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Tragic plight of India's young temple girls

Young girls in rural India are often dedicated to temples as devadasis to please the deities, but many end up on the streets dying of Aids.

KARNATAKA/MUMBAI // After receiving no customers for months and unable to pay her rent, Ramana was forced to leave her room in the busy brothel in the Kamathipura neighbourhood of Mumbai.

With nowhere else to go, she occupied one small part of a nearby pavement and made it her home. Passers-by, including some prostitutes, sometimes offered her food. But none bothered to take the sick woman to a clinic to get treatment for her Aids-related illnesses. Next to a choked, stinking drain, under an open sky, she lay for months as a beggar. One recent winter morning, she was found dead. Ramana did not become a prostitute by choice. From the age of two, until she was 18, she had been a devadasi - a girl given to a temple as a religious offering by her parents to serve the temple deity, so her family would be blessed with good luck.

Since she is dedicated or "married" to the deity, a devadasi is considered to be holy or divine in Hindu society. But once she became a devadasi, as per tradition, Ramana had to become a "divine prostitute" offering sexual favours to men in the local community. "When I was two-year-old, my poor parents offered me to Yellamma [a popular deity in the southern state of Karnataka] and I became a devadasi," she said, just a few days before her death.

"Because of my two illegitimate children, at 18, I was forced to become a prostitute, and at 27, I was found HIV positive. At 33 I am nearing death, amid this filth." Ramana's story is similar to that of thousands of prostitutes in the states of Maharastra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where an estimated one million women and children, including some eunuchs, operate in the sex trade.

At least one-fifth of sex workers in the four states are estimated to be former devadasis, and in Mumbai, half or more of them are HIV positive, according to the Indian Health Organisation, a Mumbai-based NGO. Despite laws against the practice of dedicating children to temples, the tradition secretly continues in remote villages. While children are dedicated to some other south Indian deities as well, three-quarters of them are dedicated to the goddess Yellamma in north Karnataka.

A National Human Rights Commission report, published in 2006, noted that dedication of children as devadasis was still going on secretly and at least half of all devadasis ended up as prostitutes in rural as well as urban areas. The system of dedicating children to temples goes back centuries. A book, written by the Indian scholar Chanakya in the fourth century BC, narrates stories of devadasis in Indian temples.

According to the Indian Health Organisation, which works with HIV-positive former devadasis, at least 15,000 children are still being dedicated as devadasis in southern India each year. Sociologists say the dedication ritual was invented by the upper caste elite to have religiously sanctioned sexual access to lower caste women. "Hundreds of years ago, devadasis simply used to serve the goddess they were given to by helping out in the temple. But over centuries, powerful men took advantage of these women, and slowly made the sexual side of things acceptable and 'official'," said Chambanna Angadi, a sociologist based in Hubli, Karnataka.

"The Yellamma myth has been conveniently twisted by the upper-caste people and priests to conclude that if a girl from the lower caste dedicates her life to Yellamma and, in this way, in fact, to the temple priests, she will be reborn as a Brahmin [upper caste]." A recent report by the ministry for Indian women and child development said that "to avoid possible legal action, dedication ceremonies have moved from the main temples to smaller temples in remote villages and the houses of the priests".

Towards the end of the 19th century, Indian social reformers began campaigning against the devadasi system and in 1934, the British government banned the practice in India. Since independence, only four south Indian states have outlawed the devadasi system. Although anti-devadasi laws have been in place for decades, punishment is rare. A member of India's National Commission for Women, K Shanta Reddy, recently said: "All local governments are against the practice of dedication of children. But the biggest impediment to the elimination of the evil of the devadasi system comes from the powerful upper class, which controls not only the economic and social activities but the minds of the poor in villages."

Most agree that poverty is the root cause behind the continuation of the devadasi system. "Poor harvests, illness and other tragedies - they believe all misfortunes are a result of God's retribution," Mr Angadi said. "Because of a decade-long drought, widespread alcoholism among men and hounding loan sharks, miseries in Dalit [low-caste Hindu] families are always constant. "Unless we succeed in improving the socio-economic landscape of villages, we cannot make the poor parents stop dedication of children [to temples]," he said.

@Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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