The ‘devadasi’ system has been the object of several studies and is quite controversial. Some authors, particularly in the past associated the ‘devadasi’ with power and prestige, other, more lately, with degradation and prostitution. This article firstly explores the origin of ‘devadasi’ practice and its evolution over time as well as its religious and ritual meaning, while attempting to identify the main factors explaining the signification of the ‘devadasi’ system in the past. Secondly it analyses the social status and economic condition of ‘devadasis’ and draws a global view of the reasons why young girls are still today consecrated in rural areas. Our argument is that the sanctions provided by social custom and apparently by religion are strictly combined with economic and social pressures. The social control and hegemonic masculinity of upper caste men is asserted and maintained through defilement and appropriation of lower caste and ‘dalit’ women’s sexuality. The symbolic meaning of the devadasis relies upon the gendering and sexualising of caste relations of domination and subordination. In this logic, this article examines the intersections between gender, caste and violence.

Author Biography

Maria Costanza Torri over the last few years has gained experience in rural development policy and women’s studies, with a special emphasis on empowerment of ethnic minorities. Following her studies in Economics at Ancona University (Italy), she completed two years of research at IAMM-CIHEAM in Montpellier (France). Subsequently, she completed a DEA (Diploma of Specialised Studies) in Rural Sociology at Paris1-Pantheon-Sorbonne and a PhD in this scientific area, while working in the above mentioned University as a research Fellow. She is currently associated with the Human Rights Research Centre at the University of Ottawa, Canada and she is a Research Fellow at the Department of Geography (University of Montreal), Canada where she is leading several research projects dealing with empowerment of women and women’s human rights in India, Mexico, Belize, Chile and Vietnam. Her academic experience has been further enriched by carrying out impact studies and assessments in Asia, Africa and Europe for several NGOs, consultant agencies and more recently for the European Commission (EU).