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Abstract

The religiously sanctioned Devadasi system in India exemplifies intersectional oppression of gender, caste, and sexuality. Historically, Devadasis, or “servants of God,” were women wedded to God who performed temple duties and were considered sacral women with ritual powers. As part of her duties, the Devadasis offer sexual services to her patrons, invariably the economically and socially powerful patriarch/s in society. The Devadasis were not a monolithic community; there were caste-based segregations within the Devadasi community which delineated their social positions. Devadasis were drawn from castes lower in the hierarchy (non-Brahmins) and the Scheduled castes (Dalits). To distinguish the two categories, the Devadasis from the non-Brahmin castes were referred to as Kalavantin/Isai Vellalar/ Kalavantulu and those from the Dalit castes were referred to as Jogini/Mathamma; their social and economic status were entirely different. The Devadasis from the non-Brahmin communities performed classical music and dance, while the Dalit Devadasis performed folk dances during temple festivals. Though the Devadasi system was outlawed in 1988, the practice of dedicating young girls as Devadasis continues to be prevalent among the Scheduled castes. This paper argues that the activists who fought for the liberation of the Devadasis from the oppressive system focused mostly on the Devadasis from the non-Brahmin castes, excluding the Devadasis from the Scheduled castes. This paper contextualizes the prevalence of the Devadasi system within the interconnected matrices of caste and gender structures in Hindu society. Drawing on the socio-historical trajectory of the emancipation of Devadasis in Goa, a state in Western India, this paper analyzes the caste hierarchies and social inequities embedded within the Devadasi system. Apart from discussing the legal interventions initiated by the State to abolish the Devadasi system, this paper also analyses the role of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in the emancipation and empowerment of Dalit Devadasis.

Note on the Author

K. A. Geetha is an Associate Professor of Literature and Cultural Studies, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani KK Birla Goa Campus, India. Email: geetha @goa.bits - pilani.ac.in. She has nearly two decades of experience in teaching different modules in English literature, Language and Cultural Studies. Her doctoral research focused on the production, institutionalization and reception of Tamil Dalit literature. Her research interests are Dalit writing, Women’s Studies, Postcolonial literatures, and Cultural Studies. She is currently researching the Devadasi system with a specific focus on Dalit Devadasis.

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