An organised crime which is normally hidden from the world, and continues under the garb of religion and social tradition, is never easy to tackle. We are here referring to, Devadasi System. Generally, people don’t know how this crime happens, and even some victims get entrapped into false ‘justifications’ which are subtly forced onto them by the society and the priests, and don’t report the crimes; such situation cannot be dealt with on a societal level, unless we know about the practice itself.

Devadasi means ‘Servants of God or Goddesses’. Currently, though it is banned in law, it prevails in North Karnataka, South Maharashtra and South-Western Andhra Pradesh. Under Devadasi Practice, girls are dedicated, preferably as virgins, into temple service or religious mendicancy. Even a few of men were dedicated under Devadasi practice (though very rarely). Majority of the Devadasis are dedicated to the temples of Sri Renuka Yellama of Saundatti and Chandragutti in Karnataka. The Devadasis are also called as Jogini, Jogamma in Kannada, Potraj (male) dedicated to goddess Laxmi in Maharashtra, Murali (female) and Vaghya (female) dedicated to God Khandoba in Central Maharashtra, Bhavin or Devli (female) dedicated to numerous local deities in Konkan and Goa, Kadaklaxmi/Ladlaxmi (male) dedicated to Goddess Laxmi, Basavi and Kasabin (female) in some parts of Maharashtra, Naikin (female) in Uttar Pradesh and South India. . Such practices also prevailed in other countries such as Sumeria, Ancient Egypt, Syria, Israel, Libya, China, etc.

In this religious practice, parents dedicate their daughter to marry a deity or a temple. The marriage usually occurs before the girl reaches puberty and requires the girl to become a prostitute for upper-caste community members. Such girls are known as Devadasi or Jogini. They are forbidden to enter into a real marriage. Traditionally, it is believed that these girls are “serving” society as “ordained” by the goddess. In other words, “the Devadasis are courtesans in God’s court.” There is a saying that, “A Devadasi is a servant of God but wife of the whole town.” In reality, these girls had to serve the priests, inmates of the temple, the Zamindars (local landlords) and other men of money and power in the town and village. The ‘service’ given to these men is considered equal to Service of God. The Devadasi is dedicated to the service of the temple deity for life and there is no escape for her. If she wants to escape, the society does not accepts her.

When a girl is dedicated to or married not to a mortal man but to an idol, deity or object of worship or to a temple, some rites are performed. This dedication ceremony is more or less similar to the marriage ceremony. It is called as Muttu Kattuvadu (tying the beads) or Devarige Bidavadu (dedicating to the deity).  Auspicious days for dedication ceremony take place on full moon day of these months. Unlike old times, such ceremony are nowadays performed rather secretly without much fanfare at smaller temple or local priests’ residences rather than big temples like Yellamma at Saundatti or Kokatnur to avoid the expenses and also to escape clutches of law. The expenses are borne either by the companion or paramour or the “Gharwalis” mistresses of urban brothel where these girls would be expected to join their brothel. The dedication process starts with bathe and nude parade to temple of deity called nude service or Bettale Seve. In the last, girls come back to village and goes for joga (begging). As she goes for Joga, all members of the village realize that she has been dedicated to Yellamma deity. After dedication the ceremony of the first night is celebrated. It is called Uditumbuvadu or Deflowering in ceremony. The deflowering ceremony is conducted after the girl’s first menstruation period. Previously the right belonged to the priest but nowadays it is well public within the clientele of businessman and rich landlords. One who deflowers her gets right to her over others for the rest of her life but neither she nor the children of such union have any right over him or his property. He can leave her any time she has to lead a life of a cheap prostitute either near about or at metropolitan brothels.

In cases of boys, after the marriage, a symbolic gender change (in rare cases, a crude castration is performed, using country liquor for sedation and mixture of holy ash and herbs for healing the wound) happens. A Devdasi is forbidden for marrying any other young man or women after the ritual marriage to the Goddess Yellamma, but as a temporal and moral support, she is allowed to taken in one or two male companions without formal marriage. She is also made to wear a ‘Darshan’ (a white and red class bead necklace), which is symbolic of her availability to anyone interested in sexual relation. Soon after her initiation and whether or not she has come off the age, a female Devadasi must sexually gratify the male worshipers of the Goddess. Some even pay her handsome money for her deflowering and maintain her until an agent of the flesh trade buys her off and send to the brothels in cities like Bombay or Calcutta to carry on the oldest profession in the world. Later on, when she loses her charms and beauty, she is made to return to her home village and work there as an ‘Akka’ (supplier of young girls to the commercial sex trade). Occasionally, when it serves her demonic purposes, this ‘Akka’ pretends to be a ‘Possessed’ women and a medium for delivering the Goddess’s messages to the worshipers. Through this trick, she catches young girls in the village by telling her parents that the Goddess wants their daughter to become a Devadasi. This is how the cycle of bringing in young girls into the Devadasi tradition goes on and on every year, thousands of innocent young girls become Devadasi to satisfy the male lust, all in the name of the Goddess.

Contemporary Relevance :-

Though many people think that the presence of this practice cannot be found, but in September 2017, Times of India, reported (cognizance of which has been taken now by the NHRC), that in Tiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu, some rituals were conducted on young girls, which directly and undoubtedly showed the presence of the practice nowadays. Ritual involved 5 pre-pubescent girls. They were dressed as brides and offered to the goddess Mathamma, and after the ceremony allegedly stripped naked by five boys. A similar ritual has been reported from Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, as well. This shows that now the problem has soared as the incidents go unnoticed or happen surreptitiously.

Historical and Mythological connection :-

Generally, it is disputed that when this institution came into existence in India, and the causes for its emergence too are disputed. Some argue, that, the Devadasi system is an old one, and apparently pre-Aryan. There is no mention of it in Vedic Sanskrit Literature, but Tamil Sangam literature, which dates back to 200-300 BC, describes a class of dancing women called parattaiyar. They were courtesans who performed some ritual function, lived in a separate part of the city, and eventually came to be associated with temples. Later, in the post Vedic and post Buddhist age, the system seems to have spread through India, though it remained strongest in the south.

In India, the first confirmed reference to a devadasi was during the Keshari Dynasty in the 6th century AD in South India. The practice began when one of the great queens of the Dynasty decided that in order to honor the gods, certain women who were trained in classical dancing, should be married to the deities. The inception of the practice was one that was imbued with great respect as the women whom were chosen to become devadasi were subject to two great honors: first, because they were literally married to the deity, they were to be treated as if they were the Goddess Lakshmi herself, and second, the women were honored because they were considered to be “those great women who could control natural human impulses, their five senses and could submit themselves completely to God.” As they were marrying to an immortal, the women were considered to be auspicious. Their main duties, in addition to committing to a life without marriage, were to take care of a temple and learn classical Indian dances, usually Bharatanatyam, which they would perform at temple rituals. Patrons were considered to have higher status for their ability to financially sponsor devadasis. Like this, some argue, that earlier and originally the phenomenon of devadasi which was started, was not morally wrong, and people did not sexually exploited the devadasis, but the exploitation, started either after the onset of Islamic invasions, because of which the temples got destroyed, and many devadasis got exposed to sexual exploitation because of their poor condition; or alternatively, they argue that after the death of Aurangzeb, the anarchical period which followed, the standard of morality among the princes and public men sank to the lowest level, which lead to an increase in prostitution and practically, it became inseparable from the institution of the Devadasi.

Mythologically, the practice is linked with Goddess Yellamma. Renukamba (Mother Renuka Yellamma) Temple is said to have been built by the Chalukya and Vijayanagar kings who ruled the region around Chandragutti in the fourteenth century. There is mention of bettale seve as a form of worship being around for centuries before the colonial state removed it from the list of services in 1928. There  are many myths surrounding Goddess Renukamba at Chandragutti. One revolves around Renukamba and her husband, Saint Jamadagni, who are said to have resided at Chandragutti. Renukamba fetched water every morning from the Varada River in a pot upon which Jamadagni had cast a spell, that the pot would break if Renukamba looked at another man. One day when Renukamba was at the river, she got charmed by a gandharva (a male natural spirit) passing by and the pot breaks. Seeing this, Jamdagni becomes furious and asks their son Parashurama to cutoff Renukamba’s head. In accordance with his father’s wishes, Parashurama chases his mother. As Renukamba runs, her clothes fall away and she becomes completely nude. She then takes shelter in a cave nearby where she finds a Shiva linga. She embraces the linga and becomes one with it. Since Renukamba crouched while praying for protection, the image that is worshipped at Chandragutti is one resembling a crouching Renukamba, or Renukamba’s backside and not her face. The son Parashuram beheaded his own mother. Happy with his son’s unquestioned obedience, Jamadagni wished to bless him with a boon. The clever son requested his father to bring his mother back to life. At this point, the sage saw a matangi (low caste women) pass by. He beheaded her and attached the head to Renukamba’s body. When Renukamba was thus resurrected, with the body of a saintly woman and the head of a Matangi, Jamadagni wished to make amends for having acted in fury. He blessed her saying that unmarried girls would worship her as their Goddess and these Girls would be dedicated.


Modern version of Devadasi System:-

The modern iteration of the devadasi practice is significantly different from the historic institution, in terms of both its physical manifestation and underlying goals. Although, the practice today is still about honoring a deity, in most cases Yellamma, the similarities between the historic and modern institution effectively end there. In its current form, the practice is not as much about temple worship or temple dancing; rather, it is almost singularly related to the sex trade, prostitution, and exploitation of the lower caste. The difference between the devadasis of the past and those of today, is perhaps best summarized by William Dalrymple of The New Yorker:

“There is ….. an almost unimaginable gulf seperating the devadasis of ancient poems and inscriptions and the lives lived by women [today]. In the middles ages, the devadasis were drawn from the grandest families in the realm-among them princesses of the Chola royal family- and possibly from slaves captured in war. Many were literate, and some were highly accomplished poets, indeed, at the time they seem to have been among the few literate women in the region. Today, the devadasis are drawn exclusively from the lowest castes- usually from the Dalit Madar caste – are almost entirely illiterate. The majority of modern devadasis in Karnataka are straightforward sex workers.”

Despite the practice’s honorable past, the devadasi system has devolved into institutionalized sexual exploitation of the poorest segments of Indian society.

At the same time, it is important to note that the practice is not exactly the same as a conventional system of sex workers. The notable difference is the fact that many devadasis are forced into the lifestyle at an extremely young age due to a combination of religion and social beliefs. The devadasi tradition is singular due to the strength of the relationship between religious beliefs and sexual exploitation. Indeed, every year there are still thousands of girls between the ages of five and ten who are dedicated to the Goddess Yellamma. Chandra, a devadasi, who was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, noted that, “for the first pattam (the tying of the beads before the goddess), the girl is usually between six and thirteen. But the second pattam (the night of the girl virgin) takes place after a girl’s first menses…” The religious and societal undertones of the devadasi practice, despite its real-life manifestations, set the system apart from other such institutions, both in terms of the support the tradition receives from the community and the blind-eye it receives from law enforcement.

“Unjustified Push” from Religion and Culture :-

The religious reasons include

  • Many who perpetuate the devadasi system believe that the younger a girl is dedicated, the more the Goddess will bless her and her family.
  • As devadasis are usually only taken from the lowest caste, many of the women who are dedicated to the Goddess believe that the only way that they can lead a blessed life is to marry the deity directly.
  • Many girls who willingly enter, or are forced to enter the devadasi system, view it as their only way to rise in India’s rigid caste system. The caste system dictates not only the relationship between any two people, but also limits the ability of one person to move above one’s birth caste. Many, in and around the practice have mentioned that, devadasis are respected, “regarded as auspicious”, and even called “to upper-caste weddings to give their blessing”- all events that would normally be impossible for a lower-caste individual.
  • When individuals (several reporters, activists) approached temples and challenged this social menace, and mentioned the priests of the problems “such as bad health, poverty, barrenness, etc., the priests often interpreted these problems as the wrath of the deity and suggested that they should offer one of their daughters to the service of the deity. This shows how deeply the religion, and its so called ‘safeguards’ has penetrated into the practice, to justify it, under the garb of religion. They don’t even care of the problems and exploitation which the girl suffers, they place the responsibility recklessly on the deity, washing off their hands of their criminal liabilities.
  • There are some economic necessities too which push the lower caste women to not deny the opportunity of converting into a “devadasi”. Most potential devadasis have the choice of either entering the practice or taking part in a distinct number of menial occupations or “unclean work – work that involves physical contact with blood, excrement, and other ‘defilements as defined by Hindu Law.” And these jobs do not pay enough to sustain an individual, much less an extended family, many families pressure their young daughters to become devadasi. Though her job is insecure and dangerous, devadasis are able to earn enough from a single client, as it is needed to look after their families. The Irony is that, once a member of the devadasi is no longer able to earn money, her family usually either refuses to, or is unable to provide for her as she once provided for them.
  • Many social beliefs also aids the perpetuation of devadasi practice in India. From the side of the offenders, many landowners, who almost always are from a higher caste, believe that it is prestigious to deflower as many young girls as possible. Many within Indian society that intercourse with a young girl is a panacea for disease.
  • The other factor is that the devadasis, generally are ignorant of the law banning the practice, because of this factor only, the number of claimants who come to the door of justice is very less, and devadasis don’t know where to go, whom to complaint, for all this.

Devadasi System and Indian Law:-  

The British Indian Government effectively outlawed the devadasi practice in 1924 when it made dedication of girls for the purpose of prostitution illegal. Sections 372 and 373 of the Indian Penal Code, were amended to declare “the practice of dedicating girls for the ultimate purpose of engaging them in prostitution as illegal.”

In 1934, the Bombay Devadasi Protection Act was passed by the British Government and covered the Bombay State, as it existed then. The Bombay Devadasi Protection Act declared the dedication of a woman as an illegal act, irrespective of the fact whether the dedication was made with her consent or not. The Act also laid down grounds for punitive action that could be taken against any person who were found to be involved in dedications. The another act was the Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act, 1947.  The two Acts then existing were replaced by the Karnataka Devadasis Act which was adopted by the State Legislature in 1982 and was notified by the Government through its Gazette in 1984, it was amended in 2010, to include rehabilitation provisions too. With the creation of the Devadasi Act, turning a girl into a temple prostitute was made illegal and punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment as well as by a fine of 5000 Rs. As was held by the Act of 1934, the New Act also seeks to declare unlawful the very act of dedication, whether the dedication is done with or without the consent of the dedicated woman.  Dedication of girls as devadasi is punishable offence under this Act and higher punishment is provided for a person abetting the offence if he happens to be the parent, guardian or relative of girl so dedicated.

Andhra Pradesh State Legislature enacted a similar law in 1988, as the Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act of 1988. In Maharashtra, the Devadasi System (Abolition) Act, 2006 is present to deal with the situation.

The devadasi practice violates not only domestic laws, but also a wide range of international conventions and laws. In particular, the practice stands in stark violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) clause 4, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child, and Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, The United Nations Supplementary Convention on the abolition of Slavery, the Slave trade, and Institutions and Practices similar to Slavery, 1956. Notably, India is a state party to each of these conventions and protocols, indicating that the country as a whole is working towards putting an end to the practice. But these conventions do not warrant its enforcement, and hence, their enforcement lacks severely.

When the legislature and executive fails in making the transformation, then judiciary has to direct them to make the necessary changes. Hence, in 1990, the Supreme Court in Vishal Jeet v. Union of India and Ors (1990 AIR 1412), noted that “in spite of the stringent and rehabilitative provisions of law under various Acts, it cannot be said that the desired results had been achieved.” and called for evaluation of the existing measures by both the central and state governments. In yet another case of 2014, Supreme Court directed the Karnataka Chief Secretary to “take all steps to prevent women from being forced to become ‘devadasis’ at a temple function” at the Uttarang Mala Durga Temple in Karnataka.

In State of Karnataka v. Appu Bale Ingale and Others (Criminal Appeal No. 164/1983) Supreme Court opined that, “the institution of Jogins and Devadasis by virtue of its prohibition under Article 23 is no longer a valid custom. Any person tending to encourage it is liable to not only damages but also criminal prosecution.”

After more than 26 years of judgement given in Vishal Jeet, in February 2016, Supreme Court in another judgement pronounced in S.L. Foundation Th. Its President & Anr. v. U.O.I & Ors. (WP (C) 127/2014), reiterated the point and took the cognizance of the fact, that special enactments made by different states await their implementation, and taking note of this, Supreme Court directed the state governments to strictly implement the laws and lauded the effort of central government which directed the state governments to take such steps as necessary to curb the menace of Devadasi. The court also directed the states to take steps for rehabilitating the victims. This issue was brought before the Supreme Court, by a NGO named, SL Foundation, through a Public Interest Litigation filed in year 2014.

On 25 September, 2017, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also took cognizance of a complaint drawing its attention towards the inhuman treatment being meted out to the girl children and women folk, who were forcibly being taken to the temple of Goddess Mathamma for offering in Thiravallur District of Tamil Nadu and adjoining places. Allegedly, this practice is another form of Devadasi system, which was still being practiced in some parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. NHRC issues notices to the Chief Secretaries and DGPs of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and other officials calling for reports within four weeks in the matter. It was alleged in the complaint, that, as part of the ritual, the girls are dressed as a bride and once the ceremony is over, their dresses are removed by five boys, virtually leaving them naked. They are denied the right to live with their families and have education. They are forced to live in Mathamma temple deemed to be like a public property and face sexual exploitation. The NHRC’s notice makes it clear that the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh governments are guilty of non-compliance with the Supreme Court’s directions in S.L. Foundations judgement and the Centre’s advisory. The Centre too, has exposed its non-compliance, by not acting promptly to seek directions from the court, to these two states to ensure compliance, with its advisory.

In spite of all the efforts taken by the legislature, executive and judiciary of the country, the problem remains as it is, and the cases of devadasis though reduced, but still continues with its full vigour victimizing the women.


It is the biggest irony, that the temples where the goddess is the idol of worship, who reflects the ‘self of women’ in it, have transformed into the places where the maximum exploitation of women takes place, under the umbrella of ‘so called’ justification provided by ‘religion and culture’. No one can be held responsible solely, not only the inhuman lust of some powerful males, but also the society is to be implicated with the liability of this crime, as many devadasis have testified, that they want to leave this institution, but they know that the society won’t accept them now. So the challenge to deal with the devadasi system, is not restricted to curb the menace only, but also to bring about changes in societal framework, so that these women can live their life as a normal human being, as they ‘deserve it’, being a human; in contradistinction to the so-called priests and so-called powerful men of the society who exploit the women.