The Devdasi system is a practice in some parts of South India, specifically Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where the family conducts a ceremony similar to marriage, of their daughter to a deity or a temple, which generally meant to the patron of the same. to be dedicated to the worship and service of the same, for eternity, that is, they can never become a widow.
Historically, these women, the “dancing girls in temples” were first mentioned starting from the 6th century. The devdasis achieved a status symbol of sorts; the more affluent a temple was, the temples being funded by their patron kings, the more Devdasis it had. These Devdasis also ranked high in temple hierarchy, their position only next to that of the priests, though still by modern standards, pushing a woman into a life of forced servitude to any patron and barring them from marriage is indeed problematic.
These women enjoyed a high position in society, and were classically trained dancers and singers. They did not perform stereotypical duties of a housewife; rather, they honed their own skills in the performance arts and looked after their children which they bore from the patrons, and trained their children in the same.
A prime example of this system is the Chola Empire. They were known as ‘Deva Adigalar’ in Tamil, roughly translating into God’s Dancers. Their presence quickly developed a culture of music and dance at festivals. With the expansion of the Chola Empire in the 10th century, when they grew in wealth and size through invasion, they began building temples in every place they conquered; which lead to this practice expanding rapidly at that time.
But the fall of these Devdasis was quick to follow, as their success was clearly interlinked with the wealth of their patron kings. By the 11th century, the South Indian kingdoms became weaker because of the invasions from the north. This led to a rapid downfall of the status of temples in South India. This led the Devdasis into a life of poverty, and they alternatively sought to make a living through prostitution.
This downtrodden condition of Devdasis continued during the Colonial rule as well, and it led to large scale sex trade. What began as a service to pay tribute to Gods evolved into an institution for prostitution. This practice was officially outlawed in 1988 all across India, with several NGOs and government schemes set up to help them break their traditions and attempt to live a normal life.
One prominent NGO is Mahila Abhivruddi Mattu Samrakshana Samasthe (aka MASS), which is situated in the Belgavi district of Karnataka. It focuses on rehabilitating former Devdasi women, and works as a members-only organization; it currently has over 3500 ex-Devdasi women as members. Their promoter, Kashava, is also a former devdasi who had been through a lot in her times, but was saved the 1991 scheme set up by the government. Later, she dedicated her life to this cause, and has helped the organization since 1997, when she first joined it.
Kashava, whose mother was also a devdasi, was made to follow in her footsteps. At the age of six, she was made to adorn a typical Devdasi outfit, green saree, lots of bangles and white and red pearls around her neck. But her aunt adopted her and ensured that she did not go through that nightmare, and even educated her up to 7th grade. Unfortunately, her aunt passed away after this and Kashava’s brother decided to sell her to a brothel in Mumbai. She escaped the brothel to return home, only to be further kicked out of her own house by her brother to stay with her mother.
They managed to make ends meet under the 1991 government scheme under which they worked in farms, and her mother, with the financial assistance of MASS, purchased a buffalo. After such a turn of events, and coming out a survivor, she joined MASS as a promoter and has helped ever since.
The tradition of Devdasis, which, according to historical literature, was in no way demeaning to women or made use of them disrespectfully, turned out to become a completely different system; the status that was associated with the term itself fell and developed into a social evil. Discouraging these practices, especially since they are mainly prevalent in rural areas, is a big step in the right direction, and has been possible by such NGOs and other organizations.
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