Every year in the Hindu month of Magh (January-February) more than half a million people gather around the tiny temple of the goddess Yellamma in Saundatti. Saundatti is a nondescript, backwater town of some 25,000 inhabitants. The Yellamma Temple stands on a barren, rocky hill on the outskirts, known as Yellamma Hill. The festival takes place at the time of the full moon, but pilgrims flock to the town several days earlier. They come from all over Central and Southern India, though mainly from Karnataka and the adjoining state of Maharashtra.
Most of the pilgrims make the journey in creaking, overloaded bullock carts, an indication that they belong to the less privileged sections of society. Many even come on foot – barefoot at that – from hundreds of kilometres away. This is intended to appease Yellamma, and often to thank her for some wish fulfilled.
As the pilgrims converge on Saundatti, one has the impression of being at a kind of Hindu Woodstock. Everywhere is an explosion of colour – brightly coloured sarees, fancy dyed turbans – and everyone has painted their faces with yellow turmeric powder. On top of this, everybody is cheerful and friendly – good vibrations are definitely in the air. As full moon day draws close, Yellamma Temple is surrounded by an enormous, restless camp of bullock carts and pilgrims.
This may sound like any other religious festival in India, but it is not. Yellamma is the patron of the devadasi or “godly slave-girls”. Tradition has it that on the full moon day of Bharata Poornima, young girls will be given away in an act of “devotion” to Yellamma. The rites are often conducted by eunuchs – castrated, saree-clad men – who are themselves devotees of the goddess.
After the rites, the girls are regarded as slaves of Yellamma, who have to do her bidding. Traditionally, the girls sang and danced in temples to please the gods, a task which was highly regarded. Being a devadasi carried prestige; many girls were given generous grants of land or money by kings or other benefactors. At some time in the past, however, this tradition degenerated and the girls became concubines, whom the temple priests hired them out to any passing lecher. In a word,the devadasi became sanctified prostitutes. Backed by convoluted legend and tradition, the girls are also regarded as goddesses themselves, who have to treat all men as gods – catering mainly to their sexual needs.
Today, many devadasi end up in the hands of unscrupulous priests, who in turn sell them to pimps. These procurors take the girls to the red-light areas of Bombay, Delhi or some other big city. In Bombay’s infamous brothels along Falkland Road and Shuklaji Street, there are little prayer shrines devoted to Yellamma, and some of the prostitutes sport Yellamma tattoos. After a few years in the trade, most devadasi end up as diseased wrecks. In Bombay, virtually all such women suffer from one or several forms of venereal disease, and the rate of HIV infection is reportedly about 50%.
It is estimated that each year some five thousand young girls become devadasi. There are many reasons to devote a girl to the goddess. Some parents pray for the fulfilment of a wish or cure from a disease, and thus offer their daughters to Yellamma. Others hope to be blessed with the birth of a son. Some parents cannot afford the dowry to marry off a daughter and opt to dispose of her in this way. In some cases the girls suffer from skin diseases, which are interpreted as Yellamma’s calling card. So is the matting or knotting up of a girl’s hair, due usually to lack of hygiene.
The majority of Yellamma’s devotees are found among the poor lower castes, amongst whom the birth of a girl is regarded as a misfortune. Consequently, the girls’ health, hygiene and nutrition are often grossly neglected. Tragically, many parents are too poorly educated to understand the girls’ wretched future as devadasi.
As the exploitation of these girls in the name of religion is blatantly obvious, there have been various attempts to stop the practice. With the creation of the Devadasi Act in 1982, turning a girl into a temple prostitute was made illegal and punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment as well as by a fine of 5000 rupees – just over US$ 150.