God’s Own Dancers- Plight of Devadasis in Karnataka

God’s Own Dancers- Plight of Devadasis in Karnataka

Bent with age and poverty, Hanumavva, 65, squats under a tree patiently waiting for devotees to make offerings at the Adavi Halamma temple on the foothills of Uchchangi Durga—some 30 kilometres away from Davangere town. The Uchchangemma temple atop a hillock practises an ancient tradition of ‘dedicating’ dalit girls as ‘devadasis’ in the service of a female deity—Yellamma or Renuka. On attaining puberty, the dalit girl (usually belonging to Maadiga or Chalavadi communities) suffers a lifetime of sexual exploitation, stigma, superstition and disease, all in the garb of religion.
Travelling to the villages across three districts of Davangere, Belgaum and Bagalkot to understand the plight of former devadasis and their families more than three decades after the Karnataka Devadasi Prohibition of Dedication Act, 1982, was passed, THE WEEK finds that the law no doubt has helped curb dedication rituals at the main temples. But the government has failed to expand the scope of the Devadasi Rehabilitation Project in the wake of a fresh set of challenges facing the community.
Ironically, the project pursuing enhanced surveillance and awareness campaigns has resulted in the practice going underground. These devadasis invariably end up in city brothels or lead miserable lives in the village without any means of livelihood, education or support to raise their children.
Hanumavva helps devotees make offerings and, in exchange, seeks alms. After coaxing her to speak on the devadasi system, you realise that none of the efforts over the last two decades to eradicate the evil has paid off because of the absence of any alternative livelihood options.
Says Hanumavva, “I have suffered enough and my two sons and their families continue to struggle for a livelihood. If we stop the practice, our family may anger Uchchangemma. I will tie the beads to one of my granddaughters before I die.”
Any effort to challenge her belief agitates her. “My parents left me to fend for myself when I was five years old. I endured so much. Now let my granddaughter suffer for the family.”
On one of the steps leading to the temple, her sister Gonavva offers vermillion and turmeric to devotees and seeks alms in return. On probing, she recalls names of 30 former devadasis living in the village. Asked if dedication is taking place, she says, “Has the government given us pension? At this ripe age I am begging and my children are not educated and work as coolies. Dedications are happening but not in the temple, as people are watching. Poor parents choose to perform the ritual at their own homes or smaller temples.”
Around the main temple of Ucchangemma (also known as Renuka or Yellamma), social workers can easily identify newly inducted devadasis, who take a dip in the temple pond before the thanksgiving ceremony. The sight of the beaded necklaces in orange and white around their neck—Kanne Mutthu (beads for virgins, who later become sex slaves) and Garathi mutthu (beads for the married women, who become mendicants)—is a sad reminder of the fact that there is a vicious mix of religion, politics and trade.
Davangere district alone has 2,674 former devadasi families. But the state government’s inability to take up rehabilitation has resulted in tokenism, inadequate pension and poor housing coverage coupled with lack of education and employment for the children.
Says Manjunath L., a social worker from People’s Organisation: “The survey left out many devadasis below the age of 45 years, as the project has a cut-off date based on the prohibition act of 1982. Pushed to the fringes, oppressed and exploited by landlords and fighting poverty, the devadasi families know the law but are vulnerable to the allure of a better life promised by middle men and migrant devadasis who come to the villages looking for fresh recruits to a flourishing trade in bigger cities.”
A second survey of devadasi women in the state in 2008, covering 14 districts (the first survey was in 1993-94), counted 46,660 former devadasis. And, the Devadasi Rehabilitation Project (DRP) report filed by the Women and Child Development (WCD) department says 25,948 of them have been given a monthly pension of Rs500 in 2013-14. The remaining have no pension as they have failed to open bank accounts in nationalised banks. In 2012-13, the WCD spent only Rs11.65 crore on pension schemes reaching out to only 25,810 beneficiaries. The same year, the government spent Rs5 crore towards housing subsidies for construction of 1,250 houses under the Rajiv Gandhi Housing Corporation Scheme.
Contrary to the claims, the WCD has withheld the monthly pension of Rs400 (now revised to Rs500) for the last eight months citing problems in banking linkage. In Mudhol, former devadasis are demanding pension for all devadasis irrespective of their age. “We have not received pension for the last eight months and have no money to even buy medicines,”says Kallavva Kagi, a former devadasi and district president of Jyothi district level women development association, Bagalkot. “The government’s cut-off age of 45 years for giving pension is unfair. Widow pension is given without any age restrictions. Why discriminate?” She points out that housing subsidy is given only to those who own land. They have no khatas (title deeds) in their name. Multinational companies get land here, but the government has none to give them. Their sons remain unmarried as no girl agrees to marry school dropouts, the jobless and the landless. The one-time loan of Rs10,000 for income generation activity is not serving the purpose as their children need support for their education.
At 50, Dyamavva of Kadlebalu village in Davangere is forced to eke out a living as a farmhand as there has been no monthly pension for the last eight months.
Her eyes soften as she mentions her son’s name. “Anjanappa, my son, works as a daily wager as he is a school dropout. I live with him, my daughter-in-law and grandchild. We cannot make ends meet if I don’t get pension.”
Will poverty compel women like Dyamavva to continue the tradition of offering devadasis from her family?
Former devadasis in these vulnerable border districts not only are organised as self-help groups but have taken a vow never to allow any of their girls to turn into a devadasi. However, the community is now worried about the growing menace of commercial sex workers, which is negating their own efforts in fighting the stereotype. “The evil practice should end with us. Our children need dignity and we will fight to better their lives,”says Thangevva Ramappa Kamble from Chikkodi. “The government should tackle commercial sex trafficking. The society should stop labelling us as sex workers as we were only victims of an old system. But today, we are aware and empowered and our children, too, are aspiring for higher things, so stop labelling us.”
Recalling the horror, Shanthavva, 60, says, “I was dedicated as a devadasi by my parents at the age of five. As a child, I had developed an eye infection and my parents dedicated me in the belief that it would cure my illness. I know what hell I went through. My children became school dropouts. Today, I am opposed to any girl being made a devadasi.”All her five grandchildren go to school.
Neelavva Madar, 70, hailing from Kungtoli village in Chikkodi, was forced to become a devadasi when she was five. But today, she has got all three daughters married and her son, Kumar, is a community volunteer. “I became a devadasi when the village head felt that there were no maathangis (devadasis) in the village, which would upset Yellamma,”she says. “Times have changed. None of us will allow our daughters to enter this hell. The government should help our children get educated and employed.”
In Belgaum district, a network of volunteers from Mahila Abhivriddhi Matthu Samrakshana Sansthe (MASS) keeps an eye on the community to crack down on dedications that happen covertly.
“We have filed 17 cases under the prohibition act,”says Shobha Gasti, a former devadasi and now a member of MASS that works in 360 villages across three taluks in Belgaum. “Some parents who are not part of our network are aware of the law but still choose to quietly initiate their daughters when the family faces financial trouble. When confronted, they find a groom from within the family and get them married to escape punishment. Some girls have been tracked down to Mumbai and Sangli in Maharashtra.”
Today, the challenges faced by devadasi women are different. The government should extend the scheme with a different approach—that of helping children, feel activists.
The next generation appears confident of a better future, but suffers in silence the humiliation of being called `children of devadasis’. Many children are now borrowing the names of their maternal uncles for school admission to avoid being discriminated against. Some children who get jobs in the cities desert their families, unwilling to be linked to the community.
Jana, 20, Rukmini, 17, and Gajanand,19—children of Ningavva Kamble, a former devadasi in Chikkodi—are role models to many in their community. They have completed schooling and are now pursuing college education. Gajanand dreams of joining the Army, while his sisters are focused on a teaching career.
“I used to feel bad when my classmates spoke about their fathers. I have only my mother’s name,” says Rukmini.
Worried about her son, Gajanand, who is a recluse, Ningavva says, “I feel as though I have murdered my own children. They don’t share their feelings with me fearing that it will hurt me.” Thangevva Ramappa Kamble, a former devadasi, says, “We are all empowered now as we go to banks and panchayat offices on our own and also demand our rights.”
Education and skill development are their only hope, says social activist B.L. Patil, who, in 1991, started a school for children of devadasis—Vimochana Residential School in Malabad, Athani. The confidence of the educated youth, aspiring school children and hopeful parents in the Balligere village, which has benefited from the Malabad school, like hundreds of villages in the region, reinforce this fact.
“The reforms started in the time of Basavanna, Jyotirao Phule, Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, Vittal Ramji, Dr Ambedkar, Baburao Patil, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad, K.L. More, Gangaram Kamble, Udamal Ranga Rao, Devaraya Ingle and Kaka Karkhanis inspired many community members and volunteers to fight this oppression,”says Patil. “Sadly, the system is still intact in Koppal, Raichur, Bellary and parts of Bijapur and Bagalkot. Mainstreaming the children of devadasis by providing education and employment is the way forward.”
A ray of hope also lies in the institution of democracy. The political representation of the devadasi community in local bodies has increased significantly. “We must fight elections to assert our right,”says Mahadevi Talwar, a former devadasi and now a panchayat president in Bagewadi taluk. “My victory shows that society is accepting us as leaders.”

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