The concept of Devadasi has been prevalent in the Indian society for a very long time and can be traced back to the 6th century B.C.E. Originally, Devadasis were women of high status and had a respectable standing in the society. Devadasis were devoted to the worship and reverence of a deity their entire life and were dutiful in supervising and administering the temple’s running. Their relationship with the temple and God was regarded to be as that of the sacrament of marriage. They were well-educated in all forms of dances and music and observed celibacy their entire life.
However, the present-day condition and definition of a devadasi is poles apart from the one mentioned above. The women who were once associated with the elite of the society have now been minusculed to nothing but sources of deriving pleasure at the whims and fancies of those in power. The term Devadasi, which for centuries had been associated and entrusted with the divine responsibility of serving the temple and the almighty, has now been tarnished with and brought to the same standing as that of a sex slave. Young girls of pre-pubescent age are married to the deity and are more or less sold off to the temples in the name of God and religion, often with extravagant ceremonies. They dance and perform at festivals and marriages and once they hit puberty, the youth and the men of the society can use them for sexual pleasures. The present-day Devadasis have had sexual relations with a lot of men in their respective lives from the day they mature into womanhood and are treated as the property of the temple or the public, at large.
This delinquency of Temple prostitution is a customary standard and an ongoing activity in communities of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Odisha and Karnataka. Even though many state legislations have passed acts like –Maharashtra Devadasi (Abolition of Dedication) Act, 2006;
- Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982;
- Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947;
- Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1988;
- Bombay Devadasi Protection Act, 1934.
Not much of a tangible difference has been seen in the treatment and condition of the miserable and desolate lives lead by the Devadasis. A Kerala based NGO, S.L. Foundations, brought to light the deplorable condition of these women in 2016 and blamed the police and the state authorities of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka for their lack of efficiency and invalid behaviour showed towards such a delicate matter. The Supreme Court on this issue condemned this illegal-practice of dedicating young girls as Devadasis and described it as an ‘evil’ done to women subjecting them to sexual exploitation and prostitution. The court further ordered – “The Union government has issued an advisory to all States and UT’s to stop illegal activities of subjecting young girls into the Devadasi system. Having regard to its laudable objectives, we refer it to all States and UT’s to strictly implement the directives to check such unethical practice”.
However, the question that arises from this is that – why is the devadasi system of dedicating women to the temple still practiced, even after laws are enacted and the Supreme Court ordered states to put an end to this illegal activity, why are women still being subjected to such horrors? The answer to this question lies in the many conditions and beliefs that the family members of these young women face and believe in. Many of these girls come from families that are economically very weak and cannot handle the responsibility of another child and thus find giving up young daughters in dedication to the temple an easy way out. Often, many people, especially in rural areas, who are highly superstitious in nature believe that the Gods and the Goddess will be pleased by the gift of a daughter in their service, ignoring the sexual exploitation attached to this dedication or service. Another reason for the existence of this malpractice is the inefficiency shown by the police and the state governments in curbing the sexual exploitation of the Devadasis and restoring their rights. Funds from the Union, allocated for the rehabilitation of girls in not utilized properly, and the laws regarding Devadasi are not strictly implemented or enforced, which has led to many people in rural area communities to not being aware of the laws and those that are aware, choose to ignore it.
Being subjected to heinous crimes such as sexual exploitation, used solely for the purpose of sexual pleasure of others and treated as a property or a slave for their entire lives from a very young age snatches away the basic fundamental and human rights that all humans are entitled to. The ability to learn and write is hardly ever taught to them, rendering them illiterate and seizing their Right to Education under Article 21(A) of the Indian Constitution. The offenders are liable under Section 372 of the Indian Penal Code with a punishment of 10 years and fine. However, due to the inefficiency shown by the state governments and the police in tackling this situation, the offender’s more than usual are not booked and roam freely, continuing such atrocities without any remorse.
This is a social problem of paramount nature but is often taken no notice of. The constitution of India provides for justice, equality and dignity to all its citizens however, our society and the government at large have failed to provide the basic human and fundamental rights to a community of women who were once considered to be the epitome of innocence.