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God’s prostitutes

A photojournalist documents efforts to end a religiously sanctioned sex trade in parts of India.

In 2007, while on assignment in India, photojournalist Julia Cumes traveled to southern India where she documented what’s known as the devadasi system: the Hindu religious tradition in which young girls are ritually “married” to the Hindu goddess Yellamma. Once married, the girls are no longer allowed to marry men, but instead become devadasis, or “God servants.” While the devadasi practice has a long tradition in parts of India, most devadasis today suffer one of the darker aspects of this practice: they become religiously sanctioned prostitutes. Even though the practice was outlawed in 1988, it is still practiced in parts of the country.

On two trips to southern India, Cumes met and documented the lives of devadasis, and followed the work of several organizations who are trying to eliminate the practice. Here is Cumes’ own multimedia presentation of what she discovered.

Julia Cumes talked with Need to Know producer William Brangham about her devadasi project. An edited excerpt of that conversation is below. Cumes began by talking about the difficulty that some of the reform organizations had in trying to persuade devadasis themselves to seek a different life for their own daughters.

Julia Cumes: One of the things the social workers said was that the hardest thing at first was actually trying to convince the devadasi women themselves to break the tradition. A lot of these women had grown up in this tradition, believed in it and participated in it, and while they may on one level know that it wasn’t the best thing for their children, there were some very, I guess sort of —

William Brangham: Strong ties?

Cumes: Yeah, exactly. The social workers told me that people would throw stones at them when they came to the villages to talk to the community about the devadasis.

Brangham: Can you explain a bit about the origins of this tradition?

Cumes: Apparently, back in the 10th century, the system really started as a means of powerful men gaining sexual access to very young girls. Originally, the devadasis were these holy figures, and the idea was that they would officially be married to Yellamma, act as intermediaries between the deity and her followers and perform “temple duties,” as well as dance and entertain the wealthier men in the community. These men would not have to marry them since they were already married to the deity and were actually banned from marrying anyone else … There have been comparisons made to geisha girls. Back then, they were considered the “beautiful girls” and were respected in some ways. However, today, the girls are seen more as common sex workers.

Brangham: And it’s a part of Hindu tradition?

Cumes: Yes. Yellamma is a Hindu deity. But the tradition is practiced in very specific parts of India, particularly northern Karnataka which is called the “Devadasi Belt” because of the high number of devadasis there.

Brangham: So it’s not what we could consider part of mainstream Hindu practice.

Cumes: Right, exactly.

Cumes: [Today] the devadasi system probably still exists because very poor families benefit financially from it. If you have a daughter in India it’s considered a difficult thing because a son will bring you money and will look after you, whereas a daughter is an expensive proposition. So families who do not have sons will perhaps turn their daughter into a devadasi, and then she will become a breadwinner for the family. Some of these devadasis are supporting 10 or more family members.

Brangham: An unusual combination of religious tradition and economics.

Cumes: Yeah, exactly. A lot of the girls who ended up as devadasis are from very, very tough situations — impoverished families with little education and little opportunity. I think it’s mentioned in the story about the hair — girls who have this dreadlocked hair, which is actually a product of a fungal disease that comes from lack of access to clean water — as soon as they got this dreadlocked hair, it was considered a sign from Yellamma, the deity, that this girl was meant to be a devadasi … so there was no way of getting out of it then.

Brangham: In your piece, there’s a scene inside a rescue center for underage sex workers, some of whom are devadasis — a kind of residential hall — and you describe the trauma that many of those women had experienced, but also that they’re not encouraged to go out, there’s a guard out front, they’re not supposed to even look out the window, and yet, you’re there documenting them for someone on the outside to see. How did you persuade them to talk with you?

Cumes: The devadasi women themselves who are working as sex workers, it really amazed me how open they were with me and how eager they were to talk to me, and I realized a big part of it was that they’re not used to anyone caring about what they think or what they experience or what they have to say. These women are used to people wanting either sex or money from them. You know, their families want money from them, men want sex from them, everyone wants something from them, and I don’t think they’re very validated in their — I mean, nobody ever asks them how they feel about anything.

Brangham: It strikes me that that’s one of the most wonderful things about being a journalist — is being given license and encouragement to do that.

Cumes: Yeah, asking people about their lives kind of gives it — validates it – gives it a degree of importance. I think it’s a very powerful thing, and we’re very lucky to be able to do that.

Brangham: I was really moved by what Mr. Patil [founder of the Vimochana Sangha organization] said at the very end, when he’s describing the transformation that individual devadasis were making, both in their own lives and in their communities. He said, “To change the system of life in one’s community or society is not an ordinary thing.” I mean, there seems to be such a powerful sense of mission in that.

Cumes: Yeah. I really loved that statement, because I thought it was very subtle at the same time. I mean, this man was a young lawyer who took this on, who started this organization in his own home, with his wife. They took in 50 devadasi children the first year, twice as many the next, and you know, there are a lot of people who are invested in the devadasi system continuing — they didn’t want someone to rock the boat because there’s a lot of money that gets made out of this. The families make money, the priests who marry these girls make money, there are all these intermediaries — all these people make money on the system. So there was nobody who really wanted the system to go away because the whole economic flow would be interrupted. So when he first started that school, he was really ostracized by other people in his sphere, as well as by the devadasis, who were not particularly open. He took on something extremely difficult and incredibly challenging, and this man has basically committed his life to this and has continued to be committed to it.