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  • [MUSIC PLAYING]

  • SARAH HARRIS: The first thing that strikes you when you come

  • to India is a sense of extreme contrasts.

  • While some people are still shitting off the side of

  • railway lines and eating from banana leaves, other people

  • are drinking Frappuccinos and wearing Gucci sunglasses.

  • Along with this feeling of progress and moving forward,

  • there's still this undercurrent of tradition and

  • religion and superstition and an even more deeply ingrained

  • caste system.

  • I didn't realize quite how sharp these contrasts between

  • new and old India were until I came here last year to

  • research an article about sex trafficking.

  • And on my very first day here, I met a group of temple

  • prostitutes who told me about this ancient Hindu system

  • where prepubescent girls are dedicated to a goddess, and

  • for the rest of their lives, they will become sex slaves of

  • the temple.

  • The name of that system is devadasi.

  • This train's a little bit like The Darjeeling Limited, except

  • we have cockroaches sleeping under our beds.

  • And there's no one serving sweet lime.

  • Hello.

  • So in the beginning, being a devadasi had nothing to do

  • with prostitution.

  • In medieval India, they were glamorous temple dancers and

  • held high social status.

  • They performed sacred religious rituals and danced

  • for loyalty in the name of a goddess called Yellamma.

  • Over the centuries, the link between the devadasis and

  • their temples gradually diminished, along with their

  • social status.

  • They became the paid mistresses of priests, then

  • kings, and later, rich landowners.

  • In the 19th century, Western missionaries tried to abolish

  • the tradition, calling it grotesque and immoral, driving

  • the devadasis underground.

  • Today, devadasis are no different to common street

  • hookers, servicing drunk truck drivers and bored businessmen.

  • Even though the practice has been illegal for over 20

  • years, up to 3,000 girls are still being secretly dedicated

  • every year.

  • We traveled to the border town of Sangli, which straddles the

  • two southern Indian states of Karnataka and Maharastra.

  • Its red light district is home to hundreds of devadasi sex

  • workers, and that afternoon, we were invited there by

  • Anitha, one of its most successful brothel owners.

  • She's a member of an NGO called SANGRAM, which fights

  • to empower locals sex workers.

  • Communication was pretty painful, as our interpreter

  • Somashekar was having some trouble with his English.

  • Everybody in the houses next door--

  • this whole street--

  • is also sex workers like Anitha?

  • Yes.

  • SARAH HARRIS: So all the neighborhood.

  • And they're all friends who live around here?

  • Everybody is friends?

  • SARAH HARRIS: So when the customer comes inside, the

  • door closes.

  • And this--

  • SARAH HARRIS: She's not a customer?

  • She is also a sex worker?

  • SOMASHEKAR: A sex worker.

  • SARAH HARRIS: And she uses this room?

  • SOMASHEKAR: [SPEAKING MARATHI]

  • [SARAH LAUGHING]

  • SOMASHEKAR: That's another one of Anitha's friends who's

  • lying in there.

  • Hello.

  • SARAH HARRIS: This is what she's saying?

  • SOMASHEKAR: I am.

  • SARAH HARRIS: You.

  • SARAH HARRIS: Tell me again.

  • So are you talking as you?

  • Are you telling me--

  • Somashekar.

  • SOMASHEKAR: Huh?

  • SARAH HARRIS: So you are a sex worker.

  • SOMASHEKAR: I am a sex worker.

  • SARAH HARRIS: You are a sex worker.

  • And you came to Anitha's room, and--

  • SARAH HARRIS: Yeah.

  • SARAH HARRIS: You work in this room, and Anitha

  • works in this room.

  • SOMASHEKAR: This room.

  • SARAH HARRIS: So you all work together.

  • OK.

  • [SPEAKING MARATHI]

  • SARAH HARRIS: The whole place is completely difference to

  • what I thought it would be.

  • I kind of imagined these really seedy, anonymous

  • hotel-looking brothels.

  • And actually, there's kids running around everywhere.

  • There's women doing their laundry, making lunch.

  • And it kind of feels like quite a

  • tight-knit little community.

  • The ladies of Sangli wouldn't let me leave without showing

  • me the temple around the corner.

  • It seemed like wherever there were brothels, the goddess

  • Yellamma was never far away.

  • For Anitha and her friends, being a devadasi was nothing

  • to be ashamed of.

  • Sex work was their choice.

  • They had condoms, power in numbers, and SANGRAM looking

  • after them.

  • But these were just the lucky few.

  • For the vast majority of devadasis,

  • prostitution isn't a choice.

  • It's forced upon them, and most often by their parents.

  • Like most Hindu legends, the story of the goddess Yellamma

  • is long, convoluted, and surreal.

  • However many times we heard it, it still

  • didn't make much sense.

  • But it seems to go something like this.

  • The whole ordeal begins when her son is ordered to chop her

  • head off by her husband after he catches her spying on two

  • people getting frisky by a lake.

  • After a complex process of death, reincarnation, and a

  • load of fat Hindu gods with blue skin and gold bikinis,

  • the goddess Yellamma was born.

  • She fled to the villages of Karnataka and became a symbol

  • of worship for the lowest Hindu castes.

  • So after a really sweaty 10-hour train journey, we've

  • finally arrived in this town called Mudhol

  • up in Northern Karnataka.

  • And it's in the villages around here that we've been

  • told has the highest concentration of devadasi

  • women in India.

  • An estimated 23,000 women in this part of India have been

  • dedicated to the goddess.

  • And roughly half of those will have resorted to sex work in

  • order to feed their families.

  • SARAH HARRIS: We traveled to the outskirts of this dusty

  • transit town to meet two teenage devadasi girls.

  • [SPEAKING KANNADA]

  • SARAH HARRIS: Madigas are considered filthy and

  • polluting and are only permitted to work in the

  • lowliest positions, as street cleaners, sewage collectors,

  • and of course, prostitutes.

  • When we took the girls out shopping, they seemed

  • terrified of the higher castes recognizing them as devadasis,

  • which they did.

  • [SPEAKING KANNADA]

  • SARAH HARRIS: It was surreal to see the reaction they got.

  • The shopkeepers wouldn't even look them in the eye.

  • [SPEAKING KANNADA]

  • SARAH HARRIS: So now it seems this religious ritual is just

  • a justification for poor families to

  • pimp out their daughters.

  • [SPEAKING KANNADA]

  • SARAH HARRIS: It was strange sitting with Belavva's family

  • on the floor of their one room hut, knowing it's also the

  • place where she has sex with customers while her brothers

  • and sisters wait outside.

  • BALAVVA: [SPEAKING KANNADA]

  • [SPEAKING KANNADA]

  • SARAH HARRIS: Karnataka is one of India's largest producers

  • of sugar cane.

  • Hundreds of trucks pass through towns

  • like this every day.

  • The roadside can be a scary place.

  • Horny drivers and bored agricultural workers gather

  • here, looking for ways to spend their wages.

  • They are one of the main transmitters of HIV throughout

  • India, spreading the virus through the country's

  • extensive road network, putting girls like Mala and

  • Belavva at risk of this deadly disease.

  • SARAH HARRIS: Back in Sangli, we were invited to meet

  • another devadasi called Pandu.

  • We were told she was different, but we weren't

  • prepared for just how different.

  • [MALE SPEAKING MARATHI]

  • SARAH HARRIS: Every morning, he spent two hours polishing

  • brass Yellamma statues and blessing his beloved shrine.

  • [SPEAKING MARATHI]

  • SARAH HARRIS: Can you ask him to show me how to make chai?

  • Tea powder.

  • Wow, that's a lot of sugar.

  • Fucking hell.

  • [SARAH LAUGHING]

  • SARAH HARRIS: Still?

  • Going, going, going, going, going.

  • SARAH HARRIS: Can we watch him dance today?

  • We have to persuade him, sweet talk him.

  • Ah, wow.

  • Wow, Pandu.

  • Who's this guy?

  • You put a sari over his head.

  • [PANDU SPEAKING MARATHI]

  • SARAH HARRIS: He's got money between his teeth.

  • Your best friend, Sudir.

  • Oh, wow, that's a nice photo.

  • Wow, thank you.

  • [SPEAKING MARATHI]

  • SARAH HARRIS: Later that day, at our hotel, Pandu showed us

  • his favorite Bollywood videos and the famous

  • Sangli condom trick.

  • SARAH HARRIS: You're about to witness a demonstration of the

  • classic Sangli condom trick that Pandu has just taught me

  • when his male customers don't want to use a condom.

  • [SPEAKING MARATHI]

  • SARAH HARRIS: I think I lost.

  • Pandu may want a better life for his daughter, but for many

  • other devadasis, there's a lot of money to be made in

  • recruiting the next generation.

  • Now, we're on our way to another village, about five

  • kilometers outside of Mudhol.

  • And most of women who live there are from the madiga

  • caste, and so most of them are

  • vulnerable to becoming devadasis.

  • One of the interesting things about this village is that

  • we're going to be able to go to the house of a devadasi

  • woman who's made a real career out of prostitution.

  • And she's built this enormous house in the middle of the

  • village as a kind of symbol of the her success.

  • So she can become a role model to the other girls living in

  • the village that becoming a devadasi is

  • a good way of life.

  • The legendary owner, Champa, doesn't even live here.

  • She's too busy turning tricks in Bombay.

  • Inside, shiny display cabinets of unused crockery line the

  • walls as testaments to her success.

  • There were groups of village children roaming around the

  • house to gawp at her flickering color TV sets and

  • shelves of broken electrical equipment.

  • The message is clear--

  • prostitution is a lucrative business.

  • So this is the necklace, the muthu, that the devadasi women

  • wear when they get dedicated.

  • And hers is just hanging on the wall of her mud hut.

  • She's an old lady called Shavvavva, and she's one of

  • the oldest devadasi women in the village.

  • And I've just been told that she brought the very first

  • radio to this village.

  • No one had ever seen a radio before she brought it here.

  • Walking through the village, we notice Yellamma's presence

  • everywhere.

  • The locals told us that all devadasis in the area were

  • preparing themselves for the full moon festival, which is

  • apparently the most important event in

  • the Yellamma calendar.

  • After hearing so much about the famous full moon festival

  • in Saundatti, we drove four hours out of town to catch the

  • first day of this month-long celebration of Yellamma.

  • Just up there in the center of that big arch is the face of

  • the goddess Yellamma.

  • That's the entrance to her temple here in Saundatti.

  • Over the course of the 28 days, more than half a million

  • people will pass through the temple doors.

  • A heaving shantytown springs up around the

  • famous Yellamma shrine.

  • The place is filled with garish Hindu icons, Bollywood