Nalini Alur, like most girls of her age in Nizamabad district, rolls beedis for a living. But there’s one thing that makes this 22-year-old villager of Armoor mandal different from others: she was a Jogini.
Similar to a Devadasi, Nalini is now rehabilitated. The government has given her a house under the Indiramma Scheme and pays her Rs 200 as a monthly pension. She lives with her stepbrother’s family. “I am ready to marry,” she says, “provided the boy is broadminded enough not to be bothered about my background.”
The changed status apart, Nalini leaves her hair unkempt. For, she still fears the much revered Goddess Pochamma may curse her if she combs her locks.
The case is no different with hundreds of one-time Joginis in Nizamabad and Medak districts of Andhra Pradesh. And a majority of the rehabilitated Joginis work typically as farm hands, roll beedis and some have become vegetable vendors.
Pulinti Devabala, a vegetable vendor of Kamanpally village who takes time off to work with state Jogini Vyathireka Vyavastha Porata Sanghatana (Front Against Jogini System), has her three daughters studying. “I want my children to study well and get good jobs,” she adds.
Several young and semi-educated Joginis are working as sales girls, shop assistants and even run small provision stores themselves — but have their share of grievance. “Our sect bears a stigma, despite society having been given an updated awareness about us,” shrugs Ellubai (name changed), who works at a readymade clothes shop.
Rajani, who completed her ninth standard, is now learning to roll beedis. Her mother Sayamma says a family tragedy prompted them to make Rajani a Jogini at a tender age. “Our relatives advised us on this. Now I want my daughter to settle down in life. I’m ready to perform her marriage,” she says.
It’s the Telangana region (in the state’s northwest) that has the tradition of offering girls at a young age to local dieties as Joginis. Forced to live at the mercy of the villagers, they often become objects of sexual gratification. About 95 per cent of them come from the Scheduled Caste and Tribes, the rest from the Backward Classes. Many of the elderly women today don’t even remember the age at which they became a Jogini. Recalls Mysamma, one of the rehabilitated Joginis: “You walk on the streets and any man has the right to do anything with you. You give birth to children without knowing who their father is…even the Dalits look down upon you.”
In 1988, N T Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam Party government passed an Act abolishing the Jogini system; even followed it up with an attractive rehabilitation package. Social reformers Hemalatha and Lavanam chipped in with their efforts, especially in Nizamabad and Medak districts. About 1,000 Joginis were given an acre of land each. Another set of as many of them was given Rs 10,000 each as fixed deposits. Kumudben Joshi, as the state governor, even oversaw marriages of two Joginis in Raj Bhavan. A string of welfare schemes extends to the present day.
Samskar, an organisation founded by Hemalatha and Lavanam for the rescue and rehabilitation of Joginis in Varni off Nizamabad, notes the system is almost eradicated. “We only have some stray cases in Mahaboobnagar district,” says it project coordinator K H S S Sundar. “A similar custom, however, exists — in different names — in the districts of Anantpur, Nellore and Chitoor districts,” he adds.
The Devadasi and Jogini systems have common practices, but the caste factor marks their difference. Dr Sundar, who co-authored Of Religion, Goddess and NGO: Jogini Women Reforms and Dynamics of Social Change in South India, says, “Devadasis came from the upper strata of society, while the Joginis are essentially from the downtrodden sections.”
Navin, who works in the Armoor area for an NGO rehabilitating Joginis, he had to face stiff opposition from his parents before marrying a girl whose sister was a Jogini. “If this is the attitude of Dalits towards Joginis,” he points out, “imagine the case with upper castes.”