devadasis enjoyed a high social and economic status and played an important role in developing a culture of dance and music, including of forms such as bharatnatyam, then known as sadir. As a report commissioned by the National Commission for Women noted, they were patronised by kings and even performed in palaces. Girls and women from different backgrounds would be dedicated as devadasis, including those from rich, aristocratic families. In his book The Devadasi and the Saint: The Life and Times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma, the writer V Sriram notes that “there was no particular caste from which women could be drawn for dedication and there were instances in the legends of princesses and girls from priestly classes becoming handmaidens of God. The Devadasis thus formed an occupational group rather than a caste.”

Under colonial influence, this changed significantly and the community began to be primarily associated with sex work. “The Hindu religion, here represented by the dedication of girls to gods, was alien to the British experience,” the sociologist and lawyer Kalpana Kannabiran has written. “The first step towards narrowing the gap between the Indian experience and the British one was to use the words ‘devadasi’ and ‘prostitute’ interchangeably.”

Further, the anthropologist Amanda J Weidman has written, “The artistic achievements of devadasi women – their prowess as musicians and dancers – were overshadowed, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by the stigma of prostitution.”

Today, though the cultural aspects of the system are practically non-existent, the process of dedication still occurs in part of south India – girls and women are then typically pushed into lives as sex workers. The community is primarily made up of women from Scheduled Castes and other oppressed groups.

A devadasi woman with an idol of the goddess Yellamma. In earlier centuries, the women were drawn from various strata of society, and were seen as significant cultural figures. Photo: Savita Kirloskar/Reuters

The devadasis I spoke to, and activists, described a common pattern that has plays out in their lives today.

After a girl is dedicated to the goddess, she continues living with the family until puberty, when she is “bought” by a powerful man in her village – that is, the man pays a meagre amount, of as low as Rs 500, to the family. He then repeatedly rapes, exploits and humiliates the young woman – either visiting her in the family’s home, or another dwelling whose expenses he bears. Typically, after a few years, the man abandons the woman – with no social support system, and with a stigma attached to her, she is forced into sex work and further exploitation. Several years later, once she is past her youth, customers seek her less, forcing her to work for lower pay, and then; when all income ceases, she begs to feed herself.

On paper, the women are protected against the system. Tamil Nadu passed a law in 1947, banning the practice. Karnataka did so in 1982, Andhra Pradesh in 1988 and Maharashtra in 2005.

But on the ground, it continues to be practised across these states. A 2015 report by the NGO Sampark submitted to the International Labour Organisation estimated that the number of devadasis all over India was close to 4,50,000, though official estimates are significantly lower.

In the month of October last year, the National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the Centre and six states – Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Maharashtra – seeking a detailed action taken report on “the continued menace of Devadasi system in various temples, especially in southern part of India”.

Last year, in the month of December, I travelled to the towns of Saundatti and Gokak, and the city of Belagavi, in Karnataka – the state which, according to some surveys, has the highest number of devadasis.

I spoke to around 20 devadasis, as well as activists working with the community. Their stories were reminders of how brutally the practice oppresses them at every stage of their lives, from the day they are dedicated, often as young girls, to their old age, when they are abandoned with no support system whatsoever.

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The dedication of young girls and women to temples is a phenomenon that can span multiple generations of women from the same family. The practice sometimes ensnares girls even in their infancy.

“Seven months old,” repeated 46-year-old Lalita, her voice tinged with amusement at my disbelief at the age at which she said she had been dedicated in the Yellamma temple in Saundatti. Her mother and maternal grandmother had been devadasis too – and in their families, she recounted, it was customary to dedicate the first girl child to the goddess.

She stayed with her family in the village of Khilegaon, Belagavi, until she had her first period at the age of 12, at which point she was sold to the most influential man in her village. The man was in his forties and was married and had two daughters of Lalita’s age. He had offered Lalita’s mother a sum of Rs 5,000, good enough to feed the family for months and clear some of their debts. Thus, Lalita was forced into sleeping with him, even as she continued staying with her family. By the age of 13, she said, she had her first child.

Geeta Yamsontakki, who is now 50, recounted that she was made a devadasi at the age of 12, and sold to the sarpanch of her village Unnkal, situated in North Karnataka. He was an upper caste man, she said, probably in his late thirties.

“I don’t remember how much I was sold for,” she said. “But after selling me to him, my family left the village. I haven’t seen or talked to them since. I don’t know if they are dead or alive.”

Renuka, a 57-year-old devadasi from Gokak, who belongs to the Dalit Madar caste, doesn’t remember the age at which she was dedicated. But recalled that though she wasn’t purchased by any one man, she was pushed into sex work at around the age of 11, with a ceremony known as “moti bandhna”, in which a priest tied a pearl necklace around her, and dedicated her to the goddess. As she explained it, “When a girl is born to a poor Dalit family, it is celebrated as if they have won a field, and just need to plough it now” – that is, the family sees it as an economic opportunity that can help them make ends meet. “For the family, it means two meals a day,” she said. “For society, it means an object of pleasure.” She wiped the tears from the corners of her eyes, and added, “I have even worked for five rupees.”

Once they begin sex work, young girls often suffer horrific physical and psychological violence at the hands of the customers. As the scholar Jenny Rowena has written, this violence stems from the oppression that is hardwired into the caste system. “Hindu religious traditions institutionalize the use and exploitation of Dalitbahujan women’s bodies for the sexual pleasure and entertainment of men who are placed higher than them in the caste hierarchy,” Rowena notes. “This works to legitimize various other violent forms of oppression such as rape, formal and informal workplace sexual exploitation and networks of prostitution, involving adivasi, bahujan and dalit women. All these firmly hold down the body of the subaltern woman within a sexualized structure of abuse, violence and exploitation.”

“The customers often force us to drink and smoke,” Renuka said. “They beat us, scratch and pull our skin. There are customers who bite our breasts.” Lowering the shoulders of her blouse, she showed me burn scars. “These are the cigarette burns that a customer gave me,” she said. “He was in his forties and I was only 15. He raped me, burned and plucked my skin and thrashed me.”

The experiences leave the women traumatised. “After he left, I had nightmares of him raping me,” Renuka said. “I couldn’t sleep the whole night. And the next day, he came again and did the same thing. This happened for months.”

Lalita and her daughter at the office of the NGO she set up. Lalita was dedicated at the age of seven months. She stayed with her family till she was 12, and was then sold to a man in her village. Photo: Astha Savyasachi

The women have no choice but to suffer through this abuse because they need whatever money the customer pays them. But even in this, they have little control. Renuka recalled an incident from her 20s, when three men who lived in her neighbourhood visited her regularly, but never paid her. When Renuka, the sole earner of her family, asked for money, she recounted, they stripped her and made her walk naked through the entire village, then threatened to kill her if she ever asked for money. Then, she said, they continued to visit her and rape her.

Geeta, too, recounted that by the age of 13, she had to seek medical attention. “He had tied my hands and legs with a rope and raped me for days,” she said. “I suffered from a lot of bleeding. I remember the words of the doctor who was examining me: ‘Is he a human or an animal? Look what he has done to your vagina!’” Geeta was admitted to the hospital for several days to be treated.

Some women are striving to protect younger generations from this trauma. “There was a lot of pressure on me to make my daughter a devadasi,” Geeta said. “The neighbours were telling me, ‘If you are a devadasi, you have to make your daughter a devadasi. You cannot get her married.”

But Geeta had decided, “This system will end here with me. My daughter will never go through what I had to.”

There was brutal reprisal against this decision, she said. “The men in my locality thrashed me badly,” she said. “When I refused to give in, they hired ten goons and kidnapped me. The goons took me to a secluded place and gang-raped me for hours. They beat me and dumped me on the road, naked and covered in wounds. They had stolen all my savings and threatened to kill me if I didn’t make my daughter a devadasi.” Despite all of this, Geeta protected her daughter from the practice – the girl grew up and married, and today leads a relatively stable life as a housewife and mother.

Throughout this, Geeta concealed the nature of her work from her children. “Till date, my children don’t know that I am still a sex worker,” Geeta said. “They know that I am a devadasi, but nothing about the sex work. If my son gets to know, he will kick me out of the house.’

Lalita recounted that for years, she could not take her daughter Lakshmi to the market because men would approach Lalita asking if her daughter was “new in the business”. She explained, “There’s a stigma attached with us. If a girl is walking with me, people assume that she is also a devadasi. That could have been a mental trauma for my daughter.”

Lalita was forced to avoid taking her daughter out in public too often. “My daughter often fought with me for cutting her off from society,” she said.

But despite her resistance then, Lalita’s daughter Lakshmi, now a 33-year-old mother, encountered deeply distressing situations as a child. Whenever a customer arrived, she recounted, her mother would give her some money and send her out on an errand. She would often look at houses in the neighbourhood, where other devadasi women lived, and would witness customers getting violent with women. This instilled a deep-rooted fear in the girl – even today, she shivers when she thinks back to the time. “Every slap, every kick felt as if it was on my mother and on me,” Lakshmi said. “I wanted to ask my mother to get out of this hell, but I couldn’t muster the courage to speak out. Even at that tender age, I knew we had no other alternative.”

Further, the fact that she did not know who her father was troubled her – she recounted feeling humiliated every time she was asked about him. “A dead father is better than an absent father,” she said.

The absence of fathers affects children even when mothers are able to remove them from the oppressive environment of the devadasi system, and admit them in schools. During the admission process, officials often insist that children provide their father’s name, which is usually unknown in the case of children of devadasis. Geeta recounted how, after admitting her children to a Kannada-medium government school in Belgaum city, she and her children would cry all night and prepare themselves for school the next day. “Other children would not sit with them,” she said. “They would say, ‘He has no father. She has no father.’ Nobody would talk to them or be friends with them.

The taunts overwhelmed the children. “There were days when the kids sat at home and refused to go to school,” she said. “The harassment was too much for them to bear. They lost the wish to go to school. And after Class 7, my girl gave up. She quit studying. And my boy, after Class 9. Society snatched away education from them.”

Some families are more fortunate. Rukmua from Gokak has four children. “All of them go to school,” she said with a bright smile. “We won’t let them face what we had to go through. This devadasi system will end with us.”

Rukmua, a devadasi from Gokak, said that she was determined to protect her children from the system – all four of them attend school. “The devadasi system will end with us,” she said. Photo: Astha Savyasachi

In Saundatti, Rani, a 30-year-old devadasi, also spoke words of hope. “My kids are very good at studies,” she said. “In the government schools, they were teased and made fun of,” she said. But she decided to send her children to a hostel in Saundatti for children of devadasis, run by a Christian evangelical organisation, where they were taken care of and educated. She added, “Our lives were ruined, theirs shouldn’t be.”

When devadasi women develop health problems, they have to battle against discrimination to seek treatment. Many devadasi women explained that owing to financial constraints, they typically visit government hospitals, where doctors behave rudely and unprofessionally with them. “Even to give us an injection, the doctor tries to stand as far as possible,” said Manjula, a devadasi from Saundatti. “He behaves as if our touch would pollute him. They don’t even allow us to sit on the patient’s seat near them.”

The problem is particularly grave because, in the course of their work, the women often face physical abuse and suffer injuries that need medical attention. Twelve women told me that they were sold to men against their will, all of them under the age of 14, and that they were then subjected to rape and other forms of physical and psychological abuse. More than half of them told me that after their first sexual encounter, they suffered continuous bleeding and high fever for several days. None of the women shared their concerns with their mothers for fearing of irritating them, or because they simply assumed that what they were going through was their fate. “I never told her, fearing that she might feel sad. I went to the hospital and took whatever medicines were given to me,” Rani said. “From the next day, I went back to work.” Nine of the twelve women said they were never taken to a hospital for treatment.

Devadasis also suffer from high rates of HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases owing to the nature of their work – while no studies have been done on the incidence of these diseases in the community, many activists, such as Billy, from Humanity Foundation, Belgaum, confirmed that they did encounter high rates among the people they worked with. As a result of the stigma attached to many of these diseases, devadasi women are shunned by the community, and left to die without any treatment or medication.

Renuka from Gokak explained that women in her community would typically visit a “quack” when they needed help. “Everyone used to call him ‘mental doctor’,” she said. “He used to give us some packets which we took with warm water.”

But, she added, matters had improved in recent years owing to the efforts of activists and devadasi organisations, such as the one she is affiliated with, Shakthi Aids Tadegattuva Mahila Sangha, founded by Lalita. “Earlier we had no knowledge about STDs and AIDS,” she said. “But after we joined the organisation, we were educated on this. Since then every three months, all devadasis in our organisation go for regular checkups, and every six months we go for blood tests.”

Renuka was pushed into sex work at the age of 11, with a ceremony in which a pearl necklace is tied around a girl’s neck. She explained that families often see girls as a means to an income. Photo: Astha Savyasachi

Women have also become more assertive about taking preventive measures to protect their health, Rani said. She explained that she keeps a stock of condoms that the government dispenses for free to sex workers, which they refer to as “chocolate” because of their black wrapping. “These days, all of us keep condoms,” she said. “We don’t allow customers to have unprotected sex.” She added, “There are many customers who come and offer Rs 500-1000 for having unprotected sex. But I deny it. I will manage with Rs 200 300. But I want to live for my children.”

Geeta said that the support of the community has encouraged her to be far less tolerant of abuse now than before. “There was a time when I was beaten and treated without any respect,” she said. “Today, when men try to force themselves upon me, when they do anything against my will, I beat them. Today, they are afraid of me. All of this has happened because I know I have the support of my community.”

This support can also be crucial in helping women navigate extreme psychological distress.

Bhadawa and Bharti, two devadasis from Gokak, recounted how as young girls, they were both sold to rich and powerful men, who would rape them for hours at a stretch. “Some years later, Bhadawa decided to take her own life by jumping into a well,” Bharti said. “But I saved her and talked her out of it.”

She added, “Similarly, when a customer raped me for hours and then didn’t pay me, the abuse triggered me so much that I locked the door and tried to kill myself by hanging. But Bhadawa somehow got to know from neighbours and ran to rescue me.”

A 2019 report by the Bengaluru-based Centre for Law and Policy Research reviewed the laws enacted in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. The report highlighted that although these laws broadly prohibit the practice of dedicating women as devadasis, there are serious failures in their conception and implementation.

In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the law dates back to 1947, and “and has not been reviewed or amended”. The report noted that the law “identifies no specific institution for its enforcement thus leading to no implementation at all”.

The laws of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra are more recent, dating to 1982, 1988 and 2015 respectively. But, the report pointed out that Karnataka and Maharashtra have not yet framed rules for the implementation of their laws. Senior advocate Jayna Kothari, the lead author of the report, told Scroll, “Even in the states where the rules are formulated, the implementation is not there. It is because the government is not taking the issue seriously. For them, it’s like there are no devadasis existing. It’s almost seen as an outdated law that nobody even knows exists.”

Though Andhra Pradesh has framed rules for the implementation of the law, “the legislation is not implemented and there are a negligible number of cases registered in the States under the Devadasi prohibition legislations”, the report noted.

The report also notes that provisions of other laws can be used to fight the problem.

Among these is the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which prescribes a punishment of between six months and five years for anyone who is not a member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, and “performs or promotes dedicating a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe woman to a deity, idol, object of worship, temple, or other religious institution as a Devadasi”. But, the report noted, this provision specifically refers only to those who perform the dedication who are not from Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. Therefore, it argued, it excludes from its ambit the numerous instances where dedications are performed by “the family members who would also be members of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes.”

Other laws, such as Section 370 of the IPC, which criminalises trafficking of persons when the trafficking is for the purpose of exploitation, and the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act, could also be invoked to protect girls and women from being dedicated as devadasis and sexually exploited. But the report notes that these laws are simply not used in the context of devadasis.

Other studies have also found similar failures in the implementation of the relevant laws. One, from 2018, conducted in Ballari, noted that children who are dedicated “are not explicitly recognised as children in need of care and protection” under the Juvenile Justice Act of 2015. Further, dedicated girls are not recognised as victims of sexual trafficking under the country’s anti-trafficking laws. The report noted that “very low reporting of cases of Devadasi dedication was found”, and that only four cases were filed under the Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act of 1982, none of them from Ballari. Further, it noted, “In two cases from the sample, although the matter went to the Police Station, FIR was not lodged and the perpetrators were let off with a warning.”

While the implementation of laws to fight the devadasi system has been weak, there has been some progress made towards supporting the rehabilitation of devadasi women, both by governments and NGOs.

Among all states, perhaps the most organised effort to this end has occurred in Karnataka, where the government set up the Devadasi Rehabilitation Project in 1991. Under the project, women are provided with a pension, as well as assistance in housing and support to achieve economic independence.

A 2017 evaluation report of the project noted that “economic and social condition of the ex-devadasis has improved” as a result of the project and that “the process of dedication has more or less stopped”. But, it added, “there are few instances of recently reported cases from Raichur and Bellary districts.” Further, it noted, “Few personalised dedication of physically challenged children, Devadasi are also found surreptitiously taking place within four walls.”

Lalita, whose NGO now strives to rehabilitate devadasi women, observed that even if the instances of dedication had reduced, it remains a challenge for women to exit the realm of sex work.

“If these women try to leave sex work and move on to other jobs and try to integrate with society, society is usually not very receptive of them,” she said. “Their former customers who recognise them try to take advantage of them.”

These customers frequently try to force the women back into sex work. “I know some devadasis who tried selling vegetables, their customers would come up to them saying, ‘You are doing this as well, take some extra money, and come with me for sex’,” Lalita said. “Basically they are not allowed to leave their old life behind.”

The evaluation report also noted that there were flaws in the conception of the housing scheme. For instance, housing benefits were only offered to women who already owned a plot of land, and had resided on that site for at least five years, and had not availed of housing benefits under any other schemes. These stringent conditions have made it difficult for many devadasis to access this benefit. According to the report, “From the data provided by the government, out of the total 46,660 devadasi identified, 21,856 do not have housing sites of their own to avail the housing benefit. Further, even of the women who did have sites, 11,818 were yet to receive the benefits despite applying for them.”

Similarly, other aspects of the project are also hampered by restrictive terms and ineffective execution. The report notes that the pension scheme was based on two surveys conducted in 1996-’97 and 2004-’05 and that these did not register women who were under 30 years of age at the time. As a result, it excluded many young girls and women who were trapped in the devadasi system and should have been entitled to the same benefit. Further, the report observed that 94% of the respondents believed that the pension amount was not sufficient, and that they were often forced into occasional sex work to make ends meet. This shortfall was felt even more acutely by elderly beneficiaries who did not have the option of supplementing their income with sex work.

Renuka, who is almost 60, said, “Due to my old age I don’t get any customers. The 1,500 rupees that I get as a pension are not enough to make ends meet. Every Tuesday and Friday, I go to the nearby places to beg in the name of Yellamma. That is how I scrape a living.”

Bhadawa was among those excluded in the survey of 1996-’97 and 2004-’05, and who therefore, receives no pension. She does sex work, and for extra income, takes up domestic work. No one she works for knows that she is a devadasi. “If my employers get to know, I will be insulted badly and kicked out of the job” she said.

Similar problems hampered the economic empowerment aspects of the project: under a scheme called Chaitanya, the Karnataka State Women’s Development Corporation provides some women with a loan of Rs 20,000 for income-generating activities. Out of around 20 devadasis that we met, only two, Geeta from Belgaum and Bharati from Gokak, had availed of assistance from the scheme. Yemmannua, Rani, Sridevi, Manjula and Jaishree from Saundatti were completely unaware of it. Rukmua, also from Gokak, couldn’t avail of it because she was not included in the survey, while Renuka, Mala and Bhadawa had applied for it but had not been selected.

Rani sent her children to a hostel for devadasi children, where they are educated. She and many others were unaware of income support schemes that the government had set up for devadasis. Photo: Astha Savyasachi

Even those who could avail of the rehabilitation schemes were hindered by the stigma attached to their past. Geeta recounted the brutal treatment meted out to her when she sought to find a new line of work. “When I tried to leave sex work and get involved in fixing marriages for people, I was raped there also,” she said. “During one marriage, someone from the groom’s family recognised me. They told the groom’s father. While the marriage ceremony was going on in the hall, the groom’s father was raping me in the room upstairs. I couldn’t tell anyone, otherwise the marriage would have been affected.”

Geeta also tried selling vegetables, but she was often harassed there. She then availed of a loan of Rs 20,000 from the government under the Chaitanya scheme, with which her son started a small saree business. She dreams of leaving sex work completely and helping with the saree business.

“I wish I could work like you, madam,” she said. “I wish I could work in an office.”

Kothari noted that there was no clear data available on how many devadasis were given financial assistance or any other benefits. “These women can only be pulled out if the communities are provided with alternative measures of livelihood and economic support,” she said. “Otherwise, they will keep exploiting women and girls for economic needs. Unless the rehabilitation schemes which the law mandates are implemented properly, the practice will perpetuate in different ways.”

Geeta explained that she didn’t know a single devadasi woman who had left sex work completely. “All of us want to,” she said. “But our fate isn’t leaving us.”