In olden days, after dedication, the girls danced at temple festivals and functions. The priests freely used them for sex and were later passed on to the village chiefs. Then they were the sexual objects for village seniors before they were made available to anyone who wanted them for sex. They had little choice but to become sex workers.
  Grueling poverty  
Although traditionally, devadasis may have danced at temples, most of the contemporary devadasis do not even mention this. Sex work is the primary work. Most contemporary devadasis have a regular partner who supports them. They have children, although children have no rights on their father's name or property. Apart from their regular partner they have some clients they cater to, but they are selective.
Most devadasis say their families were driven to destitution, and as Schedule Castes they were at the very bottom of the social order, living in clusters on the outskirts of the village. Poverty was the primary reason for 'dedicating' a daughter who would then operate from a part of the house itself that would be earmarked for entertaining clients. The religious reason may have been there traditionally, in most current cases, it was sheer desperation that prompted 'dedication'.
They are not allowed to marry because technically they are "married to God". Therefore, they are referred to as nitya sumangali someone who can never be a widow.
Genesis & Growth
Devadasi system is a religious practice in parts of southern India, including Andhra Pradesh, whereby parents marry a daughter to a deity or a temple.The marriage usually occurs before the girl reaches puberty and requires the girl to become a prostitute for upper-caste community members. Such girls are known as jogini. They are forbidden to enter into a real marriage.
There have been opinions of many hues and colors about the genesis and growth of this system. In this section, an attempt has been made to present a comprehensive understanding of the dominant schools of thoughts. There are many factors that come into consideration when we try to trace the origin and the development of this intriguing system. Factors like religious beliefs, caste system, male domination and economic stress have been recognized as the stimulants behind the perpetuation of this phenomenon.
The beginning could be perhaps mapped out in the inscription found in temples. "The word Emperumandiyar which was used in the sense of Vaishnavas before 966 A.D. got the meaning of dancing girls, attached to Vishnu temples, in inscriptions of about 1230-1240 A.D. in the time of Raja Raya III. [Raghavacharya: I,118] In Maharashtra, they are called 'Devadasis' meaning female servants of God'.It should also be noted that in many quarters the emergence of the "devadasis" has been linked to the downfall of Buddhism in India. "That the devadasis were Buddhist nuns can be deduced from many evidences. They are unknown to ancient India. Jaatakas, Kautillya or Vatsayana do not mention them, but later Puranas found them useful. The system started only after the fall of Buddhism and records of them start appearing around 1000 A.D." [bharatiya sanskruti kosh, IV, 448]. It is viewed that the "devadasis" are the Buddhist nuns who were degraded to the level of prostitutes after the temples were taken over by the Brahmins during the times of their resurgence after the fall of Buddhism.
The Devadasi system was set up, according to a Times of India report (10-11-1987) as a result of a conspiracy between the feudal class and the priests (Brahmins). The latter, with their ideological and religious hold over the peasants and craftsmen, devised a means that gave prostitution their religious sanction. Poor, low-caste girls, initially sold at private auctions, were later dedicated to the temples. They were then initiated into prostitution
One can refer to the list put forward by the famous Indian scholar Jogan Shankar to determine the evolution of the system. According to him; the following are the reasons which played a major role in supplanting the system with firm roots:
1. as a substitute for human sacrifice.
2. as a rite to ensure the fertility of the land and the increase of human being and animal population.
3. as a part of phallic worship which existed in India from early Dravidian times.
4. Sprang from the custom of providing sexual hospitality for strangers.
  5. Licentious worship offered by a people, subservient to a degraded and vested interests of priestly Class.  
6. And lastly, to create custom in order to exploit lower caste people in India by upper castes and classes.
On the basis of the historical studies and research one can see the way the "sacred prostitution" established itself and grew to become a part of the Indian society. "Vasant Rajas, "Devdasi: Shodha ani bodha", (marathi), Sugava Prakashan, Pune, 1997, mentions of an inscription of 1004 A.D., in Tanjor Temple mentioning the numbers of devdasis to be 400 in Tanjor, 450 in Brahideswara temple and 500 in Sorti Somnath temple." "According to Chau Ju-Kua, Gujarat contained 4000 temples in which lived over 20,000 dancing girls whose function was to sing twice daily while offering food to the deities and while presenting flowers." Eminent Indian historians like R.C Mazumder and U.N Ghoshal have corroborated these facts. They have acknowledged the "high proportion" in the number of the "devadasis" in the temples during the medieval period.
Sadly, due to the continuation of the factors responsible for the birth of the system, the tradition has maintained itself over the centuries. It is found in all parts of India, but was more prevalent in the south. In some parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka it is still prevalent and has become a source of exploitation of lower castes.
  Copyright@ 2009 India Women Welfare Foundation