The other woman.
Guileless, and daunting; hidden and desired, they’d be several like her. Chosen by God, condemned by man. Her story has been told, many times over. She was despaired, and will always be. Everybody knew her: who she was, and what she was.
A Devadasi can’t be widowed, they’d tell her. A Devadasi can’t marry a mortal. Cursed by birth; the one without a face, without a name. The one that was never meant to be.
She was a woman, yes.
But, the other one…
“She had to become a man. In a patriarchal system, the Devadasis occupied that position: one assigned to a man, one of privilege. They were used, these women. She would always be represented as a male member of the family. That was her responsibility: to take care of the household. At times, she is forbidden from partaking in certain rituals. For, she doesn’t have a husband. As a Devadasi, she has no control over her life. It was never hers to begin with,” said Nazar sitting on the porch beside the guest room. Behind him, little girls gathered in groups. Some whispered, and others inched closer to where we were. They were curious, all of them.
There was one in their midst who never spoke. She didn’t have a group, like the rest. Her feet were smeared in mud. Her hands had paint on them. She had brown curly hair. She poked her little toes into the sand letting insects climb over her nails. They didn’t bother her.
Here, everyone had a spot — the hall near the kitchen, the little garden with tiny shrubs, vegetables and flowers, beneath tall trees across the road, classrooms with crayons and colourful paper. They all found their spots where they’d gather every evening with books.
The little lotus pond was hers. And, we’d find her there, quite often.
At her spot.
“A Devadasi doesn’t look different,” said Nazar sipping on his tea. “She wears a bindi, thali, kumkum, and bangles. Everything that a married woman would normally adorn. There are subtle differences, though. In the thali. Sometimes, the colour or number of beads may vary. However, these identifiers can’t always be taken into consideration. For, women from certain castes wear similar thalis.”
He then went on to explain how the tradition evolved over the years, and where its contemporary identity lies today.
In ancient and medieval India, a Devadasi occupied a unique position within the prevalent social order. Some even held ranks of responsibility and power in the temple hierarchy. Therefore, by association, she was conferred with prerogatives both religious and economic.
But her ritualistic status did not merit a higher social status. She didn’t deserve any, many argued. For, she was impure, immoral and unworthy of reform. She became an accolade for some, and a curse for many.
She was ostracised by those who ruled her, and those she called her own.
In the hands of the temples, lied her fate. As dynasties reigned and civilisations fell, the tradition saw an aggressive decline over centuries. The beginning of the second millennium CE witnessed strategic destruction of temples with invasion from the north western frontiers which led to the loss of royal patrons thereby forcing Devadasis into a life of poverty and prostitution.
As wealth in temples dwindled, so did their chance to survive. With altered social, cultural and political climes, the gradual decaying of the tradition became inevitable. Ancestrally, the Devadasis were never identified by a particular caste. Yet, a caste-based structure flourished in its realms. They were broadly categorised into ritualistic and non-ritualistic performers. While the upper caste women had the privilege of mastering the nuances of performing arts, the ones who belonged to the lower caste were assigned menial jobs.
In the 1800s, the political discourse in the country gave rise to a plethora of social movements that instigated the abolition of pernicious traditions which encouraged continual abuse of women in the pretext of upholding religious ideologies and preserving national culture. This gave rise to reformists comprising Christian missionaries, writers and other social thinkers, and the revivalists who spearheaded the Hindu revival movement that opposed Western practices launching separate initiatives that determined the fate of the women and the tradition.
While the former believed that Devadasis were entitled to enjoy a marital status: one that frees them from the shackles of immorality; the latter vehemently opposed the movement for they claimed it would jeopardise preservation of practices that idolised Hindu culture, and religion. Moreover, conservative nationalists like S Sathyamurthy feared that the eradication of the practice would threaten the existence of temple priests, and that non-Brahmins could perhaps demand the abolition of priests altogether.
Other caste groups, on the other hand, ousted these women who belonged to their caste for they feared it would taint them forever. Nonetheless, they extended support towards legislations that would outlaw the practise for that would set in motion efforts to purify their identity, and sanitise their history.
Although the progressive and conservative groups had sections that represented different schools of thought, an integral motive behind eliminating the regressive practice involved highlighting ideologies that celebrated the purity of an ideal woman: one who doesn’t stray from the path of morality and righteousness.
The good woman.
That’s who she had to become: chaste, and pure. So, it was decided for her. Like it always was. She was never asked. But she was claimed by many. Some wished to preserve her honour. Some fought to suppress her. Some said they’d rid her of her indignity.
They all believed she was immoral.
She was free now, they told her. But it never left her: the skewed gaze, the hushed whispers, the reluctance to let her in, the shame of it all. She’d always be unwanted and unforgiven.
She’d always be — the other one.
“It was religion that encouraged this practice. A Dalit woman has no way out. So, she has no choice but to accept her fate. There are several reasons why parents dedicate their daughters to the deity. Some even saw it as a privilege. For a lower caste family, it was often seen as a badge of honour to have a member be chosen by God. It was the priest who’d make that decision more than often. Only he could tell if the Goddess resided within you or not,” said Nazar shaking his head in disbelief. He then pointed towards a young girl reciting poetry near the kitchen. She held her pen in the air and muttered under her breath. Her long braids swung back and forth with every verse.
“Do you see that little girl sitting all by herself near the hall?”
“Her name is Padma. She is an athlete. Her mother, Shekhamma, is a Devadasi. When she was young, she visited a temple near her village. She ran around the premises for a while and after a few games, she walked to the priest and sat on his lap. It was unexpected. For, she was Dalit, and he was Brahmin. He then declared that the Goddess lived in her. How else would a Dalit girl have the courage to touch a Brahmin man? Let her become a Devadasi and serve the Goddess, he said. Her family believed it was a blessing that she was chosen. There are many like her here — the chosen ones.”
“Do they ever meet their fathers?” we asked him.
“Yes, and No. But they aren’t accepted or even acknowledged by their biological fathers. The concept of a father is mired in confusion in their heads. The girls struggle to define the role of a father in their lives. Sometimes, they get emotionally distraught. They are constantly reminded that they are different. In official records, the father’s name is always a blank. They look at others who come from ‘normal’ families, and feel helpless,” said Nazar gesturing a young woman to sit beside us.
Her name was Akshaya. She was dedicated when she was two months old. Since her grandmother was a Devadasi, the tradition had to be upheld by the daughters in the family. She had a muthu around her neck when she was young but it was only when she turned 12 that she realised who she was. At 13, she was the youngest Devadasi identified in the state before being rescued and brought to Visthar. She is 23 and works with the organisation today.
In a distance, children gathered hollow tin cans towards the centre. Some large, some small. Paint cans and brushes lay astray in the corner. In colours, the children sought themselves. No patterns were drawn but they all had intent. Gratias and Anusha stood beside them explaining what they ought to do. They were students from Bangalore. In their midst stood Laxman, a theatre artiste, patiently observing the children. He was from Dharwad.
Days later, on a moonlit night, when the children went to sleep, we would all sit in a circle across the road discussing humanity, and selfishness.
‘Why should my caste determine my worth?’, questioned Sunkappa, one evening.
‘If you have blood flowing through your veins, so do I.
What does an untouchable look like? You and me.
How then can one be impure if we are nothing but flesh and bone?’
In the silence of the night, we listened to laments of their struggle through songs neither structured nor formed. Songs of the powerless, they were called; those composed in anguish. Then, there were songs that spoke of loss, of better times, of a world unbound by prejudices. And, they were all sung, that night. And, many nights later.
“Ten years ago, the practice was prevalent in these regions. Today, however, it is forbidden to dedicate a young girl to the temple. In the last four years, only 15 cases were reported in five districts. Earlier, we’d have at least 50 or 60 cases per year. They were several that went unreported. However, a disturbing trend has cropped up in the past decade as a result of criminalising the practice. Thus, we had to redefine all contemporary notions associated with the Devadasi tradition in general. Child marriage saw an unprecedented rise amongst lower-caste communities in several districts,” said Nazar.
“Why?” we asked him.
“Because then she wouldn’t be a Devadasi. She’d be a wife. And, that would give her honour. It would give her dignity. She wouldn’t be lonely. For, she’d have a husband. It was the lesser of two evils, you see. Marriage would bring them acceptance. And, that’s all they’ve always wanted. So, they made their choice,” he said stepping aside and gesturing us to follow him, “Until a few years ago, the age bracket could lie anywhere between 14 and 16. Today, it is 15 to 17. Once upon a time, it was the right age at which a young girl was offered to the public as a Devadasi. Today, they look for a mate who’d give her a respectable life; something that the Devadasis believe they were never entitled to. So, they wish to be relieved of their responsibilities. It becomes a burden, after a while: to look after a girl child.”
And, that’s what she’ll continue to be.
Padma stood on the bottom step. She had a notebook, a pen and some blank sheets in her hands. Strolling beside her were toddlers arguing over the colour of sunset. Some chased frogs. A few sat behind trees and told stories of fading colours, and ringing sounds, of cracked walls and high roofs, of houses with red bricks, of kings and queens who lived in places far away. They made them all up: these stories. Some from books, some from memory.
“Four years ago, there was a case,” said Nazar, “One day, Padma came to us and said, ‘My friend is getting married nearby.’ She was in sixth grade. We informed UNICEF and went to the village. The family promised us that they’d call off the wedding, and that they’d wait for her to turn 18. The next morning, at 3:30 am, they performed the rituals, and pretended as though nothing happened. They vehemently denied conducting any ceremony. Someone informed us and we called the Child Welfare Committee. Despite strict laws, people have discovered loopholes in the system. At 14, the rituals are performed but the girl will remain with her parents till she turns 18. Only then, will they send her to her husband’s home. In this case, the village committee will make that decision.”
A few days ago, a similar incident was reported in one of the neighbouring villages. Asha and Sunkappa rushed to the spot and held a meeting with the family. They warned them of legal repercussions. Although the Juvenile Justice Act protects any child who is at imminent risk of marriage before attaining the legal age and penalises parents, family members and anyone else likely to be responsible for solemnisation of such a marriage, there are many children who don’t get the help they need.
“Such marriages are not permissible in the court of law. In fact, Anganwadi teachers are asked to keep a constant look out for incidents, and can be punished if they fail to report them. If a child enrolled in any school is married at a young age, the head master will be arrested. The fear of suffering severe consequences has led to a slight reduction in the number of cases reported every year,” said Nazar leading us to the entrance of the campus, “But there’s a lot of grey area that needs to addressed. People have found a way around the situation. They always do. For instance, some forge birth certificates through doctors or other individuals proving that the child is already 18.”
Child marriage is the most barbaric form of human rights violations, he told us as we crossed the road and walked towards the fields. Once she is married, she is stripped of all her rights. She loses everything. And, she has no control over her life.
Certainly none over her body. Her world collapses before her eyes.
In the end, that’s how she will be remembered. The one that never got away. And, that’s who she’ll become.
The fallen one…
(to be continued…)
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