The Pursuit of Pseudo Peace (Part 2): The Universe of Prostitution in India


Prof Hoosen Vawda – TRANSCEND Media Service

This publication is unsuitable for minors in view of the contents.  Parental guidance is advised.

“In life, the Value of the Body of a Prostitute is less than that of a Little Piece of Bread”[1]

The Highly Educated and Cultured Courtesans during the Mughal Era in India. Note the Fine Muslin Dresses.

 29 Oct 2022 – This, Part 2, in the series of publication on the exploitation of females by the society, presents the business of prostitution, both male and female in India, where, often, infant girls are kidnapped from rural villages and sold into prostitution. Prostitution involves engaging, agreeing, or offering to engage in sexual conduct with another person in return for a fee. It is a crime throughout the civilized world, except where the legal processes have literally “turned a blind eye” for reasons of large-scale corruption within the law enforcement agencies, I contemporary times. In general terms, prostitution also involves the practice of engaging in relatively indiscriminate sexual activity, with someone who is not a spouse or a friend, in exchange for immediate payment in financial terms, or other valuables, as applicable to any business transaction.  Essentially, it is a business undertaking using the human body as a commodity for sale, at a negotiated price.  Therefore, the business system employs, marketing principles, middle man, the end product, as well as the consumer.  There is an entire chain of individuals in the universe of prostitution,  as with other countries, prostitution, globally can be divided into four broad categories:-[3]

  • Street: Clients solicited on the street, park or other public places.
  • Brothel: Premises explicitly dedicated to providing sex.
  • Escort: Client contacts sex worker by phone or via hotel staff.
  • Private: Client contacts sex worker by phone.

However, in India, there are additional prostitutions types as follows:-

  • The Courtesan, as found in courts of Sultanates, Mughal Emperors, and Maharajahs.
  • Ladies religiously dedicated to the service of “Gods” called “Devdasis”[4]
  • Intergenerational Prostitution whereby the trade is passed from thee grandmother, to the daughter to the grand daughter as an accepted way of life. In this type of prostitution, a female is dedicated to prostitution to support the rest of the family.
  • Major, “Interstate Highway, Prostitution Service Homes”, whereby ladies are made available to long distance truck drivers for a pre-arranged fee.
  • Systemic, organised and institutionalised prostitution in the form of designated “Red Light Districts” in large cities such as the 98 brothels in Delhi’s Garstin Bastion or GB Road, home to the city’s biggest “Red-Light District, where cartels administer official prostitution in association with the law enforcement officers.
  • Sexual abuse, coercion and high-class prostitution of females in the multi-billion-dollar Bollywood film industry, very much like the case of Hollywood film moghul and the #MeToo campaign expose. Since that time dozens of Democrats in political office and Hollywood have been exposed for their years of sexual abuse of women.[5] In the Hollywood and Bollywood film industries, it is the traditional “casting couch” philosophy.

TIME Magazine awarded the #MeToo movement as person of the year award, in 2017.
Hollywood actress, Ashley Judd is on the cover even though she stayed quiet for decades as thousands of women were abused by Harvey Weinstein[6]. What a hero![7]
Note the anonymous elbow is intentional.[8]

Hilary L. Surratt[9], PhD, Associate Scientist for the Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies at the University of Delaware, et. al., in the July 2005 Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality study titled “The Connections of Mental Health Problems, Violent Life Experiences, and the Social Milieu of the ‘Stroll’ with the HIV Risk Behaviors of Female Street Sex Workers,” wrote:[10]  “In contrast to popular thinking, female sex workers are an extremely heterogeneous population. They are situated in a myriad of social and environmental contexts…

Past and current studies suggest that there are many different types of female sex workers, including ‘call girls’ and escorts working in the upper echelons of the sex industry, ‘in-house’ sex workers working in parlors or brothels, ‘street-walkers’ who sell sex for money through sidewalk solicitations, part-timers who supplement their incomes with sex-for-pay, and drug-involved street-based sex workers, the majority of whom shift between sex-for-money and sex-for-drug exchanges, as circumstances require.”

In addition, there is an entire range of services offered by the “commodity; the humanoid body”  of different genders and a diverse range of humanoids of alternative sexual behavioural patterns, within the social microcosm, as applicable to any country, solely for the holistic sexual gratification of the consumer, or end user.

Painting of Courtesans, in fine, see through Muslin attire, in the Mughal Court, Delhi, India, Entertaining the Emperor

At the outset, it is important to understand, that in Hinduism, there is the overarching religious philosophy of Karma, or one’s destiny, which is predetermined before birth by the Divine processes and which cannot be changed. This philosophy is firmly entrenched in the daily lives of Hindus, throughout the world, as part of their religious tenets , especially in India.  In summary, this divinely prescriptive pre-destiny of Karma, in Indian philosophy, is the influence of an individual’s past actions, in that humanoid’s previous birth, will determine on their status and levels of suffering or goodness in their future lives or reincarnations. It is based on the conviction that the present life is only one in a chain of lives, samsara, before eternal salvation is achieved by the soul, which is immortal, but is recycled in a new physical body or even another living form, such as a dog, pig or even s serpent.  The form that the individual takes in their next rebirth totally depends on their deeds, whether good or bad, in their past cycle of life and death. The accumulated moral energy of a person’s life determines his or her character, class status, and disposition in the next life. The process is automatic, and no interference by the deities is possible. In the course of a chain of lives, people can perfect themselves and reach the level of Brahma, or they can degrade themselves to the extent, that they return to life as animals. The concept of karma, basic to Hinduism, was also incorporated into Buddhism and Jainism.[11]  Therefore, the profession and the lot of the millions of prostitutes are predetermined by their collective deeds in their past cycle of life and it is predestined by the Divine that a particular female is kidnapped as a child and sold to brothels to be brought up, nurtured into eternal prostitution, to satisfy the carnal desires of  humanoids of both genders by the vocation of prostitution,  This is the very philosophy of the treatment of the Dalit population in India, where they are eternally dammed into poverty, to be abused by the rich upper castes, including the Brahmin priests[12], who often rape these sub-humans, as classified by the Hindu caste system and even allowed by the Indian police, who do not register these cases of gender based violence, even to the extent that the courts often dispense misjustice, when it comes to the Dalits.[13]  The ideology dictates that these unfortunate derelicts of the society are predestined to be in their present,  observed state of suffering and poverty, due to their nefarious deeds in their previous cycle of life.  They are literally, eternally dammed by divine processes and forces to suffer, as well as be abused by the higher caste members of the community. In fact, these Dalits are even prohibited from attending services in temples by the Brahmin priests and if they do, then the entire temple has to subjected to ritual cleansing, because the hallowed and holy precincts have been contaminated by the walking and presence of these lower caste humanoids.

In India, the history of prostitution dates back to the period of the Vedas.[14] It is one of the oldest professions that is in practice since the birth of the organized society. In India, the Vedas, which is the earliest known Indian literature, has shown the reference of prostitution as an institution. High-class prostitution in the form of demigods acting as prostitutes has been referred to many times in Indian mythology.  The earlier times had several instances of extramarital love that were voluntary and unpaid. Since they were performed under closed boundaries, they were not considered to be some kind of profession. With time, there arose a section of women, who were either widowed, lived in a bad marriage, or were violated, abducted, taken advantage of, and denied by society. Often even parent disowned their daughters who had returned from a life of being kidnapped and sold into prostitution. Such women were forced to take up prostitution as a profession.

It is difficult to establish as to when prostitution arose in India, as a profession or what the tariffs were. However, strict marriage laws and the treatment of women as the property of their husbands could be one reason for women to have taken such measures. There have been various myths and legends about the origin of prostitution. For example, in the Mahabharata,[15] the account of the destruction of the Yadavas ends with the women of these tribes being abducted. In Kuru and Pancala, the Brahmin sages were associated with the teachings of erotics, in which prostitution consisted of one section. Ksemendra[16] says that wicked mothers often have their daughters away, to be enjoyed and abducted by other men. Vatsyayana in Kamasutra gave intrinsic details of how a chaste girl should be seduced cleverly until she fulfills a man’s lust and the pursuit of pseudo-peace in their personal lives.

A Bronze figurine of the 4500-year-old Dancing Girl of Mohenjo Daro[17],
From the Indus Valley Civilisation, Reputed to Represent A Sacred Prostitute Carrying Out Her Duties Within A Temple.[18]

The Apsaras [19]or the celestial nymphs were considered to be the portrayal of absolute beauty and feminine charms. These celestial bodies were tasked to entertain the guests in the courts of the Hindu Gods, these females were highly accomplished in music and dance. They were sent for Tapasya or penance and the devotion of the saints.  During the period of the Mahabharata, the work of prostitution was standard in the age of the Pandavas and Kauravs. Being an essential part of the court, both the dynasties possessed them. The courtesans of Indira Puri have been widely depicted in Mahabharata. In total, there were about forty apsaras in this period. Amongst them, some popular ones were Urvashi,[20] Menaka, Rambha. In a particular narration in the Mahabharat, Arjuna went to heaven to pay a visit to God Indra. To satisfy Arjuna’s salacity, Indra requested Urvashi an apsara to entertain Arjuna for the night.  The concept of women as a commodity for man’s enjoyment was borne by the inclusion of women as young and pretty and added into the lists of the gifts that are to be given to the king as a mark of respect. Thus, she becomes a Datshana, or offering to the gods.

At Yudhisthira’s[21] horse sacrifice, women were presented by other kings, as a donation, necessary for the royal entertainment. Courtesans played an essential role in Mahabharata. They had the duty to seduce high ranking men to extract important information the men they seduced.  Chanakaya’ Arthasasthra is famous for depicting the accounts of prostitutes’ lives. It contains rules and activities of how prostitutes should behave and how their lives should be ordered.

It shows exciting data about women who are neglected by society, and their survival depends solely on their income through prostitution. Most of the time, these women came from upper castes.  A code of conduct was prescribed to all who wanted to seek their favor. These women also had certain definite progressive rights and duties, in ancient India.

The Aryan system[22] in India followed the footsteps of the heavenly courts and developed a system of prostitution. Women were made to look like well-accomplished maidens in token of friendship with the kings. In addition, they were offered as ransoms in matters of politics. Several girls of different classes were carefully selected from infancy to become prostitutes. They were fed poisonous herbs and food and were called the Vishkanyas (Poisonous virgins).

They were trained prostitutes and used as a human weapon by the kings to extract vital, strategic, military information and destroy their enemies.

India is associated with Kamasutra[23]. An Indian sage of the third century B.C., called Vatsyayan[24], devoted several pages to prostitutes and their ways of life in his writing, The Kamasutra. It mentioned the rules of conduct and the popular trade system that developed.  This sage stated that the prostitutes of today had their prototypes in the olden days. It describes different sports and festivals of the rich, in which courtesans were invited.

The institution of the “sacred prostitutes”, in India[25],  the “sacred” system of Devadasi is a living example of the highest level of prostitution, based on religious use of prostitutes. Devadasi is a Sanskrit term that means the female servant of God. It is a type of Hindu, religious practice which is widely subscribed to in the southern parts of India. When they attain puberty, girls are dedicated to worship of deity or temple for the rest of their life by their parents. After their actual marriage to the deity, they must perform activities such as cleaning the temple, dressing the deities, etc. Thus, they are considered to be respected members of society.  However, this system was misunderstood by the Mughals and European rulers. They were unaware of the idea of art as an offering to God and hence considered girls singing and dancing in the temples as a form of entertainment to the rich and were not better than prostitutes.  Indeed, such girls were abused by the temple priests, for who these religiously dedicated young ladies were easy prey to their lustful desires.  The status of the Devdasis, further deteriorated in the medieval period after the destruction of a large number of temples, by the Muslim, Mughal Dynasty, especially under the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who actively persecuted the Hindus. This was in sharp contrast to the rule of Emperor Akbar the Great, who was accommodating the Hindus and practiced syncretism.  In fact, in Fatehpur Sikhri, the new, relocated palace of Akbar the Great[26]; Shahensha Jallaludin Akbar, from Delhi, he had  commissioned a special council chamber, where ministers of different religions were invited to share their religious philosophies, with the Emperor, on a weekly basis on matters of national import. This degraded the status of Devadasi in society, and because of the financial problems, they were forced to become the mistress of royal and rich men. Furthermore, a child born from that union was also dedicated to the temples. It led to religious, intergenerational  prostitution all over India and continues to date. The Devadasi are exploited by the rich, upper-class members of the society and are not permitted to leave this practice.

Examining “The Nautch Girls, the Old Courtesans of Delhi”[27], as evidence, it is clear that society has been creating situations in which many women were deprived of the right to remain respectable and were forced into prostitution, as a profession.  The male clients, who came to these prostitutes found their wives dull as companions, so to fulfil their lust, they visited these places to pursue the attainment of pseudo-inner peace in the sexual lives. Society neglected and blamed the prostitutes, but no one ever shamed their clients. Irrespective of the location, whether in a temple, a royal palace of a Maharajah, Emperor, or a brothel, these women were forced to entertain the men in the lure of payment and being molested, tortured, or seven killed during their pursuit of supreme and ultimate sexual pleasure, often subjected to absolutely horrendous sexual acts in the process. Their bodies were enjoyed by the community with no fault of their own. Such is and was the precarious lives of women who were forced into prostitution.  Nobody cared if they lived, diseased or perished.  If the men paid for the bodies of the prostitute, they were entitled to do as they pleased, based on their whims, fancies, sexual fantasies and idiosyncrasies, with these ladies, divinely predestined to suffer dehumanisation and exist in eternal bondage to the male humanoids.[28]

For Many Families Prostitution Has Become a Family Tradition, Passed Down from Generation to Generation

Interestingly, in a religious context, the spiritually important Durga Prayer[29], In West Bengal, no idol of Durga can be made without soil from a brothel. It is a key component of the Earthly form of the Devi Shakti[30].  In his regards, according to Rakhi Bose, reports following her interview with a sex worker Anita Das[31].  The Durga Puja week used to be nightmare for Anita Das, a 43-year-old sex worker and single mother of two. Anita has been living in Shonagachi[32], one of Asia’s largest red-light districts, in Kolkata for over 10 years and both her kids were born here. During the annual Puja period, she faced the same challenge with her two little children: what to do with them?  Puja or pooja is a worship ritual performed by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains to offer devotional homage and prayer to one or more deities, to host and honour a guest, or to spiritually celebrate an event.[33]

“I had to go to work at night, so that I can feed the kids in the morning, take care of their other needs, and Puja is good business.  However, if Anita works all night, the children end up missing out on Puja. There is no one to take them out for pandal hopping, or for eating street food”.

Anita adds that in most cases, they were not appreciated in the pandals even when they do manage to go out. “Whenever they know we are sex workers, they want us out, many priests and puja committee organisers think we are polluting the holy environment,” she states.  Anita’s children are her only family apart from the 3,000-odd other women in Shonagachi who share similar fates and problems as Anita experiences “So we got together and started our own Puja,” she quips.  The Durbar Mahila Sammanwaya Samiti’s [34](DBSS) Durga Puja has been taking place since 2012. This year, the committee’s total budget was nearly Rs 25 lakh rupees. The committee has also ensured distribution of ‘Bhog’ twice on all five days of the Puja, starting Shashti[35] to Doshomi[36]. Inside the Masjid Gali Road where the pandal is located at the mouth of Shonagachi, a crowd of men, women and children throng the little office DMSS located behind the idol.   At first, the committee had just received permission to conduct the Puja inside their own office. In 2015, they were allowed to rent a community hall for their Puja. “But we were not satisfied. Political committees and powerful individuals get permission so easily. But we had to fight all the neighbouring puja committees, who strongly opposed to it,   at first.”  “No idol of Durga can be made without us. We also represent Durga and Devi Shakti and are all her daughters. Why should we not be allowed to take part in the city’s cultures and religious traditions?” Bishakha Lashkar [37]adds.  In West Bengal, no idol of Mother Durga can be made without soil from a brothel. It is a key component of the Earthly form of the Devi Shakti. It is said that the custom is followed to honour the Naba Durga, the nine forms of Goddess Durga by worshipping ‘Nava Kanya’, the nine classes of women that have been collaboratively mentioned in the Vedas.  These categories are:  A Nati (dancer/actress), a Vaishya (prostitute), Rajaki (laundry girl), a Brahmani (Brahmin girl), a Dalit and a Gopala (milkmaid). Many in West Bengal believe that the worship of the Goddess is incomplete without worshipping these forms and soil from a “niishiddho polli” is thus considered “punyo mati”.

The Bottom Line, is that the practice of prostitution in colonial India was influenced by the policies of British rule in India. During the 19th and 20th centuries the colonial government facilitated, regulated and allowed the existence of prostitution. Not only was prostitution in India affected by the policy of the Governor General of India[38], it was also influenced by the moral and political beliefs of the British authorities and conflicts and tensions between the British authorities and the Indian populace at large. The colonial government had a profound effect on prostitution in India, both legislatively and socially.[39]  The Colonial government accepted prostitution because thousands of British soldiers of different ranks were stationed in India to continue to subjugate and oppress the local Indians.   Hence the prostitutes filled an unmet need for these men, far away from home, to fulfil their carnal desires.  The social ambiance was akin to the American war in Vietnam [40]in the 1970’s and the flourishing industry of prostitution in the neighbouring countries like Thailand, where the servicemen went off to be sexually serviced, by prostitutes.  Thousand of babies were born and their mothers were dumped when America ended the futile war.   The prostitutes are in a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle in the brothels, arriving there are young, virgin girls, sold to the highest bidder for deflowering and spend the rest of their lives in servitude, abused, traumatised, raped, give birth to a fatherless child, acquire communicable diseases such as HIV / Aids, or Tuberculosis, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases and die in abject poverty. Often, these Hindu ladies are not even afforded the dignity of a proper Hindu cremation, after death, because they do not have enough funds to purchase the timber for her open funeral pyre.

Sonagachi, The Red-Light area of Kolkata[41] has been immortalised, extensively in documentaries and feature films in India and abroad. There is also a documentary titled Tales of The Night Fairies by Prof. Shohini Ghosh and Dr. Sabeena Ghadioke from Asia’s leading Media institute AJK, Mass Communication Research Centre, about the Sonagachi area. It has won the Jeevika Award for the best documentary feature on livelihood in India.[42]  Popular South Indian film actor, Kamal Haasan’s[43], movie Mahanadhi[44] has a storyline based on the area. The Malayalam Film Calcutta News depicts the story of women being trafficked and forced to become sex workers in Sonagachi.[45] In his documentary “The Five Obstructions[46]”, renowned Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier asks poet and experimental filmmaker Jorgen Leth to name the worst place in the world he has ever visited, and immediately Leth responds with “The Red-Light District of Calcutta.”

The documentary “Born into Brothels[47]”: Calcutta’s Red-Light Kids won the Oscar for best documentary award in 2005.[48] It depicts the lives of children born to prostitutes in Sonagachi. Born into Brothels takes the viewer beyond the well-known prostitute-clogged streets and into the homes of the children who live in the so-called worst place on earth. If the film has one success story, it is the discovery of ten-year-old Avijit[49] whose natural affinity for creating exciting compositions through the lens earned him an invitation to the World Press Photo Foundation in Amsterdam.[50]

The famous Indian poet and lyricist, for a large number of songs featured in Bollywood movies, Sahir Ludhianavi[51] wrote, in Hindi, a poem, about the Sonahgachi Red Light District in Kolkata, encapsulating the essence of prostitution in India:-

Ye duniya do rangi hai
Ek taraf se resham ode, ek taraf se nangi hai
Ek taraf andhi daulat ki paagal aish parasti
Ek taraf jismoñ ki qeemat roti se bhi sasti
Ek taraf hai Sonaagaachi, ek taraf Chaurangi hai
Ye duniya do rangi hai

Appropriately translated into English, these lyrics mean: –

This world is indeed two-coloured
One side covered with silk, the other is naked
On the one hand, the hedonism of blind wealth
On the other, bodies sold cheaper than  bread
On the one hand lies Sonagachi, on the other Chowringhee[52]
This world is indeed two-coloured


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Professor G. Hoosen M. Vawda (Bsc; MBChB; PhD.Wits) is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment.
Director: Glastonbury Medical Research Centre; Community Health and Indigent Programme Services; Body Donor Foundation SA.

Principal Investigator: Multinational Clinical Trials
Consultant: Medical and General Research Ethics; Internal Medicine and Clinical Psychiatry:UKZN, Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine
Executive Member: Inter Religious Council KZN SA
Public Liaison: Medical Misadventures
Activism: Justice for All

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 31 Oct 2022.

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