Book Review: ‘Servants of the Goddess, the modern-day devadasis’

Published: August 19, 2014
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Servants of the Goddess is Catherine Rubin Kermorgant’s debut book which came out in February, 2014.

Servants of the Goddess is Catherine Rubin Kermorgant’s debut book which came out in February, 2014. These devadasis are mostly untouchables dedicated to the temple at very young age (mostly before puberty) by their family and live their whole life providing sexual services in the name of religion. PHOTO: CATHERINE RUBIN KERMORGANT

Imagine being paraded in a procession of singing men and women on a high slab with nothing on your body except neem leaves as soon as you hit puberty, and being ‘deflowered’ when you don’t even know the reality of what just happened to you.

Photo: Catherine Rubin Kermorgant, taken from official website of the author.

Imagine being dedicated to a temple at the age of six years and wearing a beaded necklace for the rest of your life. Imagine being a mother of two at the age of 15 (or even less). Imagine never being able to marry because:

“You’re attached to the temple for the holy duty you have been assigned.”

Imagine a life of a forced sex worker, of poverty, of never being able to provide for your kids. And imagine all this while being (or called) an ‘untouchable’.

Servants of the Goddess is Catherine Rubin Kermorgant’s debut book which came out in February, 2014. It describes the lives and sufferings of modern devadasis in a small village in India.

Kermorgant, in her book ‘Servants of the Goddess’ states that, after conducting research, in Paris, about the life of a devadasis, she set out for a small village called Kalyana in India in order to learn more about truths and myths regarding the devadasi system in India. She may also make a documentary sponsored by BBC on her findings. Along with her interpreter, Vani, Catherine learns about the heart-wrenching tales of devadasis; their stories of being dedicated by their families against their will and when they did not even have any knowledge of why they were being ‘beaded’ at a certain age.

Photo: Catherine Rubin Kermorgant, taken from official website of the author.

Etymologically, devadasis are courtesans or dancing girls attached to temples. However, the public more or less calls them prostitutes as they are bound by this profession to grant such favours to the visitors of the temple (or anyone else for that matter) in return for money. And hence, it becomes a thread of survival for them. These devadasis are mostly untouchables dedicated to the temple at very young age (mostly before puberty) by their family and live their whole life providing sexual services in the name of religion.

The more Catherine comes closer to devadasis of Kalyana, the more she realises the misery of these women: there’s poverty, kids at a very young age and never being able to marry (they can take a ‘Jhoolva’ husband who may or may not decide to leave them after actually getting married). They also have to earn money to support their whole family, even bearing the responsibility of marrying off their brothers. So it hardly comes as a surprise to Catherine when she learns that devadasis mostly die young, in their fifties at maximum, by either committing suicide or living the latter part of their lives as alcoholics or becoming severely depressed.

Photo: Catherine Rubin Kermorgant, taken from official website of the author.

The book is divided into three parts: the first part discloses Catherine’s field research where she develops life-long bonds of friendship and love with the devadasis of Kalyana, reassuring them that she would share their story of oppression and destitution with the world. The second part of the book portrays her journey back to Kalyana along with her film team and the co-director, Dillip, a pretentious high caste Brahman Hindu who is of the opinion that devadasi system is more of an old Indian cultural tradition than exploitation of poor women. He is adamant on emphasising upon the pros of the system, such as financial stability etcetera. She is all set to document the lives of young devadasis in the hope that it might bring a positive change in their lives by being noticed internationally.

Moreover, the second part of the book also pours light on the caste and class differences, where Catherine experiences first-hand the treatment of low caste, untouchables, by the high caste film crew. It is almost astonishing for the author to witness such cruel treatment of one human being by another just because one was born in a less fortunate household than the other.

The last part of the book, I think, is basically why Catherine decided to write a book in the first place. Although the devadasis had been filmed for weeks in their village and made to tell their woeful stories in front of strangers, Dillip was resolute on showing devadasis in the light of nothing but a glamorous culture of Hindu religion.

Photo: Catherine Rubin Kermorgant, taken from official website of the author.

The way Catherine describes her experiences with class differences, are shocking for her but not so much for either her film crew (the upper caste Hindus) or the devadasis (untouchables) of the village. This only made me realise how we, too, have categorised, either consciously or unconsciously, ourselves into classes on the basis of religion, language and ethnicities, and are consistently persecuting their rights only to make ourselves feel secure.

For our part of the world, where young women are sexually abused frequently or are economically forced to provide sexual services, the book is even more relatable. It reminds you of how, after all those years of partition, we lag behind in empowering women. A certain class of women can rise as high as becoming the premier of a nation, while the poor women continue to be exploited to the core, without a voice.

One has to read the book to know whether Catherine wins her battle of truthfully depicting the lives of devadasis or Dillip succeeds in manipulating the producer in changing the whole story of the film. The author has nevertheless kept the reader fascinated and captivated throughout the book; one laughs when the girls of goddess laugh and cries at the injustices that engulf their daily lives. The book might be based in an Indian village but it hits home every time.

Average rating: 4/5

Paras.Abbasi

Paras Abbasi

The author is an IBA grad currently working in the public monetary sector. She is an avid reader, book reviewer and short-story writer who blogs at www.ofcoffeeconversations.wordpress.com and @ofcoffeeconversations on Instagram.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Anon

    Sacred prostitution was a practice from 600 B.C. in the ancient civilizations…(Sumerian,Cannanite,Akkadian,Assyrian,Greek,Roman..ancient Aztecs,Mayans,Indonesians,Nepalese,Africans..) everyone seems to have had some version of this practice,except for the adherents of Judaism. The Christian Roman emperor Constantine,brought the practice to an end around 400AD under his rule.
    It was outlawed in India as well,but seems to persist in pockets of Karnataka & AP.Other states have managed to eradicate this evil & ugly practice.Recommend

  • Queen

    Indian media should highlight social issues like the plight of these poor unfortunate women rather than presenting a glamorized image of their society. Pakistani media too, should focus on the ills present in our society rather than following political rallies to gain ratings. If such issues are highlighted, people will become more aware of the situation. There is a possibility that with awareness, the attitude of the public toward such issues will change in a positive manner.Recommend

  • Anon

    Poverty & Illiteracy make women easy victims of exploitation.
    Much more has to be done to empower the girl child.Recommend

  • jssidhoo

    I can not do anything about it but am ashamed and sadRecommend

  • Anon

    You’re not as helpless as you think you are. Do you have a maid in your house,or a cook,driver,gardner etc ? Do their daughters go to school ? If they can’t afford their daughters education,you can help out by paying the fees at the local school. I recommend paying personally at the school office,otherwise the parent may use up your fee payment for some other household expenditure. My maid has 2 daughters and one son. I pay for the two girls- fees,spectacles,clothes,books…Recommend

  • Prashant

    This is indeed a tradition just like the the caste system which is thousands of years old. A practice like this need not be defended just because it is a tradition, the saving grace is these kind of practices are no longer wide spread but even a single case like this is a matter of shame.

    Some among the so called upper castes do not have an issue exploiting a women for their own pleasure but would still call them untouchables.Recommend

  • Sane

    This is worst kind of slavery and prostitution practicedRecommend

  • Sane

    The book is a MUST READ. This reveals as how Hindu religion is used to exploit humans specially women to make them slave and prostitute for whole life. This is amazing that this stone-age rituals and acts are practiced. Horrible….indeed. Recommend

  • Sane

    This is not exploitation due to illiteracy and poverty. This is under the name of Hindu religion. It shivers when you read the book based on facts.Recommend

  • Abyss

    Yeah, horrible indeed. They should immediately convert to religion of peace and submit to the will of “The High and Mighty”, aka, “The One”.Recommend

  • Prashant

    Do you really have to read this when your opinion of Hindus is even more worse than what the author has mentioned here.Recommend

  • Prashant

    Not every person who can afford a maid can also afford the education for the maid’s children. A good suggestion though.Recommend

  • Anon

    I get your not-so-subtle point.
    Anyway,a literate woman who is independant is empowered & unlikely to fall victim to injustice-whatever the source..tradition,patriarchy,religion or culture.
    Sacred prostitution wasn’t only a Hindu practice-it was common to almost all ancient civilizations except to the followers of Judaism-as I’ve already mentioned in an earlier remark.
    Sacred prostitution is outlawed in India-it’s illegal.
    Recommend

  • Anon

    I agree with you..but my example was meant only to demonstrate that its not just people who work for charities/ngos/govt. who can bring about a change…everyone can do something according to their income/spare time-we have opportunities all around ( my maids kids attend govt.schools-the fees there is very low )
    People who can’t afford to pay fees,can help give free lessons etc.My father(an IIT alumnus) used to coach underprivileged kids for engineering entrance exams.
    Many people who feel they can’t afford to give to charity etc.don’t even realize that donations to many orphanages/cancer hospitals/women’s shelters are completely tax deductible.
    Recommend

  • abhi

    While I can see you are dragging Hindu religion in to it. Please also provide a response to the op-ed on Boko Haram as well.Recommend

  • Prashant
  • Teja

    I come from state of Karnataka/Maharashtra which had these evil practice of dedicating girls to goddesses. But now due to the efforts of social workers,spread of education and alert media watching. These things have almost become nil. The author has not given complete picture of this social evil. Now a days it is almost non-existent. Please visit these areas and look for yourselfRecommend

  • https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=8559594100366660134#allposts Supriya Arcot

    Must you bring religion in everything ? Some or the other form of this ‘exploitation’ is to be found in all religions . Once upon a time these women were rich and well kept thanx to donations from their ‘patrons’ but , with time , everything degenerates.Recommend

  • jabeen

    Well it is shameful for humanity! Writers mentioned the evil practice so rightly, and, it is not just about one’d eligion practice. Unfortunately, today the prostitution and abuse women is common everywhere! Thumbs up!
    Point to ponder…Recommend