MUMBAI, India – Hanuman Galli, a nondescript red-light district in Worli in the Indian city of Mumbai, came alive as a group of around 35 women, flanked by a large crowd of almost 200 people, walked in a procession carrying the idol of a goddess on their heads, faces streaked with turmeric and vermillion, yellow threads of red and white beads around their necks.
Although the festivities have been held by the women sex workers, known as Devadasis, for over three decades, recent increased awareness of the women, who are often victims of trafficking and abuse, has meant that the general population is becoming more sensitive to their plight.
“Earlier people would come drunk and touch the women inappropriately. There would be brawls and fights, but now all that has stopped,” Sailesh Shetty, one of the organizers of the procession, told EFE.
The festivities are dedicated to southern goddess Yellamma, also known as Renuka, the patron god of the devadasis, to whom they are married off as young girls, with a pledge to serve the goddess and the temple for the rest of their lives.
On Sunday evening, the Devadasis, most of whom migrated from southern India to Mumbai, walked on hot charcoal, danced and sang leading up to a widowhood ritual, which includes removing the traditional signs of marriage that an Indian woman sports, such as breaking the glass bangles on their wrists.
The festivities were held amid a renewed debate in India over the practice that was outlawed by Indian authorities in the 1980s.
Despite the ban, the rituals continue to be carried out, and Indian media reports in February this year exposed a temple ritual in Tamil Nadu which resembled an induction into the devadasi system.
The news sparked outrage in the country, and led the National Human Rights Commission in September to order an inquiry, saying that if the reports were true, they “amount to a violation of human rights including Rights to Education, Life and Dignity, besides Children’s rights.”
In its annual report for 2015-2016, the National Commission for Women said the tradition began as a religious practice, in which a woman willingly embraced a life of devotion to God and His temple, but that it has since “degenerated into a heinous practice wherein the ‘Joginie/Devdasi,’ as she is called, is forced into prostitution to serve the local village elders of the higher castes.”
The report added that while it is less widespread now, the tradition is still practiced in parts of southern India.
Shetty agrees that the practice is still common, especially in his native region of northern Karnataka.
“Many poor families call devadasis home secretly to induct their young girls into the system to sell them off into sex work later,” Shetty says.
Experts and nonprofits who work with gender rights have long criticized the system as veiled prostitution.
“The practice should be recognized as temple prostitution and trafficking,” Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research, who have been campaigning against the practice for years now, told EFE.
“There is no political will to address the issue as parties have large support bases among the Brahmins, the priests and the rich temple patrons. What we need are more women politicians so that there’s a critical mass talking about this and not a silent minority,” Kumari said.
According to a report by the National Commission for Women in 2006, there are between 44,000-2,500,000 Devadasis in India, mostly concentrated in the southern Indian states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and in Maharashtra in western India.