India is a land of festivals and fairs. It is also a nation of endless customs and traditions. Many a time, these rituals raise too many eyebrows and rightly so. Just like a bizarre ritual taking place at a Vellalur temple in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district has come to the light and it is causing quite a furor. Following age-old tradition of the village, girls in their teens and pre-teens are selected by a temple priest live half-naked under his supervision for 15 days to please the village deity Yezhaikaatha Amman. In a shocking report by Covai Post, the video shows bare-chested girls treated and worshipped like goddesses are seen following orders of the priest.

The footage showed a group of minor girls aged between 10 to 14 carrying paddy baskets on their heads. These offerings are handed over the temple priest. But what caught everyone’s eyes was that these ‘divine’ girls as they are addressed were not wearing any garment to cover their upper bodies. In their special report, Covai Post pointed out that these girls are forced to remain bare-chested, covering themselves with just the jewellery and no clothes. From bathing out in the open to living under the supervision of a male priest, the video raised several questions which forced the administration to look into it.

So what exactly is the ritual of this festival at Vellalur temple? The temple priest in the video explained that seven girls are selected by him. These ‘divine’ girls are to be offered to the deity for a fortnight beginning on the last Tuesday in the Tamil month of Aavani. The annual event is believed to bring prosperity and progeny to the village. Girls of the community from 62 villages are dressed wearing silk sarees like wrap-around skirts and gold ornaments and with no blouses to cover their developing breasts are paraded in front of the Yezhaikaatha Amman Temple at Vellalur. Out of them, the priest selects 7 girls who are then dressed in the same manner for the next 15 days while doing the services to the deity under the care of the priest.

As soon as the report went viral, it got the administration headed by Collector K Veera Raghava Rao ordering to form a committee to further probe the issue. The committee found that it was an ancient tradition and there was no evidence of sexual abuse or harassment inside the temple. But to ensure such a thing does not take place in future as well, they ordered the temple to allow the girls to cover their bodies. “It is an ancient custom. Parents send their girls voluntarily,” said the Madurai collector. “We informed the villages that the girls have to be properly clothed. They can wear jewellery over their clothes,” he added.

“When we enquired the parents, they said it is their religious belief and traditional practice and their girl children do not go to school out of their own will as they have been selected to do services to the Goddess. But we have told the village elders that the girls should be allowed to wear upper garments and they have promised to consult the elders and take a decision ahead of the next festival. Since tomorrow (Tuesday) is the main day of the festival, we could not interfere much. But we will follow it up and counsel the parents,” Social Welfare Officer P Shanthi told The Covai Post.