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In those days there was a street, or part of a street, inhabited by prostitutes, each in her own house, with a mother or housekeeper and servants. The younger or higher-grade ones usually had some talent with a musical instrument, which they played to entertain clients. There was nothing to remark in all this, but what was remarkable was that the street stood on ground belonging to Arunachala's great temple, and that the house rent was collected regularly by an employee of the temple trustees. The women were part of a very ancient system which was prevalent throughout the South, and in other parts wherever the larger temple establishments attracted pilgrims--flourishing particularly during the festivals which recurred several times a year. The girls and women who danced in the ceremonies and processions before the sacred idols were drawn from the ranks of those prostitutes, hence their name, Devadasis ("servants of the god"). I remember once sitting in a bullock cart with Dr. Krishnaswami, the local educated physician who was the personal doctor to Ramana Maharshi and one of the saint's earliest devotees, driving through this street on our way to the medico's home. A few of them stood idly on the verandahs of their houses as we passed by. He turned to me and said bitterly, "They have been responsible for the ruin of many a man's health." For syphilis and lesser venereal diseases infect a high percentage of these unfortunate creatures despite their "sacred" character, just as much as they do their secular sisters in the larger towns, modern factory areas, and slum quarters of the Orient. They were dedicated to the presiding deity of the temple from infancy, and so could not marry anyone else but had to spend the brief years of their beauty in sexual promiscuity. The tradition which made this possible has been breaking down, like several other Indian traditions, particularly through the efforts of social reformers and leaders like Gandhi, and many temples have dispensed with Devadasis' services. Whether this has now happened at Arunachala I do not know.


-- Notebooks Category 15: The Orient > Chapter 2: India > # 199






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