Rituals, sex and gender identity in India

Charu Nivedita’s ‘Notes from Madras’

By Charu Nivedita

Participant in a Mayana Kollai ritual. Photo: Prabhu Kalidas Mayana Kollai celebrants. Photo: Prabhu Kalidas


Once upon a time Brahma, overcome with lust for Parvathy, Lord Shiva’s consort, appeared before her. Because like Shiva he possessed five heads, Parvathy assumed her husband had returned home and, without bothering to glance up at his face, performed the ceremonial welcome of washing his feet, as was the custom. Fearing her curse if she looked up and recognised him, Brahma fled after she had completed the ritual. Upon hearing of this incident, in the version described by Eveline Meyer in Ankalaparamecuvari: A Goddess of Tamilnadu, Her Myths and Cult (1986), an angry Shiva hunted down Brahma, who had taken refuge in a tree hollow, and, catching hold of one of his ears, attempted to pull him out. But he only succeeded in detaching one of Brahma’s five heads, which affixed itself to Shiva’s shoulders.

Try as he might, Shiva was unable to dislodge this extra head from his body. All the food he ingested went straight to this sixth head, causing Shiva slowly to waste away. He began to wander without rest from one cremation ground to another in the hope of sating the sixth head, going famished and sleepless for 12 long years. Unable to bear her husband’s plight, Parvathy’s rage came to border on madness. So she accompanied Shiva to a cremation ground and prepared offerings of human flesh leavened with blood while performing a frightful dance of death. She fashioned a garland out of skulls littering the ground to wear round her neck and gorged herself on the human carcasses smouldering on the pyres. In the course of her dance, Brahma’s head (also known as Brahmakapalam) slid down from Shiva’s shoulders to devour the offerings of human flesh she had prepared. At which the wildly cavorting Parvathy, invoking all her cosmic powers, crushed the skull under her dancing feet and merged herself with Shiva’s body.

There was once a cruel ruler named Vallalarajan, who, despite his seven wives, had no progeny. As a boon for his severe penances, he had been granted the privilege of having gods such as Brahma and Vishnu protecting his palace premises. Because all the gods were at his beck and call in his kingdom, the task of regulating the world became disrupted. Worried at this state of affairs, a goddess, in the guise of a toothless ninety-year-old crone, appeared at Vallalarajan’s palace claiming to be able to tell the future. She predicted to the eager king that he would be a proud father soon, but that the child would cause the destruction of his lineage and his realm. Enraged at this prophecy, Vallalarajan ordered the old hag be imprisoned, at which she assumed her real form as the goddess Angalamman. With her fearsome fangs, snakes slithering all over her body, charcoal hue and flowing matted hair, she performed the deadly dance of destruction. She tore open the pregnant queen’s womb, snatched the child from it and, wearing the intestines as garlands, danced.

Thousands of such folk tales abound in South India and they remain closely intertwined with the ways in which people lead their lives. These stories and the rituals associated with them are not merely dead myths or legends but often help those who lack hope and support structures. There is no town in Tamil Nadu without a temple to Angalamman; in Madras alone almost every street has a temple dedicated to the mother goddess, who is usually worshipped in two forms – as Mariamman and as Angalamman (the former belongs to middle-class folk whereas the latter is worshipped by the lower classes). The myths related above are combined and celebrated as Mayana Kollai (literally ‘looting of the graveyard’) during the Tamil month of Maasi (February/March) in Tamil Nadu on a new moon day, a day after Maha Shivaratri. I would estimate that roughly 90 percent of the celebrants this past year were transgender (by which I mean, in this case, people whose sex assignment at birth was male but whose gender identity is female) and men and women belonging to the marginalised, slum-dwelling classes of Madras. Of the latter, women outnumbered the men. While the plight of women in a country like India, where rape is absolutely endemic, is itself pitiable, the pathetic lives that transgender people are forced to live is even more difficult to describe in mere words. It was only in September that the Indian Supreme Court struck down Section 377 from the Indian Penal Code, which stated: ‘Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine’. This section had been used to oppress transgender people, and its repeal has led to anguished cries of ‘Indian culture is under attack’ from rightwing fundamentalists, nationalists and Hindutva extremists. As soon as any youngster in India experiences a different gender identity, they become isolated – first from their parents and then from society itself. Even today it is common to hear psychiatrists in India characterise homosexuality as a mental disease. This is also their take on transgender people.

This intolerance and reductive attitude towards sex is nothing short of surprising, given that India gave the world the Kama Sutra and that the erotic carvings in Indian temples are known throughout the world for their explicit content. Temples are filled with sculptures depicting group sex, lesbianism, homosexuality, anal sex, cunnilingus, bestiality (queens engaging in sexual intercourse with horses seems to be a recurring theme)… you name it. And yet with such lusty images openly on display at the places of worship, Indian society still considers sex taboo. It was again only in September that the Supreme Court removed Section 497 from the Indian Penal Code, which states that a male engaging in extramarital sex could be punished by imprisonment for up to five years and that the authorities could take up the offence suo motu, even if no complaint had been lodged. As matters stood, if I were to spend some time with my wife in a hotel room, the police had every right to arrest me on the basis of suspicion alone, unless we were able to establish our marital relationship to their satisfaction.

In an environment such as this, when a teenager starts to become aware that their gender identity might not fit the one assigned to them by society, they are typically ostracised by their family and expelled from their home. At such a traumatic time, the only support is often provided by other members of the transgender community who take them in and offer them shelter. I had occasion to meet several transgender people in connection with my field studies on this subject, and the first lesson I learned was that it is not easy to meet them. Some would never agree to an interview, no matter how hard I tried. I also discovered that transgender people in India often take up one of the three occupations available to them: fortune-tellers, sex workers and mendicants. I once tried to make contact with a transgender person belonging to the first category, who in addition to being a fortune-teller was also a drug addict and had once tried to commit suicide by dousing herself with petrol and setting herself on fire. Her sister had committed suicide. Through the intermediary who was trying to set up our meeting, she sent word that she was unable to meet me for this reason: ‘My mother has been bedridden for the past three years and I do not think you can stand the smell of her bodily wastes lingering on the bedding.’ I suggested we meet somewhere else, but she refused, stating that she never ventured outside because of the 80 percent burns her body had sustained.

I have been to meet transgender people and members of the marginalised classes at their places of residence. These slums bring to mind the eighteenth-century leper colonies in Europe, the only difference being that they are right in the middle of Madras, surrounded on all sides by huge malls, cinema halls and high-rise apartment blocks. The buildings are bisected by pathways hardly broad enough for two persons to walk abreast, with open sewers on both sides and smoking stoves at the edges of the drains beside which women wash their dirty dishes and themselves. Men urinate in the open. A public toilet might be located half a kilometre away. The dwellings are around eight square metres and less than two metres high, into which is crammed a tin bed woven with wires, a small TV perched high on the wall and a tiny fridge (freebies from the government). An upper-middle-class family in Madras could be expected to live in a three-bedroom apartment measuring 140 sqm, with a toilet attached to each bedroom. The size of one toilet would equal the total living quarters of a family in these slums – where, additionally, with a sheet of asbestos for a roof, there would be not a whisper of wind in the baking hot shed.

A lady named Valarmathi living in one such shed told me that she had been participating in the Mayana Kollai rituals for several years. One of her daughters had died in childbirth and two others had converted to Pentecostalism. Her only son had not been able to clear his tenth-grade examination and was earning a meagre living, at age eighteen, doing odd jobs at a mechanic’s workshop. Without basic education, there were no prospects for those belonging to the marginal sector. While I went round the slum, I was repeatedly reminded of Oscar Lewis’s work La Vida (1966) and his concept of ‘Culture of Poverty’. How do children concentrate on studies in an environment such as this?

When Valarmathi proceeds on the Mayana Kollai, she bites off the heads of live roosters and drinks their blood. The ceremony takes place at the cremation ground in each locality and, since it is not possible to feast on human corpses these days, they make do with the raw meat and entrails of goats instead. Those who gorge themselves and dance in a trancelike state, while drummers whip up a storm, are not themselves but are transformed into Angalammans who stuff handfuls of the burnt ashes of corpses into their mouths. This necrophagia of Angalamman is said to take place in a state of frenzy, as Eveline Meyer has stated. The folk tales that describe this act also specify that indulging in this act, or even just witnessing it, is sufficient to cure any lunacy on the part of the spectators.

If these people, considered untouchable for the past 2,000 years, did not have an outlet through such rituals, wouldn’t they have become extinct? That the marginalised sections of society derive the strength to carry on and a sense of identity through celebrations, fables, music, song, dance or worship is never more evident than in the ritual of the Mayana Kollai.

Author’s note: several friends have assisted me greatly with this article – Shalin Maria Lawrence, Vijay Balaji, Valarmathi, Gandhi (Minnambalam), Shambavi

From the Winter 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia