Prostitutes of god

Journalist Sarah Harris has made a documentary about temple prostitutes in south India -Devadasi girls are dedicated to a Hindu deity and spend their lives selling sex.

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

Suggested Topics
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker