Former Independent journalist Sarah Harris has made a documentary about India's temple prostitutes - Devadasi are young girls who are dedicated to a Hindu deity at a young age and support their families as sex workers.
The first instalment of the four-part exclusively online documentary 'Prostitutes of God' goes live today on VBS.tv.
Harris talked The Independent Online about making the film:
I first went to India after I left The Independent three years ago. I wanted to run away and do something really different, so I went to volunteer with a charity in southern India which rescues victims of sex trafficking.
On my very first day there I stumbled into a meeting of Devadasi prostitutes. I was told that they were temple prostitutes, but didn’t have any understanding of what that meant.
I began to research it and in February 2008 was invited to northern Karnataka, which is the centre of the tradition in India. I interviewed a few of the women and wrote an article about it for Vice magazine. But visiting them stayed with me, and I wanted to find out more.
When you approach a Devadasi girl for interview the response varies hugely. There’s a huge spectrum of women. A really wealthy brothel madam in Mumbai would be quite proud to talk about what she does. But in very poor rural communities, like in Karnatakar, they’re much more difficult to talk to. These young women are ostracised and exploited and they’re ashamed of what they do. They wish they could get married, but they can’t and are in this dreadful prison.
The only thing that has changed since the Devadasi practise was made illegal in 1988 is that the ceremonies have been driven underground. It’s still very common in some parts of India. A Westerner wouldn’t know to look at the girls that they are Devadasi, but Indians know on sight who they are and what they do. Really it comes down to caste.
Caste is a massively complicated issue still in India. My understanding of it is that originally when the Devadasi tradition first came about, the women dedicated were from high caste families, even royalty. They held a very special place in the Indian culture: were incredible dancers, poets, artisans. They had specific religious roles to play within the temple performing various sacred religious rites. They were almost like nuns and it had nothing to do with sex. It was more like being a priestess.
The film shows how much the tradition has deteriorated over the centuries. Specifically in the 19th Century when the Christian missionaries came, the Devadasi became less well thought of. These days it’s very much a low caste tradition. Girls from the Madiga caste, otherwise known as the “untouchable caste,” have really limited prospects. They can be agricultural labourers, sewage collectors or prostitutes, essentially. As prostitution is the most lucrative, a lot of Madiga women get into sex work.
Some girls are dedicated to the goddess at age two or three. They won’t actually enter into sex work until they reach puberty at around twelve. The girls most at risk of being dedicated will have grown up in very matriarchal Devadasi communities. There aren’t any men. They don’t have fathers. So there probably is some understanding from a young age that they’re not from traditional families, they don’t have husbands.
The girls probably won’t have a real understanding of the sex work element until what they call their ‘first night’. This is when their virginity is sold to a local man, normally the highest bidder. He might be a local farmer, landowner or businessman. Some of them say, “I was dedicated to the goddess, but I didn’t know this was what was expected.”
When I first went to India I thought some of the women might consider it a kind of honour to be a Devadasi, because of it is an act of religious devotion. Sexuality and divinity are very closely entwined in the Hindu faith. Religion is closely linked to sexuality and beauty. But I think there’s very little religious link left now. Most of the women that we spoke to don’t even pay any heed to the traditional religious practises of the goddess. They see it as a business.
HIV is very prevalent in the community. Our translator, who works very closely with these communities, describes HIV as being like plucking a bunch of grapes. As soon as a woman is infected then her whole family becomes infected. Every man she sleeps with then becomes infected. Then the men pass it onto their wives. It’s very difficult to measure the disease’s prevalence because many don’t understand what that they’ve got.
There is widespread ignorance about AIDS and HIV in those communities. And a huge stigma attached to using condoms. People die of HIV related illnesses and they call it “dying of a fever.” The infected often go undiagnosed. There’s also huge disparity. One of the towns we went to had a huge NGO which was campaigning for the rights of sex workers, distributing condoms and educational materials, so the Devadasi were quite switched on about it.
It’s very difficult for girls to leave the profession. You see groups of former Devadasi becoming social activists and campaigners against the tradition. That’s one way out. Another is to become an educator or a social worker. There is a huge movement to try and stop dedications happening, and the impetus for that is coming from the grass roots. The former Devadasi women.
Living a normal life in India after having been a Devadasi prostitute is extremely, extremely hard because they're seen as damaged goods. In India marriage is everything. If there’s any suggestion that a girl has had sex before marriage then she's ostracised from society. Women are still stoned to death in some villages for those kinds of transgressions. So it’s very difficult for them to rebuild their lives.
The rest of the four-part documentary will be screened on VBS.tv later this week