Elderly devadasis women – once temple girls, now reduced to begging – grow their hair long and do not wash regularly as a sacrifice to the temple God. (World Vision/Philip Maher)
KARNATAKA STATE, India — The world's largest democracy also has the world's largest population of HIV-positive and AIDS suffers, according to the UN. Thane Burnett spent two weeks with some of India's 5.7 million HIV and AIDS sufferers — from prostitutes to orphan children — and those helping them, like World Vision Canada. Despite the scope of the crisis, Burnett says there is hope India can win the battle against AIDS — if the cloak of silence is lifted in time
For a thousand years, India's temple girls have lived a life.
Today, a used woman named Nagamma steps forward and, even while afraid, bares an awful truth. That an ancient, religious form of sexual slavery — long outlawed — is still as much a part of this country's bedrock as the open pits of their southern mines.
And that the devadasis — servants of God who, as young girls, are offered up into Hindu-blessed prostitution — represent more than original sin. They are a clarion bell for a modern plague across India.
In increasing numbers, the temple girls — wrongly thought made extinct by the Devadasi Act of 24 years ago — are now only at risk of dying out because of HIV and AIDS.
I have travelled halfway around the world — using planes, autorickshaw, an overnight train and a long drive into the rural south — only to be transported back in time.
Kings once ruled the lands of southern India — which move down rough and frantic highways from a drought-prone landscape outside the city of Bellary to lush and neon-green rice paddies around the stone temples at Hampi.
The Vijayanagara Kingdom, of centuries ago, inspired by beauty and art and a sense of entitlement, enjoyed the company offered by local temple dancers. They were originally young celibate artists who were dedicated to the spiritual worship of a Hindu goddess, Yellamma. When the kingdom began to loose strength, the devadasis were left to fend for themselves. So, over time, many chose prostitution to survive the millenniums. Dynasties have fallen. They remain.
Though it has been against the law in India since 1982, as many as 5,000 families each year still offer up daughters to a deity or temple, sometimes before the girls reach puberty.
Secret wedding services take place at night, and child-brides, each month, are given in marriage to the gods. Though it's usually the priests, or uncles, who take the devadasis' virginity — once they have had their first menstrual period. Then, at a price which starts at the equivalent of a few dollars, they belong to upper-caste community members. Or whoever can pay, as they try to compete with traditional sex workers.
Often, the young women do their duty to the gods, and men, while still living in their parents' home.
The temple girls are never allowed to marry. They are common property. The men — for a night or months or even years — own them, body and soul.
And if the devadasis try to leave the life, they are told they will be cursed in their future. Or worse, punished right now.
Fortified inside a stone house here — against the risk that her family, somewhere outside, may find out what she's telling me — 25-year-old Nagamma uncrosses her arms, tugs at her shawl and uncovers her arms. There are ugly scars, on a forearm and on the opposing bicep. They are the price of questioning her lot in life.
When she was 15 years old, her family invited her to a special ceremony. She apparently wasn't sure what it was about.
They put powder on her cheeks and green bangles — denoting marriage — on her wrists. Around her neck was tied tightly the necklace which is the universal bondage of the cult. Then she was forever wed to the gods.
"And the gods will be angry if I leave," she explains of 10 years of sexual servitude — the money from the men largely gobbled up by her family.
Just seven years ago, she found a man she wanted to remain with. He wasn't paying for the honour of being called her husband. When Nagamma's mother found out she wasn't living up to her devadasi duties, the older woman apparently took a flaming iron poker to her daughter's arms. She would make her child pay for wanting to hold on to just one man.
Sweat appears on Nagamma's upper lip. Tears well in her eyes, and traces dart across her brow, as she worries her family may be outside the stone house now. Wooden doors are pulled shut, but whispers from outside find their way through glassless windows. She wants to hurry and finish.
"They deceived me," she says of being offered up to the gods. "It was not what I wanted
"My life is spoiled."
Poor and lonely, she doesn't dare turn her back on the gods. She may feel betrayed by her deities, but she swears on them that she now demands every man wear a condom.
That is not often the way for the temple girls, who still say the men often break condoms on purpose. Birth control is sometimes found at the tip of an oleander milk-coated stick forced into the uterus of a pregnant devadasi.
The devadasis in this small section of India recall no fewer than 60 of their kind dying of AIDS in the past three years.
Samson Tangod, a World Vision project manager who is working with 650 of the women in his area alone, estimates at least one in 10 temple girls is HIV-positive.
The oldest profession was perhaps the first to fall from the virus in India, which now leads the world in numbers infected. But as part of the "untouchables" — the lowest Hindus in the social order of things — few took notice of the loss of the devadasis.
But young Oblesh was forced to. When he was 5, his mother — a devadasi — died of AIDS. His unknown father was just one of many men whom his mother called "husband."
Today, Oblesh is 8, and his sister — four years his senior — is out labouring in the local fields. She is now the chief bread winner.
In a World Vision-sponsored drop-in centre in a rural southern village, the small boy in blue plays a board game called Carrom and works hard to remember his mother's voice. But that proves a difficult task.
After a long, awkward time, the young orphan looks up from the stone floor and recalls: "I remember her bathing me. Feeding me. Making sure I went to school."
But little else.
I hand him my notepad, and with my pen he begins to write his alphabet. In an area which has a 54% literacy rate, he is very smart, but carries hard lessons he's not even aware of.
The devadasi culture — in worship of the "Mother of All" goddess — means this child is HIV-positive as well.
It was the fear of sharing the same fate which last year convinced 28-year-old Nirmala Nimmi — offered up to the gods as a teenager — to stop accepting impostors as husbands.
"I saw the deaths," she says of what led to her escape and to becoming a peer counsellor in hopes of saving others.
"I wanted (out) before it was me."
Meena made the decision late. A temple girl at 15 — she is now 27 — she tested positive for HIV three year ago.
Her mother, who placed her life in the hands of the priests and paying customers, only then decided: "I should stop.
"It was too late."
In so many ways.
nail polish flakes like car paint from her toes. She hides her mouth when she laughs — as if not allowed. And on her arm, instead of scars, is a tattoo. It's of a man's name, in the smooth, flowing letters that remind you of classical Sanskrit or the good-luck rangoli prayer painted on the floor where she now stands.
NO LONGER FEARS
At one time, she lived with the man for two years as a temple girl. She fell in love. But men don't stay with such a woman. He went off and found a real wife. He left Meena behind, with their daughter.
The girl died when the stove they were using burst into flames in their shack. Meena sent word to the man, but he stayed with his new family. A year after the death of their child, he appeared at the door. She told him to go. That the chance — if there even was one — was lost.
No, she says, after all that has happened she no longer fears the wrath of the priests down here or the gods above.
What else could happen to her? she asks.
In an Indian village named after a goddess, inside the Sri Huligemma Devi Temple — in praise of the reincarnation of Yellamma who watches over all devadasis — a young priest in saffron robes casually leafs through the daily newspaper.
He has just offered up more sacrifices of coconut and money inside the silver chambers of his temple. The faithful outside splash barefoot through the rain to come inside and attract the gaze of the holy.
He has been a Hindu priest for seven years. A strange optical trick of the inner sanctum, where he performs his rituals, makes the thin priest appear taller than followers who line up to watch him. But it's only an illusion. As so much is.
I ask him about the law in India, which forbids families from offering up daughters. Behind the snow-white shrine we are standing in, workmen are raising the original 800-year-old temple. They work in the shadow of large proclamations, painted on stone, which insist the practice of devadasi is long buried.
BYPRODUCT OF DEVOTION
The priest is nothing if not honest. On each month's full moon, new temple girls are still blessed here, and across India, he says. It's not that the Hindu rite sanctions prostitution, but rather: "They have to be holy … but they have to (make money) to live."
It is a sad byproduct of great devotion, the young priest says.
Such enormous sacrifice will be rewarded, he adds.
Just 10 minutes later, he will leave the silver guts of his temple and make his way up the main street, which starts at his gate. Locals will give him the reverence his position demands.
He will walk past, seemingly oblivious to a pig nursing her young in the mud, monkeys being shooed away from storefronts by merchants with sticks, and a line of old and worn women who stand in a row like a dishonour guard.
If not the sickness AIDS and HIV can lead to, this is how marriage to the gods traditionally winds down.
The sad sisterhood — in their 60s, 70s and older — are devadasis who are too old to be of any bodily service. And they are being rewarded for a lifetime of wedded bliss with loneliness and hunger.
The bright colours of their dirty saris, whipped by a stiff wind, twist around wrinkled necks and sun-dried limbs.
Red and yellow dots of rubbed kunkuma on their dark brows seem more like wounds.
Their blistered hands hold out baskets, persistently asking for — in cackles and high-pitched whines — spare change.
Since they are always a presence outside the temple, the priest barely acknowledges them as he walks by.
One of the women was offered up before another priest when she was 10 years old. That was more than 50 years ago.
When asked what life as a temple girl has been like — none seem sure how many men they have been with — one aging devadasi used a Hindi word which seems to have no easy translation into English.
"Punchy," is as close as one can get.
While the old devadasis have little but hard times left, they remain faithful and always obedient wives.
"We trust the goddess to provide," one says.
The goddess will live on with an uncertain number of such ardent devotees, as more relent to disease and the work of social change and humanitarian workers.
Though each new moon raises a new crop to take their place.
Among their ranks won't ever be — since it's the only thing devadasi Nagamma may ever have a say on — her daughter. Having seen the virus kill other brides of the gods, and knowing the lingering scars the life leaves, Nagamma promises her 6-year-old girl will not be forced to follow her path.
"I would rather drink only water and have no food than (make her a devadasi too)," Nagamma says of the child.
For a thousand years, India's temple girls have lived a lie. I leave her village praying that when it comes to her daughter, Nagamma is telling the truth.