‘The Gods Are Not Going To Save Us Just Because We Are Married To Them’

23 Jun 2022 0 min read  Share

It is three decades since the devadasi system was outlawed but women, mostly Dalit, are still forced into ‘marriage’ with Hindu deities and considered ineligible to ever marry a human being. With police & state governments not enforcing the law, south India’s devadasis struggle to get education, monthly pensions, housing and dignity.

Chinnajatram (Telangana), Narayanpet (Andhra Pradesh) & Bagalkote (Karnataka): A* was a teenager when her mother told her one day that she would soon be married—to the village deity, in the southern Telangana district of Mahbubnagar.

A lean, shy woman in a pink cotton saree and a golden taali around her neck, oiled hair in a braid with vermillion in the parting of the hairline, A was taken to the shrine of Yellamma (whose devotees refer to as “mother of the world” or jagdamba) in her village.

A’s family watched as her face and hands were covered with turmeric powder and a yellow taali, an ornament resembling the necklace tied by a Hindu groom around the neck of his bride, was placed around her neck by an old woman, a widow from the family of the traditional chief of the village.

The ceremony marked her transformation to a jogini, a human spouse to a Hindu deity.

Now in her thirties, she remembered feeling detached from her own emotions. “I was very young, I felt lost, unable to understand what was happening to me,” A told Article 14. “I had a lump in my throat. I was scared and confused. It all felt like a nightmare.”

Her life changed overnight.

Men began to visit their house and offered her parents sarees, money or groceries in exchange for taking A away for the night, sometimes even for a few months. Being a jogini meant earning and supporting her family. Their only girl child, A’s parents had decided to ‘dedicate’ her as a jogini in order to avoid paying a dowry for her wedding.

Every time she stepped out of her parents’ house, wearing her taali, bangles and vermillion on her forehead, children laughed, she recounted, and men abused her.

Practised in various parts of India, the jogini or devadasi system takes young girls, often before they attain puberty, to be married off to a deity. The girls then act as temple caretakers, and are considered ineligible to ever marry a human.

Referred to as joginis in Telangana, devadasis in Karnataka and mathamma in Andhra Pradesh, women belonging to low-caste Dalit communities have been pushed into prostitution forcefully through this practice. Outlawed over three decades back, first in Karnataka in 1982 with the Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, and then in Andhra Pradesh with the Andhra Pradesh Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act in 1988, this practice dating back to the period between the  6th and 13th centuries still haunts many women in different parts of rural India, in the southern states and in Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.

‘All My Life, I Was Exploited By Men In My Village’

With her three sons and a daughter, A fled to Hyderabad in April , a month ago,  leaving her home in Chinnajatram village, Mahbubnagar. She and two sons took up work as  daily wage labourers at a construction site in Hyderabad.

Over the years, A purchased 4 acres of land in Chinnajatram, and practised farming. Her children attended school in the village. She left the land and the only home she had known behind when she migrated.

According to the Andhra Pradesh Devadasis (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1988 and the rules under the law notified in 2015, every devadasi is eligible to get a monthly pension of Rs 1,000 from the state government. A has not received the pension for the last five years. 

In April, 2017, A fell in love with Venkataiah, who belonged to a scheduled caste community, and decided to spend the rest of her life with him. The village sarpanch and her family were against her decision to give up the life of a jogini. A jogini getting married to a man was against tradition and would bring the family bad luck, they believed.

Though not married, A and Venkataiah live together with their children.

“All my life, I have been exploited by men in my village. Now that I fell in love and decided to spend my life with one man, my sarpanch is blackmailing me and not paying my pension” A told Article 14.

A had taken a loan of Rs 8 lakh from a neighbour to buy the land she owns. Unable to practise farming on account of the sarpanchs opposition, and with her pension payments stalled too, she had no way of repaying the loan but to find work in Hyderabad.

With the help of Operation Mercy India Foundation (OMIF), a non-profit working towards the eradication of the devadasi/jogini system in Mahbubnagar district, A was able to reach out to the police. Though no official complaint was filed, she claimed the police and OMIF tried to reason with the sarpanch.

Asked why she did not file a complaint, A said she was scared, and also had little faith in the police.

The police warned the sarpanch, she said, and she received her pension that month, though she could not remember which year that was. That was the only time in five years that she received her due. “...but the situation went back to square one. I have not received a single rupee from the government except for that one time in the past five years.”

The last time A’s family received benefits from the Telangana state government was two decades ago, under which they received a house and a pension of Rs 20,000 that was part of the housing scheme.

A is just one amongst many jogini women who do not get the promised government pension, and instead depend on NGOs for help. A wants to educate her children and dreams of the boys becoming police officers, the girl a doctor.


Rules For Rehabilitation Not Implemented in AP, Telangana

The Andhra Pradesh law against the devadasi system was enacted in 1988. Andhra Pradesh became the only state to frame rules under the law, in 2015. The rules currently apply to both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Rule 7 provided for a comprehensive rehabilitation scheme for devadasis, including a house of minimum 250 sq ft area, economic assistance for gainful employment, free education for their children, extinguishment of any debt, and incentivisation of inter-caste marriage.

Until the rules were framed, devadasi women were unable to avail benefits of many other social welfare schemes, including widow pension.

Despite the rules, however, compliance has remained poor, said experts and activists.

The fundamental problem, according to Angela Davis, a Hyderabad-based activist with the OMIF, was that no special scheme was introduced to benefit joginis/ devadasis since the law was enacted.

“We at OMIF lobbied the government to consider joginis under the single woman category and the SC/ST categories and provide them with the same benefits,” Davis said. “The police are also reluctant about these cases as they all belong to upper castes and treat dedications (as joginis) as personal issues of lower caste families.” 

Working in 250 villages of Mahabubnagar since 2015, OMIF has trained former jogini women to become local community leaders to stop dedications of other women as joginis. The group said they have stopped about 100 such dedications over a decade.


‘My Ambition Was To Be A Man. Free Like A Man’

“Once, a man gave my parents a set of gold earrings to keep me in his house for a year,” said B*, a former jogini and now a district coordinator leader with OMIF.

At 50, B is outspoken and cheerful, wearing a faded cotton saree, a red bindi on her forehead, her curly hair braided and her teeth stained by her paan-chewing.

Looking at her abandoned home in Utkoor, in Andhra Pradesh’s Narayanpet district, she broke down.

“In 50 years, no other day has felt more bleak than the day of my wedding to goddess Yellamma,” she said.

B was 11 years old when she became a jogini. She belongs to a family that has been practising dedication of girls as joginis for generations. Five other women in her family, including one sister, were joginis too.

“My ambition was to be a man,” B told Article 14. “Do all the things that a man can do and be free like a man.” But on her first day of school after becoming a jogini, the little girl wearing a taali around her neck was the butt of jokes and ridicule. “All the children called me ‘jogamma’ and started laughing at me,” B said. “I stopped going to school and started working at a construction site.”

She then migrated to Mumbai in the mid-1980s to make a living for her family in Utkoor.

In 1989-90, the Andhra Pradesh government introduced a housing scheme for joginis, and B quit working as a construction labourer to return to her home state, hoping to claim a house for herself.

It was not so easy, she found, when she went to the district collector’s office.

“How many men will come and visit your house everyday?” the government officer asked. “I was harassed everywhere, I was treated like everybody’s property,” she told Article 14. “The houses they allotted to us are different from the houses they allot to married couples.”

Across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, joginis were placed in houses on the outskirts of the village. The colonies they live in were referred to by locals as ‘sex worker colonies’ and the joginis were called jogammas.

More than three decades later, the colony B lived in is a site of empty homes. The government never claimed responsibility for maintenance or repairs.

B’s home was among them.

“The houses allotted to joginis are today abandoned spaces as the government has not actively taken care of any of the repair costs” B told Article 14.

B sold the 2 acres of land she received in 1988 as part of the land reforms programme, using the proceeds to pay for her children’s education.

Keen to protect other women of her community, B approached various NGOs to become a volunteer to improve the living conditions of jogini women in her district. With OMIF, she has worked to help joginis get a roof to live under. 

She got married, but lost her husband around 2017. In her village, people still believe he died because he married a jogini, she said. That did not stop B, who continued to work for joginis while her two children completed their postgraduation.


Devadasis Not Considered Part Of State's Population

According to a report by Centre for Equity Studies, the Andhra Pradesh government’s 1988 scheme for allotting land to devadasis as part of its land reform programme saw very few devadasi families being allotted land and receiving title deeds. “Some received the deeds but do not have possession over their land. Consequently, many devadasis are landless and sometimes do not even have a roof over their heads,” the report said.

In 2010, a one-man commission formed by the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh government estimated that there were around 80,000 joginis in the then united state, including 50,000 believed to be living in pockets of Telangana.

When the state was partitioned in 2014 and the state of Telangana was formed, the Telangana government conducted an integrated population survey, which excluded joginis. “How can these people get government benefits when they are not even considered to be a part of the state population?” said an activist working with OMIF.

As part of its report, the commission offered recommendations on rehabilitating joginis, free medical aid, two acres of fertile land for each, separate funds and a committee dedicated to their welfare.

Around 2017, the Telangana government was reportedly considering allotting 2-bedroom houses to jogini women who were beneficiaries of the erstwhile housing scheme, but there was no follow-up action.

Two decades later, hardly any of these suggestions were implemented, said activists. Not a single new scheme has been introduced for jogini women and not a single house has been allotted to women in Mahbubnagar after 1988.

Activists said poor enforcement of the law and lack of awareness among police personnel about what benefits jogini women are entitled to are the main reasons for the poor state of implementation of the law. 

Article 14 tried to reach the district collector of Mahabubnagar for a comment on the poor level of implementation of the housing scheme for jogini women, but he did not respond.

Venu Gopal Rao, Narayanpet district’s woman and child welfare officer, claimed there had been no incidents reported in the past 10 years of women or girls being dedicated as joginis. “This tradition has stopped and the practice does not exist any more,” he told Article 14. Activists with OMIF said this was not accurate, and that  dedication ceremonies continue to be conducted. 

All former joginis in Narayanpet qualify for the state government’s pension scheme for single women, under which the pension is higher than under the scheme for joginis, Rao said. Asked what was the status of the pension scheme for joginis, officials in Narayanpet said it was no longer active as no new dedications had been recorded. 

“The police are very vigilant here,” Rao said. “We have an integrated child protection scheme, a separate wing that works on children.”

In Mahbubnagar, a government official said on the condition of anonymity that the Telangana government recently sanctioned funds totalling Rs 5 crore to provide self-employment opportunities to joginis.

While land had been allotted, free of cost, to former joginis, many did not know how to cultivate it, and the government was planning to train them with a view to generating a consistent income for them from their land.

In Karnataka, Stigmatised For Belonging To Devadasi’s Family 

“I am fed up with telling my story again and again. Why is the government still not taking this issue seriously?” said C*. “It is emotionally exhausting.”

C, 35, a young, sharp woman from  Bagalkote in north Karnataka, is the daughter of a devadasi. Her family was part of the devadasi system for generations. 

As soon as C turned 11, talks about dedicating her to goddess Yellamma began. She would be entrusted with tasks such as looking after the figurine of the deity. 

“My mother lived in a brothel house. I used to go there to visit her when I was young,” she told Article 14. One day, sitting with her cousin who was also a devadasi in the same brothel, she asked the older girl why she wore so much make-up. “She responded saying in a couple of years I would also be here with them.”

She made her mind never to be a devadasi, she said, and resisted her family’s suggestions. “I told my family that I will commit suicide if they dedicate me.”  

In Dalit communities, becoming a devadasi is also a source of financial support for the family. Under pressure to care for her family, C decided to do so by getting a job instead of practising prostitution.

Keen to become a doctor but lacking financial aid, she studied Arts. 

C escaped the devadasi system but belonging to a devadasi family was still a huge hurdle. With no financial support and stigmatised, C said she lost many opportunities.

“Every government application form asked for my father’s name. It is an annual  struggle for us.”

Many government organisations refused to hire her because of the family she hails from.

In 2017, when C applied for a passport, her application was rejected because it was mandatory to include her father’s name. “The official looked at my application and said, you are from a devadasi family, you must be having many fathers,” she recounted. 

In 2016, all regional passport offices were directed that the mother’s name is sufficient to process applications, but C was forced to provide evidence that she is the child of a devadasi

C had been employed with a non-profit earlier, and an application to claim her provident fund was rejected twice.

The lack of empathy and awareness among government personnel in the state has been a major reason why devadasi women are deprived of opportunities, C said.

Now a post-graduate in social work, C said she plans to help the devadasi community. She married a man from a different caste, and was still struggling to gain acceptance in society, she said.

Non-Accessibility Of Government Welfare Schemes

Many government schemes require that a woman provide the husband’s name, an income certificate, or a marriage certificate. Devadasi women are unable to produce such documents and remain excluded from many welfare schemes, including those  from state departments for women and child welfare or scheduled castes / scheduled tribes welfare. 

The devadasi rehabilitation programme (DRP) in Karnataka issues a certificate making them eligible to claim pensions every year. The DRP is a part of the Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982 which was notified by the government in 1984. The Act declared the practice of dedication of any woman as a jogini unlawful and prohibited.

More than three decades since the devadasi system was outlawed, the Karnataka government has not framed rules to provide for custody, protection, welfare and rehabilitation of devadasis.

According to the last survey conducted by the state government in 2008, there were about 40,000 devadasis in the state. 

Vasudeva Sharma, executive director of the Child Rights Trust, has worked for the welfare of devadasis for several years including the establishment of the CGOOD programme, or Children Getting Out Of The Devadasi System. “The government in a way refuses to accept that dedications are still happening,” Sharma said. According to him, men continued to support the devadasi system, “an open practice of prostitution”. He said, “... men are not touched by the police department to change their mentality.”

According to Sharma the government of Karnataka should introduce more schemes that focus on improving and educating men about the community. “How can the government design schemes without knowing the quantum of devadasis around?” 

For women such as A, B and C too, who continue to struggle because the devadasi system persists, state initiatives have proven to fall short. A asked, “Will the gods save us if we get married to them?”

(*Names changed to protect the women’s identity.) 

(Vidheesha Kuntamalla is a freelance journalist based in Hyderabad. She writes on politics, gender and social justice.)