Friday, 1 October 2010

Devadasi: Prostitutes of God

I'm somewhat ambivalent about this documentary by VBS Television (you can click on the above image), which I found on The Independent newspaper's website. In a nutshell,  Sarah Harris, a British journalist,  made a documentary about temple prostitutes in south India...Devadasi women dedicated to a Hindu deity who spend their lives selling sex.

The journalist, with a couple of local minders, travels to villages and towns of Southern India to try to document a system of religious sex slavery dating back to the 6th century. Although illegal, there seems to be more than 23,000 women in the state of Karnataka selling their bodies in the name of the mysterious Hindu Goddess Yellamma. These are known as Devadasis, or ‘servants of God’.  As such things go, these statistics are estimates...which can be inflated or deflated depending on one's agenda.

I'm ambivalent because I don't get from this documentary that the women are Devadasi per se. They are certainly sex workers, but not necessarily Yellamma temple sex workers.  In parts, the documentary feels like a Lonely Planet or Global Trekker feature I watch on PBS...minus Ian Wright's wit and humor. I don't think that this documentary is accurate at all...and comes across as callous and superficial. The journalist sounds and acts as flaky as a young tourist traveling in India during a gap year, and I've seen no evidence that there was serious research done in the subject matter.

Having said that, William Dalrymple in his recent book Nine Lives, has interviewed and written about devadasi women, and their undeniable plight. Devadasi women have had a venerable history in performing a wide variety of religious functions, including sexual service...but their lives are now hard and harsh. Only marginally better than ordinary prostitutes, the devadasi system provides a way out of crippling poverty...very similar to other countries and societies. 

You can also watch it on VBS.TV website.