I was on my way back home from the ceremony. It was a long tiring day. The bus conductor stood near the front seat of the bus. The passengers rushed in like flowing water from an open tap.
He closed his eyes, bowed his head and tightly pressed the ticket machine against his chest. When I asked him later why he did that, he said, “I pray to my God to help me tell the truth.” I closed my eyes, held my pen to my chest and prayed for the same.
I pushed the flimsy metal gate doors and entered the compound. The area consisted of a huge hall and a stage. Ahead of me, about 1000 brightly dressed saree-clad women were seated cross-legged. Some formed tiny groups and began laughing and talking to each other. A pleasant chorus of giggles filled the air.
In the sea of colours, the green stood out the most. All the women were wearing green bangles. I asked the woman seated beside me what the bangles symbolise. She looked at me in confusion.
“Green bangles are traditionally worn by married women. Now, it’s become a fashion statement among the North Karnataka community,” she laughed and said.
On the stage, a whiteboard with ‘MASS MAHILA SAWAD SARKARI’ Sangh was on display.
When I enquired what this ceremony was for, Ms Sridevi, one of the organisers said, “The ceremony is to inaugurate the first Sangh (society) of self-help-groups (SHGs) under Mahila Abhivrudhi Mattu Samrakshana Samsthe (MASS), an NGO that came to be to abolish the devadasi system. Most of these women are from the Dalit caste or are ex-devadasis.”
I glanced at the crowd and saw the determination in these women’s eyes. It was clearly important for them to be at the ceremony and their respective SHGs to organise themselves. This was especially important to the ex-devadasi community and their children who’ve faced severe exploitation in India.
Historically in Karnataka, when the villages faced scarcity of rain or if the family could not bear children, they would promise their first daughter or any of the young girls in the village to serve the goddess, Yellamma. These young girls became a devadasi or god-servant.
Once a devadasi, they no longer are allowed to marry a mortal and must serve the sexual needs of men in their communities. They were essentially religiously sanctioned prostitutes.
In the earlier days, they used to serve the gods and goddess in their respective temples by dancing and singing. As the time passed on, the patriarchal society started exploiting the devadasis. The girl-children were pushed into the sex industry of India under the garb of religion.
My train of thought was cut short when the food came out in big steel drums. The women happily assembled themselves in long rows. I looked around to see a few waiters with large banana leaves serving the women on the ground. There was an infinite maze of women eating.
I took my banana leaf and sat next to a woman with beads in her hands. I asked her what the beads meant.
She looked at me with a straight face.
“Before being devoted to Yellamma, a white and red beaded necklace was tied around my throat. During the ritual, we were paraded naked except for neem leaves worn around our waists and placed in our mouths. Some of us worked out of our homes and others worked out of their brothels. I brought it here (at the ceremony) because I’m bound by it no longer.”, said Suku candidly. Although there are no devadasi ceremonies anymore, there is speculation that these illegal rituals are conducted in secret in the privacy of the girls’ homes because of the Devadasi Prohibition Act which outlawed the practice.
After lunch was served and devoured, the meeting started. Mrs Sitavva, the CEO of MASS addressed the gathering. There was room for all the women to voice out their opinions and problems.
The NGO started in 1991 with a mission to free devadasi women and spread awareness on the social evil of the devadasi system.
When I asked Sitavva ma’am what troubles the NGO faced when it started, she said, “When we started, we would visit the devadasi women at 4 am every day. They refused to meet us during any other time because they were scared they would be sent to the brothels in Mumbai if their society saw them speaking to outsiders. We spent 6 years trying to change their minds. It was tough but we succeeded.”
Unfortunately, Karnataka has not ridden itself from the devadasi system completely. There are still active devadasis in Bagalkot, Koppal, Raichur and Bijapur. “They could not marry legally or educate themselves. MASS is active to ensure the system does not come back to Belgaum again”, said Sabeena, an admin employee of MASS.
MASS has started free activity coaching centres for the children of devadasi and Dalit women. They have also organised several training sessions on bookkeeping, legal aid, sanitation, etc to empower the underprivileged women in Belgaum’s society.
With the efforts of the government and MASS, the devadasi and Dalit women were sitting in front of me celebrating their sisterhood by laughing, chattering and eating with each other.
In the Sangh’s ceremony, they strongly voiced their opinion, stood their ground and at the end, embraced each other. Instead of offering their daughters and binding them, they said they will educate and free them. If this isn’t good parenting, I don’t know what is.
Written for Milaap by Roshini Ross as a Milaap Fellow
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