An abhorrent ancient practice which defiles and denigrates women, can be banned by law but can it be excised from the human mind? Can the Devadasi cult, so familiar to Kannadigas, ever be abolished unless the socio-economic conditions which led to the birth of this practice, change? These are perplexing questions which every citizen of the state has to ponder over after the Mavinsoor case, when a ten-year-old Dalit girl was allegedly made a Devadasi and then surfaced in Chittapur in Kalaburagi district. It focused attention on the shocking fact that the cult continues unhindered though many believed it had died out in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region decades ago. K.N. REDDY reports.
The case of the ten year old girl sold as a sex slave has triggered a debate on whether the Mavinsoor case is an isolated one or is the symptom of a deeper malaise.
Kalaburagi where Mavinsoor is located, is the district which bred famed politicians like the late CM Veerendra Patil, Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and the Ajatashatru of Karnataka politics, the venerable Dharam Singh. Obviously their pioneering efforts in effecting social reform have not helped and the District Child Welfare Committee (CWC) and the department of women and child welfare had to swing into action recently to rescue the girl, made a Devadasi five years ago.
Soon after the case came to light, the Karnataka State Children Rights Protection Committee constituted a committee to study the problem and submit a report. Although it’s almost a month since the case was reported, the Committee has not even visited this village, let alone the others where newly-initiated Devadasis are said to be living. Reason - the lack of a ‘conducive atmosphere’ to go to Mavinsoor.
Equally afraid, are the residents of Mavinsoor and nearby Bedsoor villages. Tight-lipped, they flee the moment they spot a new vehicle entering their village. Any effort to engage them in conversation to elicit information on the Devadasi cult, is met with a stock reply, “namage enu gothillari” (We don’t know anything). Mavinsoor is a tiny hamlet situated close to the famous Ratkal Revanasiddeshwara Temple, about 40 kms from Kalaburagi town. The majority of residents belong to the Dalit community. The Ashraya houses built for Dalits by the government are well connected with cement – concrete roads and there is an anganawadi centre and a primary school in the village as well.
What then made the parents of this 10-year-old virtually sacrifice their daughter, deprive her of her childhood? The tragic story of Gundappa and Bichalavathi, her parents, would make anyone wonder if anything has really changed in Indian villages. The couple were childless for some time and lost two male children born one after the other, both dying soon after delivery. It was then that they approached the priest of Samavva Temple in the adjacent Bedsur village, Sharanappa, seeking a solution to their problem.
Acting on his advice, the couple are said to have taken a vow to offer their daughter as a Devadasi, if they had one. When they did have a daughter, the god-fearing couple named her Samavva after the deity.
The inquiry conducted by the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) brought to light the agonising facts. About five years ago, when the girl was five years old, the family members performed a ritual known as ‘Kanya Patta’ to offer her as a Devadasi at the Samavva Temple. It was the first step to being initiated into the Devadasi system - the second known as Dodda Patta is performed when the girl attains puberty. She would then become a concubine of a rich villager or the headman. On the day, the girl was tied the ‘Taali’ by the priest, Sharanappa, also belonging to the Dalit community, she was dressed like a bride and taken in procession to her dwelling place, marking her initiation into the cult.
Probably out of fear, the girl’s mother, an assistant in the government run anganawadi in the village, contradicts the version of CWC officials. Claiming that what was tied to the girl’s neck was not a Taali but a ‘talisman,’ she vehemently argued that it was done to fulfil her vow and cure her of an unknown disease she has been suffering from since birth.
“They (CWC officials) forcibly entered my house when nobody was there. They did not listen to me and took my daughter away. When my brother-in-law tried to question them, they slapped him. What offence have I committed? Is it a crime for a woman who has lost her two male children to seek the blessings of the goddess? We are ignorant and innocent people merely following prevalent practices. Till these officials told us, we did not know what the Devadasi system is”, she fumed, blaming the officials for separating her daughter from her.
She was supported by her brother-in-law, who claimed they had not heard of Devadasis till the CWC officials told them about it. “The practice may exist elsewhere, but it is totally non-existent here”, he claimed.
The teacher of the school where the girl studies, while also claiming that what was tied to her neck was a talisman, said that they did not report it to officials as they were told by the parents that it was done to cure the girl. “Moreover, till the girl was taken away and the matter was reported by the media, we did not know what the Devadasi system is”, the teacher said, trotting out the same line.
In parts of Kalaburagi and in many other districts across Karnataka, hundreds of pre-pubescent girls like the ten year old from Mavinsoor are at risk, with the administration clueless on how to counter this pervasive practise. Caught in the grind of poverty and ignorance, it’s a cult that has so many of the poor and the ignorant in their clutches.
Samavva in government home
Ten-year old Samavva has been shifted from her village to the state government run girls home. Pale, her eyes well up with tears if anyone asks her about her plight and all that she went through. Small for her age and looking frail, she could be mistaken for a five-year-old. To most queries, her innocent reply is “gottilla” (don’t know). Asked whether she knows who is a Devadasi, she mumbles ”gotilla.” She says the Taali was tied on her neck some years ago by the priest because she was not keeping well. “I was told I will be alright, if I wear this,” she mutters. Asked whether rituals were performed at the time of tying the Taali, her innocent reply again is “gottilla”. Asked why she has been brought to the hostel, she says "it’s because I’m wearing a Taali”. Whether girls of her age in her village or any of her relatives wear the Taali, Samavva’s reply was again, “gottilla”. Did her parents tell her why she was tied the Taali? Her response was “gottilla”.
Where is the priest?
There is an eerie silence in Bedsur village where the age-old Samavva temple is situated. Till the Muzrai department renovated it with concrete roofing in 2013-14, the temple was a tiny 3 X 3 ft block covered with slabs on three sides but open to the air. The deity is a triangular shaped granite stone, daubed with orange on all sides.
Efforts to trace the priest, who is said to have initiated many girls into the Devadasi system in the last one and a half decades, were unsuccessful as the villagers refused to give his address. Some even said that there was no permanent priest for the temple and the priest was changed every six months! According to CWC officials, the priest Sharanappa used to make the parents of poor innocent Dalit girls believe that goddess Samavva had conveyed to him in his dream that a particular Dalit girl should be made a Devadasi! He used to instil fear and convince the parents that they should fulfil the godess’ wish. Believing his words, many gullible parents offered their daughters up as Devadasis. “The Committee is yet to visit the places to ascertain the names given by the priest”, Vittal Chikni, CWC member, stated.
Police officials are not sure where these girls are now. “As the priest is a drunkard, he would have uttered some nonsense, which cannot be taken seriously,” said one official.
Chikni, who comes from a Dalit family and has studied the system however felt the practice is still alive in some villages in Aland taluk such as Hadalagi, Chinchansur, Honnali and Gola(B). “The style of initiation has changed but the practice is prevalent in some parts of the district. It’s being practised clandestinely and done in a systematic manner. Whether it exists in this part of Chittapur taluk can be established only after a thorough inquiry,” he added.