Devadasi and Yellamma cult
This article focuses on the mysterious, controversial, and often misunderstood tradition of Devadasis in India, and follows the effects of modernism and particularly colonial law making on the followers of this cult. In contemporary times it is the Yellamma cult, which continues and furthers the practice. In the recent years, various Governments have restricted their rituals and this control has led to several violent and caste-based conflicts. History of the Deccan tells us that the ritual of temple women (or devadasis) was well established by the 10th century A.D.
It is not clear how the Yellamma cult has its roots in the Devadasi tradition, as the Devadasi tradition was an upper cast mainstream Hindu practice, whilst the followers of Yellamma, are mostly poor, and illiterate, and belong to backward castes. Moreover since it is a Dalit practice, it is difficult to trace any ancient or medieval texts, which can help to historicize the practice. However presently, it is the Yellamma cult which stills vehemently follows the devadasi tradition, making the enforcement of the 1934 Devadasi Security Act (the act through which the Devadasi system was banned through out India) difficult. Even the Jogini Abolition Act of 1988 hasn’t been able to totally root out the practice .
Who were Devdasis?
According to Shastric texts, the Devadasis were invariably women, typically resided in the temples, and were educated in arts and literature. This is in part verified as the largest body of women’s writings from ancient and medieval India is written by the Devadasis. Moreover these women appear most frequently in inscriptions as ‘donors’, making gifts of various kinds to the temples themselves. Compared to other women and men associated with temples, Devadasis appear as donors in increasing numbers throughout the course of the Chola period, and as time passed, were increasingly implicated in the life of numerous temples throughout Tamil Nadu as a consequence of their donations. Their appearance as donors leads to the question of their possession of property and wealth .
Devdasis under colonial rule
However, with the beginning of British law making in India, the traditional social fiber of India, went through major transformations. When the Europeans first arrived in India, they were surprised to see girls who sang and danced in temples. They called these girls as “nautch-girls”. For a European mind, a dancing girl could be just an entertainer performing for the pleasure of rich men. The idea of art as an offering to God was unknown to them. To their outlook, a dancing girl was showing off her body and was no better than a prostitute. Yet, there is no mention in any historical book written by early European visitors to indicate any evidence of prostitution on the part of “temple-maids” or “nautch-girls”. Pressure from the colonial "reform" movement led to suppression of the practice of Devadasis. Adherents of this movement considered devadasis immoral since they engaged in sex outside of the Christian concept of marriage, and described them as prostitutes. This coupled with the British takeover of the revenue rights of temples resulted in the traditional support system of the Devadasis falling apart, severely affecting their social and economic status and (ironically) leaving the Devadasis no option away from prostitution. Devadasis who did not become prostitutes had to struggle and survive as agricultural bonded laborers . In the course of the early 20th century; the upper caste/class educated Indians had moved away from the practice, but the practice spread amongst the lower castes, and has metamorphosed into an extremely exploitative tradition.
Devadasis and Law
In 1880, Justice West of Bombay called the temple dancer tradition of his jurisdiction an evil, vicious tendency, and denied devadasis protection under all civil law. Then in 1929, a brahmin woman and member of the legislature, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, launched a furious anti-nautch (dance) campaign, demanding wholesale demolition of the devadasi system. Throughout the 60-years of legal assault against them, the devadasis remained silent. But Dr. Reddy scared them out of that shy profile. Overnight, scores of hand-writtenpleas and protests-personally signed by devadasis-poured into the Madras Legislature. Despite fervent protests by E. Krishna Iyer and a "pro-art" Madras contingent, Dr. Reddy and her women's leagues prevailed. Crippling legislation passed against the devadasis in 1927, followed by total abolition in 1934. ‘Madras Devadasis Act of 1947’, ‘The Karnataka Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982’, and ‘The Andhra Pradesh Eradication of Devadasis, 1988’, are all post independence measures to solve this social crisis. These legislations strengthen the penal provisions that were previously available under the 1934 Act. The maximum punishment was increased to three years imprisonment and maximum fine was increased to Rs. 2000-. If the guilty was found to be a parent or guardian or relative of the dedicated woman, the penal provisions are even stronger. Imprisonment in such a case can extend up to five years with a minimum term of two years and the fine can be up to Rs. 5000, with the minimum fine being Rs 2000 .
In different regions of Deccan they go by different names but they are all variations of a similar tradition of sexual exploitation of poor, illiterate Dalit women in the name of religion. These girls are married off to the local deity, Yellamma, making goddesses of them and forfeiting their own right to marry. Then as joginis or "servants of god" they become the property of the men in the village. On the night of her initiation, after reaching puberty, the young girl is normally offered to an upper caste village elder or landlord. As months and years go by, most of the men in the village end up exploiting her. Even today, there are an estimated of over 60,000 joginis spread all over the Deccan. In the remote villages there is no one to implement the law. Often people are unaware that it’s an illegal practice .