The 'Jogini' wedding ceremony
This is no ordinary wedding. There is no bridegroom - the 'bride' is 'marrying' a goddess, not a man. She will become a 'Jogini', serve the goddess, and become the ‘property’ of the village.
Girls from as young as five may be dedicated to the goddess. Dedicating girls as 'Joginis' has been illegal since 1988, but the practice continues. In 2015 the Jogini Commission estimated that there are 80,000 'Joginis' in the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Almost all 'Joginis' are Dalits.
Extreme poverty, traditional beliefs and superstitions are major factors in the decision to dedicate. The girls rarely realise what will happen to them, but since becoming a 'Jogini' is believed to bring good fortune to the community, the family and even the girl herself, the pressure to dedicate is immense.
'Servant of the gods'
The word 'Jogini' is one of several given to this form of ritual sex slavery or temple prostitution across southern India. The most widely known name is 'Devadasi' which means 'servant of the gods'.
Life of a 'Jogini'
'Joginis' have a rich artistic tradition in dance and song used in temple worship, and historically were protected by royal patrons. Today, although 'Joginis' still perform duties in the temple, their life is marked by extreme poverty and forced prostitution.
On two days each week, they will go from door-to-door begging. They mainly receive grains of rice since they mostly visit houses in the 'wada' (Dalit area). Many 'Joginis' engage in casual labour in the fields if it is available, but they only earn paltry wages.
Most 'Joginis' are uneducated, with very many of them being illiterate. Since a father's name is normally required to access places in school, their children may also fail to get an education. Daughters of 'Joginis' will often follow in their mother's footsteps.
"Everyone's woman, nobody's wife"
After her dedication, a 'Jogini' is given to a village elder – a priest, landowner, or other wealthy man – to be used by them once they reach puberty. When the elder tires of them, 'Joginis' become the 'property' of the village, to be used by any man, anytime, anywhere.
'Joginis' are not normally paid for their services, although some may be if they are pimped or if trafficked to a city or highway brothel. They face a high risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. They are also very vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS, because of the nature of their 'work'.
Although they may be honoured as the 'goddess', there is a stigma attached to being a 'Jogini'.
"All we are asking is to be treated with respect. No-one ever treats us with respect."