An ancient tradition which sees girls dedicated to a lifetime of ‘religious prostitution’ has become a big business on the streets of southern India. Sarah Harris, who spent two years uncovering the practice, explains what it means to be a devadasi in the twenty-first century.
It was in 2008 that Sarah Harris first made the acquaintance of India’sdevadasi. The former journalist from The Independent on Sunday had, in what she calls “a moment of madness,” thrown in the towel at her old job, and gone to work with victims of sex trafficking in southern India.
“One day, I walked into a meeting at an NGO,” she recalls, “and there were a group of women sitting there, whom I assumed were prostitutes. But later, someone told me that they were actually devadasi or “servants of god”; religious prostitutes, and part of an ancient Hindu tradition. It was at that point my interest was piqued.”
Deciding that the devadasi would make an interesting subject for a documentary, Harris began to research the custom’s history, concentrating particularly on the state of Karnataka. She discovered that the tradition there stretched back as long ago as the sixth century, when young girls, often from wealthy backgrounds, were dedicated to local temples. After going through a dedication ceremony which “married” them to the fertility goddess Yellamma, they would act as temple care-takers: performing rituals in honour of their goddess, as well as dancing and playing music for the entertainment of wealthy locals.
Over time, however, the tradition began to change, and the devadasibecame less respected. “Many ended up becoming the mistress of a particular ‘patron’ – often a royal, or nobleman – as well as serving in the temple,” says Harris, “and eventually, the connection with the temple became severed altogether. Today, although there are still many women called devadasi, and who have been dedicated to the goddess, a lot of them are essentially prostitutes.”
As research for her documentary, Prostitutes of God, Harris and her team spent several months tracking down and meeting some of the estimated 23,000 devadasi in Karnataka. Getting access to the women posed a challenge, but Sarah’s experience working for NGOs managed to provide her with several leads. Out of those she interviewed, nearly all cited economic need rather than religious tradition as the main reason behind their chosen path.
“Many devadasi are sold into the sex trade by their families,” she says. “The parents know that they’re not really giving their children to be religious servants, but they turn a blind eye. The only devadasi I met who saw the tradition as strictly religious was a rather bizarre cross-dressing male version, who spends several hours a day in prayer.”
The most interesting fact yielded by Harris’ investigation was how female-driven the industry is. “It’s very much women recruiting women. When thedevadasi become older and can’t attract the same business, they end up trafficking, and taking girls from the small villages to big cities like Bangalore, where they set up brothels. Most of the girls chosen are illiterate agricultural workers, who go because they think they’ll make more money as devadasi than if they work on the land.”
Do any make their fortune? “A few can – a client might pay a few thousand pounds for a night with a virgin devadasi. But a lot of devadasiin their 30s or 40s are selling sex for about thirty or forty pence. The strange thing is that though they see themselves as superior to non-religious prostitutes – and even though they often dress to look different, with distinctive jewellery and clothes – I don’t think the clients see much difference.”
Nearly three years after a whim first took her to India, Harris is back in Britain with her documentary in the can. “One of the reasons I wanted to go to India was because I visited it when I was 19, and it was so strange it just terrified me,” she says. “Now, I feel that I’ve got to know the country properly – and learnt about something astonishing on the way.”