Devadasi- Married to the lord

“Rayaru bandaru Maavana manege Ratri Aagithu, Hunnime haraside banina naduve chandira bandittu” -(When the groom reached his father-in-laws house it was late at night. In the moonlit night, the moon rode high)

We sat on the straw mat listening to this old Kannada melody. The light of the full moon enveloped the entire sky, and I could see its radiance reflect on Sarayu’s face.

I had met her just that morning outside Yellamma Guda temple, at Saundatti village, Karnataka, India. It was the first day of the Yellamma Jatara Festival, where every year over two lakh people take part to worship the deity Yellamma Devi (or also known as Renuka). I spotted a demure Sarayu, with moist eyes, it seemed. Despite the sea of people around, our eyes met for a fraction of a second. “Are you coming to Yellamma Devi Jatara for the first time?” she asked me in chaste Kannada. I nodded. “Come I will show you around,” she said. I went along.

A Devadasi woman worships the goddess, Yellamma. Photo Credit: Julia Cumes
A Devadasi woman worships the goddess, Yellamma. Photo Credit: Julia Cumes

The Yellamma Gudi temple is known for its ancient traditions, going back centuries. It speaks of faith in abundance and rituals aplenty. One such age old tradition of the temple is the “Devadasi System” where young girls are dedicated to the temple by way of marriage. Once dedicated, they become a property of the temple and are to be dutiful to its spiritual needs. This not only encompasses appeasing the deity by way of chaste rituals, but it also includes singing and dancing before the village chiefs, satisfying the sexual urges of the priest and the menfolk of the community. The girls are generally from poor households who are born weak, sick or with deformities. Years ago, there were elaborate dedication ceremonies, where the girls were paraded naked. But with the “Devadasi Prohibition Act” this has been discontinued.

“You may still find people offering their girls, those who come to the temple covered in neem leaves, and performing the customary ritual of being offered to the deity- all in secrecy. Sarayu added, “That is why I stand outside the temple every Jatara festival trying to stop any parent dedicating their daughter. I inform the NGO I work for immediately. No other girl should suffer the way I did”. I shot back a glance.

“Yes I was a Devadasi”. As Sarayu uttered these words, I felt an unexplainable shudder deep inside. Breaking the silence she said, “Why don’t you join me for dinner tonight? I live on the other side of the temple.” I agreed once again.

An older Devadasi woman begs at the entrance of the Yellamma Temple in Saundatti, India during the Yellamma Jatre (fesitval) . Most Devadasis over the age of 44 either beg or act as a jogati, spreading the word of Yellamma and sometimes acting as a medium through whom Yellamma speaks. Older Devadasis are often involved in recruiting young girls to be dedicated as new Devadasis, thus perpetuating the system. Photo and Caption Credit Julia Cumes
An older Devadasi woman begs at the entrance of the Yellamma Temple in Saundatti, India during the Yellamma Jatre (fesitval) . Most Devadasis over the age of 44 either beg or act as a jogati, spreading the word of Yellamma and sometimes acting as a medium through whom Yellamma speaks. Older Devadasis are often involved in recruiting young girls to be dedicated as new Devadasis, thus perpetuating the system. Photo and Caption Credit Julia Cumes

That night after a sumptuous dinner of “Majige (butter milk) and Ragi mudde (Steamed Ragi porridge), sitting on the straw mat and listening to old Kannada melodies, Sarayu narrated her part of the story. “I was born the youngest of 9 children. My parents were poor farmers and we could almost never afford our daily bread. So my parents dedicated me to Yellamma at the age of 10. For almost 20 years now, I have satisfied men from across villages. I have had enough now. I am old with no money or job, left to fend for myself. That is why I have joined an NGO, working towards empowering women like me.

I closed my eyes. I sensed the pain deep within her. I let the beautiful melody from the radio waft through the air. But I asked myself this question that night, “Why is there so much exploitation in the name of tradition?

Despite a Devadasi Prohibition Act, the practice continues in some parts of Karnataka and Maharashtra till date.

  • These women are denied basic rights and live in such pitiable conditions that most take up prostitution for a living.
  • Children born out of such relationships carry on a life of misery, with minimal or no schooling owing to poverty and social outcast.
  • Most are later sold to red-light districts in bigger cities such as Pune or Mumbai by priests, who act as pimps.

*All photo credits in this blog post goes to Julia Cumes. Julia Cumes is a photographer based on Cape Cod, MA.  She specializes in photojournalism, environmental portraiture, travel and editorial photography as well as fine art photography. Her website is juliacumes.com

  1. I have read different books on this miserable system of offering girls as Devdasis in the temples of India. Many famous temples continued this ritual (you know why) and a huge protest was there when the Devdasi Prevention Act was first implemented just after the independence. The most interesting book I read about this system is “Sutanuka ekti debdasir naam” ( Sutanuka is the name of a Devdasi) by Narayan Sanyal.

    Thank you so much for this article. We need to spread the word so that more people would be aware of the system existing in this temple….even now!

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