Books

What Devadasi Rites Tell Us About the Sexuality of Religion

Lucinda Ramberg’s first book, Given to the Goddess: South Indian Devadasis and the Sexuality of Religion has just  been awarded the 2015 Clifford Geertz Prize in the anthropology of religion and the first Michelle Rosaldo Prize for a first book in feminist anthropology. An extract:


Mahadevi, a Matangi pujari. Credit: Brett Isis Fisher

Mahadevi, a Matangi pujari. Credit: Brett Isis Fisher

One day the jogatis took me to the river for a puja. Mahadevi came to our door early in the morning, saying: “Today we are taking the devi to the river – will you come along?”  My research assistant Jyoti and I had gone roaming with the jogatis before, traveling from farmhouse to farmhouse for household rites on auspicious occasions such as the birth of a female buffalo calf or the successful drilling of a new bore well.  This time, for the festival of the river goddess, we climbed in a flat bed truck trailing a big green tractor.  The two traveling devis – Yellamma and Matangi – had been placed in the front of the truck. Along the way, a bumpy ride over the pock marked roads characteristic of this sugar cane-rich and infrastructure-poor district in Northern Karnataka, I asked Mahadevi whose tractor we were traveling in.  She pointed to the landlord farmer swaying in the tractor seat next to the driver and explained that he and his wife were without children, despite several years of marriage, so he had decided to sponsor the bringing of the devi to the river.  

I recognized in this account the making of a harake in which devotees seek to secure blessings of fertility and prosperity from the devi through acts of propitiation towards her.  Devotees make material or bodily offerings such as grain, saris, silver ornaments, pilgrimages, prostrations, renunciations, or ecstatic performances. As persons who are given, or who give themselves to the devi in fulfillment of harake, jogatis themselves take the form of such offerings.  Their dedication to the devi is conducted as a rite of marriage to her. This marriage authorizes them to perform rites in her name, such as the one in which we were brought to participate that day at the river Krishna.

Pilgrims from all the surrounding villages thronged the riverbank. Oxen carts were pulled alongside big green tractors into the flowing river, where farmers splashed water on the implements of their labor. Having bathed and finished their puja, people sat eating and children brandished their festival trophies: small plastic toys and candy. After overseeing the carrying of the two devis to a clearing in the crowd, Mahadevi conducted their bathing and ornamentation. Then she reached inside the basket into the lap or womb (udi) of the devi and drew out a fresh coconut. Beckoning to the landlord’s wife to follow her, Mahadevi led a small procession, including three musicians playing the instruments of Yellamma, to the water’s edge. There she dipped the coconut in the river, anointed it with scarlet kumkuma, worshipped it with fire (arthi) and placed it in the curved fold of sari silk the woman held outstretched at the level of her abdomen, into her udi.

Writing rites

Kamlabai preparing for puja. Credit: Brett Isis Fisher

Kamlabai preparing for puja. Credit: Brett Isis Fisher

Rites of devi propitiation are ubiquitous and everyday in South India.  What is noteworthy about this rite, however, is tied to the question of who or what jogatis are.  The South Indian women this book is about do not marry men; they marry a goddess. Jogatis are given, or dedicated to Yellamma as children by their parents.  All those dedicated to Yellamma wrap saris and embody the devi.  That is, whether recognized as boys or girls as children, they become women and are called jogatis although male women are more commonly called jogappas. Jogatis are also called and call themselves devadasis, which is a pan Indian term usually translated as servant or slave of the god.  Dedication is their central initiation rite.  They become Yellamma’s pujaris, Dalit women who transact in the favor of the goddess outside the walls of her main temple and in sex outside the bounds of conjugal matrimony.  Their alliance with the goddess, however, is not recognized as matter of legitimate religion or kinship within the law or by state authorities.  Indeed, in the most recent wave of over one hundred years of reform begun in the colonial era, the practice of dedication, as well as all the rites it authorizes jogatis to perform, including the one described above, have been criminalized.

Jogatis are typically defined exclusively through their illicit sexuality. When I began the field research for this book in 2001 I did not expect to encounter devadasis actively performing rites. I was to be surprised otherwise. One day in 2002 at a Yellamma temple in Northern Karnataka I encountered two dedicated women.  They were seated on either side of Matangi, for whom they were receiving offerings and giving blessings. “What do they call you?” I asked. “Pujaris” (priests, caretakers), they said, laughing at my ignorance, “What else would they call us? We keep the devi.”

What does it mean to ‘keep the devi’? This question has been answered in different ways. The scene I describe by the river Krishna might be read as (yet another) ethnographic rendering of timeless ritual in the Indian subcontinent, an episode in the story told by the West about the East through an Orientalist lens (Said 1978). Alternatively, it might appear as an account of female religious leadership and ritual balance between cosmic, earthly and human wellbeing in a wider record of universal feminine power and ecological value. From the point of view of Dalit, Christian, and feminist social reformers, the scene by the river displays the degraded position of outcaste women dedicated to a life of superstitious ritual enactments and sexual exploitation.

Mahadevi showing the day’s joga. Credit: Lucinda Ramberg

Mahadevi showing the day’s joga. Credit: Lucinda Ramberg

In this ethnography I offer another way to think about what was unfolding at the river that Spring day in 2003, one I came to by taking the question of who and what jogatis are as an open question best pursued by working closely with those whom come to call themselves jogati. This method foregrounds the terms jogatis themselves use to describe themselves and the world. As I show, these terms often exceed received categories of social scientific knowledge. As persons who are married to a goddess, jogatis conform neither to prevailing Dravidian patterns of kinmaking nor to dominant definitions of marriage as an alliance between two persons of the opposite sex. In short, jogatis exceed received conceptions of kinmaking.  This excess is productive in two ways. I bring another interpretation of devadasi lives into view and it demonstrates some of the limits of certain modern forms of knowledge.

Lucinda Ramberg is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Cornell University. She is currently at work on a project on the sexual politics of Dalit conversion to Buddhism.