The women who lived as sex slaves to an Indian goddess

Devoted to an Indian deity as a child, Huvakka Bhimappa’s years of sexual slavery began when his uncle took his virginity and raped him in exchange for sarees and jewellery.

Bhimappa was not yet 10 years old when she became a “devadasi” — girls forced by their parents to undergo elaborate wedding rituals with a Hindu deity, many of whom were then forced into illegal prostitution.

Devadasis are expected to live lives of devotion, are forbidden to marry other mortals, and upon reaching adulthood are forced to sacrifice their virginity to an older man for money or gifts.

“In my case it was my mother’s brother,” Bhimappa, now in his 40s, told AFP.

After that, she spent many years in sexual slavery, meeting other men in the name of serving God and earning money for her family.

Bhimappa eventually escapes slavery, but is uneducated and earns about a dollar a day working in the fields.

His devotion to the Hindu deity Yellamma also alienated him from the public eye.

She once loved a man, but asking him to marry her never crossed her mind.

“If I wasn’t a devadasi, I would have a family, children, and some money. I would have a good life,” he says.

Devadasis have been an integral part of south Indian culture for centuries and once held a respectable place in society.

Most are highly educated, trained in classical dance and music, live comfortable lives, and choose their own sexual partners.

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“The concept of more or less religiously sanctioned sexual slavery was not part of the original patronage system,” historian Gayatri Iyer told AFP.

According to Iyer, in the 19th century, during the British colonial era, the divine contract between the devadasi and the goddess became an institution of sexual exploitation.

It now serves as a means for poverty-stricken families at the bottom of India’s rigid caste hierarchy to abdicate responsibility for their daughters.

In 1982, Bhimappa’s home state of Karnataka banned the practice, and India’s highest court described the practice as an “evil”.

And campaigners say young women are still being secretly recruited into devadasi orders.

The Human Rights Commission of India reported last year that more than 70,000 Devadasis still live in Karnataka, 40 years after the state’s ban.

– “I was alone” –

In India, due to the tradition of dowry, girls are often considered troublesome and expensive.

By forcing their daughters to become devadaz, poor families gain a source of income and avoid the cost of marrying them off.

Many households around the small southern town of Saundatti – home to the venerable Yellamma Temple – believe that a family member’s initiation into the discipline will boost their fortunes or cure a loved one’s illness.

It was in this temple that Sitavva Jodatti was ordered to marry the deity at the age of eight.

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Her sisters were all married to other men, so her parents decided to dedicate her to Yellamma to provide for them.

“When other people get married, there is a bride and groom. When I realized I was alone, I started crying,” Jodatti, 49, told AFP.

Eventually, her father became ill and she was forced out of school to work as a sex worker to help with his treatment.

“I had two children when I was 17 years old.

Rekha Bhandari, the brother of a former devadashi, said they were subjected to the practice of ‘blind tradition’, which ruined their lives.

She was forced into the order after her mother’s death, and at the age of 13, a 30-year-old man took her virginity. Soon she became pregnant.

“It was difficult to have a normal delivery. The doctor shouted at my family and told me that I was too young to give birth,” the 45-year-old told AFP.

– I had no idea.

– “Many women died” –

During the years of unsafe sex, many Devadasis contracted sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

“I know women who have been infected and now it’s passed on to their children,” an activist working with devadasis told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“They hide it and live in secret, many women died,” he says.

Parents are occasionally prosecuted for allowing their daughters to be adopted as devadasi, and women who leave the order receive a meager government pension of 1,500 rupees ($18) a month.

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Nitesh Patil, the civil servant who runs Saundatti, told AFP that the women had no “last moments” dedicated to the temples.

The Indian Rights Commission last year ordered Karnataka and several other Indian states to report what they were doing to prevent the practice, after a media investigation found that devadasi inductions were still widespread.

Due to the stigma surrounding their past, women who leave the devadasi order are often persecuted or the object of ridicule, and few marry.

Many live in poverty or struggle to make ends meet in low-paid manual labor and agricultural work.

Jodatti now heads a civil society group that spoke to AFP to help bring women out of slavery and support former devadasis.

She says many of her contemporaries were interested in the #MeToo movement a few years ago and the personal revelations of famous women around the world coming out as survivors of sexual assault.

“When we watch the news, sometimes when we see famous people… we realize that their situation is the same as ours. They suffered the same way. But they continue to live freely,” he said.

“We’ve had the same experience, but we don’t get the respect they do.

“Devadasi women still despised.”

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