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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.



  • bbaronowitz

    Courage shows throughout Jullia’s piece–the courage of these women and Julia’s own courage to document this tragedy. Thanks, Julia Cumes!

  • cumulusclauds

    What a powerful story about grassroots change; your photographs, Julia, which are beautiful, evoke such a mix of pain and hope.

  • Myriam Levy Farrero

    amazing story – very powerful imagery…thank you for this important work Julia!

  • David Cobb

    Steve Lane called your work to my attention, and I’m so glad he did. It’s courageous and very powerful, a custom I didn’t know much about until your piece. It’s as disturbing as female mutilation, apparently as resistant to change, even from victims and mothers trapped in the culture, and as overdue for strong leadership in opposition. Thanks for your efforts and eloquence in this cause.

  • Kate Ellsworth

    Thank you for this story Julia. Very powerful, as always.

  • Kate Ellsworth

    You’re inspiring.

  • Jdasilva

    Thanks Julia for bringing this to the attention of the world! Your images and your words are doing great social justice work!

  • Kevrita03

    Wow! And here we are tripping over ourselves because the president is trying to make having health insurance law, meanwhile girls are subject to this. Thanks for sharing this Julia! Excellent work!

  • Kamal

    Amazing story on an important and neglected topic that is thoroughly researched, beautifully photographed and compellingly told.

  • Diane Epstein

    Julia, Your work is amazing! It’s certainly my privilege to have a personal connection to you and to be able to speak to you directly about your work. Your photography is inspiring.

  • Diana

    What a fascinating and powerful story.

  • Iralien Gerald

    Ho MonDieu c’est du jamais vue. Il etait tempt pour avoir ces histoires sur votre site. cette histoire me faire vivre. Comme un home je me sens hereux quelqu’n panse aux autres genres e l’Inde espcialement les plus faible les femme de L’inde. Julia J’aprecie voitre travail. Mercie, Mercie pour tous.

  • Zazu

    It is unfortunate that they don’t have conservatives who argue that the government should stay off their backs

  • Donna Joyce

    I’ve read of Amy Carmichael and her Indian co workers of the Dohnavour Fellowship earlier in the 20th century who worked to rescue young girls sold into this sad system. Even Gandhi decried it. How grievous that it continues today. How heart wrenching that India with a such a well educated middle class has allowed it to continue. Blessings on the men and women who are educating the children of today’s devadasis.

  • Mdavis

    well done Julia – powerful imagery and a story that should be told. So many woman do not count their blessings! The world we live is dominated by materialism and the special gifts we have such as freedom, good health and the right to choose our destiny are often forgotten. I salute you and the people that dedicate their lives to making this world a better place to live in all of them remind us constantly of what is truly important….

  • Gil818

    Thanks for this beautifully photographed insight into the extraordinary lives of these women, their stories deserve illumination.

  • Rsigel

    Julia thank you for these haunting and beautiful images of these women and their lives. I appreciate you sharing these womens stories of their struggles and perhaps what hope there may be for change for them.

  • LisaC

    Beautifully done piece about an important, heart-wrenching topic. Thank you Julia!

  • Bharati

    Dear Julia This is Bharati from Athani,Really it is wonderful work you did. Earlier I just saw the pictures but today I saw the video with the vioce. Reall it is wondeful. People will understood easly.

    Bharati Social Worker Vimochana Athani,KArnataka India

  • Lara

    Incredible piece, Julia! Thank you so much for sharing this with us and the world! Your photographs tell a stunning story.

  • Ritesh_films

    Good work Julia..I am Ritesh.I saw all the post and its great to see your work for this issue.. I am also a filmmaker and an activist and recently i completed a documentary movie “The Holy Wives” on Devadasi and Mathamma system in India..

    I really want to all of you to watch this movie.In this movie i am also talking about bedini system(a caste based sexual exploitation of women and children in Inidia).

    I am posting the link of my movie..Feel free to email me on For more details of the movie please go through this link

    Lets do something together to eradicate these systems.

    Ritesh Sharma