India’s Temple Children
Camera info: Canon Rebel 350D • lens 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6
ISO 100 • f 2.8 • 1/140 sec
As our tour group neared a Hindu temple in southern India, we were met by this little boy dressed as one of the Hindu gods. He was more than willing to strike a pose and let us take pictures – for a small fee. After all, entertaining the visitors was his full-time job.
The life of a temple child is very difficult. Most of these children are dedicated to the temple deity as infants, in order to bring their families good luck. Never seeing their parents again, they are raised in the temple to serve the local gods, which includes a variety of jobs. The boys, like this one, often serve as bahurupis (“the many-faced“), street entertainers who dress up as the gods and perform for locals and tourists alike. It’s a difficult job, because a convincing actor will go all day without shoes, eating or using the restroom. Many are not allowed to talk, even as passers-by treat them harshly.
Girls often face even more difficult circumstances. In the past, their roles were also entertainers. Indian missionary Amy Carmichael once wrote,
“The duties of the temple girls were to carry the kumbarti (the sacred light); to fan the idol with chamaras (fans); to dance and sing before the god. They were the only women who could read and write, play an instrument, and sing and dance. Their presence was believed to bring good luck to a wedding, and they had power to avert the ‘evil eye.'”
Today, Many infant girls dedicated to the temples are “married” to the temple deity and are considered devadasi (basically a “divine prostitute“). Their job is to provide sexual favors for the priests and male worshipers who frequent the temple. When they get older (around 5-7 yrs old), they are auctioned off to become a child concubine. Many girls are re-sold after they pass puberty, and more than half end up in brothels for the remainder of their lives. This practice was outlawed decades ago, but perpetrators are rarely punished, so it continues today, especially in rural areas. Tradition and poverty are strong motivators in this society.
Poverty can bring people to do all sorts of things they would never consider otherwise. What have the poor in your area done to cope?