Devadasi System in India is an ancient tradition that goes back to the sixth century. In this practice, a devadasi is a female artist devoted to serving and worshiping a deity or a temple for her entire life. The term “Devadasi” translates to “female slave to god.” Unfortunately, women’s situations have not improved under this system. Currently, the devadasi practice is most prevalent in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra, with higher instances among the “Beriya” and “Nat” communities.
What is the Devadasi System?
- The Devadasi system is a social and religious practice in India. Young girls are dedicated to a Hindu deity and are expected to serve the temple and its priests for life.
- The origin of the Devadasi system dates back to the sixth century, when young girls, frequently from wealthy families, were sacrificed at the local temples.
- They would be “married” to the deity after the dedication ceremony. Then, they would take on the role of temple keepers and carry out rites, dances, and musical performances in the god’s honour.
- Devadasis were treated with tremendous respect back then because they were married to the gods. They were dedicated to a life without marriage and were regarded as auspicious. They were not permitted to marry human husbands due to their devadasi status.
- Their primary responsibilities included looking after the temple and studying ancient Indian dances, particularly Bharatanatyam, which they used to perform at temple rituals. The tradition gradually deteriorated, especially throughout the Mughal Empire, British, and medieval sultanate periods.
- Their prestige declined due to the destruction of numerous temples and a loss of patronage, which led to their exploitation. Many Devadasis married into the local nobility or became mistresses of them.
- The offspring of such a relationship would be given to the temples as offerings. The sons of such couplings would get musical training, while the daughters would be devoted to the temple. This resulted in religious prostitution, still practised in Indian temples, particularly in South India.
- Devadasis had some rights, such as owning, managing, and transferring property. Despite this, the devadasi system evolved into a tool for the systematic sexual exploitation of the most vulnerable sections of Indian society.
Causes for the Devadasi System Still Being Practised in India
The issue of the Devadasi system is a significant concern nationwide, and unfortunately, it still exists in certain parts of India. One major challenge in addressing this problem is the lack of reliable statistics to fully grasp why the practice persists. In 2011, the National Commission for Women estimated there were 48,358 Devadasis in India. However, a report called Sampark, presented to the International Labour Organization in 2015, suggests a much higher number, around 4,50,000 Devadasis across the country. This discrepancy highlights the need for better data to understand and tackle the persistence of this practice.
Some of the main causes of the devadasi system to be still practised in India are listed below.
- Many families from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds still follow the Devadasi tradition due to the historical dominance of upper castes.
- Families, affected by caste and class factors, often believe that dedicating their daughters is essential to fulfill their responsibilities.
- The strong involvement of both the family and the entire Devadasi community makes it challenging to eliminate this practice, similar to the persistence of child marriage.
- Some people continue the Devadasi tradition based on religious beliefs, thinking that dedicating their daughters to a deity will bring blessings.
- The idea is that the deity will be pleased, and this conviction is a significant factor contributing to the continuation of the tradition.
Poor Enforcement of Laws:
- Allegedly, state governments are not rigorously enforcing laws that regulate the Devadasi system.
- Additionally, the funds allocated for the rehabilitation of females affected by this tradition have not been effectively utilized.
- The majority of Devadasis come from lower social strata, and offering daughters is sometimes seen as a way to climb the social ladder within the rigid caste system.
- Poverty plays a role in perpetuating the practice as families may view it as a means to improve their social status.
- The Devadasi system is also sustained by patriarchal norms and power dynamics, where the subjugation of women is a contributing factor.
Lack of Awareness:
- Some girls and their families are unaware of the implications of the Devadasi tradition, leading them to unknowingly become part of this system.
- Addressing this lack of awareness is crucial in combating the persistence of the Devadasi tradition.
Laws and Acts Against Devadasi System
Under British rule, the Devadasi system was initially made illegal in 1924. There are various laws enacted to put a ban on the devadasi system. Some of the reforms and laws are mentioned in the table below.
- Karnataka Devadasis Act (1982): It’s against the law to dedicate any girl as a Devadasi in Karnataka.
- Tamil Nadu Devadasis Act (1947): In Tamil Nadu, dedicating a woman as a Devadasi is considered illegal and void, regardless of her consent, according to a law passed before independence.
- Andhra Pradesh Devadasis Act (1988): This act also prohibits the practice of dedicating women as Devadasis.
- Maharashtra Devdasi System Abolition Act (2005): Marriages performed by Devadasis are recognized as valid. Living with a Devadasi for an extended period is considered akin to marriage, with legitimate property rights for any offspring.
- Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 370 (1860): Trafficking people for exploitation is illegal under this section.
- Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA) 1956: Operating brothels, engaging in prostitution knowingly while over 18, and inducing someone into prostitution are illegal. Convictions can lead to seven years in prison for the first offense and life imprisonment for subsequent offenses.
- Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act (2015): Protects Devadasi girls as many are induced into the system when they are minors, categorizing them as “children in need of care and protection.”
- Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act): Applies if the Devadasi girl was a minor when offenses covered by the act were committed.
- Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005): Devadasi women can seek relief and remedies against domestic violence under this act.
Read Also: Article 25 & 26 – Constitution of India