Huvakka Bhimappa was not 10 years old when, subjected to the devotion of the Hindu fertility goddess by her parents, she had to sacrifice her virginity, raped by her uncle: her sexual slavery was to last for years.
The little girl had become what is known in South Indian culture as “Devadasi” and as such marriage to a mortal was now forbidden. His sexual initiation was entrusted to an elderly man, as usual, in exchange for money or gifts.
“In my case, it was my mother’s brother,” in exchange for a sari and some jewelry, Huvakka Bhimappa, nearly 50, told AFP.
Soon, under the pretense of devotion to the goddess Yellamma, she was subjected to other men who paid for her sexual favors. This prostitution, which does not give its name, supported his family for several years.
“If I hadn’t been a Devadasi, I would have had a family, children and money. I would have lived well,” she regrets, despite having escaped her bondage.
With no training, she could only find work in the fields for about a dollar a day.
By making their daughters devadasis, the poorest families secure a source of income and save themselves the expense of a dowry and a wedding.
“Two children with 17″
Devadasi, which has been a part of South Indian culture for centuries, once held a respectable place in society.
Many of them were educated, trained in classical dance and music, lived comfortably, and chose their own sexual partners.
“This notion of sexual slavery, more or less authorized by religion, wasn’t part of the original system,” historian Gayathri Iyer told AFP.
According to her, in the 19th century, during the British colonial administration, the divine pact between the Devadasi and the goddess became a business of sexual exploitation.
India didn’t ban the practice nationwide until 1988, but there are still more than 70,000 Devadasis in Karnataka, according to the Indian Human Rights Commission.
The commission last year ordered Karnataka and several other Indian states to report on steps taken to prevent the practice.
Many households in Saundatti, a small town in the south of the country where there is a temple dedicated to Yellamma, believe that having a Devadasi in the family can bring happiness and protect its members.
In this temple, Sitavva D. Jodatti was united with the goddess to support her parents. She was eight years old.
“When people get married, there is a bride and a groom. When I realized I was alone, I started crying,” she told AFP.
One day his father got sick. She was immediately withdrawn from school and forced into prostitution to fund treatment.
“I had two children when I was 17,” she says.
She now runs an organization that helps former devadasis recover and says the practice has “continued for several decades”.
“Too young to give birth
According to Nitesh Patil, a district official in charge of Saundatti administration, there are no “current cases”.
Many of the surviving Devadasis were destitute, subsisting on low-paid manual labor and agricultural work.
According to Rekha Bhandari, a former Devadasi, all were subjected to “the blind practice of a tradition” that ruined their lives.
When her mother died at age 13, her virginity was offered to a 30-year-old man. She got pregnant.
“Having a normal birth was difficult. The doctor yelled at my family that I was too young to give birth, she told the AFP news agency, I didn’t understand anything. I was forced to do things I didn’t want to do.”
A few hours away from the Yellamma Temple, ex-Devadasi Vatsala remembers being betrayed and cursed by a client.
“After his affair with me, he threw what I thought was money at me. It was the middle of the night, I couldn’t see well and I later realized it was just paper,” Vatsala, 48, told AFP.
Shortly after, upon hearing that the impostor had just died, she said to herself, “Yellamma was angry too.”