According to a one-man commission report constituted by the Government of Andhra Pradesh in 2013, there are about 4,50,000 devadasis spread across the country. The National Commission for Women (NCW), however, reported only 48,358 Devadasis in India (Kothari, et al. 2019). It is perceivably hard to enumerate the exact number of Devadasis in the country. One reason being that this outlawed practice is often kept under wraps for fear of stigma and legal action. Secondly, being an abolished practice, official agencies assume that the practice simply does not exist.
However, the truth is that even after the practice was abolished (on paper) in 1925, the devadasi dedication and practice continues to exist in parts of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa and even Assam & Odisha.
The fall from Glory to Gory
In the context of the present day, the devadasi practice involves young girls of about 4 or 5 being “dedicated” to Goddess Yellamma. It basically makes the girl available for sex once she attains puberty, but denying her the right to marry. Once the dedicated girl attains puberty, she is given her first sexual partner. At such a tender age, the young dedicated girls are unaware of the laws protecting them and by the time they are in a position to do something about their predicament, they have already turned 30-35 years old. Once they are too old for their patrons, they become daily wage labourers on agricultural farms or even move to semi-urban areas to take up construction work, domestic work, sex work for survival.
Before the word Devadasi became synonymous to a sex worker, the Devadasis were at least privy to respect and equality where they had the choice to work and earn as performers in order to financially support their families. They were never economically dependent on their partners as they would earn gold and/or land as reward for their performances in royal and noble courts. However, when patronage from temples stopped, this agency was taken away, and after dedication many women were forced to enter sex work of some sort to make ends meet.
Additionally, due to the centuries-old upper caste domination and the socio-economic marginalisation of the lower castes, this now changed facet of the Devadasi tradition soon found abode in the female members of the ‘lower’ communities of the society; usually Dalits and Bahujans, particularly from the Madiga and Valmiki castes. Almost all the devadasis of present day come from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) communities.
Traditions making them more vulnerable to exploitation
Even though the words Devadasi and sex worker seem replaceable, the terms must not be used synonymously. Devadasis are, even today, different from sex workers. ‘Modern’ Devadasis usually maintain long-term sexual relationships with men, almost disguised as a socially sanctioned practice like marriage and depend on their ‘generous patronage’ (cash or kind) for financial support. Due to the religious association attached with Devadasis, they require this ‘ generous patronage’ from their sexual partners and are not, unlike sex workers, in a position to demand payment, negotiate, or refuse sexual services if the terms are not acceptable to them. Whatever little freedom that sex workers have, is not lent to Devadasis, making their position in society even more vulnerable. There is no stability and surety of how much and when the patron will pay. Additionally, the patrons may never take responsibility for the children born out of this relationship.
In spite of the ills of the Devadasi system, it has managed to wind itself around a vicious circle that makes it thrive. The perfect breeding ground for the continuation of this system emerges from the powerful class divide, pressure from the upper castes, perpetual poverty, religion and superstitious beliefs.