September 20, 2010
Prostitutes of god
By Interview by Matilda Battersby
Journalist Sarah Harris has made a documentary about temple
prostitutes in south India - girls dedicated to the Hindu goddess
Devadasi before puberty who spend their lives selling sex.
Former Independent journalist Sarah Harris has made a documentary
about India's temple prostitutes - young girls who are dedicated to
the Hindu goddess Devadasi at a young age and support their families
as sex workers.
The first instalment of the four-part exclusively online documentary
'Prostitutes of God' goes live today on VBS.tv [http://www.vbs.tv].
Harris talked The Independent Online about making the film:
I first went to India after I left The Independent three years ago. I
wanted to run away and do something really different, so I went to
volunteer with a charity in southern India which rescues victims of
On my very first day there I stumbled into a meeting of Devadasi
prostitutes. I was told that they were temple prostitutes, but didn't
have any understanding of what that meant. It sounded absolutely
I began to research it and in February 2008 was invited to northern
Karnatakar, which is the centre of the tradition in India. I
interviewed a few of the women and wrote an article about it for Vice
magazine. But visiting them stayed with me, and I wanted to find out
When you approach a Devadasi girl for interview the response varies
hugely. There's a huge spectrum of women. A really wealthy brothel
madam in Mumbai would be quite proud to talk about what she does. But
in very poor rural communities, like in Karnatakar, they're much more
difficult to talk to. These young women are ostracised and exploited
and they're ashamed of what they do. They wish they could get married,
but they can't and are in this dreadful prison.
The only thing that has changed since the Devadasi practise was made
illegal in 1988 is that the ceremonies have been driven underground.
It's still very common in some parts of India. A Westerner wouldn't
know to look at the girls that they are Devadasi, but Indians know on
sight who they are and what they do. Really it comes down to caste.
Caste is a massively complicated issue still in India. My
understanding of it is that originally when the Devadasi tradition
first came about, the women dedicated were from high caste families,
even royalty. They held a very special place in the Indian culture:
were incredible dancers, poets, artisans. They had specific religious
roles to play within the temple performing various sacred religious
rites. They were almost like nuns and it had nothing to do with sex.
It was more like being a priestess.
As film shows how much the tradition has deteriorated over the
centuries. Specifically in the 19th Century when the Christian
missionaries came, the Devadasi became less well thought of. These
days it's very much a low caste tradition. Girls from the Madiga
caste, otherwise known as the "untouchable caste," have really limited
prospects. They can be agricultural labourers, sewage collectors or
prostitutes, essentially. As prostitution is the most lucrative, a lot
of Madiga women get into sex work.
Some girls are dedicated to the goddess at age two or three. They
won't actually enter into sex work until they reach puberty at around
twelve. The girls most at risk of being dedicated will have grown up
in very matriarchal Devadasi communities. There aren't any men. They
don't have fathers. So there probably is some understanding from a
young age that they're not from traditional families, they don't have
The girls probably won't have a real understanding of the sex work
element until what they call their 'first night'. This is when their
virginity is sold to a local man, normally the highest bidder. He
might be a local farmer, landowner or businessman. Some of them say,
"I was dedicated to the goddess, but I didn't know this was what was
When I first went to India I thought some of the women might consider
it a kind of honour to be a Devadasi, because of it is an act of
religious devotion. Sexuality and divinity are very closely entwined
in the Hindi faith. Religion is closely linked to sexuality and
beauty. But I think there's very little religious link left now. Most
of the women that we spoke to don't even pay any heed to the
traditional religious practises of the goddess. They see it as a
HIV is very prevalent in the community. Our translator, who works very
closely with these communities, describes HIV as being like plucking a
bunch of grapes. As soon as a woman is infected then her whole family
becomes infected. Every man she sleeps with then becomes infected.
Then the men pass it onto their wives. It's very difficult to measure
the disease's prevalence because many don't understand what that
There is widespread ignorance about AIDS and HIV in those communities.
And a huge stigma attached to using condoms. People die of HIV related
illnesses and they call it "dying of a fever." The infected often go
undiagnosed. There's also huge disparity. One of the towns we went to
had a huge NGO which was campaigning for the rights of sex workers,
distributing condoms and educational materials, so the Devadasi were
quite switched on about it.
It's very difficult for girls to leave the profession. You see groups
of former Devadasi becoming social activists and campaigners against
the tradition. That's one way out. Another is to become an educator or
a social worker. There is a huge movement to try and stop dedications
happening, and the impetus for that is coming from the grass roots.
The former Devadasi women.
Living a normal life in India after having been a Devadasi prostitute
is extremely, extremely hard because they're seen as damaged goods. In
India marriage is everything. If there's any suggestion that a girl
has had sex before marriage then she's ostracised from society. Women
are still stoned to death in some villages for those kinds of
transgressions. So it's very difficult for them to rebuild their
The rest of the four-part documentary will be screened on VBS.tv later this week
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