Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy: Abolition of Devadasi System and Social Reformations

 Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy: Abolition of Devadasi System and Social Reformations

People these days, especially Women are still fighting for their complete independency in this world. Still in so many Indian houses, women are struggling for their independence. May be not like the past ones, but in different ways and form. In today’s world if a woman suffers and if she raised her voice against someone, people will help them and takes it in front of the media; gains support; problem has talked here and there; finally, somehow the solution will be given to it. Just think about how things were back then; if a woman or a girl has a problem, they have to deal within their home. No one will bother about it and won’t help you in any ways; it would not even be considered as a problem. Instead people will tell, it is like that only and they have to accept it. Because the domination were more powerful in those days.

Each and every field and industries were occupied by men’s and they expected that the women to be under them. Things were started to change only after the first feminist movement that started in France. Comparing to other countries, India is very culturally heritage and diversified in religions. So, every one of those religions has their own customs and traditions to be followed. In Hinduism, certain community of people followed Devadasi System. This system practises that some of the women from those community must trained to be a Devadasi; i.e., a girl before reaching her puberty were dedicated to a temple; where she had to worship and do a service to the deity in the temple. Those people were also trained for the particular area’s arts like dance and plays (Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi and more). This system was mostly practised in the southern and western parts of India. So people are also worshiped and praised them.

Whatever it is, there is always a boon and bane alternatives are there in these things. Devadasi system was made to praise and worship their deity, but soon overly things started to change. As Devadasi’s are always in the temple and its places, which were owned either by Monarchy (Government) or the rich people in the village; higher officials and people who were allowed inside the temple took advantage of Devadasi’s. They were physically abused by those peoples. Soon, it the system was turned in the direction of prostitutes. The women that belong to the community of Devadasi were judged as a prostitute. So, Women in that system suffered a lot mentally and physically.

Introduction to Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy:

Muthulakshmi was born on 30th July, 1886 in Thirukokarnam, Pudhukkottai State (British India), Now in Pudukkottai District, Tamil Nadu, India. Her father was           S. Narayanaswami Iyer, Principal of Maharaja’s College, Pudukkottai. Her mother was Chandrammal, a Devadasi. Muthulakshmi was very close with her mother’s side of relations that is how she came to know about their community issue that they practised Devadasi system. She also came to know about the issues faced by Devadasi’s in the village. Later, it became a social reformation to be eradicated by her. She had a younger brother, Ramaiyyah and two younger sisters, Sundarammal and Nallamuthu. She was married to Dr. Sundara Reddy with the norms against all the traditions and rituals that to be followed in a particular Indian Marriage. She also took a vow from her husband that he must give her the equal respect and must not oppose her from her to do the social reforms and her medical practises. And the couple had two sons. She died on her 82nd age in Adayar Cancer Centre home on 22nd July, 1968.

Muthulakshmi’s Educational Qualifications:

Muthulakshmi was a brilliant Student in her studies, on seeing her hard work towards learning; her father broke all the traditions and sent her to School. When she get her Puberty, she was stopped from the School and she was home Tutored. Muthulakshmi was always keen learning and was against the sovereignty of women to men. Her perspective of a woman was different than the regulars. She protested when people say, “only a man can get an education”. This leads her to get more education with the help of her father and school teachers.

When she passed the Marticulation exam she applied for the Maharaja College in Pudukkottai. But, the Principal of the college not welcomed this act because of her gender reference. But, with the help of Pudukkottai King, her father sends his daughter to the college with certain rules and regulations and gave her a scholarship. Successfully, she finished her college studies in Pudhukkottai. After that, she took a break for a year. During that break, her mother became sick and Muthulakshmi herself had the disease Asthma. Despite her disease, she took care of her mother during that period of time. Seeing all those things, Muthulakshmi decided to become a Doctor.

Muthulakshmi joined the Madras Medical College in 1907 and finished her studies in 1912. She became “the first female degree holder in House Surgeon”.

Muthulakshmi in the Medical Field:

With the idea of her Professor in college, she served as a House Surgeon in Government hospital for women and children in Egmore, Chennai. She worked there for a year. Later, she formed a social group to medicate the people in Slum areas in Chennai. She also created the awareness about health and sanitations among them. Later, she worked in many departments of hospitals in Chennai and moved to Pudukkottai government hospital. In 1914, she opened her own Hospital in Chennai and got many acknowledgements in the medical field.

Lately, Muthulakshmi’s younger sister, Sundarammal started to get sick and she got treated in various hospitals in Chennai and found out that she was affected from Cancer; she was in her last stage of Cancer. Muthulakshmi was not satisfied with that treatment in there, so she brought her sister to Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Bose Hospital. Sundarammal was treated there for few months, but it turns out that her health is not recovering. Of late, Sundarammal died of cancer on 1923. Muthulakshmi was devastated of her sister’s death and felt hard to be recovered from that incident. From that incident, she got the idea to start the Research Centre for Cancer in Chennai. She is the founder of Adyar Cancer Institute in Chennai. This hospital was started on 1954 and the foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952. It is the second important hospital and research centre for Cancer in India. Many people are getting useful by this hospital across the country till now.

Muthulakshmi’s Social Reformation:

In1917, Annie Besant and Margaret cousins started the Women’s Indian Association (WIA); Muthulakshmi also contributed her service in that associations. They also started a Child Welfare Association in Kilpauk, Chennai in 1920. This child welfare association’s main motto is to help the unruly children – to make them normal as other kids with the help of Police department and to help the mentally retarded children. This association also helped the women’s who had come out of their home. This association led in the way of Mahatma Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule, who started these movements in the 19th century in North India. Muthulakshmi contributed her service in these associations for about 9 years.

Muthulakshmi also started “Saradha Women’s Samajh and Indian Women’s Samajh” to help the women’s out there in India. Muthulakshmi had strong influence with the words of Mahatma Gandhi and Annie Besant. She started to follow their activism and created a strong awareness among the people in the south India. Muthulakshmi was also a strong orator; she used to create awareness via Women’s Indian Association. She used create awareness about Women’s Education, Women’s right to have property, Women’s development, and many more. She also created the right to act the abolition of Child Marriage and created the compulsory education for all movement.

She also created the right to act for Women’s as a Judges in the Court. She worked hard to form the “All India Women’s Conference in Pune”. This conference laid as the pioneer for “Asia Women’s Conference”. After some years, she went to London with Government referrals to “Research and Study about Children and Women’s Diseases” in Celsia Hospital. She also took a research about Cancer in Royal Hospital under Sir Ernest Miles. Muthulakshmi was the first female to join the first ever “World Women’s Conference” in France. In that conference, she talked about that “she would going to work to get Indian Women’s freedom like the western women’s out there”.

Dr. Muthulakshmi’s Political Career:

After she came from London, the WIA asked her to join in Politics. Later, she became the “First female member of Legislature in India on 1926”. She is the one who worked really hard to bring the rights to act on the “abolition of Devadasi system in India”; “abolition of Prostitution system”; “to increase the Women’s right age to Marriage act”.

 In the Legislature assembly, Novelist Satyamoorthy and Muthulakshmi Reddy had a spicy debate about this act. He completely opposed this abolition of Devadasi System. Finally, Muthulakshmi won the debate and asked to abolish this act in for the people of this community to be freed for ages. She got the huge support from Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, Thiru.V. Ka., T.M. Nair, Moovalur Ramamirdham Ammaiyar to enact this abolition of Devadasi System. Even Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Young India Newspaper about his support for this act in favour of Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. In 1929, this action was put in front of common people’s impression to get their perspective about this act. Although, there raised a debate about who is there to take care of those devadasi people? Muthulakshmi answered that she would take care of them by sending them to Seva Samajh for their good life. After huge fights and debate, the bill was passed on the abolition of Devadasi system was enacted in India on October 9, 1947 by O.P. Ramaswamy Reddiar, former Chief Minister of Madras Presidency.

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy also owns a Newspaper called Sri Dharma. She gave her contribution to the freedom of India by writing her thoughts and ideas via this newspaper. In 1930, when Gandhi was prisoned for the freedom movements, Muthulakshmi Reddy resigned her legislature posting to give her support for the release of Mahatma Gandhi.

Once her sister asked Muthulakshmi, that her students to stay with them in their home to study because they were rejected to given any hostels inside the campus. Muthulakshmi allowed and welcomed them with huge respects and help them to get proper studies, food and shelter. Later on, this act brings out the idea for “Avvai Illam in Chennai”. This Avvai Illam contributes under many educational and industrial helps for women till now.

In 1929, there came the announcement about the first round table conference, all the Women’s associations around the world wanted that there should also be the presence of Women in that conference. Representing Women’s Indian Association Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy becomes the first Indian Women to be on the First round table Conference. She also attended the Chicago Women’s Movement and she gives her conceptual speech about “Women’s contributions in World Women’s Welfare Association”. In 1937, she became the “first female Alder women of Chennai City”. In 1939, she became the head for “All Asia Women’s Welfare Movement” that happened in Lahore, Pakistan.

She also wrote more than ten books about her Medical and Political experiences. By honouring her contributions in the Medical field and social reformations, Central Government gave her the Padma Bhushan award.


To honour her legacies, Chennai City Corporation named a road in Adyar as Dr. Muthulakshmi Salai and a public park was named as Dr. Muthulakshmi Poonga. In 1989, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Dr. M. Karunanidhi announced a scheme under her name – Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy memorial funds and maternity benefit scheme was successfully running till date. She was also called as “Penniya Periyar”.


Vandhana R

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