Prostitutes of God (Documentary)

By | August 29, 2019


[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH HARRIS: The first thing
that strikes you when you come to India is a sense of
extreme contrasts. While some people are still
shitting off the side of railway lines and eating from
banana leaves, other people are drinking Frappuccinos and
wearing Gucci sunglasses. Along with this feeling of
progress and moving forward, there’s still this undercurrent
of tradition and religion and superstition and an
even more deeply ingrained caste system. I didn’t realize quite how sharp
these contrasts between new and old India were until
I came here last year to research an article about
sex trafficking. And on my very first day here,
I met a group of temple prostitutes who told me about
this ancient Hindu system where prepubescent girls are
dedicated to a goddess, and for the rest of their lives,
they will become sex slaves of the temple. The name of that system
is devadasi. This train’s a little bit like
The Darjeeling Limited, except we have cockroaches sleeping
under our beds. And there’s no one serving
sweet lime. Hello. So in the beginning, being a
devadasi had nothing to do with prostitution. In medieval India, they were
glamorous temple dancers and held high social status. They performed sacred religious
rituals and danced for loyalty in the name of a
goddess called Yellamma. Over the centuries, the link
between the devadasis and their temples gradually
diminished, along with their social status. They became the paid mistresses
of priests, then kings, and later,
rich landowners. In the 19th century, Western
missionaries tried to abolish the tradition, calling it
grotesque and immoral, driving the devadasis underground. Today, devadasis are no
different to common street hookers, servicing drunk truck
drivers and bored businessmen. Even though the practice has
been illegal for over 20 years, up to 3,000 girls are
still being secretly dedicated every year. We traveled to the border town
of Sangli, which straddles the two southern Indian states of
Karnataka and Maharastra. Its red light district is home
to hundreds of devadasi sex workers, and that afternoon,
we were invited there by Anitha, one of its most
successful brothel owners. She’s a member of an NGO called
SANGRAM, which fights to empower locals sex workers. Communication was pretty
painful, as our interpreter Somashekar was having some
trouble with his English. Everybody in the houses
next door– this whole street– is also sex workers
like Anitha? Yes. SARAH HARRIS: So all
the neighborhood. And they’re all friends
who live around here? Everybody is friends? SARAH HARRIS: So when the
customer comes inside, the door closes. And this– SARAH HARRIS: She’s
not a customer? She is also a sex worker? SOMASHEKAR: A sex worker. SARAH HARRIS: And she
uses this room? SOMASHEKAR: [SPEAKING MARATHI] [SARAH LAUGHING] SOMASHEKAR: That’s another one
of Anitha’s friends who’s lying in there. Hello. SARAH HARRIS: This is
what she’s saying? SOMASHEKAR: I am. SARAH HARRIS: You. SARAH HARRIS: Tell me again. So are you talking as you? Are you telling me– Somashekar. SOMASHEKAR: Huh? SARAH HARRIS: So you
are a sex worker. SOMASHEKAR: I am a sex worker. SARAH HARRIS: You are
a sex worker. And you came to Anitha’s
room, and– SARAH HARRIS: Yeah. SARAH HARRIS: You work in
this room, and Anitha works in this room. SOMASHEKAR: This room. SARAH HARRIS: So you
all work together. OK. [SPEAKING MARATHI] SARAH HARRIS: The whole place
is completely difference to what I thought it would be. I kind of imagined these
really seedy, anonymous hotel-looking brothels. And actually, there’s kids
running around everywhere. There’s women doing their
laundry, making lunch. And it kind of feels
like quite a tight-knit little community. The ladies of Sangli wouldn’t
let me leave without showing me the temple around
the corner. It seemed like wherever there
were brothels, the goddess Yellamma was never far away. For Anitha and her friends,
being a devadasi was nothing to be ashamed of. Sex work was their choice. They had condoms, power in
numbers, and SANGRAM looking after them. But these were just
the lucky few. For the vast majority
of devadasis, prostitution isn’t a choice. It’s forced upon them, and most
often by their parents. Like most Hindu legends, the
story of the goddess Yellamma is long, convoluted,
and surreal. However many times we
heard it, it still didn’t make much sense. But it seems to go something
like this. The whole ordeal begins when her
son is ordered to chop her head off by her husband after
he catches her spying on two people getting frisky
by a lake. After a complex process of
death, reincarnation, and a load of fat Hindu gods with blue
skin and gold bikinis, the goddess Yellamma was born. She fled to the villages of
Karnataka and became a symbol of worship for the lowest
Hindu castes. So after a really sweaty 10-hour
train journey, we’ve finally arrived in this
town called Mudhol up in Northern Karnataka. And it’s in the villages around
here that we’ve been told has the highest
concentration of devadasi women in India. An estimated 23,000 women in
this part of India have been dedicated to the goddess. And roughly half of those will
have resorted to sex work in order to feed their families. SARAH HARRIS: We traveled to
the outskirts of this dusty transit town to meet two
teenage devadasi girls. [SPEAKING KANNADA] SARAH HARRIS: Madigas are
considered filthy and polluting and are only permitted
to work in the lowliest positions, as street
cleaners, sewage collectors, and of course, prostitutes. When we took the girls out
shopping, they seemed terrified of the higher castes
recognizing them as devadasis, which they did. [SPEAKING KANNADA] SARAH HARRIS: It was surreal to
see the reaction they got. The shopkeepers wouldn’t even
look them in the eye. [SPEAKING KANNADA] SARAH HARRIS: So now it seems
this religious ritual is just a justification for
poor families to pimp out their daughters. [SPEAKING KANNADA] SARAH HARRIS: It was strange
sitting with Belavva’s family on the floor of their one room
hut, knowing it’s also the place where she has sex with
customers while her brothers and sisters wait outside. BALAVVA: [SPEAKING KANNADA] [SPEAKING KANNADA] SARAH HARRIS: Karnataka is one
of India’s largest producers of sugar cane. Hundreds of trucks pass
through towns like this every day. The roadside can be
a scary place. Horny drivers and bored
agricultural workers gather here, looking for ways
to spend their wages. They are one of the main
transmitters of HIV throughout India, spreading the virus
through the country’s extensive road network, putting
girls like Mala and Belavva at risk of this
deadly disease. SARAH HARRIS: Back in Sangli,
we were invited to meet another devadasi called Pandu. We were told she was different,
but we weren’t prepared for just
how different. [MALE SPEAKING MARATHI] SARAH HARRIS: Every morning, he
spent two hours polishing brass Yellamma statues and
blessing his beloved shrine. [SPEAKING MARATHI] SARAH HARRIS: Can you ask him
to show me how to make chai? Tea powder. Wow, that’s a lot of sugar. Fucking hell. [SARAH LAUGHING] SARAH HARRIS: Still? Going, going, going,
going, going. SARAH HARRIS: Can we watch
him dance today? We have to persuade him,
sweet talk him. Ah, wow. Wow, Pandu. Who’s this guy? You put a sari over his head. [PANDU SPEAKING MARATHI] SARAH HARRIS: He’s got money
between his teeth. Your best friend, Sudir. Oh, wow, that’s a nice photo. Wow, thank you. [SPEAKING MARATHI] SARAH HARRIS: Later that day, at
our hotel, Pandu showed us his favorite Bollywood
videos and the famous Sangli condom trick. SARAH HARRIS: You’re about to
witness a demonstration of the classic Sangli condom trick that
Pandu has just taught me when his male customers don’t
want to use a condom. [SPEAKING MARATHI] SARAH HARRIS: I think I lost. Pandu may want a better life for
his daughter, but for many other devadasis, there’s a lot
of money to be made in recruiting the next
generation. Now, we’re on our way to another
village, about five kilometers outside of Mudhol. And most of women who live
there are from the madiga caste, and so most of them are vulnerable to becoming devadasis. One of the interesting things
about this village is that we’re going to be able to go
to the house of a devadasi woman who’s made a real career
out of prostitution. And she’s built this enormous
house in the middle of the village as a kind of symbol
of the her success. So she can become a role model
to the other girls living in the village that becoming
a devadasi is a good way of life. The legendary owner, Champa,
doesn’t even live here. She’s too busy turning
tricks in Bombay. Inside, shiny display cabinets
of unused crockery line the walls as testaments
to her success. There were groups of village
children roaming around the house to gawp at her flickering
color TV sets and shelves of broken electrical
equipment. The message is clear– prostitution is a lucrative
business. So this is the necklace, the
muthu, that the devadasi women wear when they get dedicated. And hers is just hanging on
the wall of her mud hut. She’s an old lady called
Shavvavva, and she’s one of the oldest devadasi women
in the village. And I’ve just been told that
she brought the very first radio to this village. No one had ever seen a radio
before she brought it here. Walking through the village, we
notice Yellamma’s presence everywhere. The locals told us that all
devadasis in the area were preparing themselves for the
full moon festival, which is apparently the most
important event in the Yellamma calendar. After hearing so much about the
famous full moon festival in Saundatti, we drove four
hours out of town to catch the first day of this month-long
celebration of Yellamma. Just up there in the center of
that big arch is the face of the goddess Yellamma. That’s the entrance to her
temple here in Saundatti. Over the course of the 28 days,
more than half a million people will pass through
the temple doors. A heaving shantytown springs
up around the famous Yellamma shrine. The place is filled with garish
Hindu icons, Bollywood music, sticky sweets, and the
symbolic red and yellow colors of the goddess Yellamma. Hello. Nice to meet you. We’re not allowed– we’re not
gonna take the camera inside. No. SARAH HARRIS: This is the
Yellamma temple, which is like the main attraction
of Saundatti. It’s here that for hundreds and
hundreds of years, all the devadasi girls have come for
their dedication ceremonies, which are now illegal. And we’re not allowed in, so
we just have to shoot from outside, but you can see
hundreds of people walking around, praying to
the goddess. Everything around the temple
is really, really colorful, and you’ve got all these red
and yellow dyes, which the women put on their foreheads. And this is to kind of represent the goddess Yellamma. And the green bangles are in
rows all along the side of the road here, and they’re the
bangles that they put on the girls during their devadasi
dedication ceremonies. And tonight is the moon
celebration, and they’ll smash their bracelets as a symbol
of widowhood. This is also one of the places
where the women traffickers come and pick up potential
prostitutes. The brothel madams will travel
from big cities like Bombay and Pune and come to Saundatti
to these festivals to pick up young girls to traffic. Amidst all the religious fervor,
there was a distinct feeling of secrets going
on behind closed doors. Families are offered a generous
fee in return for their young daughters,
often under the pretense of a better future. But it’s here that the next
generation of young devadasi prostitution are found. What we really wanted to do was
watch a real dedication ceremony, but that didn’t look
like it was going to happen. And as a bunch of pasty
Westerners with cameras, we weren’t exactly inconspicuous. Luckily, we met an ex-devadasi
and social activist called Sitavva. She agreed to stage a mock
dedication ceremony to give us an idea of what really goes
on behind the scenes. SITAVVA: [SPEAKING KANNADA] SARAH HARRIS: Leaving Saundatti,
we felt disturbed by everything we’d seen. The bright colors and energy
of the festival were overshadowed by the seedy
reality of a religious ceremony that condones
child prostitution. Our last stop before we headed
home was in the small village of Sarol, where we’d arranged
to meet three generations of devadasi women, all from
the same family. When we arrived, we were told
that the daughter had recently died of HIV. [SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE] SARAH HARRIS: India is a land
of extremes, polarized by extravagant new wealth
and ancient poverty. Everywhere you look, there’s a
battle being waged between the traditional forces of religion,
castes, and superstition and the inevitable
force of Western capitalism. Nowhere are these clashes more
evident than in the plight of the devadasis, where religious
devotion has been exploited for commercial gain. The devadasi tradition is
destroying families and communities, generation
after generation. And with the advent of AIDS and
HIV, the practice now has a deadly price tag. And today, any remnants of the
devadasis’ cultural origins have all but disappeared. All that’s left is a system
that turns children into prostitutes and their
parents into pimps.

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