Tuesday, 7 August 2007

All in Yellamma's name

Why are women dedicated as Devadasis? To find that out, you have to travel to Belgaum, or better still, leave the city behind and go into its talukas. You will find that poverty, illiteracy and caste politics are the true enslavers.

Here, everything happens in the name of Goddess Yellamma or Renuka -- the patroness of the Devadasi community. She is everywhere. Shrines dedicated to her dot the countryside; sugar cane factories, fancy stores, bars and restaurants, all of them prosper under her name. The annual Yellamma jaathres (fairs) at the various shrines bring in much-needed revenue for these talukas and for the old Devadasis too. The best known fairs are the ones at Saundatti or Savadatti and the one held at the Kokatnur temple near Athani. It is at these fairs that 'dedication' takes place, under cover of course (because it is banned by the state government) but it happens.

But why are young girls -- often babes in their mothers' arms -- married off to the goddess? Don't their parents feel any remorse? Most Devadasis come from the lower caste Madar community. And these women are usually extremely good looking -- slim, with wheatish skin, long thick hair and light eyes. If there is some drought in the land, or some disease, the upper castes will blame the lower castes. "See you did not dedicate your daughter so the goddess is angry," is one of the usual excuses. The poor, illiterate parents know no better. Never mind that the daughter in question will usually be one of the prettiest girls in the community.

Often, the temple priests (who officiate at the dedication ceremony) are the ones who use the girl first. Then the most important upper caste member of the taluk gets his turn-- either a Patil or a Lingayat, then the local politician and so on and so forth.

After each man has had his fill, if the girl is still alive, she is sent by cart or truck or bus to Miraj in Maharashtra, just across the Belgaum border. In Miraj, she is taken to a well-populated red-light area that goes by the name of Prem Nagar. What happens in its rows and rows of suffocatingly close tin huts is not love, but exploitation, pure and simple. There is no pretence here, the rooms usually just have a cot and a wash stand. And the girl of course, will be standing outside, all her wares on display. You will find women of all ages and sizes here. Only their deadened eyes give you a glimpse of the hell inside.

Still, working in Prem Nagar gives a girl a good income -- Rs 150 a day at least. Working in the fields in Belgaum, by contrast, would have got her only Rs 20 or Rs 40. By selling her body, she makes enough money to go on the annual Yellamma jaathres. And if, after five years, she is not dead from AIDS or any other related STDs, she will have saved up enough for a plot of land and some gold. Then she can go back to Athani and live with any of the men who will have her. Why, some women even act as recruiting agencies for the dalals. They ensnare other girls with tales of the money to be made in Prem Nagar.

And so the cycle goes on. All in the name of the Goddess.