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periyar and anna 539Since Middle Ages, a religious practice of 'devoting' the girl child to serve God existed in the Hindu religion. Such 'devoted' girl children were generally regarded as Devadasis by society. These women who were devoted to God, felt that they possessed divinity in them and considered themselves as wives of God.

But practically, these women were often molested by temple priests and others. It was a historical truth that they were pushed to a scenario where they used their bodies for survival. (Kudiarasu. 06.12.1931; Jeevanandam and Rekha Pande. 2017). So, to ameliorate the lives of such women, the self-respect movement started by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in 1925 played an important role in the abolition of the Devadasi system. This article aims to elucidate the role of the self-respect movement in abolishing the devadasi system based on historical traces.

Devadasi system and prostitution:

Generally, several people in the society were interested in pushing girl children into the Devadasi system to relieve themselves from any curse and defilement, to publicize their wealth to the world, to be blessed with the boy child, for the welfare of family and boy child, obsession towards heaven in life after death and due to the fortune of earning money easily. (Kudiarasu. 30.03.1930). Moreover, poverty was also the prime reason for women going into the Devadasi system. (Kudiarasu. 04.09.1927). Waned devadasi's who don't have girl children bought 'Hindu' girls from other communities and 'devoted' them to God to continue their descendants, tradition and property. (The Proceedings of the Madras Legislative Council: Second Session of the Third Legislative Council (PMLC. (October 31-November 5, 1927): 416. Such devoting ritual was called as Pottukattudhal or Pottukattu ritual in Tamil. (Jeevanandham. (April-June 2020): 241-248).

A thin line separates prostitution and the devadasi system. Devadasis have undergone prostitution several times for their comfort and livelihood. Kudiarasu magazine mentions that devadasis were cursed to be handmaids and strumpets. (Kudiarasu. 21.09.1930). The usage of diction differentiated devadasi from prostitutes. The Tamil word 'Vesi' refers to prostitutes, and 'Dasi' refers to Devadasi. It shall be mentioned that prostitutes work without religious recognition, whereas 'dasi's' safely carry out prostitution under the institution of religion. (Jeevanandam and Rekha Pande. 2017).

People belonging to the self-respect movement referred devadasi system as professional prostitution as they clearly knew that devadasis were pushed to the extent of selling their bodies for survival. (Revolt. 11.12.1928). Kudiarasu article mentions that through 'Pottukattum’ ritual, Devadasi’s have chosen to be prostitutes and concubines as their lifestyle. (30.03.1930)

In festive times, the houses of priests were served as a place for prostitution (Kudiarasu. 09.10.1927), and they also shared excess Devadasis with other priests and devotees who came to the temple. (Kudiarasu. 04.09.1927). Adding to this, priests also had a habit of taking Devadasi’s during travels to accompany them. It can be found out that priests even sent Devadasis to those who needed their service. (Kudiarasu. 25.09.1927). It can be discovered that priests had the custom of choosing things for dasi’s, which was brought by devotees for pooja. (Kudiarasu 05.02.1928). Same way, Kudiarasu magazine also reveals that temple trustees and their heirs had the privilege of taking important decisions in the lives of beautiful Devadasis. (Kudiarasu. 04.09.1927).

Periyar states that women are forced into this devadasi system to attract devotees in the temple and for the desire of God. (Kudiarasu. 04.09.1927). Even those who have a strong adherence to religion and faith in God embraced prostitution in the name of God and religion. Kudiarasu declared that devadasis were the prime source of attraction for devotees who came to the temple, and people visited the temple to satisfy their desire. This practice had a great impact on the lives of ladies from normal families too. (Kudiarasu. 09.10.1927).

People who come to the temple in the name of the devotion actually have some compliance with Devadasis. (Kudiarasu. 09.10.1927). They had the custom of inviting Devadasi’s to family functions like marriage, puberty, and other celebrations to keep them intact. Raghavan uttered that the cardinal reason behind going to pilgrimage is to see devadasis and to fulfill their exotic desires. (Kudiarasu. 06.12.1931). It was to be mentioned that prostitution based on religion was familiar among people in holy places like Rameswaram, Madurai, Thiruchendhur, Chidambaram, Sri Rangam, Palani, Kaasi and Gaya. (Kudiarasu. 23.10.1927).

Self-respect movement and abolition of devadasi system and legal battle:

Indian government must take immediate steps to stop young women involved in such immoral activities in temples in the name of caste, religion, and rituals, argued Muthulakshmi in Madras legislative council. (PMLC. (October 31- November 5, 1927): 415). She said dedicating innocent young women and children and tying them to the temple is a disgrace to Indian women and a great stain to social justice. So, she humbly requested all the women’s associations to support the cause to embrace this thought. Though Muthulakshmi has put forth all the fair points to introduce a bill to abolish the Devadasi system, it was said that she struggled a lot to bring out the desired resolution.

Fundamentalists who wanted to protect the Devadasi system:

Mixed criticisms arose from the bill introduced regarding the abolition of the Devadasi system. Most of the fundamentalist’s arguments in legislative assembly and society were based on the importance of dance in Hindu religious rituals. Renaissance men and fundamentalists argued that the Abolition of Devadasi bill would question the belief and culture of ‘Hindus’ who consider the Devadasi system as sacred and cultural heritage. Kudiarasu magazine had recorded that a fundamentalist Vijayaraghavachariyar argued the devadasi system was sacred and it should prolong in the society. (Kudiarasu. 09.10.1927). In a brahmin conference which held in 1932, Tanjore passed a resolution that child marriage, orthodox practices should prevail, and the abolition of the devadasi act should be repealed, and they even tried their best to accomplish their resolution. (Kudiarasu. 03.07.1932).

It is understood from the writings of Muthulakshmi that fundamentalists and people those who identify them as upper caste vigorously argued the initiatives of the abolition of the Devadasi system, and they didn’t come forward to cope with the social changes because of the devadasi system. (Young India. 29.08.1929). If any argument rose regarding Devadasi’s, people tend to elude, showing their reluctance by saying that they don’t belong to their caste even though women from all the castes are devoted to God as devadasis. (PMLC. (October 31-November 5, 1927): 416.)

Muthulakshmi wrote a letter seeking support from Gandhiji when few congress leaders were irresponsible and created obstacles to abolish the devadasi. (Young India. 29.08.1929.) Gandhiji appreciated Muthulakshmi and expressed that her plans were coherent, which would be good for the purity of religion and social justice. (Young India. 29.08.1929). Though Gandhiji appreciated the efforts of Muthulakshmi and applauded her actions in the legislative council, he also advised her not to follow western customs. (The Hindu. 10.09.1927).

Some legislative members belonging to the justice party voted in favour of fundamentalists and opposed the bill, which made people like Muthulakshmi to grieve. Somayarajalu felt abolition of the devadasi bill was introduced in a hurry without any arguments in the assembly. Though Kotti Reddy embraced the bill, he thought that the bill would aim to stop devadasi’s dance and concerts. (Dravidian. 02.02.1929).

So, this is how members who belonged to the justice party voted against the abolition of the devadasi bill, which made members of the self-respect movement embarrassed. Even Periyar expressed this behavior of theirs as a ‘shameless act’. (Kudiarasu. 23.03.1930). Even South Indian social reform condemned the legislative members who voted against the bill. (Revolt. 11.12.1928). Indrani ammaiyar also condemned the obstacle created by legislative members against the abolition of the devadasi bill in the second self-respect conference held in Virudhunagar. (Kudiarasu. 09.08.1931).

Self-respecters and Self-respect life of devadasi women:

The arguments of members of the self-respect movement and other reformers focused on the betterment of the lives of devadasi women. They struggled to acquire economic gains as per law for upgrading the lifestyle of devadasi women. Yande has mentioned that under law, devadasis must be able to make use of the land grants given to them. (Yande. (n.d.): 6.) Muthulakshmi recorded the way how Mysore Maharaj government was well aware of these problems and passed a law that confirmed the grants of Devadasis legally. (Muthulakshmi Reddy. 1927: 8.) Periyar stated this action of the Mysore government was an attempt to free all Gods from prostitution in temples under the control of the Mysore government. (Kudiarasu. 04.09.1927).

Generally, if the members of the self-respect movement campaigned for social change, the fundamentalist would blame that their act was ‘anti national’, and ‘law can be made after India got its self-rule’ and they would state ‘all the reforms can not be made through the law, and it can be initiated only through campaigning’ if some other members took this bill to the assembly. Thus, this is how they cunningly beguiled the people. And it was Periyar who tared their mask and showed the true colours of fundamentalists. (Kudiarasu. 05.10.1930).

kudiarasu 20 11 1938The members of the self-respect movement have clearly understood the part of the colonial government in the abolition of the devadasi system. When the Madharasapattanam government ordered to collect people’s opinion on the abolition of the devadasi system, Periyar condemned this activity as the foolishness of the government and also added that no civilized government in any country would allow such practices which degrades the morality of people or self-respect of the people and any country which prefers people’s virtues and welfare will not allow such illicit customs in the name of God or religion or society. (Kudiarasu. 23.03.1930).

At the same time, the members of the self-respect movement tried to create awareness among people in support of the abolition of the devadasi system. Neelavathi ammaiyar wrote an essay, “is it fair to still allow subjugation of women?” to evade the ignorance of people and to create awareness. (Kudiarasu.14.02.1932). Periyar, who was concerned to abolish the devadasi system, wrote letters to the chairman of the Madharasapattanam presidency stressing the need to abolish the devadasi system. (Kudiarasu. 30.03.1930). Periyar embraced the bill introduced by Muthulakshmi by saying that the bill not only focuses on restraining prostitution but also curbs the practice of prostitution itself. (Kudiarasu. 30.03.1930).

A certain percentage of devadasis supported and appreciated Muthulakshmi’s efforts and gave a call to others to abolish this wicked practice as a unified effort. (Kudiarasu.17.06.1928). self-respect people explained the significance of the abolition of the devadasi bill and threw some insights into why people should embrace this bill. (Kudiarasu 30.03.1930). the plea is made through women's society conferences to the government, Hindu religious and charitable endowments, trustees of the temple that rituals like devoting women to temple or other worship places should be banned. (Revolt. 24.11.1929). Same way, several institutions of people welcomed this bill and passed resolutions in their conference. (Kudiarasu. 30.03.1930)

 women's conference, which was held in 1930, appreciated and applauded Jayakkar, who raised questions against ‘pottikattum ritual’ in parliament and Muthulakshmi, who introduced the Devadasi abolition bill in the legislative assembly of Madharasapattinam. (Kudiarasu. 18.05.1930). The chengundhars asked the legislative assembly to work towards the abolition of the devadasi bill. (Kudiarasu. 06.11.1927). The second self-respect conference condemned ‘devoting’ young girls to the temple as many took advantage through their dance and music concerts. South Indian social reformist conference passed a resolution to abolish the devadasi system. (Revolt. 11.12.1928). self-respect conference which held in Tirunelveli praised Muthulakshmi’s effort and condemned Sathyamurthy and other fundamentalists for their ignorant mindset, which is against this bill. (Kudiarasu. 11.12.1927). A meeting which was held in Thiruvarur on 5th March 1930 in approbation of the devadasi bill supported Muthulakshmi’s abolition of the devadasi system and also rebuked the wicked practice of devoting young women to temple in the name of religion. (Kudiarasu. 13.04.1930).

Isai Vellalar youth congregation, which was held in Chidambaram, passed a resolution, the status of an individual should not be determined by the work they do, and youth must be provided with free education and abolition of the devadasi system. (Kudiarasu. 04.11.1928). Isai Vellalar congregation, which was held in Nagapattinam in 1930, reprimanded the devadasi system and accused this practice is a barbarous activity. (Kudiarasu. 30.03.1930).


Muthulakshmi replied to ‘those who wanted devadasi system to prevail in the society in the name of Indian tradition, heritage, culture, and religious belief that the priest and the family of a priest can devote their family women to temple if they want to please God and get his blessings’ in the legislative assembly and successfully passed the bill in assembly with the help of self-respect people using all the possible opportunities despite the struggles. Through this law, the social practice of children and women who has been made to involve in depravity under the tag of Hindu religion was completely abolished in Madarasapattinam.

Reference books:


  • Kudiarasu
  • Dravidan
  • Pagutharivu
  • Puratchi
  • Viduthalai
  • Justice
  • Revolt
  • The Hindu
  • Young India

Tamil books:

  • ஆனைமுத்து, வே. பெரியார் ஈ.வெ.ரா. சிந்தனைகள். தொகுதி. 1-6. சென்னை: பெரியார் ஈ.வெ. இராமசாமி- நாகம்மை கல்வி, ஆராய்ச்சி அறக்கட்டளை, 2009.
  • இராமாமிர்தத்தம்மாள், மூவலூர். தாசிகள் மோசவலை அல்லது மதிபெற்ற மைனர். ஈரோடு: உண்மைவிளக்கம் பதிப்பகம், 1939.
  • கல்யாணசுந்தரம், திரு.வி.க வாழ்க்கைக் குறிப்புகள். சைவ சித்தாந்தக் கழகம், 1982.
  • சர்மா, R.B. பொட்டுக்கட்டும் வழக்கம் இக்காலத்திற்குப் பொருந்துமா? Madras: C.Muniswamy Mudaliar and Sons, (n.d.).
  • பெரியார், தந்தை. பெண் ஏன் அடிமையானாள்?. சென்னை: பெரியார் சுயமரியாதைப் பிரச்சார நிறுவன வெளியீடு, 2004.
  • ஜீவசுந்தரி, பா. மூவலூர் இராமாமிர்தம்: வாழ்வும் பணியும். சென்னை: புலம் வெளியீடு, 2016.
  • ஜீவானந்தம், ச. “இந்திய மரபில் தேவதாசி முறைகள்” தமிழியல் (ஜனவரி, 2018): 55-69.
  • ..., “தேவதாசியும் அவர்களின் சடங்கு முறைகளும்: ஓர் வரலாற்றுப் பார்வை”. நவீனத் தமிழாய்வு பன்னாட்டுப் பன்முகத் தமிழ் காலாண்டு ஆய்விதழ் 8, no . 2. (ஏப்ரல்-ஜூன், 2020): 241-248.
  • ..., “தேவதாசி முறையும் அவற்றில் காணப்படும் சாதிய உட்கூறுகளும்”. சர்வதேசத் தமிழ் ஆய்விதழ் 3, பகுதி (2021): 89-96.

ஆங்கில நூல்கள்

  • Geetha, V and S.V. Rajadurai. Revolt: A Radical Weekly from Colonial Madras. Chennai: Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, (n.d.).
  • Jeevanandam, S and Rekha Pande. Devadasis in South India: A Journey from Sacred to Profane Spaces. Delhi: Kalpaz Publications, 2017.
  • Kersenboom, Saskia C. “Devadasi Murai.” Sangeet Natak, no. 96. (April-June, 1990): 44-54.
  • Knight Jr, Douglas M. Balasaraswathi: Her Art and Life. Chennai: Tranquebar Press, 2010.
  • Muthulakshmi Reddy, S. Why Should the Devadasi Institution in the Hindu Temples be Abolished?. Madras: Central Co-operative Printing Works, Ltd, 1927.
  • …..., “Motion Regarding Dedication of Girls to Temples”. The Proceedings of the Madras Legislative Council: Second Session of the Third Legislative Council XXXVIII. (November 4 and 5, 1927).
  • …..., Why Should the Devadasi Institution in the Hindu Temples be Abolished?. Madras: Central Co-operative Printing Works, Ltd, 1927.
  • …..., “The Presidential Address of Dr. (Mrs.) S. Muthulakshmi Reddy. Delivered at the Seventh Andhra Provincial Women’s Conference held at Ellore”. November 4-5, 1933.
  • Ramachandram, M. The Devadasi. Conjeeveram: S.K.B. Press, 1900.
  • Ramachendrar, C. Collection of the Decisions of the High Courts and the Privy Council on the Law of Succession, Maintenance and C (Applicable to Dancing Girls and their issues, Prostitutes not belonging to Dancing Girls’ Community, Illegitimate Sons and Bastards and Illatom Affiliation up to December 1891.). Madras: Scottish Press, 1892: i.
  • Ramasamy, Periyar E.V. Women Enslaved. New Delhi: Critical Quest, 2009.
  • The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (June- October1929). Vol. 41. New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Division, 1970.
  • The Proceedings of the Madras Legislative Council: Second Session of the Third Legislative Council XXXVIII. (November 4 and 5, 1927).
  • The Proceedings of the Madras Legislative Council: Second Session of the Third Legislative Council. Vol. XXXVIII. October 31-November 5, 1927).
  • Yande, D.S. Dedication of Girls to Gods: Plea for Prohibition by Law by Naik-Maratha Mandal. Bombay: V.P. Vengurlekar, (n.d.).

Written by S.Jeevanandham

Translated by Maruvarthini

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