Print edition : February 15, 2019

Devadasis of Chikkodi in Belagavi district show their beads that mark them out as devadasis. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Outside the office of an NGO that works for devadasis, in Chikkodi. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Devadasis of Jodakurali village in their agricultural field. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Devadasis live a life of discrimination on the periphery of village society in north Karnataka. A new report and model legislation prepared by the NLSIU advocate policy changes to address the problem and stop the practice.

Kantamma Mudukappa, 22, of Teggihal village sits silently in her brother’s home in Mudenur village. Both villages are in Kushtagi taluk of Koppal district in northern Karnataka. Her brother’s home, in the Madiga (an “untouchable” Scheduled Caste) area of the village, is a sparsely furnished two-room dwelling. The small drawing room feels claustrophobic as it is crowded with Kantamma’s relatives and community elders who have gathered to discuss what is to be done about Kantamma’s future.

Kantamma, a Madiga, was in a relationship with a married Kuruba man, Chandrappa, in her village for six months. The Kurubas, traditionally shepherds, are an intermediate caste in social hierarchy, and dominant in her village. When pressed for marriage, Chandrappa backed away and coerced Kantamma to become a devadasi. “He took her forcefully to the Huligemma Devi temple close by and had her consecrated as a devadasi. He told her that she had to become a devadasi as per her family and caste norms,” said Padiyamma, a 60-year-old devadasi known to Kantamma’s family. Kantamma, too affected to speak, nodded in concurrence.

The “consecration” occurred on July 24, but a formal police complaint against Chandrappa was filed only on August 14 (under Section 5 of the Karnataka Devadasi [Prohibition of Dedication] Act, 1982) after her relatives and former devadasis, including Padiyamma, exhorted the police to record the complaint. Yamanurappa Halawagali, the son of a devadasi from Koppal who was part of the group that pressured the police, said: “The police had to be told under what Act and Section a complaint could be registered as they were unaware.”

When Frontline visited Kantamma in mid September, Chandrappa had still not been apprehended and heated discussions were going on among family members and community elders about what was to be done. Hussainappa Moolimane, a community elder, shouted angrily that Chandrappa would have to marry Kantamma, by force if need be, but someone pointed out that Chandrappa was already married. An elderly woman pointed out that devadasis could not marry as they were symbolically married to the goddess. At that moment, a loud procession led by drummers from the local temple passed, and there was a strained silence as everyone waited for the sound to subside. While they had grown up seeing devadasis around them and in their families (Hussainappa’s mother is a devadasi), they did not want the younger women to become devadasis. Apart from being illegal, the practice takes away from the devadasi the limited agency she might have had as a rural woman and inflicts deep humiliation.

Ban on practice

The Karnataka government banned the practice of dedicating devadasis in 1982 when it passed the Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act (KDPDA), which was amended in 2010. A government survey done in 2007-08 counted 46,660 devadasis in 14 districts of northern Karnataka—Belagavi, Vijayapura, Raichur, Koppal, Dharwad, Haveri, Gadag, Kalaburagi, Ballari, Chitradurga, Shivamogga, Davangere, Yadgir and Bagalkot. There has since been a decline in the practice of consecrating devadasis, but it still happens surreptitiously. It is only when someone like Kantamma and her family speak out that the word spreads. Padiyamma, who lives in Kyadiguppa village in Kushtagi taluk, said that she was aware of the presence of some 20 devadasis in surrounding villages over the past two decades.

Historical practice

The practice of designating women as devadasis finds sanction in ancient religious tradition and the caste system, although its nature has changed significantly. In ancient and medieval India, devadasis lived in and around major temples and were patronised by the elite for a variety of reasons. While they carried forward traditions of music and dance, they were also highly sought after prostitutes because of their association with the temple. Large temples would have hundreds of devadasis. Some scholars have argued that the devadasis carved a relatively powerful space for themselves in these patriarchal societies. The practice was found in different parts of India, although it was more widespread in southern India.

During the colonial era, the devadasi system changed slightly. Priyadarshini Vijaisri writes: “The functional sphere of the sacred prostitutes constituted an alternative sphere of activity. Being embodiments of auspiciousness, the prostitutes performed ritual duties during private domestic ceremonies and on festive occasions. A Matangi’s main function, for example, was to preside over purificatory ceremonies (although many Matangis also doubled as spirit mediums, which gave them great authority within the community). On the other hand the functions of the temple prostitutes—i.e. the Sani/Sule—were more diversified and hierarchised, ranging from cleaning to highly specialised ritualistic services, whereas the outcaste sacred prostitutes—the Jogati/Jogini/Basavi, who were usually not associated with any temple except at the nucleus of regional tradition, the Yellamma temple, where they maintained their affiliation by regularly visiting it on festive occasions—borrowed ritual aspects from both the Matangi and the Sule/Sani. Depending on what was required, Joginis were ready to undergo spirit possession, act as ritual specialists on festive occasions, and dance in religious and funeral processions” (“Contending identities: Sacred prostitution and reform in colonial South India”, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 28:3 [2005].)

It was also during the colonial period that Indian religious and social reformers and activists working in the realm of caste eradication and women’s education first tried to alleviate the plight of devadasi women. In 1934, the Bombay Devadasi Protection Act was passed in Bombay Presidency. While the nature and form of the institution has changed significantly over the centuries, the practice thrived well into the post-Independence era in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Structure of devadasi system

To understand how the practice has changed after Independence in Karnataka, this correspondent conversed with around 30 devadasis in Chikkodi (in Belagavi district) and Kushtagi taluks who are now in their forties, fifties and sixties. They became devadasis in the period from the 1960s to the 1980s. Their responses show that diverse superstitious beliefs got young girls trapped into life as devadasis. Almost all of them were made devadasis when they were children, sometimes so young that they were unable to even recall the event. Officially, there are 588 devadasis in Chikkodi taluk while Kushtagi taluk has 671. But Kumar Nellavva Madar, who is the executive officer of Mahila Abhivruddhi Mattu Seva Samsthe (Women’s Development and Service Institution), an organisation working for the welfare of devadasis in Chikkodi, claimed that there were at least 40 more in Chikkodi who have not been recorded in the survey.

Chandravva Gangavva Khatedar of Chikkodi is a third-generation devadasi who said she was made a devadasi because of her family’s “beliefs” and because the tradition was prevalent among her relatives. Ningavva Kashinath Kamble of Jodakurali village said that she got a skin disease when she was a child, because of which her parents dedicated her as a devadasi at the Yellamma temple in Saundatti. Lalithabai of Chikkodi said her mother died when she was seven years old, after which she was dedicated as a devadasi as there was no one to take care of her. Krishnabai said that her father had taken a vow that he would dedicate his first girl child to Yellamma as his wife had been unable to conceive for a long time. Tengavva Ranappa Kamble of Jodakurali village said she was dedicated as a devadasi when she was 12 years old because she had a skin disease and no one was willing to marry her. Rekha Mallappa Kattimane’s mother vowed that she would make her daughter a devadasi if she was born healthy. Husainamma Sannadurgappa Adimane of Hanumasagara village said that her father had only female children and made her a devadasi so that she would remain unmarried and be with them and inherit their ancestral land. Nagamma Halemane of Kyadiguppa village was suffering from conjunctivitis when she was a child when a quack inserted pins in her eyes, assuring her family that she would be healed. Instead, she ended up blind and was dedicated as a devadasi.

Majority are Madigas

The majority of the devadasis belonged to the Madiga Scheduled Caste community, while a few were members of the Holeya caste. (The “untouchable” Scheduled Castes in Karnataka are divided into two main agglomerations—the Holeya (right hand) and the Madiga (left hand); the Madigas are relatively more underprivileged.) A handful of the devadasis own small patches of land, while the rest work as agricultural labourers to make ends meet. Almost all the women Frontline spoke to were illiterate or were early dropouts. In the past, devadasis begged for alms, but that practice seems to have died out.

The initiation rites usually take place on an auspicious day such as Bharat Hunnime (the full moon day in the month of Margashira), when the child/young woman is taken to a temple in the region; in Chikkodi it is the Yellamma temple at Saundatti. Kantamma was forcefully taken to the Huligemma Devi temple in Kushtagi taluk. A devadasi can be recognised by the string of alternating red and white beads she wears around her neck signifying that she is now married to the goddess. This ceremony of tying these beads is called “muttu” and the tying of this string is the most important part of the initiation ceremony, which is usually done by priests or jogappas (transexual followers of Yellamma). Devadasis also have a tattoo that accompanies their initiation and marks them out.

The newly initiated devadasis continue to live with their families, though some move out when they are older. Contrary to the perception that devadasis are sex workers, many of the devadasis whom Frontline spoke to were in strong monogamous relationships with patrons who take care of them. Ningavva, a Madiga devadasi, has a Lingayat partner who is married. In such relationships, the patron, usually married, visits the devadasi, who is his “property”, for as long as he remains interested. “Once I lost my youth, my yejmaan [signifying ‘male partner’] stopped visiting me,” lamented Rekha Mallappa.

Children of devadasis

All the devadasis have children with their patrons, who rarely acknowledge them openly though the entire village is usually into the secret. Such children usually have only their mother’s name in official identification cards and school records. Kempanna Harijan, a 27-year-old from Chikkodi, displayed his Permanent Account Number (PAN) card which has his mother’s name. Kamala, 28, who has finished her Pre-University College, is the daughter of a devadasi, Malivayya Harijan, and lives in Hanumasagara village. She stated: “I know who my father is, but I cannot meet him.” Veeranna Madar of Kallagonal village in Kushtagi taluk, who plays the keyboard at village fairs for a living, made a pithy statement in Kannada when asked about his father: “Kannaduru nammappa, munde iddaru sattangappa” (My father is in front of my eyes, but he is dead).

The story of Kantamma also shows how the nature of the devadasi system has changed over the past few decades. Pradeep Ramavath, Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP) at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru, said: “What we are seeing now is that the dominant castes in a village are forcing a woman to become a devadasi after ‘using’ her. Once a woman becomes a devadasi, she cannot marry, which makes it easier for these men to continue visiting her.”

While there have been efforts made by the State government to rehabilitate devadasis in order to prevent the perpetuation of the practice, devadasis and researchers say that these are insufficient and the few benefits that government institutions offer do not reach a lot of devadasis as there is little awareness. The benefits include subsidised loans and a small pension of Rs.1,500 for devadasis who are 45 and older. There has been a significant amount of research done on the historical and sociological aspects of the devadasi system with the intention to bring in changes at the policy level. Dissatisfied with the methodology of the research techniques, Ramavath and R.V. Chandrashekar Ramenahalli, who is also an Assistant Professor at CSSEIP, NLSIU, set out to identify and train nine “devadasi children” in research methods so that they themselves could write a report on the condition of the devadasis and their children.

Resurvey required

According to an exhaustive report prepared by the “devadasi children”, a copy of which is available with Frontline, devadasis are discriminated against and looked down upon, especially since they do not have husbands. Many devadasis were disappointed with the government policy regarding their welfare and rehabilitation, which they feel is insufficient.

Devadasi respondents, who constitute the lowest strata of village society in many north Karnataka villages, felt that they needed to be allotted some agricultural land so that they could lead independent lives. The plight of their children was also a source of constant anxiety. The respondents said their children faced discrimination in schools and in society.

Many devadasis who spoke to this correspondent also complained that a resurvey of the number of devadasis needed to be done immediately as the earlier survey was not accurate. Chandrashekar Ramenahalli said: “According to our estimate based on field surveys, there must be approximately 2,00,000 devadasis all over the State. A resurvey is important to ascertain the number of devadasis correctly.”

Model draft legislation

Researchers at NLSIU have prepared a draft legislation which takes into account the findings of the report and is aimed at eradication of the practice and amelioration of the pathetic situation of devadasis and their children. There is a need for a new Act as the 1982 Act has failed in eradicating the practice.

The model legislation, tentatively titled “The Karnataka Devadasi (Prevention, Prohibition, Relief, and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018”, prescribes strict punishment for the “promoters” (the men who coerce a woman to become a devadasi). It also proposes the establishment of a State Committee for Vigilance and Implementation, which will have the powers of a civil court, and the appointment of a Devadasi Prohibition and Rehabilitation Officer in every taluk. It proposes compulsory land disbursement to devadasis. There is a clause that gives the child of a devadasi the right to identify his father and claim a share in his property. Ramavath and Ramenahalli, who have worked closely with devadasis, are hopeful that this Bill will be introduced in the Legislative Assembly soon.

Babu Mathew, professor and chairperson, Public Policy Programme, NLSIU, said: “The intention of the legislation is to abolish this form of exploitation by empowering devadasis and their kith and kin through the creation of accessible assets and livelihood options.”

Hope for future

Attitudes are slowly changing, which suggests there is hope for the future. Ten devadasis of Jodakurali village of Chikkodi taluk in Belagavi district, frustrated after their pleas for small patches of land from the district administration were constantly ignored, went ahead and “acquired” a plot of fallow government land on the outskirts of their village measuring 18 acres. Pooling their resources, this informal devadasi collective has sown several crops including sunflower, pigeon pea (toor dal), groundnut and maize. Standing at the edge of the plateaued mound which can only be reached after a bone-jarring ride through mud trails for several kilometres, Mayavva Malakar Dange, a devadasi whose name is not on the official government list, said: “We hope that this land will be formally allotted to us so that we can live a life of dignity.”

Kantamma’s spirited way of facing her situation was also heartening. All the other devadasis interviewed by Frontline looked petrified when asked why they did not remove their beads and stop being devadasis. “Yellamma Devi will not spare us if we remove our ‘muttu’” was the stock reply. Their identification as devadasis in their villages also restricted their choices. Kantamma was different. Asked if she would continue to remain a devadasi, she furiously shook her head and confidently said: “Chandrappa needs to be punished and has to compensate me for cheating me. I will take the money and marry someone else.”

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