by Deeksha Sivakumar
It is the Tamil new year’s first month Chittirai, where several important festivals take place especially in Tamil Nadu. Madurai, home of the Tamil Sangam (Literary Council) and residence of the Goddess Meenakshi, witnesses a spectacular twenty day enactment of the wedding of Sundereshwarar (Shiva) and Meenakshi in grand procession on large chariots drawn by vast crowds. With the Vijayanagara Empire’s reign, multiple regions of Southern India together rejoiced in the celebration of this wedding festival subsequently inviting the neighboring god Kallazhagar (Vishnu), Meenakshi’s brother, also to the ritual. Bringing together deities from a number of opposing and coexisting textual and religious sects, and local gods, Chittirai Ther Thiruvizha displays the three most popular deities of the area: Meenakshi, Shiva, and Vishnu.
While this event is an auspicious crowd puller, another eighteen day ritual in the first month is celebrated in a relatively smaller town called Koovagam, further north from Madurai. In his 1988 three volume publication ‘The Cult of Draupadi’, Alf Hiltebeitel brings our attention to several folk rituals belonging to the cult of Draupadi native to the inner districts of Tamil country. Among the various rituals, he notes Kuttantavar’s festival in Koovagam as showing close proximity to rituals performed in other Draupadi cults. Kuttantavar festival celebrates Aravan, a small character from the epic Mahabharata who is Arjuna’s son out of wedlock with the naga (serpent) princess Ulupi. Aravan becomes a strong and powerful deity in the area on account of the selfless sacrifice of his own head to Kali for the victory of the Pandavas over the Kauravas. According to the narratives, Aravan asks for one last boon before his death – to be married and enjoy sexual union. Vishnu in his feminine form of Mohini agrees to marry him accepting his/her doomed fate of widowhood.
Eunuchs (Alis) from all over Tamil Nadu celebrate these eighteen days enacting this story of the Mahabharata. First they marry Aravan and then undergo a two day lamentation of his loss in the guise of a widow. The eunuchs remember Aravan and his great gift to them by violently breaking their wedding necklace or thali, which marks their status of widowhood. They beat their chests in anguish and weep for hours. They even break their own bangles and dress in white saris (traditional for widows). According to ethnographic accounts provided by Piyush Saxena, the eunuchs conclude the festival with a public donation of “blood rice” to induce fertility in mothers who are unable to conceive. The visiting eunuchs also pray to be born as fully male or fully female in their next birth vowing to always return to perform this festival. Nowadays beauty pageants are held at the end of the Kuttantavar festival, emphasizing a contemporary understanding of gender in the public space.
Vishnu as Mohini troubles the static images of gendered gods. Arjuna, Aravan’s father, is cursed to be a eunuch for one year by a celestial dancer allowing him to be successfully hidden in the inner female quarters for his yearlong exile in Virata’s kingdom. Arjuna benefits from his adoption of eunuch status, Vishnu as Mohini is the only one capable of bearing to be a bride doomed to widowhood, and dressed as widows the eunuchs can grieve for Aravan as Mohini does in the narrative. God, the male protagonist, and the worshippers display and celebrate their transgendered status in narratives otherwise riddled with gendered prescriptions. Rather than separating god as merely an object of devotion, the deities here, like Aravan, absorb and embody the qualities of his worshippers. Moreover, the eunuch’s participation as widows in a religious setting allows for the celebration of an identity usually inauspicious (in most festival contexts) like its contemporary Chittirai Ther Thiruvizha. Kuttantavar’s festival shows us that every new beginning celebrates a unique facet of human identity.
Deeksha Sivakumar is a Ph.D. student in South Asian Religions at Emory University, GA. Her current research interests surround a particular enactment of a goddess festival and its unique celebration in Southern India as Bommai Golu. Her subordinate interests include ritual performance, healing, materiality, and femininity. She is also excited to see what digital technologies can do for the Humanities and the study of ethnography. She has been an energetic TA and presented several lectures on Hindu deities, ritual practices and the Indian diaspora.