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DEVADASI SYSTEM Historical Background and Supreme Court Stance.

The Term ‘devadasi’ literally means “female slave to god”. At present, the devadasi system is mainly prevalent in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra and it is widely prevalent among the ‘Beriya’ and ‘Nat’ communities.

Historical Background

  • Origin of Devadasi tradition goes as back as the sixth century when the young girls, often from wealthy family backgrounds were dedicated to the local temples.
  • After they would have gone through the dedication ceremony, they would be ‘married’ to the deity. They would then act as temple care-takers and perform rituals, dancing, and music in the honor of the deity.
  • During those days, devadasis enjoyed great respect as they were married to the deities. They were considered auspicious and committed to a life without marriage.
  • Their special status prevented them from marrying human husbands. Their main duties were to take care of the temple and learn classical Indian dances especially Bharatanatyam, which they used to perform during rituals in the temple.
  • Over time, the tradition started deteriorating, particularly during medieval sultanate, Mughal and British periods.
  • With the destruction of a large number of temples and loss of patronage, their status in the society degraded leading to their exploitation.
  • Many Devadasis became mistresses of the local royal or noblemen.
  • The children born of such union would be dedicated to the temples.
  • The daughters born from such unions would be dedicated to the temple while the sons would be trained as musicians.
  • This led to religious prostitution in temples of India which continues to date.
  • However, in some cases, the Devadasis would have rights such as the ability to own, manage, and transfer property, which for most women were vested only in their husbands.
  • Nevertheless, despite its honorable past, the devadasi system became a vehicle for institutionalized sexual exploitation of the poorest segments of Indian society.

Extent of Problem

  • The Devadasi system is prevalent only in a few states, however, the problem is considered to be a national one.
  • This is for two main reasons.
  • Firstly, though the geographic concentration of the system is limited, the trafficking of girls from other parts of India to make them Devadasis makes it a bigger problem.
  • Secondly, many of the Devadasis are taken to Mumbai / Kolkata or other cities to work in brothels.

Why the devadasi system is still practiced?

The Devadasi system continues to survive because of a complex cocktail of
religious pressures, economic necessity and social beliefs.

There are still people who believe
that when they dedicate young
girl to the deity, the deity will be
happy and bless their family.

Today, most of the Devadasis
belong to lower classes of the

Some families believe that
offering their daughter will
improve their social status and
view it as a way to rise in the rigid
caste system.

Poor enforcement of law

  • It is contended that state governments are not strictly enforcing the laws which checks the Devadasi system.
  • Further, the funds allotted for the rehabilitation of girls have not been utilized properly

Past verdicts

The Supreme Court in the case of Vishal Jeet Vs. Union of India, 1990 echoed the same sentiments and had observed that desired results have not been achieved in checking the Devadasi system in spite of the stringent and rehabilitative provisions of law under various acts.

Supreme Court Stance

  • In February 2016, the Supreme Court has taken a stern stance in condemning the illegal practice of dedicating young girls as devadasis.
  • It has described the practice as an evil done to women by subjecting them to sexual exploitation and prostitution.
  • The issue was brought to the court’s attention by Kerala-based NGO, S.L.
  • Foundation, which blamed the laid back approach of the State authorities and the police forces of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu to the problem.
  • Further, the Supreme Court has directed all States and Union Territories, especially Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, to strictly enforce the directives to check such an unethical practice.
  • Earlier in February 2014, the Supreme Court directed the Chief Secretary of Karnataka to prevent the girls from being forced to become devadasis in a temple function at uttering Mala Durga temple in Karnataka.

Legal Framework

Various laws have been enacted in the past to stop the menace of Devadasi

  • It was first outlawed in 1924 under the British rule,
  • Bombay Devadasi Protection Act, 1934,
  • Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947
  • Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982
  • Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1988
  • Maharashtra Devadasi (Abolition of Dedication) Act, 2006
  • Apart from the above, section 372 of the IPC prohibits selling minors for the purpose of prostitution. Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, also makes prostitution in or the vicinity of public places an offense.


  • 92% of the respondents were dedicated when they were minors (4–12 years 53%; 13–18 years — 39%). Girls who are forced to become Devadasis
    are sexually exploited. 50% of the respondents were sexually abused as
  • Superstitious beliefs, community pressure, disability, tradition, and
    continuation of lineage among others are some of the reasons behind the
    continued practice.
  • Special children, with physical or mental disabilities, are more vulnerable to
    be dedicated as devadasis.
  • Very low reporting of cases of Devadasi dedication was found, only four
    cases filed under the KDPD Act (between 2011–2017).


  • Only 48% of the Devadasis and the community knew of the legislation banning dedication.
  • NGOs have no understanding of the provisions under the KDPD Act or the knowledge of how to use the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012, Juvenile Justice Act, or Indian Penal Code in cases of dedication.
  • In most cases, law enforcement agencies were unaware that the practice of devadasis dedication is taking place.

Issues and Challenges

  • Society’s acceptance: Devadasi dedication and the resulting sexual abuse of these girl children are accepted and celebrated by society. Those willing to report also fear the backlash of the society and community and refrain from reporting.
  • Ineffective awareness programs: Awareness generation about the provisions of the legislation, in communities where the prevalence of dedication is high, is absent. Even those awareness programs conducted fail to bring any behavioral change within the community.
  • Lack of Police Action: The police are failing to take Suo Motu action in cases of dedication and are not registering cases coming to them due to pressure from the community.
  • Non-cooperative victims: The unwillingness of the victims to report against their parents or relatives becomes a big challenge. Even if the case is registered, there is a high probability of the victim turning hostile.
  • Inadequate preventive measures: The functionaries and the law enforcement agencies are not taking any measures to prevent dedication from taking place and focus only on schemes to be given to the older Devadasis.
  • Lack of coordination: There is a lack of coordination between the various departments, agencies, and functionaries which is leading to ineffective efforts to stop the practice of Devadasi dedication.
  • Poor implementation of legislation: There are several provisions under different laws (POCSO, ITPA, JJ Act, IPC) that would be relevant in the case of the dedication of a girl.
  • However, there is a lack of application of all these legislations.
  • Health Risks: The devadasis who are forced into prostitution become vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS.

Police can take Suo Motu action against a
person when there is a complaint or reliable

Department must conduct the periodical
survey, to better understand the prevalence
and trend of Devadasis System and provide
rehabilitation to those affected.

The police should to proactively engage
with vulnerable communities and act on
the information at hand.

Gainful employment options must be made
available for younger Devadasis women
through vocational training programs.

Girl children of Devadasi women must be
identified and provided scholarships until
they turn 18 years of age.

Devadasi Dedication Prohibition Officer
must map the locations within the district
that are prone to Devadasi dedication and
must proactively rescue the dedicated

Legal Services Authority Department of Education

District legal services authority
must prioritize legal awareness
programs on Devadasi dedication

Adults should be educated not to
give in to superstitious beliefs.

Young girls who have been
dedicated as Devadasis should be
identified and their groups should
be formed. They should be given
training and encouraged to stop
dedication from taking place in
their villages.

Youth groups, Panchayat members,
Kishori group and women’s self-help
groups must be made vigilant
about the continuance of Devadasi
dedication practice.



Originally published at on June 13, 2020.



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