Nothing is worse for women and girls than the combination of religious fundamentalism, patriarchy and poverty.
“Parvatamma is a devadasi, or servant of god, as shown by the red-and-white beaded necklace around her neck. Dedicated to the goddess Yellamma when she was 10 at the temple in Saundatti, southern India, she cannot marry a mortal. When she reached puberty, the devadasi tradition dictated that her virginity was sold to the highest bidder and when she had a daughter at 14 she was sent to work in the red light district in Mumbai.
Parvatamma regularly sent money home, but saw her child only a few times in the following decade. Now 26 and diagnosed with Aids, she has returned to her village, Mudhol in southern India, weak and unable to work. “We are a cursed community. Men use us and throw us away,” she says. Applying talcum powder to her daughter’s face and tying ribbons to her hair, she says: “I am going to die soon and then who will look after her?” The daughter of a devadasi, Parvatamma plans to dedicate her own daughter to Yellamma, a practice that is now outlawed in India.
Each January, nearly half a million people visit the small town of Saundatti for a jatre or festival, to be blessed by Yellamma, the Hindu goddess of fertility. The streets leading to the temple are lined with shops selling sacred paraphernalia – glass bangles, garlands, coconuts and heaped red and yellow kunkuma, a dye that devotees smear on their foreheads. The older women are called jogathis and are said to be intermediaries between the goddess and the people. They all start their working lives as devadasis and most of them would have been initiated at this temple.
The system is seen as a means for poverty-stricken parents to unburden themselves of daughters. Though their fate was known, parents used religion to console themselves, and the money earned was shared.
Roopa, now 16, has come to buy bangles at the festival. She was dedicated to the goddess seven years ago and was told that Yellamma would protect her. Her virginity was auctioned in the village, and since then she has supported her family by working as a prostitute out of her home in a village close to Saundatti.
“The first time it was hard,” she admits. In fact, her vagina was slashed with a razor blade by the man she was supposed to sleep with the first time. Her future, like that of other devadasis, is uncertain. Once they are around 45, at which point they are no longer considered attractive, devadasis try to eke out a living by becoming jogathis or begging near the temple.”
Here is a short video on the devadasi: