Worshiping the Goddess of the Fallen

I want to direct your attention to a heart-wrenching New Yorker piece about women within the devadasi system (essentially sacred prostitutes) in India who are increasingly ravaged by HIV/AIDS, loss of social standing, and poverty. These women are dedicated/married to Yellamma, patron goddess of the down-trodden, and protector of prostitutes.

“Yellamma never wanted it to be like this,” Rani said. “The goddess is sitting silently,” Kaveri said. “We don’t know what feelings she has about us. Who really knows what she is thinking?” “No,” Rani said, firmly shaking her head. “The goddess looks after us. When we are in distress, she comes to us. Sometimes in our dreams. Sometimes in the form of one of her children.” “It is not the goddess’s doing.” “The world has made it like this.” “The world, and the disease.” “The goddess dries our tears,” Rani said. “If you come to her with a pure heart, she will take away your sadness and your sorrows. What more can she do?”

While the devadasi are given more respect than “common” prostitutes, and are often invited to give their blessings to weddings and other festivals, they still live in poverty, are usually sold into the practice as children, and are often abandoned by their family if they can no longer contribute fiscally due to illness.

“Later, I asked one of the project managers of an N.G.O. working in Belgaum about AIDS and how the devadasis’ families reacted. ‘It’s terrible,’ she said. ‘The families are happy to live off them and use the money they earn. But as soon as they become infected, or at least become bedridden and sick, they are dumped in a ditch—sometimes literally. Just abandoned.'”

William Dalrymple’s haunting piece paints a picture of sacred prostitution that is anything but sacred. In trying to address this problem, some have tried to introduce “de-initiation” ceremonies, unbinding them from what the women see as their unchangeable fate. Others have attacked the system itself as an upper-class method of control, while government agencies have tried to enforce dedication prohibition through education campaigns. Until these women are given a better life through social and legal reforms, one can only hope that their goddess will give them the comfort and protection they pray for.