Updated: Mar 31, 2021
One morning, five year old Aarti* sat cross legged on the dirt floor of the one room shack she called home. Her mother handed her a steel plate laden with a special breakfast of milky sweets rolled in silver, saffron rice, and a clay cup filled with frothy chai. Used to white rice and a watery lentil gravy, Aarti was puzzled. She watched as her mother bustled around holding an embroidered red dress ruffled with gold and silver tassels.
Aarti had never seen anything so beautiful.
With breakfast over, her mother took a bucket of cold water and washed Aarti from head to toe. She rubbed coconut oil into her hair and skin until the little girl glistened. Other women came in, all chattering with excitement. One combed and braided Aarti's long jet black hair. Another rubbed her feet with more oil, painted her toenails and fingernails with red polish and slipped rhinestone studded sandals on her tiny feet. Her mother applied black eyeliner, a bright shade of eye-shadow on Aarti's eyes. She smeared thick foundation and red rouge on her cheeks. She slipped the shiny red dress over Arti's body.
Aarti no longer looked like a little girl. She no longer looked like herself at all.
From the open door a sound swelled and surged. A procession of men beating drums followed by dancers clapping and swaying, moved along the street towards their home. The throng of people stopped at her door. Neighbors reached for her and placed her on a white plastic chair tied to a board. Two men swung her to their shoulders and continued the march.
Deafened by the loud noise and chanting, Aarti began to cry. The journey seemed to last forever. The men finally set her down in front of the town temple. The building was covered in hundreds of clay and stone figures of gods and goddesses painted black, turquoise, red and white. A small fire burned on the ground. The priest emerged from the temple and everyone gathered around. Her mother stood too, eyes downcast.
Aarti could not understand why her mother would not look at her.
The priest burned incense, placed a string of marigolds around her neck, tied a black tali (string) to her wrist and walked her in a circle around the fire. Leading her to the goddess Yellama, he motioned for her to kiss the statue. Aarti knelt on the ground and kissed the feet of the goddess. The priest dipped his finger into a brass bowl filled with dark red powder and smeared a line down her parted hair, finishing with a dot on her forehead. The ceremony was over; the crowd cheered.
Aarti was now "married" to the goddess Yellama.
For the next few years, Aarti would be allowed to live life like all the other little girls in the town. However, after her first menstrual cycle, her childhood was over. Now, seen as a woman by society, and marked by the tali around her wrist as "married," and "set apart," she would be sold as a "sacred sex-worker."
To sleep with Aarti was to sleep with a "goddess."
Although the Devadasi Hindu religious tradition of temple dancers originated hundreds of years ago, today it is simply a route for commercial sexual exploitation. Devadasis are part of the caste system. It is generational: great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers, daughters, perpetuated century after century.
Devadasi is a tradition of sexual slavery sanctioned by religion.
Freedom Firm has rescued many Devadasi girls over the last 14 years. Every time a sacred sex slave is rescued it breaks the generational cycle of abuse: her daughter will not be born a slave, destined to serve men sexually for life.
Join us as a monthly donor and together we will faithfully fight for not only her freedom, but her future children’s freedom. Your consistent giving will bring transformation!
*This is a fictional account of the Devadasi tradition and ceremony, but every detail is based on fact. Every sacred slave we have rescued has a similar story, a variation of the same ritual and abuse.
**Photo Credit: YourStory
Monday, March 8th, the Asian Age reported "Devadasi system still prevalent: naked minor girls in temples of T.N (Tamil Nadu)"
William Darymple's article in the New Yorker, Serving the Goddess: The dangerous life of a Sacred Sex Worker