Caste Based Sacred Prostitution of India

Prostitutes of god

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/prostitutes-of-god-2082290.html

Journalist Sarah Harris has made a documentary about temple prostitutes in south India -Devadasi girls are dedicated to a Hindu deity and spend their lives selling sex.

Interview by Matilda Battersby

Monday, 20 September 2010

Former Independent journalist Sarah Harris has made a documentary about India's temple prostitutes - Devadasi are young girls who are dedicated to a Hindu deity at a young age and support their families as sex workers.

The first instalment of the four-part exclusively online documentary 'Prostitutes of God' goes live today on VBS.tv.

Harris talked The Independent Online about making the film:

I first went to India after I left The Independent three years ago. I wanted to run away and do something really different, so I went to volunteer with a charity in southern India which rescues victims of sex trafficking.

On my very first day there I stumbled into a meeting of Devadasi prostitutes. I was told that they were temple prostitutes, but didn’t have any understanding of what that meant.

I began to research it and in February 2008 was invited to northern Karnataka, which is the centre of the tradition in India. I interviewed a few of the women and wrote an article about it for Vice magazine. But visiting them stayed with me, and I wanted to find out more.

When you approach a Devadasi girl for interview the response varies hugely. There’s a huge spectrum of women. A really wealthy brothel madam in Mumbai would be quite proud to talk about what she does. But in very poor rural communities, like in Karnatakar, they’re much more difficult to talk to. These young women are ostracised and exploited and they’re ashamed of what they do. They wish they could get married, but they can’t and are in this dreadful prison.

The only thing that has changed since the Devadasi practise was made illegal in 1988 is that the ceremonies have been driven underground. It’s still very common in some parts of India. A Westerner wouldn’t know to look at the girls that they are Devadasi, but Indians know on sight who they are and what they do. Really it comes down to caste.

Caste is a massively complicated issue still in India. My understanding of it is that originally when the Devadasi tradition first came about, the women dedicated were from high caste families, even royalty. They held a very special place in the Indian culture: were incredible dancers, poets, artisans. They had specific religious roles to play within the temple performing various sacred religious rites. They were almost like nuns and it had nothing to do with sex. It was more like being a priestess.

The film shows how much the tradition has deteriorated over the centuries. Specifically in the 19th Century when the Christian missionaries came, the Devadasi became less well thought of. These days it’s very much a low caste tradition. Girls from the Madiga caste, otherwise known as the "untouchable caste," have really limited prospects. They can be agricultural labourers, sewage collectors or prostitutes, essentially. As prostitution is the most lucrative, a lot of Madiga women get into sex work.

Some girls are dedicated to the goddess at age two or three. They won’t actually enter into sex work until they reach puberty at around twelve. The girls most at risk of being dedicated will have grown up in very matriarchal Devadasi communities. There aren’t any men. They don’t have fathers. So there probably is some understanding from a young age that they’re not from traditional families, they don’t have husbands.

The girls probably won’t have a real understanding of the sex work element until what they call their ‘first night’. This is when their virginity is sold to a local man, normally the highest bidder. He might be a local farmer, landowner or businessman. Some of them say, "I was dedicated to the goddess, but I didn’t know this was what was expected."

When I first went to India I thought some of the women might consider it a kind of honour to be a Devadasi, because of it is an act of religious devotion. Sexuality and divinity are very closely entwined in the Hindu faith. Religion is closely linked to sexuality and beauty. But I think there’s very little religious link left now. Most of the women that we spoke to don’t even pay any heed to the traditional religious practises of the goddess. They see it as a business.

HIV is very prevalent in the community. Our translator, who works very closely with these communities, describes HIV as being like plucking a bunch of grapes. As soon as a woman is infected then her whole family becomes infected. Every man she sleeps with then becomes infected. Then the men pass it onto their wives. It’s very difficult to measure the disease’s prevalence because many don’t understand what that they’ve got.

There is widespread ignorance about AIDS and HIV in those communities. And a huge stigma attached to using condoms. People die of HIV related illnesses and they call it "dying of a fever." The infected often go undiagnosed. There’s also huge disparity. One of the towns we went to had a huge NGO which was campaigning for the rights of sex workers, distributing condoms and educational materials, so the Devadasi were quite switched on about it.

It’s very difficult for girls to leave the profession. You see groups of former Devadasi becoming social activists and campaigners against the tradition. That’s one way out. Another is to become an educator or a social worker. There is a huge movement to try and stop dedications happening, and the impetus for that is coming from the grass roots. The former Devadasi women.

Living a normal life in India after having been a Devadasi prostitute is extremely, extremely hard because they're seen as damaged goods. In India marriage is everything. If there’s any suggestion that a girl has had sex before marriage then she's ostracised from society. Women are still stoned to death in some villages for those kinds of transgressions. So it’s very difficult for them to rebuild their lives.

Untouchability

You say-you drink, but you lick the boots of those who drink. You hate those who eat meat, but you bow down to those  (English) who eat beef. Is it not because they are more powerful than you ? If we become kings today you will stand before us with folded hands. In you religion the one who is powerful is high, the powerless are low. This is your religion.

The old Untouchable to Pandit Liladhar in Premchand's Mantar.

No aspect of the caste system is as fascinating as the study of untouchability problem. This problem is not unique to India, other cultures such as Japanese, Burmese, Nigerian and some of the South American Indian cultures have also displayed similar phenomena. But the Indian system seems to be historically very highly developed and complex. At first glance there does not seem to be any 'rational' reason for the practice of untouchability. However, a closer examination reveals that there are sound underlying 'reasons' for this obnoxious practice. The root cause of all the three above mentioned cultures practicing untouchability is the same as we shall see later on. But it is not well known that the way untouchability is practiced it shows that the system is neither logical nor consistent.

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Caste and the Politics of Sacred Cows

A cure for cancer – or just a very political animal?

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/a-cure-for-cancer-ndash-or-just-a-very-political-animal-2031253.html

The Go-vigyan Kendra institute in India claims to harness the medicinal powers of cows for human benefit. But, asks Andrew Buncombe, what are its real motives?

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

In a stinking, smoking room in which large metal cauldrons spat and sizzled atop wood-fuelled fires, Dr Nandini Bhojraj pointed with pride to four plastic buckets placed on the floor. One, she declared, contained cow's milk, another cow's urine, a third "dung juice" created by soaking cow excrement in water, while into the last had been poured clarified butter, or ghee.

The purpose of the witches' kitchen-like set-up was to heat and combine all four to create a wonder drug for humans. "It will cure 99 per cent of all diseases," Dr Bhojraj declared. For more than a decade, she and a team of fellow enthusiasts and activists at the Go-vigyan Kendra institute and farm in central India have been quietly researching the medicinal and health-boosting qualities of the Indian cow.

Using principles they say come from both ancient medicine or ayurveda and Hindu texts, they have created a range of items based on cowpathy, or the five traditional cow products – milk, urine, dung, butter and ghee.

There is shampoo to prevent dandruff, mosquito repellent, incense, tooth-whitening powder manufactured from dung charcoal as well as the more obvious fertiliser and insecticide. At one point, a sister farm in the north of India even had plans to produce a soft drink from cow's urine. But earlier this summer, the establishment of 280 cows and 50 staff set amid the thick jungle that is home to groups of langur monkeys, captured the headlines when it announced it had obtained patents in the US and China for another distilled urine product, marketed as Gomutra Ark, that it claimed could help cure cancer and several other serious conditions.

While, by itself, obtaining a patent is no proof of anything, its boasts were supported by the government-funded National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI). At a press conference one of its senior officials told reporters: "Many patients, some of them terminally ill with diseases like cancer, have come to the Go-vigyan Kendra for treatment and have claimed to have benefited from Gomutra Ark." The institute responsible for producing this drug is located about 40 miles east of Nagpur, a city of 2.5m people that sits at the geographic centre of India.

In addition to the cowsheds where workers from nearby villages gather dung and urine, there are several rather scruffy buildings that serve as laboratories, workshops and offices. There is also a hostel for children who attend a local school. The establishment was set up 15 years ago with money and support from a controversial Hindu nationalist organisation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), but officials say the centre is independent because it is now funded solely by the sale of its products and donations.

Yet its aims – research into the five cow products ("panchagavya" in Sanskrit) and the promotion of the cow as being central to human existence – remain the same. "We initially came to look at the Indian lifestyle with the focus on the village and the cow. It all depends on cows. We want to look at how we can help put the cow at the centre," explained Suresh Dawle, the institute's secretary. "India's system depends on the village and the village depends on the cow – to fertilise the land, for milk, urine for pesticide. If the cow is at the centre then the economy will grow." Asked if the institute was also proselytising Hindu beliefs, he demurred: "Hinduism is a way of life. It's not religion, it's a way of life for mankind. This is not related to religion."

Yet a stroll around the grounds of Go-vigyan Kendra left little doubt about the way in which the cow is venerated here. A noticeboard listing daily activities mentioned that 9am was time for "cow worship", when the animals are washed, scrubbed and a prayer ritual, which involves encircling the cow with incense and painting a red dot or tika on its head, is performed.

The cow has long been at the centre of often vicious political and cultural battles in India. Considered sacred by Hindus and protected by law, purported attacks on cows are often used as rallying device by right-wing Hindu groups, such as the VHP. Dalits, or so-called untouchables, are often attacked, beaten and even murdered after being accused of killing or eating cows, something that is banned in the majority of Indian states. Just last week there were protests from Dalits and others in the southern state of Karnataka where the state government passed new legislation to ban eating cows or buffalo. Yet despite their supposed high status, cows often live a shabby life in India, especially in large cities where they idly wander the traffic-choked roads or graze on piles of festering rubbish and plastic bags. In Delhi, the government employs teams of urban cowboys to catch the stray animals and take them away on trucks to farms on the city's edge.

Asked to explain this apparent discrepancy, Mr Dawle said: "Britain ruled India for 200 years, broke the village economy and imposed their lifestyle on Indian people. People forgot the importance of the cow." If people at the institute have their way that will never happen again. Dr Bhojraj said in addition to the Gomutra Ark, 28 products manufactured at the institute had received clearance from the government's food and drug safety body. Best of all, she said, there were no side effects from these products, not even from the fearsome-sounding concoction that her staff had been making in smoking pans.

Her words were still ringing out a few moments later when it was time to test the raw materials the wonder drugs are made from. In a small room at the rear of the institute, several clay pots were lined up against the wall. Dr Bhojraj lifted the lid from one of them and scooped out the light, straw-coloured liquid with a small metal cup.

"It is eight-day-old distillate of cow's urine," she said. "It may smell quite strong." Indeed it did. But the smell of this aged urine, however bad, was nothing compared to its taste. Just the smallest sip was enough to trigger a flurry of different associations – burning grass, petrol, Laphroaig whisky, rancid sourness – that produced a vile gustatory overload. The heart seemed to beat faster, the brow sweated. Would it be deemed impolite to step outside and spit? "Perhaps you'd like some water," enquired Dr Bhojraj. One might assume something that tasted so bad must do some good.

In the US patent for Gomutra Ark, the product was described as a "composition useful for protecting and/or repairing DNA from oxidative damages". Dr Bhojraj said chemicals in urine caused cancer to cells to "commit suicide". And it is not just cancer. One of the institute's books claims Indian cow's urine – and it must be Indian cows, they insist – can also help treat renal failure, leprosy, skin disease, piles, anaemia, jaundice, mouth ulcers and ear disease.

In India, drinking urine has a long history and may stretch back thousands of years. One ancient text, the Damar Tantra, is said to contain more than 100 verses on the benefits of both drinking urine and of massaging it into the skin.

The late Indian prime minister, Morarji Desai, who served between 1977 and 1979, was famous for his championing of so-called "urine therapy" and claimed drinking his own had helped him get rid of piles. He even once told an interviewer that drinking urine could be a "perfect" medical solution to millions of Indians unable to afford doctors.

Yet for all its champions, most experts, at least outside of India, have concluded there are no benefits to be obtained from drinking it.

Dr Donald Hensrud, chairman of preventive medicine at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, told ABC News: "I think I'm perfectly comfortable in saying that I'm aware of no data that cow's urine – or any other species' urine – holds any promise... in treating or preventing cancer." Such opinions will do nothing to deter the friendly and charming people at the Go-vigyan Kendra.

When it was time to leave, The Independent was escorted from the farm by Madhu Rotkar, a former civil servant who worked there as a volunteer. He was 76 and yet appeared to have boundless energy. Asked, inevitably, if he drank the purportedly-magical cow's urine, he replied with a smile: "Every morning."

Notes on Header Image

Notes on the Header Image

The website site header image is part of painting in the collection of V&A. The complete painting is reproduced below. The painting has been reliably dated to 1650-1658 and it was commissioned by Moghul Prince Dara Shikoh,  the son of Shan Jahan and brother of Emperor Aurengzeb.

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India Tops in Poverty

The Times of India

8 Indian states have more poor than 26 poorest African nations
PTI, Jul 12, 2010, 04.18pm IST

LONDON: Acute poverty prevails in eight Indian states, including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, together accounting for more poor people than in the 26 poorest African nations combined, a new 'multidimensional' measure of global poverty has said.

The new measure, called the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), was developed and applied by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative with UNDP support.

It will be featured in the forthcoming 20 th anniversary edition of the UNDP Human Development Report.

An analysis by MPI creators reveals that there are more 'MPI poor' people in eight Indian states (421 million in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal) than in the 26 poorest African countries combined (410 million).

The new poverty measure that gives a multidimensional picture of people living in poverty, and is expected to help target development resources more effectively, its creators said.

The MPI supplants the Human Poverty Index, which had been included in the annual Human Development Reports since 1997.

The 2010 UNDP Human Development Report will be published in late October, but research findings from the Multidimensional Poverty Index were made available today at a policy forum in London and on line on the websites of OPHI and the UNDP Human Development Report.

The MPI assesses a range of critical factors or 'deprivations' at the household level: from education to
health outcomes to assets and services.

Taken together, these factors provide a fuller portrait of acute poverty than simple income measures, according to OPHI and UNDP.

The measure reveals the nature and extent of poverty at different levels: from household up to regional, national and international level.

This new multidimensional approach to assessing poverty has been adapted for national use in Mexico, and is now being considered by Chile and Colombia.

"The MPI is like a high resolution lens which reveals a vivid spectrum of challenges facing the poorest households," said OPHI Director Dr Sabina Alkire, who created the MPI with Professor James Foster of George Washington University and Maria Emma Santos of OPHI.

The UNDP Human Development Report Office is also joining forces with OPHI to promote international discussions on the practical applicability of this multidimensional approach to measuring poverty.

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