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India - Devadasi


Devadasis (Sanskrit: देवदासी, translation: "Servant of God") are cult prostitutes in the service of the Yellamma, the Hindu goddess of fertility.[1]

The term "Devadasi" originally described a Hindu religious practice in which girls were "married" to a deity.In addition to taking care of the temple, they learned and practiced Bharatanatyam and other classical Indian arts traditions, and enjoyed a high social status. Following the demise of the great Hindu kingdoms the practice degenerated. Pressure from the colonial "reform" movement led to suppression of the practice. Adherents of this movement considered devadasis immoral since they engaged in sex outside of the traditional concept of marriage, and described them as prostitutes. As a result of these social changes, devadasis were left without their traditional means of support and patronage. Colonial views on Devadasis are hotly disputed by several groups and organizations in India and by western academics.[2][3][4][5]

In modern India the tradition has become associated with commercial sexual exploitation, as described in a recent report by the National Human Rights Commission of the Government of India.[6] According to this report, "after initiation as devadasis, women migrate either to nearby towns or other far-off cities to practise prostitution" (p200). A study from 1990 recorded that 45.9% of devadasis in one particular district were prostitutes, while most the rest relied on manual labour and agriculture for their income.[7] The practice of dedicating devadasis was declared illegal by the Government of Karnataka in 1982[8] and the Government of Andhra Pradesh in 1988. However the practice is still prevalent in around 10 districts of north Karnataka and 14 districts in Andhra Pradesh.[9]}.The high regard with which they were previously held has deteriorated in recent years due to their association with prostitution, and the practice has started to disappear.[10]

Devadasis are also known by various other local terms. They are sometimes referred to as a caste; however, some question the accuracy of this usage. "According to the devadasis themselves there exists a devadasi 'way of life' or 'professional ethic' (vritti, murai) but not a devadasi jāti sub-caste. Later, the office of devadasi became hereditary but it did not confer the right to work without adequate qualification" (Amrit Srinivasan, 1985).

[edit] Origin

[edit] Ancient and medieval history

Originally, devadasis were celibate all their life.[11] Reference to dancing girls in temples is found in Kalidasa's "Meghadhoot". It is said that dancing girls were present at the time of worship in the Mahakal Temple of Ujjain. Some scholars are of the opinion that probably the custom of dedicating girls to temples became quite common in the 6th century CE, as most of the Puranas containing reference to it have been written during this period. Several Puranas recommended that arrangements should be made to enlist the services of singing girls for worship at temples.

By the end of 10th century, the total number of devadasis in many temples was in direct proportion to the wealth and prestige of the temple. During the medieval period, they were regarded as a part of the normal establishment of temples; they occupied a rank next only to priests and their number often reached high proportions. For example, there were 400 devadasis attached to the temples at Tanjore and Travancore.

Local kings often invited temple dancers to dance in their courts, the occurrence of which created a new category of dancers, rajadasis, and modified the technique and themes of the recitals. A devadasi had to satisfy her own soul while she danced unwatched and offered herself to the god, but the rajadasi's dance was meant to be an entertainment.

The popularity of devadasis seems to have reached its pinnacle around 10th and 11th century CE. The rise and fall in the status of devadasis can be seen to be running parallel to the rise and fall of Hindu temples. Invaders from West Asia attained their first victory in India at the beginning of the second millennium CE. The destruction of temples by invaders started from the northwestern borders of the country and spread through the whole of the country. Thereafter the status of the temples fell very quickly in North India and slowly in South India. As the temples became poorer and lost their patron kings, and in some cases were destroyed, the devadasis were forced into a life of poverty, misery, and, in some cases, prostitution.

[edit] Kaikolar Devadasis in South India and the Chola empire

Traditionally, one girl in every family from the Sengunthar/ Kaikolar caste was set apart to be dedicated to temple service and becomes a Devadasi (meaning female servant of god). In the temple, the girl is considered married to the temple deity and she learns traditional music and dancing.[12][13]

The Kaikolars also called as Sengundar, are a large Tamil and Telugu socially backward caste[14][15] of weavers in the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh in southern India. Their name comes from a mythical hero and from the words "kai" (hand) and "kol" (shuttle or spear). They consider the different parts of the loom to represent various gods and sages. They are also known as Sengundar, which means a red dagger, which is traced to the legend of the earth being harassed by demons, which led to the people asking the god Shiva to help them. He was furious with the demonic giants and sent six sparks from his eyes. Parvati, his wife became frightened and retired to her chamber but dropped nine beads from her anklets. Shiva converted those beads into nine women, each giving birth to a hero, complete with moustache and daggers. These nine led by Subramanya, with a large army destroyed the demons. Kaikolars or Sengundar claim descent from one of the nine heroes. There are seventy-two subdivisions (nadu or desams). The Kaikolar Devadasis identify themselves with the the Kaikolar/ Sengunthar who are weavers and were militarised during the Chola empire into the "Terinja-Kaikolar-Padai" (meaning "known soldiers" or "personal bodyguards" in Tamil)[13]

During the Vijayanagar empire the Kaikkolas dedicated their women as devadasis to enjoy special privileges. (Text Quoted from article: At least one woman in every Kaikkola household was, according to age-old tradition dedicated to the temple as a devaradiyar or devadasi. The devaradiyar enjoyed special privileges in the days of the Vijayanagar empire and were the only women permitted a direct audience with the king.[13] This research article describes how a devaradiyar or devadasi won special privileges for the Kaikkolas from the King Deva Raya II (A.D 1433)[13][16]

Another reference book Donors, Devotees, and Daughters of God. Temple Women in Medieval Tamilnadu by Leslie C. Orr. gives ample references to inscriptions regarding the Kaikkolars being Devadasis in Tanjore temples during the Chola empire and the way the Devadasis helped the Kaikkolas rise to power in the Chola empire.

[edit] Mahari Devadasi of Orissa

Devadasi is a name given to a group of women who danced in the temple premises. The word Devadasi or Mahari means "those great women who can control natural human impulses, their five senses and can submit themselves completely to God (Vachaspati)." Mahari means Mohan Nari that is, the woman belonging to God. Sri Chaitanayadev had defined Devadasis as 'Sebaets' who served God through dance and music. Pankaj Charan Das, the oldest Guru of Odissi classical dance, who comes from a Mahari family, explains Mahari as Maha Ripu -Ari (one who conquers the five main ripus - enemies ). [17]

The beginning the decline of the Mahari tradition started with the Muslim invasion of Orissa in 14th century. They were exploited and for the first time the Purdah system appeared, ostensibly to guard the women-folk. The gradual degeneration of the Devadasi tradition, which had started since the attack of Sultan Shah in 1360 A.D. continued. This was because the social, cultural & political scene was changing rapidly and women, in general, were losing their independence and power.

The Orissa Gazette of 1956 lists 9 Devadasis and 11 temple musicians. By 1980, only 4 Devadasis were left – Harapriya, Kokilprabha, Paroshmoni and Shashimoni. Now only Shashimoni and Paroshmoni are alive. The daily ritualistic dance had stopped long ago. Now this twosome serve in a few of the yearly temple rituals like Nabakalebar, Nanda Utsav and Duar Paka during Bahura jatra.[18]

The Orissa Gazette of 1956 mentions some occasions where the Devadasis danced. They had two daily rituals. The bahar gaunis would dance at the Sakhala Dhupa. Lord Jagannath, after breakfast, would give Darshan to the bhaktas, the devotees. In the main hall, a Devadasi accompanied by musicians and the Rajguru, the court guru, would dance, standing near the Garuda sthambha. This dance could be watched by the audience. They would perform only pure dance here. The bhitar gauni would sing at the Badashringhar, the main ceremony for ornamenting and dressing the God. Lord Jagannath, at bedtime, would be first served by male Sebaets- they would fan Him and decorate Him with flowers. After they would leave, a bhitar gauni would then enter the room, stand near the door (Jaya Bijay) and sing Geetagovinda songs, and perhaps perform a ritualistic dance. After a while, she would come out and announce that the Lord has gone to sleep and then the guard would close the main gate.

The banning of the devadasi system has not done away with prostitution in India nor has it stopped poor parents from selling their girl child to procurers. [19]


[edit] Yellamma cult of Karnataka in South India

In the state of Karnataka in the region of South India the devadasi system was followed for over 10 centuries. The chief among them was the Yellamma cult [20]. The stories seem to indicate that in the state of Karnataka devadasis originated from Brahmin women who were thrown out of their homes by their husbands.

There are many stories about the origin of the Yellamma cult. The most prevalent one says that Renuka was the daughter of a Brahmin, married to sage Jamadagni and was the mother of five sons. She used to bring water from the river Malaprabha for the sage's worship and rituals. One day while she was at the river, she saw a group of youths engaged themselves in water sports and forgot to return home in time which made Jamadagni to suspect her chastity. He ordered his sons one by one to punish their mother but four of them refused on one pretext or the other. The sage cursed them to become eunuchs and got her beheaded by his fifth son, Parashuram. To everybody's astonishment, Renuka's head multiplied by tens and hundreds and moved to different regions. This miracle made her four eunuch sons and others to become her followers, and worship her head. [21].

The followers of Yellamma, who are mostly poor, and illiterate, take a vow to dedicate themselves, their spouses, or their children in the service of Goddess Yellamma when they are unable to face the hardships of life. The typical situations include life-threatening diseases, infertility, and dire financial troubles. These are the people who are primarily responsible for propagating Goddess Yellamma's virtues and achievements and glorify the Goddess. An elaborate ceremony is held in order to initiate the Jogathis (female) and Jogappa (male) volunteers in the service of Goddess Yellamma. New followers have to bathe in three holy ponds and proceed to the head priest accompanied by community elders and other members of the family. The priests give them a long sermon on what they have to do please Yellamma. They have to identify themselves with the very poor and unfortunate ones and serve the society. At least twice a year they have to visit the Yellamma shrine on full moon days to express and confirm their obedience. During this semi-annual ritual, they have to observe preferably total nudity. If not, they have to cover their bodies with Neem foliage or scanty clothes. Such rituals, especially in the last decade, have become heavily publicized events due to the oversexed youngsters and tourists who gather around such pilgrimage centers to have glimpses of nude and semi-nude human bodies. [22].

[edit] Colonial era

Toward the end of the 19th century, there was a spurt of social movements in India. Nationalism and search for national identity led to social movements relating to devadasis. These movements can be classified into two categories: Reformists/Abolitionists and Revivalists.

[edit] Reformists and abolitionists

Reformists and Abolitionists, under the pressure of the European Christian priests and missionaries, conceived of the devadasi practice as a social evil and considered every Devadasi to be a prostitute. The first anti-nautch and anti-dedication movement was launched in 1882. "Their main aim was to do away with this system. Reform lobbyists were drawn mainly from missionaries, doctors, journalists and social workers. They urged the abolition of all ceremonies and procedures by which young girls dedicated themselves as Devadasis of Hindu shrines. They organized seminars and conferences to create a public opinion against the Devadasi system. In the later part of 1892 an appeal was made to the Viceroy and Governor General of India and to the Governor of Madras. This appeal also defines the position of the anti-nautch movement" (Jogan Shankar, 1990).

For the reform lobbyists— Christian missionaries, doctors, journalists, administrators and social workers— strongly influenced by Christian morality and religion, it was precisely these features of the devadasi institution which were reprehensible in the utmost. The portrayal of the devadasi system as "prostitution" sought to advertise the grotesqueness of the subject population for political ends, while the British colonial authorities officially maintained most brothels in India. For those who supported imperialism on the grounds of its "civilizing" function, programs of reform were not without their ideological rewards.

Some journals and newspapers like The Indian Social Reformer and Lahore Purity Servant supported the Reformist or Abolitionist movement. The movement initially concentrated on building public opinion and enlisting members to refuse to attend nautch parties as well as to refuse to invite devadasis to festivities at their homes. Around 1899, the anti-nautch and puritan movement turned its attention to stopping dedications. The anti-nautch movement paved the way for anti-dedication movement.

The social reform movements, spearheaded by Ram Mohan Roy, Periyar, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Govind Ranade, Dhondo Keshav Karve, and other prominent social thinkers, questioned the practice of devadasi system and pleaded for its abolition.

[edit] Revivalists

The revival movement consciously stepped outside the requirements of state electoral politics and western scientific traditions. The movement received strong support from the Theosophical Society of India, whose anti-official stance and strong interest in Indian home rule bound them with the revival of dance and music.

Pioneers like Madam H.P. Blavatsky and Colonel H.S. Olcott, the founders of the Theosophical movement, had undertaken an extensive tour of South India and propagated the revival of devadasi institutions and the associated art of sadir. They gained support from all sections of the native elite by their public denouncement of western Christian morality and materialism. In 1882, the Theosophical Society of India had set up its headquarters in Adyar, Chennai with the set goal of working towards the restoration of India's ancient glory in art, science, and philosophy.

The support later given to a revival of sadir as Bharatnatyam by the Theosophical Society was largely due to the efforts of Rukmini Devi Arundale, an eminent theosophist herself. She took up the cause of evolution of sadir and Bharatnatyam, another traditional dance.

The Theosophical Society provided the necessary funds and organization to back Arundale as the champion for India’s renaissance in the arts, especially Bharatnatyam. The revivalists tried to present the idealistic view of the institution of devadasi. According to their view, it was the model of the ancient temple dancer as pure, sacred, and chaste women, as they were originally.

They stressed that the dance of devadasi was a form of "natya yoga" to enhance an individual's spiritual plane. The revivalists wanted to preserve the traditional form of sadir dance by purifying it. As a consequence of purification, some modifications were introduced into the content of the dance, which was strongly criticized by dancer Balasaraswati and other prominent representatives of the traditional devadasi culture. The revivalists mostly belonged to Brahmin dominated Theosophical circles. Many Brahmin girls started to learn the dance from devadasis.

In contrast to the abolitionist portrayal of devadasis as prostitutes, the revivalists sketched them as nuns in order to defend and legitimize the institution. Still others claim that a devadasi was neither a prostitute nor a nun: "She was a professional artist who did not suppress or deny her feminine skills. Devadasi women kept classical dance forms, like Bharatnatyam and Odisee, alive for centuries."

[edit] Legislative initiatives

The first legal initiative to outlaw the devadasi system dates back to the 1934 Bombay Devadasi Protection Act. This act pertained to the Bombay province as it existed in the British Raj. The Bombay Devadasi Protection Act made dedication of women illegal, whether consensual or not. According to this act, marriage by a devadasi was to be considered lawful and valid, and the children from such wedlock were to be treated as legitimate. The Act also laid down grounds for punitive action that could be taken against any person or persons found to be involved in dedications, except the woman who was being dedicated. Those found guilty of such acts could face a year’s imprisonment, a fine, or both. The 1934 Act also provided rules, which were aimed at protecting the interests of the devadasis. Whenever there was a dispute over ownership of land involving a devadasi, the local Collector was expected to intervene.

In 1947, the year of independence, the Madras Devadasi Prevention of Dedication Act outlawed dedication in the southern province now known as Karnataka.

[edit] Devadasi practices

A photograph of two Devadasis taken in 1920s in Tamilnadu, South India

A photograph of two Devadasis taken in 1920s in Tamilnadu, South India

The devadasi practices have changed considerably over the last centuries. Amrit Srinivasan has described devadasi practices in Tamilnadu:

Traditionally the young devadasi underwent a ceremony of dedication to the deity of the local temple which resembled in its ritual structure the upper caste Tamil marriage ceremony. Following this ceremony, she was set apart from her non-dedicated sisters in that she was not permitted to marry and her celibate or unmarried status was legal in customary terms. Significantly, however she was not prevented from leading a normal life involving sex with individuals of her choice and childbearing. The very rituals which marked and confirmed her incorporation into temple service also committed her to the rigorous emotional and physical training in the classical dance, her hereditary profession. In addition, they served to advertise in a perfectly open and public manner her availability for sexual liaisons with a proper patron and protector. Very often in fact, the costs of temple dedication were met by a man who wished thus to anticipate a particular devadasi's favours after she had attained puberty. It was crucially a women's 'dedicated' status which made it a symbol of social prestige and privilege to maintain her. The devadasi's sexual partner was always chosen by 'arrangement' with her mother and grandmother acting as prime movers in the veto system. Alliance with a Muslim, a Christian, or a lower caste was forbidden while a Brahmin or member of the royal elite was preferred for the good breeding and/or wealth he would bring into the family. The non-domestic nature of the contract was an understood part of the agreement with the devadasi owing the man neither any householding services nor her offspring. The children in turn could not hope to make any legal claim on the ancestral property of their father whom they met largely in their mother's home when he came to visit.

[edit] Reasons for dedication in modern times

Even though the majority of the girls dedicated in the past few years or decades come from families with no tradition of devadasis, all of them come from communities with a strong history of the practice. For example, a village named Yellampura in Karnataka, 95 percent of households of Holers have practicing devadasis, which is the highest percentage in the village, followed by Madars.

The system has an obvious economic basis. The sanctions provided by social custom and apparently by religion, combined with economic pressures, have pushed girls from poor families into becoming the wives of a deity. The three factors (religious, social, and economic) are interlinked.

In a 1993 study, Asha Ramesh found that:

Dedication to the Goddess or God was justified on the following grounds:
(a) If the parents were childless, they vowed to dedicate their first child if it happened to be girl.
(b) If there were no sons in the family, the girl child was dedicated and could not marry as she becomes a 'son' for the family (earning the family’s livelihood).
Yet another economic reason contributed to the dedications. If the girl's family had some property, the family ensured that it stayed within the family by turning the girl into 'son' by dedicating her.

[edit] Dedication process

From the late medieval period until 1910, the Pottukattu or tali-tying dedication ceremony, was a widely advertised community event requiring the full cooperation of the local religious authorities. It initiates the a young girl into the devadasi profession and is performed in the temple by the priest. In the Brahminical tradition marriage is viewed as the only religious initiation (diksha) permissible to women. Thus the dedication is a symbolic "marriage" of the pubescent girl to the temple's deity.

In the sadanku or puberty ceremonies, the devadasi-initiate consummates her marriage with an emblem of the god borrowed from the temple as a stand-in 'bridegroom'. In practice this often means that the priest will have sexual intercourse with the devadasi in addition to the other nuptial rites that are performed at a typical Brahmin wedding. For instance, auspicious wedding songs celebrating sexual union are sung before the "couple". From then onward, the devadasi is considered a nitya sumangali: a woman eternally free from the adversity of widowhood.

She would then perform her ritual and artistic duties in the temple. The puberty ceremonies were an occasion not only for temple honor, but also for community feasting and celebration in which the local elites also participated. The music and dance and public display of the girl also helped to attract patrons.

[edit] Life after dedication

A devadasi's life after dedication was obviously very different centuries ago. Nowadays

After dedication of a girl to the temple, she has to take bath every day early in the morning and should present herself at the temple during morning worship of Yellamma. She is not allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum. But she will bow to the deity from outside. Thereafter she sweeps compound of the temple. Every Tuesday and Friday she goes for yoga along with senior jogatis (yoga teachers). During this period she learns innumerable songs in praise of Yellamma and her son Parashurama. If she shows some aptitude to learn playing instruments she will be given training by her elder jogatis. In Yellampura and other villages Devadasis do not dance but this is performed by eunuch companions. The main functions of Devadasis would be singing and playing stringed musical instruments and Jagate. They form a small group and go for joga, from house to house on every Tuesday and Friday (Jogan Shankar, 1990).

These religious duties are uncontested and are a widely celebrated part of the life of the devadasi temple servant.

[edit] Sexual Aspects

Although the original devadasis were brahmacharis their entire life, even the contemporary sexual aspects of the rituals that accompany dedication are now considered by many Hindus to be exploitative and not mandatory. Nevertheless this practice continues unabated in some places where a devadasi would usually acquire a "patron" after her deflowering ceremony. Patronship in a majority of cases is achieved at the time of the dedication ceremony itself. The patron who secures this right of spending the first night with the girl can pay a fixed sum of money to maintain a permanent liaison with the devadasi, pay to maintain a relationship for a fixed amount of time, or terminate the liaison after the deflowering ceremony. A permanent liaison with a patron does not bar the girl from entertaining other clients, unless he specifies otherwise. In case the girl entertains, other men have to leave the girl’s house when her patron comes.

[edit] Social Status

Traditionally, no stigma was attached to the devadasi or to her children, and other members of their caste received them on terms of equality. The children of a devadasi enjoyed legitimacy and devadasis themselves were outwardly indistinguishable from married women of their own community.

Furthermore, a devadasi was believed to be immune from widowhood and was called akhanda saubhagyavati. Since she was wedded to a divine deity, she was supposed to be one of the especially welcome guests at weddings, and was regarded as bearer of fortune. At weddings, people would get a string of the tali (wedding lock) prepared by her and she threaded on it a few beads from her own necklace. The presence of a devadasi on any religious occasion in the house of an upper caste member was regarded as sacred and she was treated with due respect and was presented with gifts.


[edit] Additional information

[edit] Statistical data

India's National Commission for Women, which is mandated to protect and promote the welfare of women, has collected information on the prevalence of devadasis in various states. The government of Orissa has stated that the devadasi system is not prevalent in the state. There is only one Devadasi in Orissa, in a Puri temple. Similarly the government of Tamil Nadu wrote that this system has been eradicated and there are now no devadasis in the state. Andhra Pradesh has identified 16,624 devadasis within its state and Karnataka has identified 22,941. The government of Maharashtra did not provide the information as sought by the Commission. However, the state government provided statistical data regarding the survey conducted by them to sanction a "Devadasi Maintenance Allowance". A total of 8,793 applications were received and after conducting a survey 6,314 were rejected and 2,479 devadasis were declared eligible for the allowance. At the time of sending the information, 1,432 Devadasis were receiving this allowance.

In Andhra Pradesh, devadasi practice is prevalent in Karimnagar, Warangal, Nizamabad, Mahaboobnagar, Kurnool, Hyderabad, Ananthapur, Medak, Adilabad, Chittoor, Rangareddy, Nellore, Nalgonda, and Srikakulam. In Karnataka, the practice has been found to exist in Raichur, Bijapur, Belgaum, Dharwad, Bellari and Gulbarga. In Maharashtra, the devadasi practice exists in Pune, Sholapur, Kolhapur, Sangli, Mumbai, Lathur, Usmanabad, Satara, Sindhudurg and Nanded.

[edit] References

  1. ^ Damian Grammaticas (2007-06-08). Slaves to the goddess of fertility (English). BBC News. Retrieved on 2007-06-18.
  2. ^ Crooke, W., Prostitution?, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. X, Eds., James Hastings and Clark Edinburg, Second Impression, 1930.
  3. ^ Iyer, L.A.K, Devadasis in South India: Their Traditional Origin And Development, Man in India, Vol.7, No. 47, 1927.
  4. ^ http://www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/h_prostitution.asp
  5. ^ Donors, Devotees, and Daughters of God: Temple Women in Medieval Tamil NaduLeslie C. Orre
  6. ^ P.M. Nair, IPS (July 18, 2004). "A Report on Trafficking in Women and Children in India 2002-2003". National Human Rights Commission, Government of India. Retrieved on [[2007-01-31]].
  7. ^ Jogan Shankar (2004). "Devadasi Cult - A Sociological Analysis (Second Revised Edition)". New Delhi - Ashish Publishing House.
  8. ^ (February 2, 1982) "Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982". Karmataka Gazette IV-2A (Extraordinary) No. 75. Retrieved on [[2007-01-31]]. 
  9. ^ "`Project Combat' launched to eradicate `Devadasi' system", The Hindu, 2006-01-30. Retrieved on 2007-01-31. 
  10. ^ Devadasi. (2007). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 4, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica
  11. ^ World Vision - India: Girls Sacrificed To Tradition - Former Religious Prostitutes Help Those Still Trapped
  12. ^ Contending identities: Sacred prostitution and reform in colonial South India Priyadarshini Vijaisri A1, A1 Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies Publisher: Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis Group Issue: Volume 28, Number 3 / December 2005 Pages: 387 - 411. http://journalsonline.tandf.co.uk/link.asp?id=jv31l27518262711
  13. ^ a b c d Weaver Folk Traditions as a Source of History, Vijaya Ramaswamy, Indian Economic & Social History Review, Vol. 19, No. 1, 47-62 (1982), http://ier.sagepub.com/cgi/content/citation/19/1/47?ck=nck, register here for free->http://www.sagepublications.com/sjofreeaccess/
  14. ^ http://www.tn.gov.in/bcmbcmw/bclist.htm
  15. ^ http://ncbc.nic.in/backward-classes/ap.html
  16. ^ Some Enquiries into the Condition of Weavers in Medieval South India, Indian Historical Review, Vol. VI, Nos. 1 and 2>
  17. ^ Mahari of Orissa
  18. ^ ">Mahari System of Orissa
  19. ^ India Today article on Maharis
  20. ^ Yellamma Cult
  21. ^ Yellamma Slaves
  22. ^ Deccan Herald article about Yellamma Cult

[edit] Further reading



Dying of Ignorance


Peter Goodspeed

National Post

August 05, 2006


Mumbai, India -- Outreach worker from Saheli - Yellavva - who is a prostitute and former devadasi (temple virgin) in her room in the brothel.

CREDIT: Peter Goodspeed/National Post

Mumbai, India -- Outreach worker from Saheli - Yellavva - who is a prostitute and former devadasi (temple virgin) in her room in the brothel.

One in every eight people in the world infected with HIV lives in India, making it, after Africa, the second epicentre for AIDS. Senior International Affairs reporter Peter Goodspeed travelled there ahead of the International AIDS Conference that begins next week in Toronto. In the first of three stories from there, he describes how prostitutes are on the front lines of the battle against the killer disease.

- - -

MUMBAI, India - The way Yellavva, a 30-year-old prostitute, describes it, she "lost her life" when she was only eight.

It was then, just as doctors were identifying India's first full-blown case of AIDS, that Yellavva's parents dedicated their only child to the Hindu goddess Yellamma, the Mother of All, in exchange for a wish for a son.

As a "temple virgin" initiated into the infamous and now illegal Devadasi cult, Yellavva became a slave girl to the gods.

"I was given to the goddess, so I'm not allowed to marry," she explains. "I had to do everything in the temple. I had to serve the goddess."

But, under the Devadasi system, that also meant that once she entered puberty, Yellavva became a concubine to the temple priests, who regularly hire out the Devadasi to anyone who wants to sleep with them.

"These worshipping people who used to come there would use the girls," Yellavva says.

"We were used to having sex with many people. But we would not get money for that work. When we got to be 14 years old, we came here [to Mumbai] to earn some money.

"I came here to survive," she says simply.

Yellavva went from being a sanctified prostitute in the northern Karnataka town of Bijapur to a sex worker in a seedy Falkland Road brothel in Mumbai, just as one of the modern world's worst epidemics was colliding with India's ancient culture.

Today, one in every eight people in the world infected with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS, lives in India, and that number is growing by as much as 500,000 a year.

India, with more than 5.7 million people infected with HIV/AIDS, now has more people living with the deadly virus than anywhere else in the world.

South Africa ranks second with 5.5 million infections, a figure that accounts for nearly 19% of that country's adult population.

India's infection rate touches only 0.9% of its adult population.

There's still a great deal of controversy surrounding data on HIV/AIDS in India.

For years, the Indian government denied the disease was a threat and constantly challenged warnings that the misery AIDS caused in Africa now threatens India. In a country plagued by poverty, a population explosion, massive illiteracy, an already struggling health care system and a host of other diseases that claim hundreds of thousands of lives each year, AIDS was frequently regarded as just another problem.

Now, that's changing.

Last month, a major report by India's National Council of Applied Economic Research warned that if the HIV/AIDS virus is allowed to spread unchecked, India's bright economic future may be at risk.

An unhindered HIV/AIDS epidemic will slash nearly a full percentage point off India's annual economic growth over the next decade, the New Delhi think-tank warns.

It predicts that more than 16 million people in India could become infected with HIV/AIDS by 2016. That will rob one of the world's fastest-growing economies of as much as US$235-billion in potential investment, the report warns, saying extra government spending on health care and increased medical bills for families affected by the epidemic will lead to a serious drop in national savings.

Other studies are even more ominous. Four years ago, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency predicted between 20 million and 25 million Indians could be infected with HIV/AIDS by the year 2010.

"The disease has built up significant momentum, health services are inadequate and the cost of education and treatment programs will be overwhelming," the CIA said.

"AIDS is one of the principal question marks hanging over India's future," warns a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The World Bank predicted HIV/AIDS could soon become the single largest cause of death in the world's second most-populous country. "At present, AIDS cases are under-diagnosed, under-reported and ill-treated," insists Ishwar Gilada, a Mumbai physician who 22 years ago was one of the first activists to raise the alarm about HIV/AIDS in India.

"The official HIV estimate for India is 5.2 million [United Nations researchers put the figure at 5.7 million], but a realistic figure could be 10 million or 1% of the total population," Dr. Gilada says.

"Nearly 90% of India's HIV-infected people are totally unaware of their HIV status," he adds. "This is an epidemic that is spread by sex, blood and ignorance."

Twenty-two years ago, when Dr. Gilada first started warning about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, Mumbai's teeming brothels employed up to 120,000 prostitutes. Now, deaths and desertions triggered by fear of AIDS have reduced Mumbai's population of sex workers by up to 80%.

Twenty-thousand prostitutes once worked in Falkland Road. Now only about 4,000 remain.

In a typical brothel, the going rate for sex is between 20 and 50 rupees (50 cents to $1.20) and customers sleep with prostitutes in small, squalid rooms that contain several beds equipped with flimsy cloth partitions.

Up to a dozen women live in each room, taking turns to service customers or lounging provocatively in doorways in brilliantly coloured saris.

Falkland Road is bordered by thin, pungent streams of sewage flushed out by warm monsoon rains, and the street is a river of people, honking taxis and mobs of hard-eyed men -- migrant workers, rickshaw pullers and truck drivers -- searching for a brief liaison.

Only 20 years ago, the scene was a hundred times more chaotic and dangerous.

In 1986, when India's first AIDS case was detected in the city of Chennai (Madras), few of Mumbai's prostitutes or their clients relied on condoms, Dr. Gilada says.

As a result, the decaying slum on Falkland Road became the epicentre of India's AIDS epidemic.

In the early 1990s, when Indian government officials still insisted the country had only a few thousand HIV infections, blood tests among Falkland Road's sex workers showed that more than half of them had already been infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

Still, India's government insisted there really wasn't a crisis. A former head of the Indian Council on Medical Research went so far as to suggest AIDS could be controlled in India by simply outlawing sexual relations with foreigners.

The government largely left it to private groups and individuals to wage the early war against AIDS.

Dr. Gilada established a privately funded Indian Health Organization (now the People's Health Organization) and regularly descended on Mumbai's brothel districts with a bullhorn and boxes of condoms that he handed out to prostitutes, warning them of the dangers of unprotected sex.

He also organized the sex workers into self-care groups, held street theatre exhibitions to teach safe sex and handed out information about condoms to truck drivers, migrant workers and factory hands.

In a land that is slightly neurotic about sex -- families refuse to talk about it and newspapers regularly argue over whether Mumbai movie actors should be allowed to kiss on camera -- Dr. Gilada suggested the Kama Sutra should be used as a national tool to prevent AIDS.

"Many Postures with One is better than One with Many," he argued and produced postcards, key rings and T-shirts to popularize the Kama Sutra among truckers.

Over the past decade, Dr. Gilada's Saheli Project, (Saheli means "friend" in Hindi) has hired working prostitutes to educate their peers about safe-sex practices and handed out more than 70 million condoms in Mumbai.

On a recent foray into Falkland Road, Saheli workers doled out condoms from an industrial-sized box in the back of a white truck.

"We used to go from house to house distributing these condoms, and some people used to scold us," explained Yellavva Kadimhni (who has the same first name as Yellavva, the Devadasi), a former prostitute now working with Saheli. "They would fight us and insist nothing would happen if they didn't use condoms. They didn't want to have anything to do with us. Now, when they see our vehicle, they come running right up, asking for condoms."

According to Dr. Gilada, condom use in Mumbai's red-light districts has jumped from less than 5% in 1991 to nearly 90% today.

"Because of AIDS, people have started thinking that if I get this disease, no one is there to look after me. No one will be there to look after my children," says Monica, a native of West Bengal who came to Mumbai 20 years ago as a child to work as a maid.

Now, after 12 years of working as a prostitute, she says few sex workers think of serving a client who refuses to use a condom.

"We're still trying to survive," she said. 'We've seen people dying here. We've seen other girls die. If one customer has said no to condoms, all the other girls will say no to him as well. We have a new unity."

Still, Yellavva, the Devadasi, regrets some of the changes AIDS has made to Falkland Road's red-light district.

"It has changed," she says. "In the beginning, we used to get nice customers from very big families. Good people used to visit us, but not now. Now we only see the people who are poor and they don't have much money."

Things are changing nationally, as well. For the first time, India's government has earmarked $150-million of its own money in this year's budget to promote safer sex, to popularize the use of condoms and to expand the network of treatment facilities helping HIV/AIDS victims in the six high-prevalence states across the country.

In another new initiative, the government intends to target HIV-positive pregnant mothers in an attempt to control the mother-to-child transmission of AIDS. So far, only 4,500 pregnant mothers in India have been given doses of nevrapine, a drug that helps prevent the transmission of the HIV virus from an infected mother to a newborn infant.

The vast majority of people living with AIDS in India have no access to life-extending antiretroviral drugs, but the Indian government recently announced plans to provide antiretroviral medicine to up to 100,000 people by early next year.

According to the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition, an anti-AIDS watchdog group, an estimated 770,000 individuals in India still need antiretroviral drugs and are unlikely to get them.

Still, despite the new initiatives, India spends only about 17 cents per person on HIV/AIDS, compared to a country such as Uganda, which spends around $1.85 per person.

"Had the government been more active in the initial period of the epidemic, it could have changed things in a big way," Dr. Gilada says. "But the central or state governments haven't spent a single pie [penny] from their coffers until 2005. Whatever money was spent here on AIDS prevention before that was from the World Bank or grants from donor countries. Not a rupee came from the government's own coffers."

After 22 years of fighting India's reluctance to face its crisis, Dr. Gilada says he's confident things will change.

"If [Microsoft billionaire Bill] Gates can support $200-million for India's AIDS programs, why can't our business giants match it for our own people," he asks. "This needs serious debate and some high political will."

In almost the same breath though, Dr. Gilada admits India will be grappling with HIV/AIDS for decades to come.

"India's HIV numbers will ultimately rise to almost 25% of the world figure, simply to match India's contribution to the world's pool of sexually transmitted disease," he predicts.

"'We really need to become pragmatic about prevention.

"We can no longer afford to continue to think of AIDS as a disease of the poor, illiterate sex workers and deviants. This is a disease with the power to touch us all."

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