In October last year, the National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the Centre and six states – Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Maharashtra – seeking a detailed action taken report on “the continued menace of devadasi system” in various temples in South India.
The system dates back many centuries. In an earlier era, devadasi women were drawn from different strata of society, and were seen as culturally significant figures.
But under colonial influence, a stigma came to be attached with devadasis, particularly because sexual liasons were a part of their work and lives. Gradually, the system came to be associated primarily with sex work, and became limited to women from Dalit communities and other groups.
In the twentieth century, several laws in different states were enacted to ban the system. But as Astha Savyasachi found reporting from several locations in Karnataka, on the ground, women continue to be inducted into it, sometimes even as infants. Over the years, they are then forced into lives as sex workers.
“A devadasi is a woman doomed into sex work and slavery, which enjoy religious sanction,” Savyasachi said.
The women's stories left an indelible impression on her. “Their struggles, their dreams, their idea of love, their insecurities – they walked me through their world and I don’t remember returning back without tears rolling down my cheeks,” she said.
But, she added, “more than the tears, I will remember the unapologetic hope that sparkled in their eyes whenever they talked of a better life. In those eyes, I saw the rage willing to build a world free from casteism and patriarchy.”
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