Unveiling the Intersections: Caste, Gender, and Ritualized Prostitution in Modern India

Religiously sanctioned sexual abuse of Devadasia and Jogin system forces thousands of dalit women into prostitution every year. This old tradition of Hindu religion turned into systematic abuse of Dalit girls in modern times.
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New Delhi- Coming from the western part of Rajasthan, where caste and gender still play significant roles in influencing occupations and family prospects, I have witnessed abortion and female infanticide, where girl children are killed shortly after birth, as normalized factors in both urban and rural families. Growing up in a village, I could not initially understand the occupations pursued by my friends' mothers. As I matured, I realized that many of them were engaged in prostitution in our basti. One thing I found more problematic was that this fact was known to most elders of our community but was ignored and not openly discussed. Everyone behaved as if nothing wrong was happening in our families.

Upon leaving the village, I realized how social factors like caste and patriarchy play a crucial role in this profession. One of my first observations was that despite managing family finances and earning an income, this work was not recognized as work by society. The institutionalization of prostitution was more evident in urban areas and villages where a large number of lower-caste women were engaged in this profession. The second observation was that it is ingrained in our socio-cultural mechanisms that perpetuate the cycle of prostitution across generations, specifically in marginalized communities.

Historical Context of Prostitution in India

Prostitution and caste in India are deeply intertwined, reflecting the complex socio-economic and cultural hierarchies that have existed for centuries. Understanding its horrific origins and its linkage to the culture and tradition of religion requires a look back at the historical context of prostitution. There was a certain form of ritualized system of prostitution, like the Devadasi and Jogin systems, which are directly linked to cultural and religious practices.

It can be traced back to ancient religious practices where girls from marginalized communities were dedicated to temple deities as Jogins or Devadasis, performing rituals and ceremonies to honor the deities. Families from marginalized backgrounds may dedicate their daughters to reduce their economic burden or in the hope of divine favor. However, once dedicated, these girls are subjected to lifelong servitude and isolated from mainstream society.

Indian writers and narrators, who were victims of Brahmanical patriarchy, have romanticized this system by associating it with art, dance, purity, and divinity, thereby obscuring and continuing the dark reality of exploitation and abuse that lies beneath its surface.

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Devadasi and Jogin Systems

These Jogins or Devadasis were at times coercively gifted to priests and religious scholars of temples, not as esteemed contributors to spiritual life, but also as mere objects for their sexual use and gratification. Later, British efforts, along with rising social reform movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, led to the criminalization and stigmatization of the Devadasi and Jogin traditions.

The Anti-Devadasi Act of 1947 and subsequent legislation aimed to eradicate the practice on paper but often overlooked the socio-economic rehabilitation of the Devadasis, leading many into poverty and exploitation. In the Jogin system, we see an extension of the Devadasi tradition, but it is specifically imposed upon a particular Shudra caste known as Jogi, often labeled as migrants or the Banjara community, who mainly work as musicians in Rajasthan. In our society, derogatory and abusive language directed at Jogin women has become normalized and stereotyped. This perpetuates their dehumanization and cements their exploitation within the social fabric.

Divyendu Jha and Tanya Sharma in their article “Caste and Prostitution in India” explain: “It is stated earlier that the association of prostitution with the religion has been an age-old phenomenon, so in many parts of the country we can find the female dancers and singers attached to temples are generally referred to by the term Devadasi, which literally means: “female slaves of the deity.”

The cult of dedicating girls to temples is prevailing all over India in different forms and names, such as Devadasi In Andhra & Karnataka, Maharis in Kerala state, Natis in Assam state and so on. As centuries passed, their services shifted from gods to earthly lords. Also, rural child prostitution is rooted in the continued exploitation of the scheduled castes and the position of girls is the most oppressed within these historically oppressed groups. Many times young girls of lower caste even before the onset of puberty are singled out by the rich or powerful people of the community or by parents themselves.”

Bedia Women and Their Oppression Under the Caste System

The discourse around women in India involved in prostitution often reduces their complex realities to the one-sided narrative that women and children are deceived and coerced into the sex trade against their will. This narrative is partially accurate but fails to capture the full scope of systemic exploitation and caste-based oppression that underpin the sex trade in India.

In Rajasthan, there is a village called Khakranagla in the Bharatpur district that has gained the grim title of the "Prostitution Village of Rajasthan." Located just 200 kilometers from Delhi, this village is known for its entrenched culture of generational prostitution among women from the Bedia community.

Prior to India’s independence, the Bedia women used to serve wealthy upper-caste landowners and feudal lords. For generations, the Bedia women have been systematically funneled into the sex trade, continuing a cycle of exploitation and social ostracism that persists. Because this work was associated with their caste by Hindu society, they have no concrete way to escape this trap.

Society has made their caste synonymous with prostitution, which has destroyed their social existence. Even if they leave this work and try to pursue education and find new professions, they face relentless rejection and stigma. If the new generation tries to change their social status through marriage, the social structure is so strong that they are branded as asocial and undignified in Hindu society.

They are ruthlessly banned from participating in any social gatherings or events. Despite their education, men of this caste are systematically denied employment, with the majority left jobless, forced into the horrific task of finding customers for their own daughters and wives.

Perverse Cultural Norms

In a country like India, where an estimated half a million girls are still lost to female feticide every year, the Bedia community actually hopes for daughters when a woman is pregnant, not sons. But what makes the Bedia's preference for girls different from the rest of India? It is not because they champion gender equality, but because of their old tradition of inducting their daughters into the sex trade.

In my basti, specifically Nai and Sansi caste women are engaged in this work, but unlike Bedia women, they do not consider themselves prostitutes. Instead, they turn to this work only when there is a financial need after performing other jobs. However, I do not have any data to substantiate this claim. Anuja Agarwal, author of "Chaste Wives, and Prostitute Sisters: Patriarchy and Prostitution Among The Bedias Of India," says, "most of the women found in the red-light areas of Indian cities are migrated from the Bedia community." Cultural values and societal norms lead to the socio-political marginalization of Bedia women, both directly and indirectly, through alienating them culturally and religiously.

Ritualized Prostitution and Caste Rule

Other communities like Nats and Banjaras, mostly found in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, have different rituals for entering newly born girls into the sex trade in their future. In these communities, the mother of a girl child has to declare during her child’s birth itself in the presence of the village deity whether she will introduce her daughter into prostitution or give her for marriage.

It is a mandatory caste rule and perceived to be a superstitious divine command that at least one daughter in each family be reserved for prostitution. This vile commodification of women rooted directly in their caste turns their life into a nightmare, and their existence is reduced to a brutal accident, dooming them to a life of exploitation and dehumanization from the moment they are born. In the Indian social system, patriarchal structures create specific prejudiced norms for women, reinforcing gender essentialism.

This powerfully shapes how these women perceive themselves. They see themselves not as victims but as guilty, who are indulged in this work and slowly made out of the public spaces through a process of alienation. Cultural norms ruthlessly exploit and subjugate women, creating layers of marginalization, especially for lower-caste women who are the most vulnerable.

These girls are often forced into this profession either through orthodox and fabricated rituals or social pressure, highlighting the brutal intersection of caste and gender oppression. The Tawaif and Mujra culture, which is still persistent in the Indian Subcontinent, is a part of this commodification of marginalized women, where lower-caste women have been subjected to humiliating conditions of existence due to their economic hardship.

Cultural Critique and Questions

Divyendu Jha and Tanya Sharma ask this question in their essay: whose tradition is this? Is it an individual girl’s tradition? What about culture—who made the culture? 

Prof. Uma Chakravarti in her article “Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State” notes that: “The ‘purity of women’ is central to Brahmanical patriarchy because the ‘purity of caste’ is contingent upon it. Restricting the movement of women safeguards the caste structure of Hindu society.” Similarly, the dynamics of caste hierarchies and feudal power relations create a protective layer that prevents individuals from upper castes from engaging in professions considered degrading and impure.

Here caste foundation is purity/impurity where upper caste women are seen as a statue of purity at our places, who don't come in contact with most of the society, though they also don't have social life and are more bounded to serve their caste and family sacredness in the small space of their house. And lower caste women are perceived as impure, and stigmatized as public use.

In addition society has crafted an insidious trap to ensure this evil system's  unbreakability, deliberately encouraging a pervasive culture of shame to ensure the continuation of prostitutions and of caste system and hierarchies.  This is how the practice of earmarking the profession for lower caste is a feature of the caste system which creates room for brahmanical organization of culture in such a way that lower caste automatically become excluded, and nurture the whole trap of patriarchal structure of the brahmanical web.

Religiously sanctioned sexual abuse of Devadasia and Jogin system forces thousands of dalit women into prostitution every year. This old tradition of hindu religion turned into systematic abuse of dalit girls in  modern times. In 2007, Anti-Slavery International published a study on the practice of ritual sexual slavery or forced religious ‘marriage’. It found that 93% of Devadasi were from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The irony lies in the fact that the very country which worships women and goddesses during every major and minor festival is also the one with the world's largest commercial sex industries.

India tragically become a global hub for sex tourism, luring sex tourists from affluent countries who exploit the vulnerability of impoverished and marginalized women and children. Upon that Indian Film Industry glamorizes  prostitution by encouraging films like Heeramandi.  We made our constitutional morality but didn't work in the direction of real change of our social morality. The deeply rooted caste system has historically deprived shudra and ati-shudra from any sort of social,political, economical and psychological advancement.

Women in Hinduism are deprived in a dual sense where women are subjugated and oppressed in terms of gender as well as caste discrimination. Where the injustice and sufferings inflicted upon by these orthodox religious traditions and derogatory societal norms are the biggest barrier of our women's upliftment from this morass. We call it the ‘ritualized process’ of prostitution because of the systemic injustice inflicted by these prejudiced religious practices and traditions, which have always paradoxically degenerated women of Indian society. 

The prostitution system of India is one of the examples of brahminical hegemony. The pre-built superstition for degrading womens respect and using spiritual fundamentalism for lowering her value is a key feature of hindu traditions' impact on lower caste womens. This stark reality highlights the severe socio-economic and cultural marginalization of a woman from a lower caste that forces the entire community into such dehumanizing conditions.

While critically examining the socio-economic and gender-based exploitation associated with its modern-day practices you will find that countless women are perishing in this abhorrent profession just to keep their families alive.

It's a grim irony that in their desperate struggle for survival, they are sacrificing their own conscience. This tragic reality set down the cruel indifference of a naked society that thrives on their exploitation, turning a blind eye to the systemic failures that push these women into such perilous conditions and devalues their existence.  The Devadasi or Jogin system is still operating within a framework of socio-economic inequities, where caste-based discrimination and gendered exploitation are normalized.


  1. Jha, Divyendu, and Tanya Sharma. "Caste and Prostitution in India."

  2. Agarwal, Anuja. Chaste Wives, and Prostitute Sisters: Patriarchy and Prostitution Among The Bedias Of India.

  3. Chakravarti, Uma. "Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State." T

The author, Mihir, is an undergraduate student at Zakir Husain Delhi College, Delhi University.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this text are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or institution.

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