India’s Devadasi System

by Julia Cumes



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This multimedia documentary explores India’s Devadasi System-an ancient system of religiously sanctioned prostitution still practiced in India today. Each year, half a million pilgrims converge in Saundatti, Karnataka, to worship the deity, Yellamma. It was traditionally during this full moon festival that young girls were ritually dedicated as Devadasis or ‘temple servants’. Girls are married to Yellamma and must spend their lives serving the deity, which often includes catering to the sexual needs of men in their community. Devadasis may never marry a man and often end up in brothels in India’s urban centers.

This documentary also focuses on some of the efforts being made to dismantle the Devadasi system such as schools working to prevent the daughters of Devadasis from following in their mother’s footprints and foundations offering work-training to both Devadasis and their offspring in an attempt to break the cycle.

Editor’s Note – Anil Cherukupalli
Julia Cumes’s multimedia project is a powerful indictment of the ancient Devadasi System. Known by different names in different states of India, Devadasis are called ‘Basavis’ in Karnataka or `Jogin’ in Andhra Pradesh or ‘Thevardiyar’ in Tamil Nadu or ‘Jogateen’ in Maharashtra. While urban India is currently caught in a debate about crimes against women, the insensitivity of India’s legal and police systems and the lack of adequate and timely redress for wrongs committed, what often goes under reported is the plight of the Devadasis, a system of prostitution sanctioned by religion and blind belief.

In spite of the system being outlawed in 1988, young women continue to get trapped in such a cruel system with the dedications now happening in secret. It is estimated by the National Commission of Women of India that more than 2.5 lakh (250,000) Devadasis exist currently in India. The Devadasi way of life is also unfortunately seen by many poor families as a way to ‘unburden’ themselves of their daughters and live off their income. Their name might imply that they are ‘Servants of God’ but in reality Devadasis serve only men. Men with the power to invoke God and subjugate women for their needs. But for the few individuals and organizations fighting on their behalf, Devadasis are condemned to a life of suffering from prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.

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About Julia Cumes
Julia Cumes was born in South Africa and moved to the United States as a 15-year-old. She first fell in love with photography as a teenager in South Africa when she began shooting black and white film and printing her own work. Since then she completed a B.A. at Brandeis University, an M.F.A. in writing at Cornell University, a Masters in Photojournalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and has been working as a freelance photographer ever since. Based in Massachusetts since 2001, Julia currently freelances for a variety of newspapers, magazines and organizations. Her work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, the London Times and Washington Post to name a few. She has also worked on numerous long term projects and multi media pieces in South Africa, India, Thailand, Tanzania and Hawaii. She has long been engaged in working on stories that focus on women and the human rights issues that persist in their lives.

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  • Arunav Gogoi

    A very poignant documentation of a heart wrenching theme. Powerful “speaking” photographs….

  • Hauke Kite-Powell

    Thank you Julia! Beautifully done, as always. Another sad “religious” tradition created by human males for their own benefit…

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