Wings and Chirps

Wanderings of an Itchy Feet

#MythicalMondays – Aravan/Iravan: The God of the Transgenders

When we shifted to my parents first-ever house on 4th February 1984, I was just four-years-old. I clearly remember the group of people dressed in sarees who started singing and dancing outside our gate after the early morning Grihapravesha Pooja and breakfast was done. I also remember Acha (father) giving them some amount. They in turn blessed all of us and our house. Acha believes in Karma, something I inherited from him. When I asked him about these strange people he said,

They are simple humans just like the rest of us. People mistreat them and thus they have no other means to fend for themselves than going from house to house where either a new-born has arrived or a wedding has taken place or someone has just moved in. People believe that they have special powers allowing them to bless or curse others. I believe in their blessings because they bless you from the bottom of their hearts for giving them a meal or two in the form of this money, grains and clothes.”

He did not tell me more and I did not ask anything more. We had shifted to a locality which was a new township and we were the fourth family to occupy one of the vacant flats. So you can imagine that I had the privilege of witnessing these ‘special guests’ every time a new family moved in. And then Dad left for his decade-long stint in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Later in life, I only witnessed people shutting doors as soon as they heard about these people they called hijras (eunuchs). Amma too feared them, I realized. I asked her once or twice but she didn’t tell me anything other than this that they cursed people if they got in their way and made them angry. To me, they were like the old Thirumeni (priest) at the temple in our ancestral village who would curse anyone who crossed his path. Thus my little mind also started fearing them.

Kerala: In a first, Kochi Metro to employ 23 transgenders 

This was one of the headlines that caught the attention of my eight-year-old daughter during her summer vacation.

Who are these transgenders, Mamma? What is this LGBT that’s written here?

I gave her a brief about how there are different types of people like the different types of flowers, butterflies and birds. I told her that they are almost the same as us but just that they are not men or women but a different sex that we call the third sex. She’s another curious cat like me and asked further to which I responded that I’ll share more details with her as and when I myself understand them. She immediately came up with another wonderful question which happens to be the reason for this post.

Are there any Gods who are transgenders?

I knew about Shikhandi, a character from the great Indian epic, the Mahabharatha. But I knew he wasn’t a God. I remembered a documentary that I had seen in the 90s which showed the hijras worshipping a goddess sitting on a rooster. I immediately went on a research mode and asked my parents and many others about any God who was a transgender. Amma now considers me much more knowledgeable than herself about mythology and thus asked me to find out and share it with her. And thus I came upon Aravan/Iravan

Aravan

Aravan or Iravan is a minor but crucial character of Mahabharata. It is from his lineage that the transgenders are said to have been born. That is why the transgenders or hijras are also known as Aravanis (the brides of Aravan).

Aravan was the son of Arjuna, the Pandava prince and Ulupi, the Naga princess. The Mahabharata portrays Aravan as dying a heroic death in the 18-day Kurukshetra War.

When the Mahabharata war was inevitable Sahadeva, who was well versed with astrology, decided on a day for Kali Pooja with all their weaponry for victory of Pandavas in the battle field. It was upon his suggestion that narabali (human sacrifice) as part of their prayers was decided. But only an extraordinary human who is the best in eerezhu pathinaalu lokam (the 14 lokas of Hinduism; 7 upper worlds or Vyarthis and the 7 lower ones, known as the Patalas) could be sacrificed. There were only three eligible candidates. Lord Krishna, Arjuna and Aravan. Krishna couldn’t be sacrificed as he was their ultimate source of strength for the war. Arjuna too was voted out as he was the master archer and a peerless warrior.

Thus on the 18th day, Lord Krishna explains the scenario to Aravan and he readily agrees to be sacrificed. He was granted three boons in lieu of his self-sacrifice for a greater good. He wished for a) a heroic death, b) to be able to witness the entire Mahabharatha Yudha and c) to get married before the sacrifice. His boons were granted by his uncle, Lord Krishna. With just one day’s marriage and a lifetime of widowhood ahead, no princess or woman from any kingdom was willing to marry Aravan. Krishna then took the form of Mohini and married Aravan and next day Aravan was beheaded. Mohini cried, lamented, wailed and bereaved for him like no wife would do for her husband.

Aravan watched the Mahabharata battle through the eyes of his severed head from a mountain near Kurukshetra. Thus Aravan is always worshipped in temples in the form of his severed head.

Every year, between April and May, thousands of transgenders from across the country converge at the Koothandavar Temple in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu for the annual Koovagam Festival which runs for 18 days to celebrate this single day marriage of Aravan. The ‘Aravani’s of Aravan’ identify themselves with ‘Mohini’ – the female form of Krishna as a woman trapped inside a man’s body.

In this festival, the priest who is considered as ‘Aravaan’, ties the ‘thaali’ or ‘mangalsutra’ to the Aravaanis and binds them in the relationship of marriage. The next day, ‘thali arutthal’ or the rituals for widowhood are followed, which include snapping of the thaali and breaking of the bangles to signify the death of Iravan. The ‘Aravaani’s’ wear white saree and lament over the death of Aravaan. This is done on the last day of the 18-day festival. The entire place is filled with the loud wails of the transwomen and their appearance is in direct contrast to the previous day where they were decorated in attire. Aravan is here known as Koothandavara.

Mythology connects the world. As I read more and more I realized that the story of Aravan resembled the story of Khatu Shyam or Barbareek, a popular deity in North India. I also realized that Iravan spelled as Irawan is also known in Indonesia. There are traditional plays and puppet shows which present a dramatic marriage of Irawan to Titisari, daughter of Krishna, and a death resulting from a case of mistaken identity.

During my research I also came upon Bahuchara Mata whose story connected the dots with the rooster Goddess that I saw as a child. Bahuchara Mata is the Hindu goddess worshiped by hijras and is popularly believed that they are descendants of this deity. Once Bahuchara Mata, daughter of a known warrior of the charan caste, was traveling with a caravan along with her sisters. While on their way, a notorious road bandit named Bapiya hijacked the traveling caravan. In charan culture, dying at the hands of an enemy was not accepted. Instead, charans would rather take their own lives opposed to dying at the hands of someone else. But, Bahuchara decided that it wasn’t she, nor her sisters who will die. Instead, she cut off the breasts of herself and her sisters as a way to curse Bapiya. What was he cursed with? Impotence! The only way for Bapiya to have the curse removed was if he paid homage to Bahuchara Mata by dressing and behaving like a woman.

Bahuchara Mata is shown as a woman who carries a sword on her top right, a text of scriptures on her top left, the abhay hasta mudra (“showering of blessings”) on her bottom right, and a trident on her bottom left. She is seated on a rooster, which symbolises innocence. [Source: Wikipedia]

When a transgender dies, the fellow transgender beats the dead body with chappals (slippers) so that the soul is never born as a transgender again.

With all this discrimination and social ostracism we still welcome them during the most important milestones in our lives for their blessings since we believe that they have been touched by God Himself. Why? Because we are a bunch of hypocrites who can’t accept them to be a part of our tribe yet need their blessings for good fortune, to ward off evil energies and bad luck and to bless the new-born so that he/she doesn’t end up as one of them, a hijra. Shame on us!

I hope you found this mythological story as interesting and informative as was my journey researching and writing it. I leave you with this detailed video on the Koovagam Festival at Koothandavar Temple in Villupuram, Tamil Nadu.

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15 Comments

  1. Fascinating read Rekha. Shed light on stories I never knew. Loved the way you narrated it. Looking forward to more mythical tales from your cornucopia.

  2. Wow wow wow!….. This is a stunning read for me Rekha…. I a mother blown away by your research and verbosity. This entire post is extremely fascinating and I marvel at how you started at it at an innocent question from your little one. Hats off to you and I will look out for more of this festival as now I want to go see it live for myself. Added to my bucket list. Thank you so much for this amazing share.

  3. What a fabulous post, Rekha and I admire your research on the topic. This was very informative and your intent is so genuine.
    Actually, during the Agyatwas, Arjun also dressed up as a eunuch and his name in that role was Brihanlala.
    Keep educating us and your girls 🙂
    Parul recently posted…Where is the blog headed?My Profile

  4. Rekha, you have written it so well. Though I am familiar with Aravan and Khatu Shyam, I did not know about Bahuchara mata and the Indonesian story. I feel there is still changes in the way we now behave with the transgender compared to 2 or 3 decades ago. Really we should accept them as humans first. Hindi mythology is full of queer stories starting from Ardhnarishwar, Harihara and many more documented in Devdutt Pattnaik’s Shikhandi and other stories. Hinduism was much more open to LGBTQ than other religions which consider homosexuality as sin. We should first acknowledge and accept them for who they are.

  5. This is just amazing. What extensive research! I certainly enjoyed reading it – I had no idea about Aravan in Mahabharat or for that matter, any of the other stories and facys, so I will definitely revisit this post to read again!

  6. Vinay Kumar Satyanarayan

    Absorbing narration that can destroy barriers and remove biased beliefs,.

  7. Absolutely fascinating tale and I love how you’ve woven it, Rekha! What a delight this was to read. I didn’t know about this character at all and I have read so many versions of the Mahabharata. Such a rich culture we have, don’t we? I am glad you took this up and I guess credit must go to your curious child for letting you explore this in such depth and beauty. May the stories of the Hijras be celebrated from here on 🙂

  8. This is extensive research, Rekha. So very fascinating as well. When I was growing up, we just felt them to be a nuisance, some weird beings that we had to stay away from. I am glad t you shared the mythology about them.
    Rachna recently posted…Respect is Earned Not DemandedMy Profile

  9. Wow, so fascinating! I thought I was reading one of those Amar Chitra Katha books 🙂

    It is nice to see someone bring out the voice of the third gender. And considering your girl’s eyes, she’s gonna be super awesome one day.
    Soumya recently posted…#FeministMondays | Let’s Start At The Very BeginningMy Profile

  10. Such a fascinating read, Rekha, that I was sorry to see it end.
    I have leant so much from this post today.
    Your light of knowledge has shone upon the Hijra community, revealing facets of their lives that I was unaware of.
    Thank you for sharing.

  11. I was so engrossed while reading this post. The stories are absolutely fascinating … I haven’t heard of this one before… And was quite surprised by the human sacrifice part. Fascinating ritual of marriage and then widowhood. The life of a transgender is not easy, and we need strong reforms to better their condition. Brilliantly written Rekha.
    Rajlakshmi recently posted…I can’t say the F-word, will the World accept me?My Profile

  12. Super post. I did not know this story. I am always fascinated with stories like these, and yes, I love that your daughter read that headline. Feels good.

    It pains me that transgenders must make a living via begging on the streets and be treated badly.
    Vidya Sury recently posted…14 cherished gifts from 14 years of bloggingMy Profile

  13. This is absolutely fascinating. I had no clue Arjun had another son who was sacrificed. And I love how mythology connects across distances – North and South and across borders too. Transgenders lead a rather sad life and I feel sorry for them. I have to admit though that sometimes their loud and aggressive attitude is scary. The solution lies of course in integrating them with mainstream society but there’s a long way to go before that happens.

  14. Very informative Rekha. Had never known about this festival or its origin.

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