A bizarre temple ritual in Madurai, exposed by a journalist for a Coimbatore-based news portal, has caused an upheaval. AR Meyyammai, who wrote the story for The Covai Post on 24 September, received threats on social media, soon after the report went live. The portal's editor, Vidyashree Dharmaraj, has also allegedly been getting intimidating phone calls, forcing her to lodge a complaint with the IT cell, HuffPost India has learnt.
Meyyammai's report, in her own words, "opened a Pandora's Box" by highlighting a problematic practice at a temple in Vellalur in the Madurai district.
The residents of 62 villages in the region have, for centuries it appears, offered young girls from different clans to the service of the deity, Yezhaikaatha Amman, every year. The priest of the temple dedicated to the goddess have a free hand over choosing 7 girls from 7 clans to spend 15 days at the site with him. But there are two conditions: the girls have to be below the age of puberty and they must remain topless for the duration of their residence, with only heavy jewellery covering their chests.
The Thevar community, which mostly lives in these parts, believe that sending some of their girls off to the deity for two weeks every year will not only lead to the overall prosperity of the 62 villages, but also bring fertility to all the families. Watch the ceremony being played out in this video by The Covai Post.
The revelation of these details have understandably raised concerns over the girls' safety on the premises of the temple. On the basis of the report filed by The Covai Post, Madurai collector K Veera Raghava Rao has already ordered the girls to cover their bodies. "It is an ancient custom," he told NDTV. "Parents send their girls voluntarily." The consent of adults cannot possibly override the discomfort felt by all the minor children involved in this case.
Meyyammai's report claims the girls chosen are between the ages of 10-14. Although they seemed cheerful and playful in one another's company, some of them mentioned they were missing examinations at school to fulfil their parents' wishes. A medical certificate, issued by a doctor, is apparently expected to exempt them from being amiss.
But the interruption to their education and daily life for the sake of religion seems to be the tip of a rather shocking iceberg. Left in a state of semi-undress for over two weeks, the girls have their mothers around in the day. At night, only the men in their families are allowed to be on the premises. Such arrangements may justly raise concern over the safety of these girls, vulnerable to abuse of all forms and probably unlikely to complain for fear of disapproval by their parents.
"Some of the younger children used to cry for being kept away from their families," Meyyammai said, while adding that she was chased away by the temple authorities for trying to speak in detail with the girls. After being harassed on social media for expressing concern about these traditions, she was forced to deactivate her handle.
"We tried to explain to callers that our intention wasn't to hurt anyone's religious sentiments but to avoid any possibility of the girls being exploited," said Dharmaraj. "But most of them retort that the girls haven't reached the age of puberty, so what's wrong with sending them to the temple?"
Such justifications sound horribly blinkered in a country with shockingly high statistics of sexual violence, especially involving minors. Earlier this month, another report pointed out the pervasive spread of child pornography in India, where an offending video is created an uploaded online every 40 seconds, with the most number of such pornographic material appearing from Kerala.
Last month, a self-styled 'godman' in Haryana, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan, was convicted of raping his female disciples, leading to public clashes. Ram Chander Chhatrapati, the journalist who first exposed Ram Rahim, was allegedly murdered on his instigation in 2002.
If fearless journalism was fraught with risk always, it has become much the worse in recent times.
Recently, two firebrand journalists, Gauri Lankesh in Karnataka and Santanu Bhowmik in Tripura, were murdered under different circumstances for allegedly ruffling the feathers of political powers in their regions. Over the last year or so, at least 54 media personnel have been attacked, 25 journalists were intimidated, and seven killed by a combination of state and non-state actors, according to The Hoot.
In the World Press Freedom Index 2017, India occupies the 136th position, three notches down from 2016, among 180 nations.
Network of Women in Media in India (NWMI) condemned the death threats to the journalists, demanding Tamil Nadu police take strict action against the callers and social media networks become more sensitive to such problems faced by women on the Internet.
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