Browse content similar to Sex, Death and the Gods. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
This programme contains scenes of a sexual nature
Servant of God.
In your opinion you think it has successfully stopped?
I heard about the Devadasi system two years ago.
It was described as an ancient Hindu tradition in which young girls
are married to God in childhood, and then at puberty sold for sex -
the money they earn given to their families.
The practice was made illegal more than 60 years ago,
but in spite of official denials,
there are still an estimated 30,000 Devadasis
in the villages and towns of Karnataka, Southern India.
They say the Devadasi are dedicated to serve the goddess,
but what does the goddess do for the Devadasi?
In the Devadasi system girls are dedicated whilst still children to the goddess Yellamma,
a Hindu goddess solely worshipped by the Dalit caste,
once known as the untouchables.
The culmination of the ceremony
is the tying of red and white beads around her neck.
Now she is Devadasi, literally translated "slave of God".
The way that I like to think of it is as a kind of marking,
a way of setting a woman aside from
the mainstream, conjugal-style sexuality.
Setting her aside from the domestic world.
In Dalit communities when girls are given to this goddess named Yellamma
it is for the most part irreversible.
They are not allowed to marry a man.
They are, in a sense, bound
to the laws
of that kind of non-conjugal sexuality.
Dedication was once sanctioned by the temple.
It is now illegal.
But for some, connection to the goddess
gives them an auspicious status otherwise unavailable to them.
If girls are being dedicated at this festival, where will it happen?
Where will they do it?
WOMAN ON LOUDSPEAKER:
Grandma says it often, doesn't she?
And have you been to Saundatti?
Do you know that all the women here are Devadasi like your mother was?
So are you worried that when you reach puberty, your life will change?
Do you take medicine every day?
But when you are HIV positive, don't they say to take it every day?
In the Devadasi belt of Karnataka today,
the women are all from the lowest caste, Dalit.
But there is evidence of another pre-colonial tradition that was an elite of high status women.
Women from a very, very vastly different range of caste
and regional identities were all lumped together under this kind of umbrella term, Devadasi.
And that included Dalit women, the kind of women that we've seen in this film.
And also elite, at the other end of the spectrum, elite courtesans.
This is the last known recording of a temple Devadasi.
From childhood, she would have been taught the daily rituals
that honoured and appeased the gods, received lessons in the arts of music and dance and, since puberty,
she would have been taken as the lover of a priest, prince or another high caste male.
On high holidays and at public processions,
she and the other Devadasi associated with this temple
would be bedecked with jewels, and go out to publicly celebrate their devotion to God.
To have a star dancer attached to your temple,
or a troupe come in and to advertise it, it was a huge attraction.
And what was in it for the temple was a hell of a lot of money, because they knew that
the more pilgrims came, the more people would give money to the temple.
Each of those women had their Pottukattu, the ceremony of tying the Pottu,
paid for by the state. So what did that mean?
That meant that the state owned them, and could call upon them
whenever it needed them to come into the court to perform.
By the 17th and 18th century, the elite Devadasi were living
in full view of their patron's official family, on palace or temple grounds,
in encampments that involved hundreds, sometimes even thousands of women and their children.
Because they had no mortal husband, they were considered head of their own household,
a position unimaginable for a woman at that time.
Some of them were able to amass a tremendous amount of wealth during their own lifetime.
The wealth usually was consolidated and stored in the form of jewels,
which had to do with the whole perpetuation of their status as courtesans, of their lifestyle.
A Devadasi uniquely had land rights in her own name,
and the power to distribute and bequeath her own wealth down the matriarchal line.
Her marriage to God made her auspicious,
and she had responsibility for prayers and blessings
that kept away the evil eye from temple, family and court.
The idea of the God, and the idea of the performing arts,
and the idea of all of the other cultural accoutrements,
if you want to call them that, I don't know what else we can call them,
do certainly, in a sense, pivot around the economics of it all.
The elite courtesans no longer exist,
but in the Dalit community, there are some who take pride
and gain status from the Devadasi tradition.
A common prostitute for that court does not have a place in gentle society.
The Devadasis in the village society had a place.
If you say "Devadasi", they have more acceptance,
because they come with a history and a culture and a religion.
OK, now the brothels start on your right.
And then it starts again ahead.
I am the old-fashioned social worker.
I actually believe that we have to strengthen communities, to fight their battles.
I don't believe in charity at all.
I do it because I'm politically motivated to do this.
They absolutely use gold as a justification,
because it is the use of the Yellamma
that has helped them exist.
So it is not only that they just believe in Yellamma, it is also for their economy,
Yellamma is absolutely essential.
And for their own social status, social standing, Yellamma is absolutely essential.
Here is a community that has figured out
how to economically strengthen itself using sex work.
But since we are so against people being in sex work...
..we are unable to see that any kind of programme that we put up
will actually be something that we do for them.
Not something that they do for themselves.
The whole sex work parallel for them is something that they have figured out for themselves.
They have figured this out, they have thought that, OK, this could be a good economic option for this family.
But since we do not accept that economic option, we are now trying to dictate to this group
what their economic options should be.
The women formally believe that their role in the family is that of a male.
And this is where I come to this understanding that this is the high.
Where you have women managing households,
they're female heads of their households.
It is being a Devadasi, believing that they have certain powers,
because they are Devadasis that has been invested in them by Yellamma, believing that they know
how to take decisions because they have the money.
You know, all of this is a huge high
and cannot be easily, I think, done away with.
The one thing that you must absolutely hear
is that choice is a very cruel mirage
for all women from the Third World.
This is a mirage that we are battling with, because, somehow, the western world has given us this
word called "choice", and we are all enamoured so much by it that we constantly are devaluing
our lives because we do not believe we have choice.
You say solutions from the outside don't work.
Look at this Devadasi system.
It is a home-made, economic thing.
They are saying, "Look what we have, you know, to keep the family together."
I just want to know, are you absolutely happy to put that online?
Because it's a very extreme view.
-I don't disagree.
-No, no, the point is not agreeing or disagreeing.
The point is that the Devadasi system is a much maligned system.
It's a much maligned system because it's constantly being analysed from the outside.
The lower-caste woman's voice in all of this, who is a Devadasi,
who has benefited from this system, has not got any kind of credence or currency.
Isn't the problem, isn't the intractable, when the Devadasi are dedicated?
My grandmother got married when she was ten years old, my own grandmother.
If my child thought of even having sex at ten years old, I'd be horrified.
It's taken two generations for us to reach this place.
So I am saying, why are we not willing to give that time and energy?
If you go and look at the communities...
You will not find 14 and 15 and 16-year-olds in business at all.
Whereas, 16 years back, when I started working, every house had 12 and 13-year-olds.
You have to think of a long-term strategy.
It's not that my heart did not beat for the 12 and 13-year-olds.
My point is that, if we had done a rescue thing,
the brothel would have closed, the community would have closed,
and we would never have had the access that we have today.
When the community is educated to say no to this level of violence,
which is what it is to have a girl or a small child in these places.
Inscriptions and carvings on temple walls show evidence
of the Devadasi system from as early as the 11th century.
But by the 17th century, there were tens of thousands of Devadasi living and working in South India.
The women themselves
were seen as signs of pleasure,
of a kind of excess, a kind of enjoyment.
So if you had a small kingdom, a small court, one of the ways, especially in the colonial period,
when political power was being taken away from a lot of these Indian elites,
the ways they would display their authority and their power
was through displays of excess, displays of grandeur, of splendour.
And the women themselves came to be almost the quintessential sign of that.
So much so, I would say, that elite courtesans were referred to as mbhogam,
coming from the Sanskrit word "mbhoga," which means enjoyment.
They were literally embodiments of enjoyment.
According to the Kama Sutra, a courtesan should have the following characteristics -
beauty, amiability, auspicious body marks, a firm mind, desire for wealth...
..delight in sexual union, and she should be anxious
to acquire experience and knowledge and enjoy social gatherings and the arts.
A Devadasi danced with her hips to one side, thrusting to another,
using hand movements to describe sexual encounters with the gods.
A promissory note to her lover patron.
It would move from a very literal interpretation of that line,
so we make sure we all understand the line.
He undid my bodice. She would actually reach behind her and mime out the undoing.
Then he began to kiss me, or he began to see my breasts.
He began to touch my breasts.
He began to put his hand on my breast.
He began to stroke my hair. Blah, blah, blah...
Eventually that would lead to this whole scene,
it would culminate after the line is repeated 15 times or 20 times,
into this full-out love-making scene
where she would just go into these abstract gestures
and show us the different positions in which they made love.
The fact of the matter is that for 99.9% of the women in these communities, having a relationship
of concubinage was necessary for survival.
They could not survive without that relationship.
That's also why it was very important
in terms of the internal social organisation,
the kinship structures within these communities,
that somebody be in control of matching people up.
In that sense, many of these relationships were like arranged marriages.
Most women were "given" to a patron by their grandma or their mother.
So was she angry that Shobha stopped because the money stopped?
This lady was not the only one who was not amused.
When the British formally took over India in 1857, the Devadasi came under attack.
The Victorian values that epitomised the Empire - monotheistic religion applied with missionary zeal,
the criminalisation of sex outside marriage in both England and India,
put paid to those women who had been at the centre of court, religious and political life.
A lot of the kinds of models around womanhood that we see in that period
were certainly models that were coming directly out of Victorian models,
and I think that it becomes very clear that what's going on here is a kind of valorisation
of the wife that we have not seen in Indian history up to that point
and that role of domesticity and of the importance of the married woman
was something that really was the cornerstone of Indian nationalism.
Effectively, Devadasis were failed citizens of the state.
They couldn't be citizens of the new and modern India.
Their selfhood, which was embodied in their sexuality,
in fact understood essentially as their sexuality, was something that could not be accommodated.
The system of concubinage became very uncomfortable for the Indian elite at that point.
It became quite embarrassing, actually, for elite men,
who strangely, two or three generations ago,
would have had those same women as their concubines, as their second wives,
but now all of a sudden felt a tremendous amount of shame when it came to accepting the fact that
institutionalised concubinage was part of their own heritage.
The majority of Devadasis, it seems, were actually opposed to reform.
By the time the British left India in 1947, they had passed comprehensive legislation
that forbade the marriage of children to God and the giving of lend for young girls.
The Devadasi were banned from living in temple and dancing in processions and private homes.
These laws effectively eradicated the Devadasi elite.
But in the villages and towns of the Devadasi belt, far from the notice
and concern of India's ruling class,
economic hardship in the Dalit community
ensured that the system continued.
Government officials deny that dedications still happen,
but in spite of the risk of fine and imprisonment,
for some, the traditional practice of dedicating a daughter to the goddess
remains the answer to their economic need.
Yeah, let's go.
It's too much torture for the girl.
Do you have a dream for your future?
The irony of trying to abolish the Devadasi system is that now many girls from the same community
are simply trafficked into city brothels.
No longer elevated by dedication to the goddess, cut off from their villages and families,
these girls are condemned to do the one thing
that all the legislation was attempting to abolish - sex work.
And if they want to be out, they don't have the right to be out?
But if they are minor and they want to be out?
Again - five, six.
Five, six, seven - go.
As part of its victory over colonialism,
post-independence India reclaimed its heritage.
When they cherry-picked their own history,
they renamed and reconstituted the dance tradition of the Devadasi as Bharatnatyam,
India's most popular national dance.
The improvisation was completely taken out.
Everything was choreographed, structured.
The eroticism of the poetry, the poetry itself was deleted
and replaced by religious poetry.
So Devadasi histories have always in our generation, for example, always been thought of in terms of a fall.
A kind of radical shift from a golden, pure religious age
into a kind of decadent,
degenerate culture of prostitution.
And that in a sense is the reverse,
mirror reversing of what went on with their dance forms.
The Devadasi system elevated some and fed others.
It created an artistic community and kept families afloat.
And while over time the age of consent in mainstream society
was raised, the Devadasi, pushed to the margins, got left behind.
Successive interventions robbed them of their social mobility and their status
without resolving their economic condition or their place in Indian society.
Do you think that she is strong?
She said, no more in my family.
What do you think?
My mother is very clever and doing the best things.
It's all the worst problems.
And singing also.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]