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NEWS : Devadasis' life leads from India temple to brothel

Posted By Ajay Shah (ajay@mercury.aichem.arizona.edu)
Wed, 22 Jan 1997 12:25:35 -0700 (MST)

[From Reuter, Jan 21, 1997]

BOMBAY, Jan 21 (Reuter) - Hundreds of young girls are set to
enter India's illegal, infamous Devadasi cult this week, and for
many the annual ritual will be the first step from a south
Indian temple to the filthy brothels of Bombay.
``My life is finished because of this. I never thought I
would become a Devadasi. I never thought I'd be a prostitute,''
Shobha, 37, told Reuters in Bombay's Kamatipura district.
Sex is sold for as little as five to 100 rupees, (13 U.S.
cents to $3) in the heart of Bombay's red light area.
Dr Ishwarprasad Gilada, secretary-general of the
independently funded Indian Health Organisation, estimates that
14,000 prostitutes in Bombay and 10,000 in Pune, the main cities
of Maharashtra state, are victims of the Devadasi system.
On Thursday, about 550 km south (344 miles) at Saundatti in
Karnataka state, a new generation will be marked out for a
future in India's sex trade.
The girls, some under 10 years old, will be dedicated to the
service of a Hindu goddess in secret ceremonies around Saundatti
temple, where the cult grew during the past three centuries.
``At least 1,000 girls are initiated into the Devadasi
system every year,'' according to L. Anantharamu Sanklapur, a
journalist in the nearby town of Belgaum.
``The Devadasi system should be ended. They are ruining the
young children,'' Shobha, who campaigns against the system which
trapped her while working as a prostitute, said.
Every year on the full moon in January hundreds of thousands
of people congregate at the temple to worship Yellamma, the
Mother of All, who is the manifestation of goddess Renuka.
Yellamma's devotees are mainly Dalits or low caste Hindus,
but only a few thousand of the multitude that will gather on
Thursday to celebrate the deity still follow the Devadasi cult.
The unlucky girls dedicated to the goddess, who receive a
red and white bead necklace to denote their status, will return
home until they reach puberty, whereupon a series of squalid
transactions begins.
First, in another ceremony, they effectively will be sold to
the highest bidder, and kept for sex for a few weeks.
Then, used and unmarriagable, they are returned again to
their parents or guardians -- who sell them once more, this time
for 5,000 to 7,000 rupees ($150-200) to pimps and brothelkeepers
in the towns.
Ingrained superstition and endemic poverty in the villages
on borders of Maharashtra and Karnataka provide the breeding
ground for the Devadasi system.
``It is a very strong faith. Though there is a ban the
situation on the ground is different. The practice has social
and religious acceptance,'' Celine Vimochana, a spokeswoman for
a womens' organisation told Reuters from the Karnataka state
capital of Bangalore.
``There is also the economic factor that plays an important
role. Flesh trade operators have a strong network and the money
offered tempts poor families into offering their daughters,''
she said.
Gilada said the campaign to stamp out the system was
working, and less than 10 years ago around 6,000 girls a year
would be pushed into the life of a Devadasi.
``I call these the beads of bondage,'' Gilada remarked as
another prostitute lifted the shawl of her sari to reveal the
hallmark necklace of a Devadasi.
``My daughters will never become Devadasis,'' Yelubai, a
39-year-old brothel keeper and Devadasi herself, told Reuters
standing in the doorway, flanked by her charges and with a
smiling picture of the goddess Yellamma hanging behind her.

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