In a village in southern India a child has just been born. A group of women gather round the cradle, wishing the baby a life full of riches, rubies and pearls.
“You’re lucky the child is a boy,” the women tell the mother. In this society girls are valued far less.
The women are all devadasis, literally slaves of the goddess.
As children their parents gave them to serve Yellama – the goddess of fertility. Her cult is thousands of years old, her followers spread across southern India.
At the temple to Yellama in Saundatti women dance and praise the goddess.
The practice of dedicating young girls as devadasis has been outlawed for over 50 years, but still it happens.
Anti-slavery campaigners estimate that there are at least 25,000 devadasis in the state of Karnataka alone.
“Being devadasis means we are slaves of the goddess. We have to visit this temple. We wear necklaces of pearls to show we are bound to Yellama. We give blessings and perform her rituals,” says Imla, a devadasi in her 40s who is swathed in a pink and yellow sari.
When girls dedicated to Yellama reach puberty they are forced to sacrifice their virginity to an older man. What follows is a life of sexual slavery, they become sanctified prostitutes.
The money devadasis earn goes straight to their parents who often act as pimps for their daughters.
“My parents didn’t have any sons, so there was nobody to earn the family a living,” says Imla.
“Instead they turned me into a whore. I don’t even remember when I started because I was so young. My parents thought at least they’d get some money from me.”
Once girls are dedicated the course of their lives is decided. They can never marry, never have a family life.
In a town nearby we found Shoba who is just 20 and has been a devadasi prostitute for seven years.
Shoba showed me her brothel, a single room she shares with her parents.
She comes from a long line of devadasis. Her grandmother was one, her sister is too.
Shoba remembers how, when she was 13 her parents dressed her as if for marriage. They auctioned her virginity to the highest bidder.
“When the first man arrived I thought he was going to marry me,” Shoba recalls, “but he slept with me and then never came back. I realised this was now my trade. Every night I was sold to whoever paid the most.”
Life here on the dry, harsh Deccan plateau has always been tough, especially for girls, who are often seen as a burden for poor families, expensive to marry off.
Recent years have been marked by droughts and crop failures.
The goddess of fertility is seen as a powerful force. Many believe that giving girls to Yellama will bring good fortune on a family.
It also means they don’t have to save for a dowry, and the daughter becomes a bread-winner.
We found Shoba’s mother Satyavati tending to her field of sunflowers. Sacrificing their daughter’s life has enriched Shoba’s parents.
“Someone had to continue the tradition. It had to be my daughters,” she shrugs.
“Because Shoba earns so much money she has been able to build us a house, and she bought these fields. So what’s the big deal?”
Despite campaigns by India’s national and state governments, the system of devadasis endures.
The number of young girls being dedicated is declining. But now the ceremonies happen in secret, so it is impossible to know exact numbers.
I asked Shoba why she doesn’t just give up being a devadasi, and leave it behind?
“I can’t get out of the system, even if I say I’m not a devadasi any more nobody will come forward to marry me,” she says.
“I keep telling other people not to make their daughters devadasis, you are abused, it’s a horrible life.”
So it’s a life that Shoba will never escape from. Women already dedicated cannot be freed.
The power of belief is still so strong here that she will always be a devadasi, enslaved.
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