Dedicated to an Indian goddess as a child, Huvakka Bhimappa’s years of sexual servitude began when her uncle took her virginity and raped her in exchange for a sari and some jewelry.
Bhimappa was not yet 10 years old when she became “devadasi”, girls forced by their parents into an elaborate wedding ritual with a Hindu deity, many of whom are then forced into illegal prostitution.
Devadasis are expected to live a life of religious devotion, are forbidden to marry other mortals, and are forced at puberty to sacrifice their virginity to an older man, in exchange for money or gifts.
“In my case, it was my mother’s brother,” Bhimappa, now in his 40s, told AFP.
What followed were years of sexual slavery, earning money for his family through encounters with other men in the name of serving the goddess.
Bhimappa eventually escaped his servitude, but with no education, he earns around a dollar a day working in the fields.
Her time as a devotee of the Hindu goddess Yellamma has also made her an outcast in the eyes of her community.
She had loved a man once, but it would have been unthinkable for her to ask him to marry her.
“If I weren’t a devadasi, I would have had a family and children and some money. I would have lived well,” she said.
The Devadasis have been an integral part of South Indian culture for centuries and once enjoyed a respectable place in society.
Many were highly educated, trained in classical dance and music, lived comfortable lives, and chose their own sexual partners.
“This notion of sexual slavery more or less sanctioned by religion was not part of the original patronage system,” historian Gayathri Iyer told AFP.
Iyer said that in the 19th century, during the British colonial era, the divine pact between devadasi and goddess became an institution of sexual exploitation.
It now serves as a means for poverty-stricken families at the bottom of India’s rigid caste hierarchy to free themselves from responsibility for their daughters.
The practice was banned in Bhimappa’s home state of Karnataka in 1982, and India’s highest court has described the devotion of young women to temples as “evil.”
Activists, however, say young women are still being secretly initiated into devadasi orders.
Four decades after the state ban, there are still more than 70,000 devadasis in Karnataka, India’s human rights commission wrote last year.
– ‘I was alone’ –
Girls are commonly seen as heavy and expensive in India due to the tradition of marriage dowries.
By forcing daughters to become devadasis, poorer families gain a source of income and avoid the costs of marrying them off.
Many households around the small southern town of Saundatti, home to a revered Yellamma temple, believe that having a family member in the order can improve their fortunes or cure a loved one’s illness.
It was in this temple that Sitavva D. Jodatti was ordered to marry the goddess when she was eight years old.
All of her sisters had married other men and her parents decided to dedicate her to Yellamma to support them.
“When other people get married, there is a bride and a groom. When I realized I was alone, I started crying,” Jodatti, 49, told AFP.
Her father eventually fell ill and she was taken out of school to go into sex work to help pay for her treatment.
“At the age of 17, I had two children,” he said.
Rekha Bhandari, a fellow former devadasi, said they had been subjected to a “blind tradition” practice that had ruined their lives.
She was forced to join the order after the death of her mother and was 13 years old when a 30-year-old man took her virginity. She became pregnant shortly after.
“A normal birth was difficult. The doctor yelled at my family that I was too young to give birth,” the 45-year-old told AFP.
“I had no understanding.”
– ‘Many women have died’ –
Years of unprotected sex exposed many devadasis to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
“I know of women who are infected and have now passed it on to their children,” an activist who works with Devadasis told AFP, asking not to be named.
“They hide it and live with it in secret. Many women have died.”
Occasionally, fathers are prosecuted for allowing their daughters to be admitted as devadasis, and women who leave the order receive meager government pensions of 1,500 rupees ($18) a month.
Nitesh Patil, an official who manages Saundatti, told AFP there have been “no recent cases” of women dedicated to temples.
India’s rights commission last year ordered Karnataka and several other Indian states to outline what they were doing to prevent the practice, after a media investigation found devadasi inductions were still widespread.
The stigma surrounding their past means that women who leave their devadasi order often endure lives as outcasts or objects of ridicule, and few marry.
Many find themselves destitute or struggling to survive with low-paid manual and agricultural jobs.
Jodatti now runs a civil society group that has helped remove the women AFP spoke to from their lives of servitude and provides support to former devadasis.
She said that many of her contemporaries had been enthralled several years ago with the #MeToo movement and personal revelations by famous women around the world that revealed them as survivors of sexual abuse.
“We watch the news and sometimes when we see famous people… we understand that their situation is very similar to ours. They have suffered the same thing. But they continue to live in freedom,” he said.
“We’ve been through the same experience, but we don’t get the respect they get.
“Devadasi women are still looked down on.”
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