SAUDATTI, India (Reuter) - Frenzied worshippers gathered
near a south Indian temple Wednesday ready for the full moon
celebration of a Hindu goddess whose devotees include a cult
sentencing children to a life of prostitution.
Girls -- many under 10 years old -- chosen to become
Devadasis, meaning handmaidens of god, will be dedicated to the
goddess Yelamma in secret ceremonies before being brought to the
Thousands of pilgrims, most of whom have nothing to do with
the illegal cult, flocked to Saudatti, the town in Karnataka
state where the annual festival takes place.
Idols of the goddess, molded from mud, lined roads thick
with worshippers coming by foot, car, bus and bullock cart.
``We have been travelling for eight days to reach Saudatti,
but we will not marry our daughter to the goddess,'' Kamala, a
young mother aboard a bullock cart, told Reuters.
The goddess is a favorite deity among Dalits, low caste
Hindus, who seek her protection.
``I come here every year because I have faith in the goddess
and I'm not bothered about the Devadasi system,'' Avinash Kane,
a Bombay man, said.
Even prostitutes, who have every reason to rue a life dealt
them by the cult, harbor no bitterness toward Yelamma.
``I am going to Saudatti because it is the only place where
I can tell the goddess my sorrows and my joys,'' said
Chandrabai, a brothel keeper in Bombay's infamous Kamatipura
Hordes of people, chanting and screaming, crowded around a
filthy pool where devotees of Yelamma, a manifestation of the
goddess Renuka, will bathe Thursday before making a three mile
uphill trek to the temple.
On the final leg of the pilgrimage, people with their faces
smeared with tumeric and bodies plastered with leaves walked and
crawled, while women possessed by the goddess rolled on the
ground in wild-eyed trances.
A feast Wednesday night will mark the start of celebrations
expected to last through Saturday.
Most of the girls brought into the Devadasi system will
return home, but once they reach puberty they will become human
cargo in the sex traffic in cities like Bombay, where sex can be
bought for less than the price of a bottle of beer.
Hunger, poverty and superstition are the root causes of a
practice which sees parents or relatives sell a daughter to a
pimp or brothel for $150 to $200.
The cult also entraps a handful of boys, known as Jogappas,
who are made to become transvestite prostitutes.
The centuries-old Devadasi system persists in secret after
being made illegal, but the campaign against it and the growing
fear of AIDS are showing results.
The privately funded Indian Health Organization (IHO) in
Bombay, which campaigns to stamp out the Devadasi cult,
estimates that around 1,000 girls are dedicated to the goddess
each year, compared with around 7,000 less than 10 years ago.