The Dictionary Of A Devadasi Woman | Milaap

The Dictionary Of A Devadasi Woman

*TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains information about sexual assault and violence which may be triggering to survivors.*

A photo essay on the lives of Devadasi women in North Karnataka.

Some call her a modern-day slave held captive by tradition. Some call her a walking deity. 

No one asks her what she wants to be called.
This photo essay puts together words that define what the Devadasi women in India are what they had to go through. 

An ex-Devadasi woman in Raybag

A is for Awaa. Awaa in North Karnataka means mother. When something shocking happened, we said ‘Awaaa’ out of habit because we knew our mothers were always there to protect us. The day she dedicated me as a Devadasi, I wanted to scream ‘Awaaa’, but instead, I said nothing.

A woman wearing the traditional green bangles.

B is for Bangles. At the age of 11, they married me to Goddess Yellamma. As the pandit chanted, I felt my green glass bangles squeeze into my flesh until they felt like handcuffs.
I cried throughout the ceremony.

Devadasi women blessing a house. Credit: Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust

C is for Curse. My new sisters and I were invited to every house warming in the village. They said that when a Devadasi entered a house, all the curses and illnesses of the family would enter her and when she left, she would carry them with her.

Women in a rural household talking to each other.

D is for Daughters. I was the only daughter. At the age of 12, my mother said if I married and left her, no one would take care of her in her old age. I was dedicated the following day.

A Devadasi woman dances infront of a crowd. Credit: TheNewsMinute

E is for Entertainer. The weight of the thick payals (ornament worn by Indian women) bore down on my growing feet. The music and the intoxicated men circled around me with lust and violence.

A group of ex-Devadasi women at a Sangh in Belgaum.

F is for Female. Am I even a woman? At the age of 35, this question hovered over my head. No, I’m not, I thought. I never was. At the age of 40, I know I was an object used, reused and now, ready for disposal.

A Devadasi woman in Saundatti. Credit: Abundant Hope

G is for Goddess. We were once worshipped and revered in our villages. We were said to be the living embodiment of our Goddess. Now, everything has changed. We are bound prostitutes.

An ex-Devadasi woman in Belgaum district. Credit: The Nutcrack

H is for husband. The women in my village pity me and my husband-less existence. Yet, I don’t have to ask permission from any man to work or leave the village. I pity them.

An ex-Devadasi woman studying with a group of children.

I is for Illiteracy. As I watch my children go to school, I imagine a younger version of myself singing and joking with them as they walked. I imagine how many words I would be able to write and if I would be able to even read our holy books. Sometimes late at night when I can’t sleep,
I stay awake wondering how different my life would be if I was not a Devadasi.

Women singing folk music at a festical Credit: The Better India

J is for Jogappas. The lesser-known transgender community in India. At Yellama’s temple you can hear them chanting ‘Messe mattu kase iddavara / solisi seere udisidavalu Yellamma.’ Yellamma, it says, defeated all those who sported moustaches and lungis and made them wear saris instead. It’s a victory over decreed masculinity that the Jogappas have sung about for a long time.

An ex-devadasi woman standing next to her new buffalo.

K is for Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982. An Act that abolished the system I was bound to. After the system broke, our practice was illegal. MASS, an NGO in the district of rural Belgaum helped us set up businesses of our own. Most of us have buffaloes, cows, and goats of our own.

Harassment faced by an ex-Devadasi woman. Credit: Tom Vater

L is for Lust. I’ve grown used to them staring at me. Whenever I pass by, they spit at my feet and call me the worst names a woman can be called but yet, I can see the way their eyes covet every inch of my body. It doesn’t bother me anymore.

The red and white muttu worn around the necks of ex-devadasi women.

M is for muttu (pearls). I remember the day after my first period, my parents took me to Yellamma temple. I was made to sit in front of a priest covered with yellow religious powder. He chanted some verses, blessed me and then tied the red and white plastic muttu around my neck. He then told me I am a Devadasi and I have to serve the temple and the community.

Devadasi women performing their spiritual duties. Credit: NewsDeeply

N is for Naked. I was flushed red and scared when I was paraded around my village naked. During the Devadasi ceremony, the girls in my village stood with tear-stained faces in front of our deity and wore nothing but a girdle of neem leaves. They were placed around our waists and in our mouths. The boys stood afar and laughed at us. After all these years, we’re still scared children.

The dedication ceremony of a young Devadasi. Credit: World Missionary Mercy

O is for Orphans. Motherless, fatherless and husbandless, we are orphans. Our only home was our temple. Our only family was each other.

A Devadasi girl dancing in a festival. Credit: Khurpi

P is for Patron. The patrons, men in the village, are expected to pay for the upkeep of the Devadasis and her parents, as well as any children they might bear from her. The Devadasis’ religious status let the men have sex with us without being considered unfaithful to their wives. If we were abandoned by our patron, another man could take his place.

Q is for Quiet. We were always told to be quiet, adjust and dedicate ourselves. I can still remember the first night in his house when I was 10 years old. I screamed through sobs from the pain. He held his hand over my mouth and said, “Shhh. Quiet.”

An ex-Devadasi woman and her child. Credit: International Dalit Solidarity Network

R is for Rape. Our nights were longer than our days. As Devadasis, we took care of the community and its men. We had to satisfy the desires of their flesh so that they could focus on spirituality. At the age of 14, I became pregnant. I was sent to Mumbai’s red light areas to work. The women there looked and lived differently from us but had one thing in common: rape.

Ex-Devadasi omen at an HIV check-up. Credit: Google

S is for STD. I once lived a life of dignity. We were respected dancers and spent our lives in temples. Now, I spend it in hospitals and STD check-up centers. I’m too sick to work. They’ve put the disease in me and now I’ve given it to my children.

Neem leaves worn by a Devadasi woman. Credit: Halli Katte

T is for Taboo. I have to still live with the taboo of being a Devadasi wherever I go. At social functions and weddings, I face a lot of harassment from men from upper castes who knew I was a Devadasi. I don’t go to social functions anymore.

Ex-Devadasi women at a Sangh meeting.

U is for Us Too. If the world walked a mile in our shoes, would they feel even the littlest pain for us? If we had access to technology and the ability to write, we’re sure the internet would break.

Devadasis praying to their Goddess.

V is for Virginity. My virtue was never in question. Our traditions dictated that we would always be pure no matter what they did to us. I was dedicated to the Goddess at the age of 11. My virginity was auctioned in the village. I felt as helpless as cattle auctioned at the Sunday bazaar to the highest bidder.

An ex-Devadasi woman with matted hair. Credits: Thomas Kelly

W is for Widows. When they asked me whether I would rather be married, my heart said no. I wanted to say that I will never feel the pain of the white sarees draped around me, the mourners will not flock to my house and my possessions will not be taken away from me. Instead, I said that I’m already married to a Goddess who will never leave me or my sisters.

MASS's legal advisor a former Devadasi with her children

X is for Xerox. My daughter looks exactly like me. She has the same jet black hair and face as I do but we’re not the same. Her smile reaches all the way to her eyes and wrinkles the skin in its path. It’s mischievous and welcoming. I have forgotten how it feels to smile.

An ex-Devadasi woman in Belgaum district. Credit: TOI

Y is for Yellamma. Our Goddess Yellamma. When they left us, trampled on us and ruined us, she was there. She nestled us against her chest and told us everything will be okay. Through her and with her, we are okay.

A girl getting ready for the Devadasi dedication ceremony. Credit: Thomas Kelly

Z is for Zamindars. We grew up in poverty. No matter how hard my parents worked, food on the table was scarce. Sometimes we wouldn’t eat at all for days. One night, I heard my father tell my mother that the zamindars were asking about me. The next night, I was sent to them. I returned in the morning with Rs. 50 in my hands and blood on my skirt.

Inspired by Soup’s A Concise Dictionary Of Indian Hair.