Photo Essay

Devadasi: Of Dedicated Bondage

Devadasi: A Matted Reincarnation of Renukamba

The practice of "Devadasi" is a system in India in which girls are dedicated to the goddess Yellamma for a lifetime of ritualized prostitution.

"Devadasi" is literally translated as "female servant of god".

The largest concentration of Devadasis are in the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Approximately 95% of the girls dedicated are from the scheduled caste, or Dalits (untouchables).

Parents with no economic stability see dedication as a simple solution to their financial problems. Entire families might be supported by the money their daughters will eventually bring them through prostitution.

Girls to be devoted are washed in a temple tank for ritual cleansing. Their naked bodies are then dressed with garments of Neem leaves to be publically put on display in villages. Upon dedication, red and white beads are tied around a girls neck as a symbol of their consecration. Matted hair is taken as a sign from Goddess Yellamma that the girl was born to be a Devadasi.

After the child reaches puberty she is sent to work as a "religious" prostitute in villages or city brothels. She will live separately in the village and will service men from all castes, despite previously being considered untouchable. Depending on her attractiveness and age she will be paid as little as 50 cents per client. She will service as many as 20 men a day and could very likely contract HIV.

A Devadasi can never marry. When her work as a prostitute is finished she is left with minimum opportunities of success and potentially fatherless children. Daughters will almost inevitably end up as Devadasis as the process has largely become hereditary.

The ancient practice was once considered an honor for a girl as she was trained in song, art and dance. She was a maiden of the temple and could be compared to the Geishas of Japan. However, all semblance of honor has been stripped from the practice and is now considered nothing less than ritualized prostitution, exploitation, and trafficking.

The literal act of temple dedication is actually illegal, however the tradition continues due to economic instability, poverty, caste, lack of education, and the fear of battling religion with politics.

One woman described her experience as a Devadasi as follows:

"When I was a child that time many young boys coming at my mother, that time I don't know why they are coming, when I was 10 years old girl my mummy started to explain about the prostitute. People will come and they give lot of money like that she explained me. When I got matured I also started like that total 10 years finished. But I thought this job came from our heredity. So now I have a lot of problems."

She is now HIV positive.

While the reality of practice is heart-breaking, there have been steps towards eradication and rehabilitation. I have been to villages where concentrations of ex-Devadasi have retired and attempted to raise their children. They have benefited economically from micro-loans, financial independence and emotional self-empowerment.

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20 responses

  • J.L. Sofka

    J.L. Sofka (Deleted) said (13 May 2010):

    This is a truly outstanding story worthy of publication anywhere in the world. Great photos, but rather heartbreaking story. Still, what an astounding phenomenon!

  • Mike Melnotte

    Mike Melnotte gave props (13 May 2010):

    I learned something this morning. Thanks for a great story and photos.

  • Icar Cadayong

    Icar Cadayong gave props (13 May 2010):

    Wow - good story, great set!

  • Michael Lowey

    Michael Lowey said (14 May 2010):

    Absolutely amazing. A perfect example of why photography will always have an impact on our lives. This shows us something mere video would miss. SUPERB.

  • Yacouba Tanou

    Yacouba Tanou gave props (20 May 2010):

    Great story! Voted!

  • Katherine Neumann

    Katherine Neumann gave props (22 May 2010):

    Well written, great photos.

  • Karen Zimmerman

    Karen Zimmerman gave props (22 May 2010):

    What an amazing and heartbreaking story! Your prose is powerful, but your images go straight to the heart. Thank you for bringing this to light. Voted!!

  • Hunaid H

    Hunaid H gave props (22 May 2010):

    Excellant work

  • Kendra KirÅ¡onis

    Kendra Kiršonis said (22 May 2010):

    Amazing work all around

  • Rajeev Jadhav

    Rajeev Jadhav gave props (23 May 2010):

    Yes Very nice my vote !!!!!!!

  • Richard Seah

    Richard Seah gave props (23 May 2010):

    Excellent essay.

  • brenda turner

    brenda turner said (24 May 2010):

    That the fact remains that if the world ignores stories like this just as Hitler's tactics showed up on the horizon to destroy the Jews no-one thought that could ever happen? When atrocities are left unaddressed these types of travesties continue!

  • vinod velayudhan

    vinod velayudhan gave props (24 May 2010):

    Great story and nice composition

  • JoAnn Jurgens

    JoAnn Jurgens said (26 May 2010):

    that is heart-breaking. Great job.

  • Jenny Baptiste

    Jenny Baptiste gave props (30 May 2010):

    Amasing images, great story!!

  • Vidyavati Chandan

    Vidyavati Chandan (Deleted) gave props (6 Jun 2010):

    great work vote!!

  • elena fava emerson

    elena fava emerson said (6 Jun 2010):

    very important story about female conditions in India


  • Chris Hess

    Chris Hess gave props (25 Jun 2010):

    This should break our hearts and move us to take care of each other.

  • Chris Jennings

    Chris Jennings said (1 Mar 2011):

    This is a moving story told with much sensitivity. The images are equally sensitive, conveying women of character and beauty. All of the women are portrayed as strong; all of the images are strong. Wonderful work. Many congratulations.

  • Mag TY

    Mag TY gave props (17 Apr 2011):

    Truly Heartbreaking...

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