Now, from my well-appointed cell in California, sex slaves and goddesses are things that just don't go together. Mention the word "goddess" and I summon up an image of an oaky retreat where well-meaning college grads calculate their moon cycles using interpretive dance. "Sacred prostitutes," another term used to refer to devadasis, conjures images of new-agey sex workers who have embraced the idea that they are "radical whores."
But the contemporary practices of devadasis are anything but utopian. Basically, the parents sell their girls to the highest bidder and thereby lead them to a life of involuntary prostitution with their mothers and fathers acting as their pimps. Tainted, the girls never get married or have families of their own. Although the practice is illegal, anti-slavery campaigners guess that there's still about 25,000 devadasis nationwide.
Over the centuries the role of the devadasis has changed -- and the earlier status of the devadasis is hotly disputed. Some, like K. Santhaa Reddy of the National Commission for Women, have suggested that pre-colonial devadasis were respected sacred figures and performed sacred rituals of song and dance in the temples. Others have argued that the practice arose from the degradation of Buddhist nuns, as Hinduism gained preeminence. Whatever the case, the women enslaved to an old idea of subjugation probably wouldn't appreciate the new subculture that reclaims their status as Sacred Whores.