Sleeping with the Goddess
BY SHELLY NGO WITH SANJAY SOJWAL
Each year in India, thousands of girls are dedicated to a temple goddess in a ceremony that begins a lifetime of prostitution.
Through the whitewashed arches of the Uligamma temple, Durgamma proudly marches toward the banks of India’s Thungabadra river. Today is the girl’s wedding day. The eyes of her relatives, friends, and neighbors are fixed on the 12 year-old bride.
Close to an overhead bridge spanning the Thungabadra, a priest accepts the goat brought by Durgamma’s family. With a quick stroke of a blade, he sacrifices the animal to the temple goddess Uligamma. The goat’s blood drips into the river
where hundreds of worshippers are bathing.
Durgamma patiently submits. to her women relatives who apply a sandalwood paste to her body and bathe her in the river. After they dress her in a white sari and blouse, she listens to the high caste priest chant and pray in Sanskrit, the ancient language of Hindu scriptures, which none in the crowd understands. As his prayers conclude, the priest sprinkles a yellowish mixture of turmeric paste and water over her head and she feels the refreshingly cool liquid trickle clown her head and back.
Durgamma walks up to the temple where a priest puts a glittering string of red and white beads strung on saffron colored thread around her neck. No groom, however, comes to meet this bride. Instead Durgamma is wed to the temple goddess, and her life will be spent as a devadasi, a temple prostitute. Today, Uligamma's spirit, the priests teach, has entered Durgamma's body; for the rest of her life, when priests and other men sleep with her, it is not Durgamma, but the goddess they are sleeping with. It is the goddess's desires the men must appease.
"This simple word, 'devadasi' says Dr. I.S. Gilada, one of India's most prominent AIDS activists and an honorary secretary of the Indian Health Organization, "is a label which condemns 5,000 to 10,000 girls every year into a life of sexual servitude (concubinage) and subsequently into prostitution.
Despite India's government law forbidding the practice of temple prostitution, the centuries old religious tradition continues. To understand the mentality that permits this sexual exploitation, one has only to think of those in Western societies who are enthralled with the idea of sleeping with models, sport heroes or other celebrities. Young devadasís are regarded by some as deities, and then discarded when they grow old.
Although devadasis are not prevalent across the country, most men know where to find them. In the south.central state of Karnataka alone, one of six states in India, there are an estimated 100,000 devadasis. A few are paid to stay close to the temple to sleep with priests or other men their parents have struck an agreement with. Some return to their homes to be auctioned off as mistresses for as long as men will have them. Most of them wind up in the brothels of india's major cities.
World Vision supports the efforts of people such as Dr. Gilada who are working to eliminate the devadasi system in India. For women already dedicated, World Vision has started two programs in the southern city of Bellary to give devadasis a second chance.
A CENTURIES-OLD CYCLE
After the dedication ceremony, Durgamma's father, Huligappa, instructed the little girl to go to a small room in the temple where a man would be waiting for her.
"When I told him I was very scared, he scolded me and reminded me that this man had given me silver toe rings, a nose ring, bangles, gold earrings, a sari, and a blouse," Durgamma says. In order to be the first man to sleep with her, the man paid for these gifts, made donations to the temple priests, and paid for the family's travel by train from Bellary to the temple in Munnirabad, located 200 miles northwest of Bangalore, the state capital of Karnataka.
After that evening, the man lived with Durgamma in her father's home for two years before packing his clothes one day and leaving without a word to her. Since then, Durgamma's father has arranged about 20 paramours for her, relationships lasting from a week to two years.
"Whenever I look at married women my age carrying their children, walking by their husband's side, I think of myself, my life, and my future, and something deep down in me snaps, and I feel like crying," says Durgamma, who at 25 is considered old for a devadasi.
References to devadasis, which literally means "god's servants," are found in Hindu scriptures dating back 4,000 years. Then, devadasis cleaned the temples, kept the temple bells, and performed ritual dances to appease the gods and goddesses. The earliest devadasis were virgins who pledged to remain celibate, but over the years the state began supporting devadasis, and the girls became mistresses to the kings.
With the onslaught of Muslim Moguls from the north, the Hindu empire declined in the 16th century, and the devadasis lost their royal patronage. No longer virgins, devadasis had few marriage prospects, so they turned to prostitution to earn a living.
For now, Durgamma lives in a village on the outskirts of Bellary in a wood and bamboo, clay plastered hut. Bellary, with a population of 200,000, is the hub for Uligamma worshipers and devadasis. Every respectable father in India is expected to marry off his daughter, but in this area, dedicating one's daughter to the temple is almost as acceptable.
Had she married, Durgamma would look after her in-Iaws according to India's customs. But by making Durgamma a devadasi, her father, a farm laborer who earns less than 15 rupees a day, does not have to raise the 20,000 ($667) necessary for a dowry and marriage expenses. Also, he does not have a son to support him in his old age, so he will take his pension from the men who sleep with Durgamma.
There are other reasons why, in northern Karnataka alone, an estimated 3,000 devadasi dedications take place each May. Devadasis' mothers dedicate their daughters to appease the gods, fearful that they will be stricken with diseases or poverty if they don't. Sometimes pregnant mothers vow to dedicate their first born daughter to a goddess if she will grant the mother a son or even a safe delivery.
PREYING ON THE UNTOUCHABLES
Despite the fact that most devadasi girls are "untouchables," from the lowest caste in India, the priests do not hesitate to sleep with the young girls - some have not even reached puberty. The priests prey on the poor, telling parents that dedicating their daughters to the temple will help family members be reincarnated as high caste Brahmins in their next life. And they offer family members of devadasis the right to enter sacred temples normally closed off to the lower castes.
Rich landowners also exploit the poor by paying for a girl's dedication in exchange for the right to spend the first few nights with her. The money often includes large loans to parents as an incentive to dedicate their daughters.
Temple prostitution is a practice enmeshed in religious traditions, but it's a "spirituality that has no roots in the idea of human beings created in the image of God," says Sam Kamaleson, a native of India and vice president for World Vision International. "It's a spirituality where the Holy Spirit, clarifying a person's identity so that they can be known as a son or daughter of God, is alien."
India's government is attempting to end the practice. But its 1982 law, which imposes a five-year prison sentence and a 5,000-rupee fine for parents of relatives who dedicate a girl to a temple, is difficult to enforce. Remote villagers remain ignorant of laws handed down in city centers hundreds of miles away. And in the major cities, some of the very politicians who make the rules keep devadasi mistresses themselves. Many who know of the law stubbornly cling to old superstitions to justify their decisions.
Temple prostitution is perpetuated by poverty as well. Many devadasis have between five and eight children usually by different men. Often the boys leave their mothers as soon as they are grown. A devadasi's career is over by the time she is 35 and, too old to attract men, she is faced with the option of begging on the streets or dedicating her daughters as a devadasi.
Bebamma was 13 when her mother, Kenchamma, dedicated her three years ago. "It was a mistake, but what could I do," Kenchamma says. "I had no male child.
"I feel sorry for my daughter and wonder what her future will be, but I had no money to get her married. Anyway, who would have married a devadasi's daughter?"
On the night of her dedication and for the following three nights, Bebamma slept with a 40 year-old temple priest "I was scared," she says, "but they gave me toddy (palm liquor) and I was not aware of what was happening. I didn't feel anything."
Bebamma, now 16, wears red bangles and an old, faded gray-colored sari, most likely her only one. Her pierced ears remain bare - the earrings were probably sold to meet some expense. She lives in a thatched roofed hut in Bapuji Nagar, 40 miles from the Uligamma temple. It is said that devadasis have lived in this area for centuries.
One-room stone houses line the dirt road, and open sewage gutters run along each side. An unusually high number of children for such a small area play outside in garbage-littered streets.
Bebamma's men have come and gone in the past three years, offering only sporadic and inadequate support. To make ends meet she has tried to earn money weaving cotton and carrying cotton bales. A cotton shortage, however ended that source of income. Then she began begging for food to feed herself, her mother, and her 3-year-old daughter, Gangamma, who is malnourished.
Like most devadasi children, Gangamma was delivered at home by a midwife. Despite the high rate of sexually transmitted diseases among these women, few go for any medical treatment Government hospitals are supposed to provide free care, but doctors will often postpone treatment until they receive money. Another reason women hesitate to go to a hospital is that they feel awkward discussing their problems with mostly male doctors, or they simply don't understand that delaying a hospital visit can result in death.
DOOR TO A NEW LIFE
Across from Bebamma's hut is a government high school that few bother to attend. Next to the school is a small building. The sign out front advertises: "Sahaya Community Development Project". Started by World Vision in 1989, the Sahaya project is one of two programs for devadasi women in this region; the other is a Women in Development program, opened in 1993. The one and-a-half-room office for the Sahaya project, which is slightly bigger than some of the devadasis' homes, is a door to another world for the women of Bapuji Nagar.
The front room is stark with its unwhitewashed waIls, but it is clean, and a nurse sitting behind a. steel table is neatly dressed. In just 10 months on the job, Nurse J. Paramjyothi, 21, has earned the trust of devadasis who feel comfortable telling their health problems to another woman.
"The overall health problems of the devadasis can be expected to be about the same as those of other child prostitutes," says Dr. Eric Ram, director of International Health for World Vision. "Nearly nine out of 10 girls are dedicated to be devadasis at or before the age of 10. Apart from the physical assault on the body, these girls, and young women also, suffer from psychological trauma and social castigation, which are equally if not more difficult to deal with."
Next to Nurse Paramjyothi is a cupboard stocked with the most commonly needed drugs, which she dispenses to the steady stream of local women who enter the clinic throughout the morning. In the afternoon, she leaves the clinic to visit women and children in their homes to follow up on special cases.
"Diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid infected wounds are very common among the children," the nurse says. "Malaria is also common, because stagnant water and blocked sewage gutters are fertile ground for mosquito breeding."
She conducts meetings for the devadasis, teaching them about cleaning the areas around their homes and where their children play. She explains that drinking polluted water leads to dysentery, typhoid, and cholera. "But the most important thing," she says, "that I have only recently started teaching them is about AIDS and how to reduce the risk of contracting the disease."
Few of the devadasis know about AIDS, a scourge spreading rapidly through this country. Dr. C. Johannes van Dam of the World Health Organization in Delhi estimates that there were 1 million to 1.5 million HIV-positive cases in India in mid-1994
A low partition separates the "clinic" from an area where 15 young women sit cutting cloth, sewing, and weaving plastic-wired baskets. Among them sits Bebamma, who has been in the project's training course for a year. When she completes the course, she'll be able to sell her handicrafts and earn up to 20 rupees a day - the same salary most men earn as carpenters, masons, or truck drivers.
So far, the project has given 22 sewing machines to women who have completed the course and now earn a regular source of income by sewing. Through the Sahaya program, World Vision has also provided the women with vending carts and small shops to help eliminate the economic need to sell their bodies.
Seeing to economic and health needs are only part of World Vision work with devadasis; there are spiritual needs to meet as well.
"Memory of the past is a very difficult thing to erase." says Kamaleson, who also directs World Vision pastors' conferences around the globe. "With that memory comes shame and guilt - both of them, the gospel says, should not be our property. But God is a covenant God who walks back into our situation to restore dignity, and hence we can live as transformed people.
"World Vision is there for these women, to be the Christian symbol of Jesus walking with them as their restored owner."
World Vision ministers to devadasi women through the work of the Rev. Sathyam and the Rev. G. Peter of the Assemblies of God church. "When a devadasi is dedicated to a goddess, once in a while the woman's body is possessed," says Sathyam, whose sister was possessed. To appease the goddess, Sathyam's Hindu father killed 100 buffalos, but the spirit refused to leave the girl. One day an evangelist carne to Sathyam's house to pray for his sister and cast out her demon. This was the event that led him to receive Christ and commit himself to serving God.
God led Sathyam to Bellary, where he has been working with devadasis for 13 years, praying with them and telling them about Christ
Every Sunday he conducts a church service for 300 people - almost half are former devadasis.
THE NEXT GENERATION
A few feet away from the tailoring center, Gangamma is one of 50 scrubbed-faced children sitting on the floor repeating after her teacher, "'a’ for apple, 'b' for ball ..." They wear clean clothes and their oiled hair is neatly combed into place. Later the youngest ones sing songs while the older children work on their reading and writing. Three World Vision child care centers in the area provide devadasi children with a nutritious lunch and protein-enriched snacks in the evening.
In the past, if Gangamma got sick, her mother would have attributed it to a curse from the gods. But today, more knowledgeable mothers are shaping a new course for their children. They look to women such as Hanumakka. president of a women's neighborhood Committee and a strong supporter of World Vision's work among devadasis. Hanumakka's mother-in-Iaw is a devadasi, yet Hanumakka's daughters were married instead of dedicated to the goddesses. "Nothing has happened to me or my daughters," Hanumakka tells them. "Life is full of joys and sorrows. If someone falls sick or is poor. it is not because of the goddess. Why should you dedicate your daughters to this evil practice?"
Slowly, the changes occur. Women like Bebamma see a chance for a different life. "I don't want my daughter to be like me," Bebamma says. "I want to send her to school. I will never dedicate her to the goddess."