• Narsamma

Narsamma was 10 years old when she was dedicated as a Devadasi. She remembered being excited about the dedication ceremony. She was bathed in neem water following an oil and turmeric massage. Narsamma loved the pretty, shiny clothes that she was given to wear. Her long hair was braided with sweet smelling jasmine flowers. She was given a lovely necklace and told that she was marrying the goddess. Narsamma was the centre of attention on her special day; she felt special and important. Little did she know then the significance of the ritual.

Narsamma’s father, Virupakshi, was a poor farmer with an ailing wife and 4 children. Her mother kept falling sick and the father had to take loans for her medical treatment. Out of desperation he had gone to the village priest to ask for special prayers for his wife. In return the priest told him that by dedicating Narsamma the favour of the goddess Yellamma would fall on his family and his wife would be healed. Virupakshi was sad but felt like he had no choice but to listen to the priest.

A few years later a week-long religious festival and pilgirimage (jatara) took place. Narsamma found herself being taken by older Devadasis to the temple in order to dance in the worship ceremony (puja). She was instructed to follow the lead of the experienced dancers. Later that night she found herself in the hut of another Devadasi - her mother’s cousin. To her surprise and then horror one of the village leaders came into her room, forced himself on her and raped her. She remembered running to her aunt for help only to be severely reprimanded, beaten and dragged back to the room with this horrible man. Narsamma remembered feeling enraged, betrayed and trapped as she endured the pain of that first night. The next morning her aunt commended her for rendering ‘good service’ and told her that she would be leaving soon for the city of Mumbai. Narsamma was faced with the dawning realisation of what it meant to be a Devadasi.

Trafficked for sexual exploitation

In Mumbai, Narsamma worked in a busy brothel where she served between fifteen and twenty customers a day. A fraction of the money she earned was given to her to send home; the rest was kept by the brothel Madam. She found the cheap arrack (alcohol) available freely in the brothel brought her solace; it became her coping mechanism for surviving the abuse of her body by her customers. Over the next few years Narsamma fell pregnant several times. She was promptly treated to induce miscarriages. Narsamma had decided that this was now her fate; she wished that her life would end soon.

A few years later Narsamma was forced to return home. She then continued her ‘work’ as a Devadasi as well as being a day labourer in the farm fields. She hated her family for seeing her only as a bread-winner. She hated her life and loathed herself. She began secretly planning to end her life. Her life was not worth living. But then everything changed.

Hope for the future

Narsamma met some newcomers to her village. They were kind and respectful to her. They told her that the Devadasi system was illegal and that there were laws to protect her. They helped her with a grant and with training to work as a tailor. They also helped her access government benefits including a small monthly pension. Suddenly hope had come into Narsamma's life. Her life was turning around and for the first time Narsamma believed there would be a better future.

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* In order to protect the individual we have changed her name and used a representative image