Over the past fortnight, media reports about a peculiar temple ritual conducted in Tiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu have raised questions about the prevalence of the ancient Devadasi system, an oppressive practice of women and young girls being regarded as temple property and sexually exploited.

The ritual, reportedly conducted last month, involved five pre-pubescent girls. They were dressed as brides and offered to the goddess Mathamma, and after the ceremony, allegedly stripped naked by five boys. A similar ritual has been reported from Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, as well.

Taking note of the media reports and a complaint by an unnamed non-governmental organisation, the National Human Rights Commission said on September 25 that it has directed police in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh as well as the district magistrates of Thiruvallur and Chittoor to submit reports on the matter within four weeks.

“The Commission has observed that the allegations made in the complaint as well as a media report about the continuance of this practice are serious in nature, and if true, these amount to violation of human rights including Rights to Education, Life and Dignity besides Children’s rights,” the Commission said in a press release.

So, is the Devadasi system still prevalent in the two southern states, if in a new form?

Oppressive system

The border districts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh do indeed have a history of practising the Devadasi system. Here, girl children who fall sick or cannot be taken care of by their families are offered to the goddess Mathamma, the chief deity of the Arunthathiyar Scheduled Caste community. Thereafter, they are referred to as Mathamma, the local name for Devadasis, and deemed to be public property.

Once the girls attain puberty, the temple priest performs a ritual marrying them to the deity, after which they are not allowed to marry any person. “They perform dances during weddings and festivals and the youth of the village, belonging to any caste, are free to exploit them for sex,” said P Stephen, who has been working at the Integrated Rural Community Development Society in Tiruvallur for 27 years.

After receiving the notice from the National Human Rights Commission, officials have been going around villages in the two districts, enquiring whether the Devadasi system is still practised. So far, they claim to have not found any evidence it is. “Right now, as per our assessment, there is no system like that,” said Senthil, the district child protection officer of Tiruvallur.

He added that there might be some religious customs, like the one the Commission took note of, that could be mistaken for the Devadasi system. “Upon enquiry, we found that one family had conducted the ritual of dressing up their daughters as brides for the purpose of attaining puberty,” Senthil said. “The girls are back at their homes and continuing their education.”

Meanwhile, villagers in Tiruvallur were upset with how their rituals have been portrayed in the media. Some even felt their culture was being insulted. “I have been receiving calls from many villagers who are feeling disturbed by the visits of government officials,” said a local activist in Tiruvallur. “The Devadasi system has not been in practice for the past 15 years, yet the media show it still exists by twisting local customs.”

Old traces

Contrary to these claims, a recent survey commissioned by the National Commission for Women has confirmed the prevalence of the Devadasi system in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu as well as in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Odisha. The survey was done over two years by researchers from various NGOs and colleges, including the University of Madras.

“When we started out, we had only read about the Devadasi system in our school textbooks, but then we found that it still existed in many villages, including in Tamil Nadu,” said Priyamvadha Mohansingh, assistant professor of criminology at the University of Madras, who led the study. In Tiruvallur, near the border with Andhra Pradesh, the researchers found the Mathamma system was widely practised.

Told that her claims were at odds with those of government officials who had toured the area recently, Mohansingh said such “sensitive information” may not be revealed to a welfare officer who has only a few weeks to put together a report. “We hired people within the community to help us, and we spent a lot of time trying to understand their daily life,” she said. “Even a year or two was not enough.”

Back in 2006, the National Commission for Women had found between 44,000 and 2,50,000 Devadasis in India. Most of them lived in Karnataka, followed by Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. “Till date, these are the only official figures for the number of Devadasis in the country,” Mohansingh said.

This despite the fact that southern states have legislated against the Devadasi system. The Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982, for one, makes dedicating girls to a temple illegal and gives Devadasis the legal right to marry.

In its annual report for 2015-16, the National Commission for Women stated:

“The tradition of marrying a woman to a deity – which initially started out as a religious practice of a woman devotee willingly tying herself to God and His temple, and taking upon the responsibility of a caretaker of sorts, has degenerated into a heinous practice wherein the ‘Joginie/Devdasi’, as she is called, is forced into prostitution to serve the local village elders of the higher castes.”  

The report added that though the practice had declined considerably over the past few decades, media reports and studies indicated that “traces” remained across southern India.

As depicted in the earliest known sources of the Devadasi system, the women selected to marry the deity were highly respected. According to a 2015 paper in the UCLA Women’s Law Journal, the earliest confirmed reference to Devadasis is from the 6th century CE. A queen of the Keshara dynasty wanted to honour the gods by marrying women trained in classical dance to the deity. According to the author Ankur Shingal, the esteemed status of the Devadasis declined with the advent of Islamic and British rule.