Following the death of Sashimani Devi, Puri's last practising Devdasi, the age-old Devadasi tradition at the famous Sri Jagannath Temple has come to an end.
Several ministers, Jagannath Temple's chief administrator Suresh Mohapatra and Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology and Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences founder Achyuta Samanta mourned Sashimani's death.
Jagannat temple administration foresaw it much before and attempted to enrol fresh Devadasis to keep the 800-year-old tradition alive but the effort failed due to nationwide protest, against the system and also because no girl volunteered. However, this ancient custom is not limited to the precincts of Jagannath Temple only.
The practise, despite being outlawed, is very much prevalent in the various parts of the country including Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It has long being used as a tool to exploit lower casts. There are more than 450,000 Devadasies trapped in this form of prostitution, deified and glorified by the heinous religious sanctions.
The Devadasi system, as per a Times of India report published in 1987, was set up as a result of a conspiracy between the feudal class and the priests (Brahmins). The latter, with their ideological and religious hold over the peasants and craftsmen, devised a means that gave prostitution their religious sanction. Poor, low-caste girls, initially sold at private auctions, were later dedicated to the temples. They were then initiated into prostitution.
Under this practise, pre-pubertal girls are ‘married off' to God or Local religious deity of the temple. In the temple they are meant to sexually satisfy the priests, zamindars or higher caste patrons. For her service to them is akin service to God.
The Government put a ban on it once in the year 1982 under the Prohibition to Dedication Act and again in 2004 when the Government of Maharashtra passed an Anti-Devadasi bill.
The emergence of this system can be attributed to various reasons.
According to famous India scholar Jogan Sarkar, evolution of this system could be attributed to various customs prevailing in ancient times. The lifelong commitment of girl to God was considered as a substitute for human sacrifice whereas in some parts it was also believed that girl's subservience will ensure the fertility of the land and the increase of human being and animal population. Phallic worship which existed in India from early Dravidian times and sexual hospitality are among the other factors. More importantly, the custom could have been created to exploit lower caste people in India by upper castes and classes.
Poverty is the core reason for the continuance of this age old practise. The southern parts of India are especially poverty-stricken and consider the girl child as a baggage as a result they get rid of the this added responsibility even before she reaches adolescence.
It's imperative to remove this evil custom from the core and denounce it publicly. It's time the perpetrators of this inhumane act should be brought to justice.
Death always bring sorrow, but this time it has come for some good, as it represents the end of a controversial system.