Sex and Religion have long been entwined. Raw instinct and moral intervention. There is some sympathy for the view that religion was invented in order to control and constrain sexual activity. Certainly the Church of England was founded in order to release Henry Vlll from the Vatican’s control of his sexuality and replace it with a control that suited him better.
The truly ancient religions had a surprising – to modern eyes – liberal attitude to sexual mores. The Hindu faith propagated the Devadasis practice whereby young girls were promised in marriage to God. Not wildly dissimilar to Nuns within the Christian faith. The Devadasis were highly respected, accomplished artists, who kept alive the ancient dances and songs and were welcome visitors to highly placed homes within the Indian caste system. It was one way in which the impoverished daughter from a rural home might find acceptance and a better way of life than her parents could provide.
The Devadasis was married to God, but the Hindu faith saw no reason why she should have to forgo the pleasures of sex and child rearing. As with the Church of England which accepts as sufficient that its clergy have devoted their life to God, and does not require them to maintain celibacy as well.
Since the Devadasis was already married to God, it followed that she could not marry another man.
“Traditionally the young devadasi underwent a ceremony of dedication to the deity of the local temple which resembled in its ritual structure the upper caste Tamil marriage ceremony. Following this ceremony, she was set apart from her non-dedicated sisters in that she was not permitted to marry and her celibate or unmarried status was legal in customary terms.
Significantly, however she was not prevented from leading a normal life involving economic activity, sex and child-bearing. The very rituals which marked and confirmed her incorporation into temple service also committed her to the rigorous emotional and physical training in the classical dance, her hereditary profession. In addition, they served to advertise in a perfectly open and public manner her availability for sexual liaisons with a proper patron and protector.
Very often in fact, the costs of temple dedication were met by a man who wished thus to anticipate a particular devadasi’s favours after she had attained puberty. It was crucially a woman’s ‘dedicated’ status which made it a symbol of social prestige and privilege to maintain her.
The devadasi’s sexual partner was always chosen by ‘arrangement’ with her mother and grandmother acting as prime movers in the veto system. Alliance with a Muslim, a Christian or a lower caste was forbidden while a Brahmin or member of the landed and commercial elite was preferred for the good breeding and/or wealth he would bring into the family. The non-domestic nature of the contract was an understood part of the agreement with the devadasi owing the man neither any housekeeping services nor her offspring. The children in turn could not hope to make any legal claim on the ancestral property of their father whom they met largely in their mother’s home when he came to visit.
Thus the devasdasi was by its very nature, a matriarchal society, and one that many western women might consider infinitely preferable to the arrangement in practice here. Perhaps that is the reason why the Victorian Christian missionaries were so aghast when they first encountered the devadasi in the Hindu temples. They denounced the devasdasi as prostitutes, so successfully that high caste heads of families who were keen to retain their prestige amongst the British in the climate of increasing colonialism, declined their ‘right’ to maintain a devasdasi, and gradually that ‘honour’ fell to lower and lower caste members, until the missionaries jibe of ‘prostitute’ became only too true.
Eventually the politicians, in a country ruled by Britain, outlawed the practice of Devasdasi and the girls fall from grace was complete. Nowadays it is only girls from the Madigan caste, the ‘untouchables’, who become devasdasi. Aids and HIV are extremely prevalent amongst the community, and the use of condoms is virtually unknown. It is a thankless life as an ‘untouchable’ – the alternatives are working as an agricultural worker or sewage collector.
The early missionaries got their wish. They imposed their rigid teaching from the bible on a community which had its own values and its own strengths. In doing so, they reduced the standing of these girls from highly respected artists and members of a powerful matriarchical society to women trapped into the very lowest levels of prostitution – from which the only form of escape is marginally less palatable than their current life.
The excellent Sarah Harris has produced a series of documentaries on the devadasi girls which will be shown on VBS.tv .