Minister for rural stagnation ignores devdasis

Saudatti (Belgaum): Exactly 17 years after the primitive practice was banned in the state, the devdasi tradition still thrives in Belgaum. Ironically, Union minister for rural development Babagouda S. Patil is the sitting MP from here.

Although organisations working to eradicate the problem have managed to rehabilitate 3,300 women and lodged as many cases with the police, not a single conviction has been achieved. This is because the Karnataka Devdasi Prohibition Act of 1982 requires photographic or videographic evidence, which, considering the covert and secretive nature of the tradition, is virtually impossible. The movement has gone underground after it was declared illegal under the act. Priests, however, continue to convince mothers to marry their daughters to temple deities covertly. "The core devdasi areas are Hukkeri, Gokak, Athani and Raibagh. Here superstition is rife among villagers and girls are being converted to devdasis," said Kempawwa, a devdasi for 18 years who is now rehabilitated and travels through the district trying to convince mothers not to marry their daughters off to deities. According to her, girls are married off to a temple deity in their infancy and spend the rest of their lives celibate, but grant sexual favours to temple priests and even their own relatives. Some are sold to brothels in Mumbai and Pune.

According to Kempawwa, the area with the most number of devdasis is Athani, which has elected the minister for Kannada and culture, Ms Leeladevi R. Prasad, to the Karnataka Assembly. "In this area, there are about 20 to 25 devdasis scattered in villages. They are being recruited by the Yellamma temple at Kokatnur," another former devdasi, Kempowwa Sodatti, said. "These people surface mainly during the time of the Yellamma jatra which starts in December and ends in March. About five lakh devotees from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka attend the jatra. Festivities are held on every full moon day. This is also the time when priests try and convince mothers to marry their daughters off to the deity," she explained. According to Kempowwa Sodatti and other rehabilitated devdasis, the tradition still continues at Kokatnur, but has stopped entirely at the other Yellamma temple at Saudatti. "Because this temple is run by the state government and also because of a sustained awareness campaign, there are no devdasis here," M. Suresh of the devdasi rehabilitation programme told The Asian Age.

However, this is not entirely the truth. When this correspondent visited the Renuka Yellamma temple situated on a hill in Saudatti, evidence of devdasi activity was apparent. Everyone - from the vermilion seller to the paan seller to the kurubas (shepherds) who frequent the area - spoke of the devdasis. "You come during the jatra. You will see them. They let their hair loose and do not wear any clothes. Some have matted hair," a vermilion seller at the temple said. [In fact, the matted hair, supposedly a trademark of these women, is so unhygienic that nests of lice were not an uncommon sight when the devdasi rehabilitation project members finally convinced them to bathe.] Even as one approaches the temple, the stateís efforts to eradicate the devdasi tradition are clear. Wall paintings, banners and graffiti urging devotees to help eradicate the devdasi tradition occupy every square inch of government buildings. A taxi driver, Mohammad Ali, who had made three trips in as many days, ferrying devotees to the temple, said "You should come back during the jatra, that is when you get to see the devdasis," he said.

However, the moment one enters the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, authorities deny the existence of the devdasis. "I donít know what you are talking about. There is no such thing as a devdasi," the executive officer of the temple, Mr K. Grampoadyaya, said. "There is a practice of women fasting on Tuesdays and Fridays in these parts. This is called muttu kattodu (tying a pearl necklace). This is sometimes confused for the devdasi tradition," he added. When asked about the difference between fasting and devdasi tradition was, he said he had no knowledge of the tradition.

Temple officials, though being employees of the state, refuse to comment on the efforts of another state government department, the devdasi rehabilitation project, to eradicate the tradition. "We know they have painted slogans on the walls. But this temple has nothing to do with devdasis," he said.

This lack of cooperation has resulted in efforts of people like Suresh and rehabilitated devdasis like Kempawwa being frustrated. "The main thing on our agenda is to get the Yellamma temple at Kokatnur transferred under the state. This way rehabilitation will be easier. But our efforts in other parts have been successful," Mr Suresh said. The tradition, which originally required the devdasis to merely maintain the temple premises and assist the priest during rituals, turned into a racket involving sexual gratification and even prostitution.

"I was about this high then," Kempawwa says, indicating her knees, narrating how her mother married Kempawwa off to the deity at the Yellamma temple in Belgaum. "I didnít know what was happening. The next thing I realised was that I was a devdasi and could not get married or lead a normal life. Throughout the next 18 years, I felt I had to get away from this and be free. Finally, with the help of the Karnataka Womenís Development Corporation, I broke away in 1991," she recalls. "And we have had evidence of these girls being sold off to brothels in Mumbai after a few years of living as devdasis. The National Human Rights Commission has informed us that almost all Kannada-speaking prostitutes in Mumbai are from Belgaum. But the veracity of this claim is not yet verified," Suresh said.

He should know, along with his team of rehabilitated devdasis, Suresh has worked constantly for the last eight years trying to stop the practice in the district. He has succeeded to the extent that most devdasis now come from the neighbouring districts of Gulbarga and Meruj. "Our main fight is against the Yellamma temple at Kokatnur. Many leading figures in this country have called Belgaum the shame of India because of its backwardness and devdasi problem. But if we succeed, this district will be the countryís pride," he said.

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