The warm summer breeze in northeastern plains of India is accompanied by the ‘summer snow.’ The white and fluffy, cottony wombs impregnated with seeds of love, travel long distances in the laps of cuddling winds. These seeds oblivious to their destination, fall onto fields and bucolic farmlands. Their fates, decided by their descent.”
“So is true, even, for the human soul.” Satya Amma professed.
Satya Amma, fondly addressed as, “Amma” was regarded with unparalleled respect in the quaint little village, in the district of Mirzapur, in Uttar Pradesh. She was a guide and a philosopher, all rolled into one. Amma had an uncanny habit of always being right. Thus, the seniors of the village along with their offspring considered Amma’s word sacred. Amma’s heart accommodated all. Her compassionate demeanor won her son Hari, a coveted position in the society.
Hari had a lonesome childhood. Her widowed mother worked in the brick kiln to make ends meet. His early years saw him snuggled in a hammock, made out of old sarees, suspended by poles erected at construction sites. However, when Satya got a job at a brick kiln, she had to look for an alternative.
Her troubled mind was put to rest by, ‘Devi’ her goddess, who always guided her in adversity. Pandit Shyamlal accepted Hari as his own son. Hari could run around the temple courtyard and feast himself on the temple offerings, while Satya toiled away in the brick kiln. His charm snaked its way into Pandit Shyamlal’s heart. Hari soon became a permanent fixture of the temple compound. However, Satya seldom went inside the sanctum sanctorum.
As Hari grew older, the wisdom and knowledge imparted to him by his mentor grew multi fold. Hari could recite Brahmanical texts and shlokas verbatim. His oratory skills knew no bounds. His exceptional and innate quality to influence the crowd made him a cult leader. A symbol of the temple and it’s beliefs. He soon outgrew his guru’s popularity. Intercepting the pulse of the changing times Pandit Shyamlal married his daughter Radha to him.
Lonesome childhood, a struggling mother and strict moral upbringing shaped Hari into a man of religion, whom Satya dreaded.
Satya pondered at the twist of destiny but continued to lead a humble life. She didn’t approve of his stringent attitude but accepted him for what he was. Hari loved his mother, an epitome of virtue, purity and character. His obsession with pious and purity often perturbed her. An inner cry, she needed to answer, but didn’t relent. She dreaded the day her saintly attire would shred away.
“Aai, tvarit karaa! I am getting late for school,” shouted Satya.
“Enough of school for you. You are already twelve, stay at home, and learn household chores. This is your last semester. Tell your headmistress.” Declared Satya’s mother Parvathi.
Satya was oblivious to her babbling. Aai had been warning her since last year but nothing really happened. Satya had no memories of her long-deceased father, her mother was the cynosure of her life. She loved school and her friends. Her thatched roof didn’t provide adequate shelter in rains but a lot of her friends didn’t have that either. She was happy in poverty, with dignity. She motivated her friends by citing headmistress’s words, “Where you come from is not important, what you become, is.” Satya had dreams but unfortunately, fate didn’t.
It rained that monsoon and it rained a little more. The vagrant clouds shrouded the sun like an evil cloak, menacingly making their way into her thatched roof. The cascading waters took away their humble possessions and drowned all hopes of resurrection. The vicious clouds hounded for days, reeking in pleasure at the sight of their plight. Eventually, clouds receded, so did any hope of survival in disease-infested slums. Satya’s mother sought refuge in Lord Khandoba’s temple, their supreme deity.
Satya was not as grievously affected as her friends. They were taken care of, by temple authorities as their own. Intrigued by the scenario, she decided to question Parvathi.
“Aai, I wonder, as to why are we comfortably settled in the temple but none of our friends are? Can’t we request them to take our friends in too?” Inquired Satya.
Parvathi realized it was time for revelation, “Satya, you are special. You are bespoken to marry Lord Khandoba’s dagger and become the lady of the temple-Aradhini Satyabhama.”
Satya was unable to comprehend her mother’s words. She just heard her mother with gaping eyes “I was one and so shall you be. We are the DEVADASIS, eternally married to the God and not to a mortal being.”
Satya was too young to understand the implications. She shrieked out of joy, “married to the Gods! All my friends are going to be envious of me.”
“Aai, when is it going to be? I wanted to dress up and tell my friends what I will be.”
“Soon my dear, soon.” Parvathi croaked, hiding her tears.
Her daughter’s destiny was not in her control. She couldn’t stand against her community.
“We are all prisoners by birth, shackled by chains of religion, caste and culture to our places of birth.” Parvathi reflected.
Satya looked resplendent. The temple courtyard was adorned with flowers. However, none of her friends were allowed near her. She marvelled at her destiny, not everyone marries the God! However, her happiness was short-lived as she observed, her friends maintaining a distance from her, rather than the other way round. Satya couldn’t hold her curiosity any longer.
“Hey Meera, come here. I have been waiting for you to congratulate me. Are you jealous? Don’t worry, you too shall marry one day, even if he’s just a mortal being, not the God like mine.” Gloated Satya.
“Jealous! I pity you and your life,” said Meera with stoic calm.
“ Haven’t you noticed, absence of a father in your life? You too, like your mother shall be concubine to many men but married to none. You are my dear friend, but I can’t help you. However, I wish, you never have a daughter.” Meera cried and stormed out of the room.
Everything fell into place. The story of a nonexistent father, frequent movements of various men, and the temple keeping them as their own. She was bonded by birth. She was Devadasi Aradhini Satyabhama.
Years of silence and mute observation made Satya a patient being. Apart from being a sane advisor, Satya Amma was a keen listener too. She could understand and filter relevant information from what was told to her. The buzz of the town was an incident at Lal Bazaar. Though, Lal Bazaar was a banned word in respectable households, it was evident that many such respectable residents did visit the place regularly. One of them was a wealthy businessman Ram Sevak. Complying with his familial habits, Ram Sevak, was a regular visitor to the defamed locality. However, the incident that highlighted his sojourns, was him being rejected by a lady of disgrace. “Lady of disgrace’!” Amma laughed. She marveled at her hypocrisy. The people known to her, used words with caution around her, so as not to make her feel awkward.
Amma kept her silence. She knew sooner or later the grapevine would narrate her the entire incident. She didn’t have to wait long.
Satya was in a meeting with some village elders, finalizing nuptials of their children when Pandit Hari stormed into the room, heaving and infuriated.
His irate behaviour and vexed looks made Amma anxious. She requested the guests to leave.
“Hari, stop pacing the room. Tell us, what is irking you so much?” Amma finally garnered the courage to ask.
“Amma, I feel ashamed to talk to you about it and I wonder, as to how Ram Sevak had the audacity to put such a proposition before me!” Hari bellowed.
“The entire village comes to me for advice, maybe you need some today, my son. Please share your troubles with me,” pleaded Amma.
“Amma, Ram Sevak is the temple keeper, he gives funds for its maintenance. He is compelling me to teach my Brahmanical texts to a… disgraced, a fallen woman.” Hari hollered, “I shall never allow that fallen woman to enter my sanctum sanctorum. She shall never step inside my pious land and belittle its sanctity.”
The hatred on Hari’s face, for that woman, jolted Amma out of her reverie. Satyabhama couldn’t run away. Her past had come to haunt her.
Maybe it was time.
Satya stayed with her mother for a couple of years after her marriage. In these years, she matured beyond her age. Parvathi was ailing with some incurable infectious disease thus, the day Satya attained womanhood, she was sent to the temple for consummating her marriage. She never returned to her mother.
The Devadasi is provided for, by the wealthy temple keepers as a part of their temple maintenance funds. Thus, Satya became the concubine of many such temple keepers. Years elapsed, so did her beauty. She was a ravaged soul. Plundered and exalted as the lady of the lord at the same time.
She wasn’t dead but wasn’t alive either, until the day she discovered her pregnancy.
Her joy at her state was short-lived. Meera’s words kept gnawing at her.
“What if I give birth to a girl? Will she, too live the same life?” Pondered Satya through the darkest hours. The dawning sun brought a hope of a better life for her child. She never looked back and boarded a train to the farthest station with a handful of belongings.
Satyabhama became Satya.
These summer winds displace all beings, be it famine struck families, animals seeking water or seeds from their parents. It was time to unleash a similar harsh wind into Hari’s life. Today was a test of her upbringing, and she sincerely hoped Hari’s reaction wouldn’t disappoint her.
She sauntered in the temple courtyard with a lady in tow.
“Hari, this is Raina, your student. You shall impart her, your knowledge of Vedas,” she addressed her son Pandit Hari.
“Amma!” Thundered Hari. “How could you let this vile woman enter my pious temple? She has maligned my God with her presence. Her stained character shall never find acceptance in this holy place. Take her away!”
“Pious!” Amma smirked, “Your God accepts maligned women, my son.”
“Amma, what has gotten over you? Have you gone insane?”
“I have finally come to my senses. If this woman is fallen, then so am I. She was betrayed by the world, but I was betrayed by my God. You, are fallen as well, as you are a child of unknown patronage. You are Devadasi Satyabhama’s son. Pandit Shyamlal, knew my past and even then, accepted you without inhibitions. You fell grossly short of him, Hari. You proved that you were never his own progeny.”
Hari was too shocked to react, he sunk down to the floor, staring into oblivion. He, who prided himself on his seat of power, was the son of a Devadasi. He who gloated on his knowledge of Brahmanical texts, didn’t even know whether he was a Brahmin or not. At this time of adversity, he could only remember, the lesson his mother taught.
“We are all prisoners by birth. Chained to the identity handed over to us by virtue of our birth, only few, can undo it.” Amma had told him since childhood. “Where you come from is not important, what you become, is.”
His Guru had accepted him with open arms, showing him the right path, now it was his turn.
It was a time to take the call and Pandit Hari did. He threw open the gates of his temple to one and all. He advocated the knowledge of Vedas to all, irrespective of their caste, gender, background and deeds. With Satya and Raina, he worked on missions to rescue girls from their ill fate and gave them a chance to lead a better life. His efforts were shouldered by his wife Radha.
Raina lives within the temple compound and runs a little enterprise of selling idols of the lord.
Satya Amma’s grandchildren, have taken over the temple and the women empowerment movement started by their father.
Satya dadi, a frail old woman sits in the temple courtyard, observing the cottonwood being dispersed by the summer winds. The seed, falls on which side of a boundary wall decides it’s fate. The one inside the fence is tended to and taken care of, while the one outside, grows in the wild, shaping its own destiny.
Only if she was not born a Devadasi…. She still wonders.
Shlokas: religious scriptures
Aradhini: one who worships
Aai : mother
Tvarit karaa: to do quickly
Vedas: holy book
Devadasi: server to God
Devadasi practice was outlawed in 1988 but is still practiced in remote areas of southern India, mainly in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Girls are married to temple deity, when they are as young as eight or nine years.
Devadasi practice evolved into a sinister form of sexual abuse and was thus, abolished.
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