The gorgeous Yamunavva. Pic courtesy: MK
Mudhol, Bagalkot district: When a cup of tea cost a princely ten paise, the man she fell in love with bought her a cotton saree priced Rs 4. For Rannavva, a devadasi, it was equivalent to a lavish drape of Rs 10,000. The graceful woman, chirpy and ever enthusiastic till now, breaks out into giggles. She must be about 50, it is hard to tell people's ages, weathered that their faces are by the vagaries of having a life lived. They cannot be expected to know their ages either; they have better things in life to bother about.
Rannavva is one of the old timers from a little village in Jamakhandi taluk. Her love story is quite contrary to the conventions of her community. Dedicated when she was just a little girl, her "hiriyavaru" (the elder one), the permanent partner, was poorer than her family. But she fell in love, stood by him when he ran a tiny tea stall, encouraged him to seek a job that his TCH training merited. Her wrist watch became his when he had to move away for a teacher's post. Every weekend he visited her. Ten years of bliss and he married another woman, with her consent of course. It was a happily ever after, with the two women tolerant of each other, with their three children each sharing a happy sibling relationship.
Rannavva breaks out into a 'chowdike pada', traditional verses and poems that devadasis are taught to sing at temples and at functions. She forgets the lyrics once in a while and is embarrassed because she hasn't been practicing off late but the elegantly beautiful Yamunavva, one the most respected devadasis in the area, reminds her of the next line. Both sing in rich baritones, slightly off key, but melodious nevertheless. Both are peaceful, enjoying their lives too. But talk of passing on their traditions to the next generation and they vehemently dismiss all such intentions. Passing on the songs, the beliefs and the faith in Yellamma devi is all fine, but not the dedication of women that denies them all their lives, the titles of a wife.
Yamunavva's partner is a rich man, the jewellery that compliments her graceful beauty, the 'boar-mala' (a chain of hollow peanut shaped gold beads), a gold and black bead mangalsutra, a large pearl nose-pin testify that. Her 'hiriyavaru' saw her when she was helping her mother in laying roads. A short stint in Mumbai and she was back in her village of Chimmadu. Her partner has taken a wife but has never denied her any comfort. Money for the son's wedding, new sarees, trips to the village fair and to his home, everything, except the institution of marriage. She has no reason to complain, her life has been good, her beauty still visible, her partner still loyal.
The system of devadasis, though banned by the government, is still prevalent in several parts of the northern districts of Karnataka. Belgaum, Bagalkot, Bijapur, neighbouring districts practice the system in considerable numbers. There are no new recruits into the centuries old tradition but the older women continue to perform some rituals, the prayers to Yellamma continue. Voluntarily they have now stopped breaking bangles and practicing widowhood for a month during December-January. Begging for the 'joga' is also not practiced. Yamunavva and Rannavva are both peer educators today with a women's organization in Mudhol, about 50 kms from Bagalkot. They are happy with their partners but dead against young kids being dedicated now. Any inkling of a family planning on dedicating a girl child and they rush to educate the family against it. In extreme cases, the police is discreetly informed too.
The age old system survives in pockets today. Awareness of their rights, exposure and social acceptance has made life better. But then, never have the devadasis been shy of who they are. Yamunavva is greatly respected in her village, her status high. Her large red bindi, green bangles, all her symbols of eternal 'sumangali' reflects her pride, her quiet acceptance of her life. At that age, must be around 65 years, she is still shy when she talks of her partner. Rannavva is more exuberant in her joy. Her joie de vive visible in every flick of her hand, in every verse of the songs she sings. The devadasis, despite all that the city talks of them, are not too unhappy. They are a rather content lot today.
An age old practise:
* Devadasis are girls who are dedicated to Goddess Yellamma at a young age. They can take on a permanent partner and bear children. Nothing stops them from taking on other customers. They do not marry and children do not have claim over the partner's property.
* Devadasis are called the eternal brides. Dedication process includes an elaborate ceremony where they are dressed as a bride. Five rules are whispered into their ear to follow all their lives, to feed the hungry, to not lie, to keep secrets, to give water and to give shelter.
* Earlier begged with a bamboo bowl at two houses on Tuesdays, at three houses on Fridays. Shared the gruel made from the grains with five other 'jogathis'. Seen as representatives of Goddess Yellamma, women often confessed and sought advice from them.
* Continue to fiercely guard and practice their traditional music and dance called Chowdike.
* Women who have had a miscarriage beg Re 1 from jogathis on a new moon day and with that money, pierce the nose of the child that is subsequently born. After a trip to the Yellammana Gudda, they are invited into homes, treated to a feast and people of the household prostrate to pray before her.