Immoral Traffic – Prostitution: Dravidian Press on the abolition of Devadasi System in the Madras Presidency (1927-1949) Part II

- Dr.V.Venkatraman*

Viscount Goschen, the Governor of Madras and  Baron Irwin, the Governor General gave their assent to the Bill on 13th May 1929. By the Act, the Provincial Government was entrusted with the responsibility to have control over the management of the temples for the good of public. With the help of the Act, the devadasi community developed a sense of self-respect and dignity and the community itself understood the evils of the system.
Devadasi Bill Again

During the time, V. Ramadoss Pantulu withdrew his resolution on the abolition of Devadasi system from the Central Legislature. The press in Tamil Nadu continuously cried to abolish the evil enduringly.

The Kudiyarasu exposed wretchedly about a marriage procession where the devadasi ladies sang and danced. It also pointed out that number of Brahmin women joyfully watched their performances and the paper questioned, “Why were these Brahmin ladies not in a position to understand the pains of devadasis? Which sastra allowed such sadist attitude?” These whipping questions touched the sentiments of the people.  This paper stated that such incidents would create opportunities for people like Miss Mayo to write about India decisively.
The Stri-Dharma urged that nothing less than burning sympathy for the victims, the devadasis and their offspring-would win victory in such a cause. The reformers should need the chivalry of soul in men and women if we were to win in this struggle. It also published the article of Muthulakshmi Reddy on devadasi system in support of the Bill.

Boosted by the public opinion in favour of the abolition of the devadasi system, Muthulakshmi Reddy introduced Prevention of  Dedication of Hindu Temples Bill in the Madras Legislative Council on 24th January 1930. After making certain modifications by the Select Committee the Bill was circulated for the purpose of eliciting public opinion. At this juncture, the press in Tamil Nadu involved in propaganda for creating awareness and generating public opinion in favour of the Bill. The Kudiyarasu pointed out that it was funny to seek public opinion for long time debated Bill. Apart from that it published and circulated the leaflets, which contained the articles of Muthulakshmi Reddy.   It published the supporting stands of various organisations and associations for the Bill regularly to seek others support and boost up the passing of the Bill.  

This paper published a matter under the headline ‘opinion of E.V.R. in support of the Bill’ that the devadasis were suffering a lot from the venereal diseases, the forthcoming act would block the means of prostitution and the government should not give up its aim fearing of the sastras. It endorsed its full-fledged support to the Bill.  It published an article based on spiritual research. In the article, it revealed that Sundaramurthy Nayanar, a Sivaite leader of the past times himself recognized the abolition of dedication of women to the temples, and it raised a question why were the modern Sivaites were not ready to accept the reform. This article created an overwhelming response among the public.

At the same time Margret Cousins, Secretary of Women’s India Association observed that there was no need for the circulation of the      Bill.   In support of this Bill, the Indian Ladies Magazine made public the resolution passed in the fifth All India Women’s Conference meeting held at Madras in November 1930 that pleading the people to boycott these temples where the devadasi service was still admitted and to prevent the dedication of girls to temples by punishing the culprits. The announcement for boycotting the temples was a revolutionary move.

The efforts of the press created full fledged support among the public for the passing of the Bill.  Knowing that, the government was prompted to take an urgent and effective step expeditiously. In the mid-half of 1930, the Government of Madras issued an order to the effect that the dedication of women to the temples was abolished by the law. The dedication of minor girls to the temples was considered as a crime.  In the same year, Travancore State also abolished the evil system.  It was observed that the order of Madras Presidency was unable to root out the devadasi system thoroughly. With the support of the Brahmins and the temple trustees the evil found its survival.   Before the issue of the order Muthulakshmi Reddy resigned from the council due to the arrest of Gandhi. She continued her work of the council for the above purpose.

All India women’s Conference appealed to the Hindu Religious Endowment Board of Madras to call upon all trustees of the temple under its jurisdiction totally to eradicate the devadasi service and the ceremony of dedication of girls in such temples by issuing an order. The Stri-Dharma published this matter in order to root out the system thoroughly. Even the Anandha Bodhini, one of the conservative papers of Madras expressed its positive observation regarding this matter. It observed that the devadasi system was bad omen for the Hinduism, the existence of the evil would result in moral degeneration of the youth and this evil made our country head-down in the international arena.  

Even after the resignation from the Council, Muthulakshmi Reddy didn’t renounce her efforts. She wrote a letter to C. Rajagopalachari, the leader of Tamilnadu Congress Committee. In the letter, she expressed that the dedication of girls to the temple was a social sin exactly as  growing palm trees for the production of toddy. The Anandha Bodhini allotted its columns for publishing this letter.  Rajagopalachari wrote to Muthulakshmi Reddy that he was over burdened with other matters and had no time to take up the question of devadasis.  Thus, he showed that he was not interested in such efforts.    

In the mean time, Maharaja of Bobbli, the Premier of the Madras Presidency attended a public meeting, in which the devadasi women performed dance feast. Muthulakshmi Reddy criticized this occurrence. Krishna Iyer, the orthodox leader targeted her for her positive efforts through reports. He said that the system should be allowed to exist until other girls would be trained to perform the dances. Hearing this, she criticized his view by asking a question if he was willing to transform other girls to devadasis. The Anandha Bodhini supported her efforts by publishing this virtual conversation between the two and requested the public to support her efforts.  This paper further requested the parents not to force their girls into the evil. Even though there should be a punishment, the temple trustees did not care for the law, they conducted such pottukattuthal ceremonies freely in the rural areas.  The paper advised the public to leave the evil, which was hated by Gandhi too. It further added that to restrict many venereal diseases, strict measures should be taken against the evil.      

The Kumaran published a Tamil song in 1931 titled ‘which is Hindu religion?’  In the song, it criticized the Hindu religion for the existence of the  devadasi evil. In the same issue, the paper published a utopian story in which Hindu Devars and Nayanmars, Maulavis of Islamism and the Christian Saints assembled in a conference in the Heaven, in which they passed the Abolition of Devadasi Act. The paper finally asked a question why the orthodox people were not ready to accept the reform, which was accepted by the Gods too.

Movaloor Ramamirtham Ammal, born in a devadasi family, who came out from the evil bravely fought for the abolition of the evil and worked for the wellbeing of escaped devadasis. She wrote a book ‘Dasikal mosavalai allathu Mathi Petra Minor’ (The Treacherous Net of Devadasis or the Minor Grown Wise). In this book, she dealt with the lives and struggles of devadasis. This book was a novel, based on self experience. It explained that the escaped devadasis came forward to establish a social organization for the benefits of devadasis. The book brought mass awareness among the public. The Kudiyarasu gave vivid advertisement for the book in order to propagate awareness. In an article in the paper, she asked a question if  the dances and songs would be necessary for Gods in the Temples. The orthodox Brahmins argued that such ancestral jobs should not be left out. She condemned the views of Brahmins and asked them why they left their ancestral job of cattle rearing. The conservative arguments were waned by her question. The paper further advised the people to write their supportive opinions to the editor in support of the reform.  It created public support for the abolition of the evil.

The Stri-Dharma noted that in the Princely State of Pudukottai abolished the devadasi system by amending the Hindu Laws of Inheritance so as to benefit the female heirs in the family. It wholeheartedly welcomed the abolition and it insisted that its readers might know that a similar Act was passed in the Madras Legislative Council as an amendment to the Hindu Religious Endowment Act, but it was very regrettable that even in the city temples, service by the devadasi maids was allowed to go on owing partly to the non-interference policy of the government, and partly to the ignorance of the mass and the apathy of the so-called educated class among us. Thus the paper asked its readers to be aware of the use of the existing laws regarding female emancipation.

The above paper reproduced the presidential address of Muthulakshmi Reddy in the Andhradesa Kalvanthula Conference held in Tenali on 13th August 1932. Her address elaborately discussed  the evils and the devadasi system, the Legislative efforts taken to abolish the evil and the role of the public to be played in this issue. Further she strongly suggested that without the public support a reform could not be made. She appealed to the mothers not to dedicate their female children to the Hindu temples.  The paper published this for raising the public support in favour of abolishing the devadasi system.
The Grihalakshmi was continuously insisting in its articles about the abolition of devadasi system. On 7th August 1939 a new Bill related to the abolition of devadasi system was introduced in the Madras Legislative Council by Mrs. Ammanna Raja. She requested to send the Bill for the consideration of the select committee. But C. Rajagopalachri, the Premier of Madras Presidency announced that the Bill should be circulated for gathering public opinion. The said paper strongly condemned his announcement and negative attitude towards the emanci-pation of women.The Bill had the provisions for the abolition of dedication of women, reorganization for the marriage of devadasis, the property rights to the children on the devadasis, and the arrangements for receiving their duo share from the temple revenue even though they left their service. After public circulation, the Bill was sent to the select committee consisting of eight members, among them three were women. The Giruhalakshmi registered its thanks for the papers which supported the Bill.

It also published letter of Muthulakshmi Reddy regarding devadasi system. She pointed out that the dedication of girls over the age of eighteen years was performed secretly; it exposed the failure of reform acts. She sought the support the parents of girls until the evil thoroughly abolished. She noted that the legislations would create the external changes only whereas the internal change could be created only by awareness. In the same issue, it published a photo of devadasi female children with the caption “Oh, Society, Protect us”. It created sympathy among the readers.      It also published a photo of a devadasi young girl with news about her. She was 17 years old. She was forced to pottukattuthal ceremony and then to prostitution. She was affected by many venereal diseases. After escaping from such premises she was admitted in the hospital. After three years of continuous treatment she was rescued and now admitted in an orphanage. The photo and the news about the devadasi girl created strong opinion against the evil.     Most of the people expected that the bill would be passed earlier; the Second World War put a hurdle on the way. All the efforts ended in vain.     During the Ministry of O.P.Ramasamy Reddiyar, another Bill was introduced by Dr.Subbarayan on 9th October 1947 in the Madras Legislative Assembly to abolish the devadasi system.  The Bill was sent to select Committee under the chairmanship of Mrs. Ammanna Raja.  After the committee stage, the Bill became Law on 17 January 1948 and called  Act No. XXXI of 1947.  It was also known as Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act, 1947.  According to the Act, all forms of devadasi system were abolished in the Madras Presidency.

Devadasi Abolition Act is the important social legislation regarding the emancipation of women. The reformers found a lot of hurdles to enact this legislation and implement. To avoid the unnecessary problems, the Government of Madras tried to appease the orthodox people by following its escaping mechanism called ‘religious neutrality’. Most of the papers requested the government to keep the policy away for the good things to be done. Eventhough the conservative press made negative efforts against the Legislations; the majority of the papers defended them with social conscience. Thus, the press justified the right things, persuaded the government for them and stimulated the public for the noble cause regarding the emancipation of women.  The Ananda Bodhini observed an important thing “The government should stop the inhuman activities in the society even though it assured not to interfere in the social matters. Why doesn’t the government go for abolition of the evils which humiliated the children and the women for a life time?  Our leaders must pass the   resolution by which the government should be stimulated and sent them to it.”   This observation exposed the positive dimensions of the press in Tamil Nadu.  The Dravidian Press of the said period voluntarily came forward to suppress the evil practice of Devadasi system, practicised for over many centuries in the Madras Presidency and advocated the principle of liberating the victimised women ‘dasis’ from the cultural backwardness.


*    Dr.V.Venkatraman is the Principal and Head of  Research Centre in History in Raju’s College, Rajapalayam, Tamil Nadu]


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