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Saturday, 29 June, 2002, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Servants of god
View of an Indian village
There are tens of thousands of devadasis in India

Lakshmi must have been stunning once - her high, prominent cheek bones and hazel eyes hint at beauty. But that was before she was ravaged by Aids.

Now her body is emaciated - her skin shrivelled. Two hours after her death she looks nothing like the bright vivacious 20-year-old her mother remembers.

As her brothers prepare for Lakshmi's funeral, friends shuffle past her corpse, some garlanding her, others touching her feet. A few shed a tear but there is no outpouring of grief.

Death is all too common in this tiny village.

Lakshmi was a victim of a once commonplace system, now outlawed, but still flourishing in isolated parts of southern India.

'Auction'

As a devadasis, or servant of god, she was dedicated at puberty to the goddess Yellamma.

Her mother - struggling to bring up her six children - accepted the advice of the local priest. When Lakshmi reached puberty - the course of her life was decided by the village elders.

After a short auction her future, and virginity, were sold for a pittance.

At the age of 12, Lakshmi became a concubine for a 60-year-old man. Her friends say she was relatively lucky. Her master was a good person - not too demanding, never violent, and seldom drunk.


A devadasis's principle occupation in the eyes of many is the flesh trade

He even managed to pay the family a small retainer.

But when he died, Lakshmi's security, and that of her unborn son, were bleak.

No one else in the village was interested in her, and even if she had met a nice young man her status as a devadasis would have prevented them marrying.

Rituals

Like all devadasis, Lakshmi was in effect married to the deity, Yellamma. She was expected to carry out rituals at the village temple, and to sing and dance at festivals.

She was invited to all the village's social functions. In this area marriages and house-warmings are incomplete without a devadasis. Evil spirits are said to cling to them, sparing the guests.

Girl prostitutes in Bombay
Many of the devadasis end up as prostitutes in Bombay
But a devadasis's principle occupation - in the eyes of many - is the flesh trade. A concubine may be very different to a prostitute, but that nuance is missed by most.

Easily identifiable by their red beaded necklaces devadasis are a common sight in India's red light districts.

Most have been targeted by the pimps who tour the areas of southern India where the devadasis system is still endemic. Tales of easy fortunes made in Bombay lure the girls.

Their poverty-stricken families, or greedy masters, are happy to take the cash the pimps offer.

Red-light district

Once in Bombay's infamous Kamatipura area the teenage girls take their places at the front of the cages - forced to tout their bodies to the highest bidder.

Life in India's largest red-light district is gruesome. The women live and work in rat-infested brothels.

Their children have little hope - soon learning the ways of the street. Urchins offer you everything and anything: women from all over the Subcontinent, and drugs from further afield.

The heroin derivative brown sugar, is a favourite.

And then there is illness. Aids casts a shadow over Kamatipura - the disease is rampant. Protected sex is a luxury few of these women can afford. Here the customers have sex on their terms.

Devadasis have a peculiar position amongst Kamatipura's underclass. They have a divine mandate for what they do.

But they also have little choice. Lakshmi was typical, her fate was decided for her when she was just 12 years old. What does a child of that age know about sex, or for that matter, religion?


How can someone say no to the priest who recognises that your child has been chosen to serve God?

During the days of the British Raj the devadasis system was outlawed, but it persisted. After independence the Indian Government also banned the practice.

But there are still tens of thousands of devadasis. A government survey in just one district of one southern Indian state found over 8,000.

Some outsiders blame the girls' families, but surely that is the prerogative of the relatively wealthy.

The most an illiterate, uneducated villager can hope to earn as an agricultural labourer is 20 rupees a day, that is 50 cents. Not a lot if you have six children to bring up.

'God-fearing people'

And then there is religion. A potent force in any society. But here in rural India people are truly god-fearing. Bad harvests, illness, death - in fact all misfortunes - are a result of divine retribution.

Indian Aids patient
Nearly 1.3% per cent of India's population are thought to be HIV positive

How can someone say no to the priest who recognises that your child has been chosen to serve god?

Lakshmi's friends are philosophical about her premature death. She was unlucky, she got the virus. Most are convinced they will survive the lottery.

But a couple of the devadasis who have just returned from Kamatipura don't seem so sure, something about their demeanour says they know they may well be next.

In the meantime though there is work to be done. Some men from outside the village have congregated near Lakshmi's house - but they are not here to pay their respects.

The devadasis take a deep breath, say good bye, and go over to their next customers. After all their children have to be fed.

See also:

25 Jun 02 | South Asia
14 May 02 | South Asia
06 May 02 | South Asia
24 Apr 02 | South Asia
02 May 02 | Country profiles
Links to more From Our Own Correspondent stories are at the foot of the page.


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