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In the southern state of Telangana and its borders, ritual servitude exists.
This is poor rural India, as we would imagine it. There is endemic poverty everywhere; small families eke out a living off the earth; huts are scattered across an eternally thirsty plain; and depending on the monsoon, the Godavari river flows in the distance.
But this almost tranquil picture hides one of the great crimes of modern India: ritualised sexual slavery.
In these villages, girls as young as five are routinely “dedicated” to the village temple. Dressed up as a bride with the formal ceremonies that accompany a wedding, these pre-pubescent girls are ‘married’ to god. Once married, they cannot marry a man ever again.
With this ritual initiation begins a slow descent into hell: when the girls reach puberty they are taken as personal sexual slaves by either the priest, the village head or their virginity is auctioned to one of the wealthier men in the area. And once he tires of her, she becomes an asset of the entire village.
These women are called “Joginis” and they live extremely precarious lives.
The village shuns them. Illiterate and economically vulnerable, they are sexually abused by any man who wants gratification. They do not have the right to refuse anyone.
Their daughters usually follow in the mother’s footsteps. On the other hand, their sons do not acknowledge them because of the stigma attached to being a Jogini’s son. Most of the children do not know who their father is.
They are not permitted to live within the protective circle of the village and are outcastes.
Several Joginis are trafficked to large cities and forced into prostitution. They are in high demand in red light areas where men seek religious atonement by sleeping with a divine Jogini.
In 1988, the Government of India banned this practice. However, it is still prevalent in some parts of the country.
Text by Ramesh Ramanathan.
Asha Thadani is a Bangalore-based photographic artist. Ramesh Ramanathan is a writer living in Kodaikanal.