//Goddess, Let Them Go

Goddess, Let Them Go

Slave to religious prostitution, Telangana’s joginis get to discover there’s life beyond

It was a three-year drought in her village, Humnapur, that signalled the end of Gangamani’s innocence. She was 13 and her parents, on the advice of upper-caste Hindus in the village, dedicated her to the local goddess, Yellamma. She was married to a potharaju (priest representative of the local deity) and declared a jogini.

The same night, a village zamindar took her virginity. He stayed with her for three weeks, after which he declared her "open" to other men in the village. The drought ended the year after, but Gangamani’s personal hell had only just begun. Not only did she have to sleep with any man who wished to do so, she also had to dance in front of dead bodies at funerals and beg at each house in harvest season.

Gangamani, 34 today, says she had come to accept this form of ‘religious prostitution’ as a normal way of life.
 But 16 years of being a jogini and four children later, a local NGO came to her rescue.

Counselling sessions followed, as did interaction with joginis from other villages. Gangamani was given an acre of agricultural land, a new life took shape.
A full-time farmer today, Gangamani wipes a tear as she talks of her past, when her dignity was ripped apart serially by innumerable men in the village.

"It took me a month to realise that I could choose not to be a jogini," she says, pausing in her paddy field toil. Gangamani is one of the many joginis in Nizamabad district today who have managed to rise above an oppressive tradition. A dent is being made at the source of the tradition itself. Thanks to the efforts of local NGOs, jogini initiations have come down considerably in the last six years.

But it’s only a dent. While Gangamani changed, other ex-joginis in the nearby Govvur, Rudrur and Chandpur villages continue to be sex workers. Sobha, Sayamma and Sunita, in their 20s and early 30s, say this is the only way of life they know. They have been given land by the government but it lies idle. While Sayamma grows sunflower crop once a year, Sobha and Sunita have sold off their plots. They work as daily labourers in Nizamabad and solicit clients at construction sites. Asked why they prefer to continue being in the sex trade, Sunita says it makes them feel liberated to be able to choose the men they can sleep with. "Earlier, young and old alike would come and force themselves upon us whenever. Besides, now we can reject men who refuse to use condoms." What’s more, before they were paid in kind (mostly clothes and grain). Now they demand cash.

If it was drought that forced Gangamani’s family to ‘sacrifice’ her, it was her father’s illness that led Savitri to that fate. A resident of Govvur village, her mother thought dedicating her 10-year-old daughter would cure him. And off she was sent to be dedicated to goddess Pochamma. The rest of her story followed a trajectory similar to Gangamani’s. Savitri, though, was determined that her two children would have a better life, and she strove to give them an education. Her daughter now works as a nurse in Bodhan, about 30 km away, but rarely visits her mother. Her son is an engineer who too thinks it best to leave his past—including his mother—behind.