The goddess sat in her palanquin,drawn by devotees. Around her was a sea of humanitymen,women and children moving in a procession,eunuchs singing in hoarse tones and devadasis dancing alongside. A little girl stood dressed in a sari. She is blessed, says a devotee,She will marry the God.
This is the annual Yellamma Devi Yatra in Jat,a taluka in Sangli district,where young girls and boys continue to be offered to God as devadasis (the boys as jogtes),a centuries-old practice that has forced many young girls first into temple prostitution and later into commercial sex work.
In Maharashtra,the practice continues to exist in Pune,Sholapur,Kolhapur,Mumbai,Lathur,Usmanabad,Satara,Sindhudurg and Nanded. In Jat taluka,90 km from Sangli city,the Yellamma Devi yatra is when followers of Goddess Yellamma,usually poor and illiterate,take a vow to offer themselves or their children to the goddess as a way out of their hardships. All too often,the parents of these children know that they will end up being sexually exploited. This year,over two lakh people,including a huge number of devadasis,their gurus and eunuchs,attended the yatra,held between December 30 and January 4 this year,at Jat.
The yatra is proof that the Devadasi System (Abolition) Act passed by the Maharashtra assembly in 2006 hasnt proved to be much of a deterrent. The law was meant to abolish the practice of dedication of women as devadasis to Hindu deities,idols,objects of worship,temples for religious institutions and to protect the women so dedicated against exploitation. According to the Act,anyone who violates the law is liable for two to three years of imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs 50,000. But,in the last five years of the law being in force,not a single case has been registered against anyone.
Janka Balappa Chanal was around 10 years old when she was married off to God by her parents. Born into a poor family in Karnataka,Chanal,now 40,says she remembers sitting through an elaborate initiation ceremony but hadnt known what was in store for her. Over the years,as the practice became illegal,she was dragged into prostitution and is now a sex worker in the red light area of Sangli.
I have been exploited physically and mentally since my childhood. Men would get drunk and beat me up,the police too. They called me devadasi but I was never accepted in society,never considered a good human being, she says.
Chanal says she does visit her family at times and gives them some money from her earnings. I dont want anybody in my family to suffer like me. The devadasi system should be stopped, she says.
Dr Pradeep Patil,who leads anti-superstition campaigns in Sangli,says,Jat is an entry point of child trafficking in Maharashtra. The anti-devadasi law has helped create some awareness,but there are still some cases of poor children being given to temples as devadasis as their parents are unaware of the dangers involved.
According to the law,a Devadasi Pratibandhak Adhikari (Devadasi Prohibition Officer) should be appointed in each district. A state-level control group headed by the Commissioner of the Women and Child Welfare Department should also be formed. But none of this has happened so far in Sangli.
Ravindra Patil,Deputy Commissioner (Women Development),says,The government has not yet appointed a Devadasi Pratibandhak Adhikari. But the process is on to appoint protection officers under the Domestic Violence Act. These officers will act as devadasi officers too. Patil admits that child trafficking continues to be a worry in Jat (Sangli) and Gadhinglaj (Kolhapur),but says no cases of devadasis have ever been reported to their office.
Ravindra Sisve,District Superintendent of Sangli Police,says,A special team of policemen and government officers operated secretly during the Yellama Devi Yatra,but they didnt find a single girl being made a devadasi. We arent claiming,though,that the tradition has stopped completely.
The little girl who stood by the goddesss palanquin can tell you that.