Negotiating ritual duty in degenerate times

The goddess Mathamma and the legal secular in rural South India

by Hester Betlem

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In India, religious practices deemed incompatible with liberal governance are often legally curtailed in the name of “morality,” “health,” or “public order.” These “secular” laws are historically backed by significant efforts to reform “former” practitioners in a manner compatible with legitimate religious practice and belief. Among practitioners of the legally prohibited Devadasi custom in South India, these reform programs consist of legal education and empowerment programs that seek to inculcate a “respectable femininity” in female ritual specialists that the state regards as “ritual prostitutes.” I track the manner in which these projects of “surveillance” and “normalization” are received in Devadasi communities beyond a presumption of marginalization and constraint. I argue that the legal prohibition of the Devadasi custom constitutes the starting point for a form of legal procedure that ensures the preservation of the custom, even as it draws on the idioms of secular state law.