Literary and other forms of historical evidence lend credence to the view that the devadasi tradition that is still to be found in parts of India today, can trace its origins to the distant past. The continued practice of this tradition, with minor variations from era to era and region to region, can be linked to the pursuit of dance, music and worship in temples. To look after certain works in temples and to please the gods through dance and music, ancient kings and nobles resorted to the practice of appointing women to thus serve the temple. The words Ganika and Devadasi occur frequently in ancient and medieval texts. Ganika literally means ‘property of the public’, and to use this word to denote a class of women is a probable confirmation of the view that their duties also included the sexual. Indeed, these women. who were generally described as beautiful and well versed in the fine arts, were known to grant sexual favors to kings, nobles, and priests.
References to the system are also found in several Puranas, of which the most widely known is the Renuka Purana which is, till today, taken to provide divine sanction to the practice of the tradition. Renuka was the daughter of the king Renuka Raja and his wife Bhogavathi, of the Ikshavaku clan. She was married to the sage Jamadagni who lived in a place with seven hills, believed to be the present day Ugargol. She bore him five sons, of whom Parashurama, the youngest, was believed to be the incarnation of Vishnu. Once, Renuka was cursed by her husband to develop leprosy, when he believed she had ‘sinned’ by admiring another. Thus cursed and shunned, she left home and went to the Ramashrunga hills (the present day Yellamma Hillock in Saundatti) where she received the protection of Mathangi, the daughter of sage Mathanga. Here she was treated and cured by two holy men, Yakkayya and Jogayya. Jamadagni, angered that his wife had been able to overcome his curse, ordered his sons to behead their mother. The four sons who disobeyed were cursed to become eunuchs (‘putting sons in saris’). The fifth, Parashurama, obeyed and beheaded Renuka. Jamadagni was pleased and granted him a boon. Parashurama asked that his mother be brought back to life. Since her own head had rolled off and could not be found, a ‘low’ caste girl called Yellamma was beheaded and her head was placed on Renuka’s body to make her whole and bring her back to life.
In a later development, while Parashurama was away meditating to Lord Shiva for the grant of divine weapons, the Kshatriya king Karthiveerya attacked and killed Jamadagni (on a full moon day in December, known to this date as Hosthila Hunnimé). Renuka was thus widowed. An enraged Parashurama vowed to cleanse the earth of all kshatriyas. A month later, on another full moon day (known to this date as Muththaidé Hunnimé or Banada Hunnimé) Jamadagni came back to life through his own divine powers, and Renuka was no longer a widow.
All the above legends contribute to the devadasi tradition in Karnataka. The Goddess to whom girls are dedicated is called Yellamma. The most important seat of dedication is Ramashrunga or the Yellamma Hillock at Saundatti, where there is a Yellamma temple. The dedicated girls break their bangles and live as ‘widows’ for a month each year, starting on Hosthila Hunnimé. A month later, on Banada Hunnimé, they are released from widowhood and don bangles again. Like the leprosy-struck and shunned Yellamma, the devadasis beg for a living during certain months each year. A parallel cult of Jogappas initiates male dedicates who wear saris and live like women throughout their lives.
While the Renuka story explains some of the practices associated with the devadasi tradition, Kalpana Desai and others quote references to indicate the various circumstances under which women became devadasis. There were women who volunteered (known as Dutta, Bhakthé), women who were sold to temples (known as Vikratha), women who were accomplished in the fine arts and were, therefore, decorated by kings and nobles (known as Rudraganika, Gopika), and so on. However, despite the above categories, deceit and economic distress appear to have been the most common means of recruiting devadasis.
In ancient Karnataka, the devadasis attached to temples were housed in rent-free and tax-free houses in streets surrounding the temples. These streets were called Sulékeri. All ancient capitals had them. Words like Patra and Sulé occur in literature that correspond over time to the devadasi tradition. While the Patra was assigned the main role of dancing, the Sulé performed more menial chores such as cleaning the temple, weaving garlands, and fanning the deity. Sometimes she also served as assistant dancer to the Patra. A majority of them made their living through royal grants and gifts. Patras commanded high respect in society. Over time, as the tradition degenerated, the term Sulé came to denote a prostitute.
Foreign invasions, the destruction of temples, the weakening of monarchy, and the influence of western rule and education contributed to the gradual transformation and deterioration of the devadasi tradition. In the absence of royal patronage, service to temples ceased to be an attractive proposition to women from the better-off sections of society. Perhaps, increased levels of literacy and awareness among the more ‘higher’ castes also deterred them from dedicating their daughters. There was a period when allowing a daughter to learn dancing was itself viewed as a step towards prostituting her. This may have served to focus the attention of men on women of the lower castes, and the devadasi system offered a convenient ploy to exploit these women by men of all classes and castes. The element of religious sanction lent it social sanction.
Today, recruits are almost exclusively from the oppressed castes and economically vulnerable families. A major crisis in the family is reason enough to dedicate a daughter. The absence of a male child in the family is a major reason for dedication. Not permitted to marry but permitted to enter into physical relationships with men in exchange for their support to her family, it enables families without sons to use a daughter for financial gain without the stigma of keeping her unmarried, and giving her the acceptable label of a devadasi as against the unacceptable label of a prostitute.
Nithya Sumangali or ever-auspicious is how the devadasi is sometimes described. This is so because she is never widowed (the worst status for an Indian woman). Because of this, she is also believed to be more powerful than others. Her singing and dancing can bring rain to drought-hit areas, her presence at social ceremonies ensures that evil spirits that may be present to violate such occasions will cling to her and spare the others. Paradoxically, though, she is also considered immoral, a blemish on the village, a ‘kept’ woman who can be discarded at will, a woman whose children are never acknowledged by their father, a person who has no right to maintenance for herself or her children from the men who have lived with her. Ironically, even though the practice of this tradition is now banned by law, law itself offers them no succour since they cannot ‘prove’ that they are devadasis.
For historical reasons, Karnataka has been location where the devadasi tradition has been as its flourishing best. It is here that the temple of Yellamma is located, on the Yellamma Hillock at Saundatti, Belgaum District. This temple attracts the largest crowds and has seen the largest numbers of dedications from among believers in the tradition. Full moon days are particularly auspicious, and until even a decade or two ago, several hundred dedications would occur each year. Since the banning of dedications by law, not only have the dedication processes undergone transformation, dedications have also been moved to numerous smaller and lesser known temples in the area or even into the homes of Yellamma’s devotees. Not surprisingly, the devadasi-endemic areas of northern Karnataka have also served as major haunts of pimps and brothel keepers recruiting girls to serve in red-light districts of many parts of the country.
The Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act was framed in 1982 under pressure from social activists. It took two more years before it came into force in 1984, after securing assent of the President of India. Nevertheless, and dedications continue to take place.