In search of female identity

In search of female identity

In 1983 when I was in South Arcot as the District Collector, I heard of a remarkable festival.This festival was celebrated in the month of Chithrai (April), in the temple of Kutandavar, in Kuvagam village, near Ulundurpet.

It is a tradition amongst eunuchs, transvestites, gays, male dancers and other categories of individuals who are in search of a female identity, to congregate in Kuvagam for about a week. Most of them come to get married to the lord of the temple ‘Kuttandavar’ and experience the bliss of marriage even though briefly and consider themselves married in a conventional sense. They also subsequently experience widowhood when the Lord is beheaded next morning, after being taken around the village in a procession in the temple car.

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I could not witness the festival while I was serving in South Arcot. It always remained in the back of my mind that I had some unfinished business in Ulundurpet.. I had to try and understand this festival and its significance for the people who are part of it. The opportunity came in 1999, a good sixteen years later, and I was able to visit the tiny and out of the way village of Kuvagam.

On 20th of April, accompanied by my niece Natasha and a journalist friend, I drove to Ulundurpet that is about 200 kilometers from Madras. We took the East Coast Road, which was quiet and beautiful, passing through Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. We reached the Ulundurpet travellers bungalow in the evening and after a wash, left for Kuvagam, which is another twenty kilometers away. From Ulundurpet we took the Villipuram road and took a diversion in front of the huge roadside statue of Lord Anjaneya (the monkey god), placed about ten kilometers from Ulundurpet.

For witnessing the festival, one can stay either in Villipuram or Ulundurpet, as Kuvagam does not have any lodging facilities.

We reached Kuvagam at about the evening. Thousands of devotes of Kuttandavar had arrived from neighbouring villages. In addition, at least ten thousand brides of Kuttandavar i.e. eunuchs, transvestites and other such individuals, dressed in female attire, had gathered to undergo the sacred marriage with the Lord. The marriages were taking place in the temple and the priest was tying the ‘Thali’, the sacred knot around the necks of the brides, on behalf of the Lord. There was much rejoicing and feasting after the marriage. The singing and dancing continued through the night. The very next morning, Lord Kuttandavar was taken around the village in a procession, after which he was beheaded. As soon as this was done, there was great wailing and crying and much lamentation from all the newly married brides who had now become widows with the beheading of the lord. They looked sad and gloomy and one could feel that their grief was very real, as was their joy, the previous night,

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In order to understand why these people got married to Lord Kuttandavar, I spoke to the hereditary priest of the temple. His family has been the caretaker of the temple in the unbroken tradition for two hundred years. I also spoke to a number of brides who were getting married on that day.

The story of the temple as narrated by the priest is connected to the great war mentioned in the epic of ‘Mahabharatha’ which is supposed to have taken place probably around the 1st or 2nd century BC. However, the temple, as far as local knowledge goes, is only two hundred years old. Hence, this festival seems to be a relatively later development.

According to the legend, during the great epic war of Mahabharatha, both sides, the ‘Kauravas’ and the ‘Pandavas’, were eager to win and were trying to use all natural and supernatural means for attaining victory. Duryodhana, the king of the Kauravas consulted Sahdeva, the youngest of the Pandavas, even though from the enemy camp (he was believed to be the best astrologer of the time), to predict who would win the war. Sahdeva, after studying the stars predicted that the side which would offer a ‘human sacrifice of a perfect male’, possessing all thirty-two qualities required for perfection, at the beginning of the war on the day of new moon, would be victorious.

There were only three men existing on the earth who possessed all the thirty-two qualities of perfection. One was Lord Krishna the charioteer of ‘Arjuna, the bravest of all warriors’, present in the battlefield of ‘Kurukshetra’, the second was king ‘Shalya’ an ally of the Pandavas and the third one was ‘Kuttandavar’. He was born out of the union of Arjuna and a Naga (snake) princess.

Duryodhana approached Kuttandavar and asked him for help to win the war. Kuttandavar was not happy with the Pandavas since his father had not openly acknowledged him as his son. In these circumstances, he gave his word to Duryodana to help him in the war even at the expense of his own life. At that moment cunning Duryodana revealed to him that he indeed wanted to offer him as a human sacrifice. At first Kuttandavar was very angry to hear this proposal but when he cooled down he agreed to be sacrificed since he had already given his word of honour. Duryodhana asked him to reach the battlefield of Kurukshetra one-day before the new moon.

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Meanwhile, Arjuna also asked Lord Krishna to predict which side would win the war. Lord Krishna offered the same solution saying that the side that would carry out the human sacrifice of a perfect male would win the war and that there were only three men possessing such perfection, namely, Lord Krishna, king Shalya and the son of Arjuna through the Naga princess, Kuttandavar. Arjuna was not willing to sacrifice any of them and went away, in a huff, leaving the battlefield.

In these circumstances Lord Krishna using his manipulative skills summoned the sun and the moon to earth, thereby creating the darkness of new moon, one day in advance. He made Kuttandavar believe that he had already missed his appointment with Duryodhana, which was one day before the new moon. He also persuaded him to offer himself as a human sacrifice for the Pandavas instead, since he could not do it any more for the Kauravas. Kuttandavar agreed but on certain conditions like,

  1. he wanted to be kept alive through all the eighteen days of the war so that he could watch the war,
  2. he wanted to be married before he died.

Krishna promised to fulfil these conditions. However, since he was going to be sacrificed next day, no maiden was willing to marry him. In these circumstances, Lord Krishna himself took the female form of ‘Mohini’ and married Kutandavar. In this way, the Pandavas managed to win the war.

The story clarifies the rationale of why eunuchs, transvestites, gays and even plain men, get married to Kutandavar. The marriage of Krishna and Kuttandavar was like one man marrying another man. It was also a question of confused identities – like when Krishna took the female form. Was he a man or was he a woman? or was he something else? This confusion creates a great scope for interpretation about who is eligible for marriage with Kuttandavar.

Getting married signifies fulfilment of certain basic human needs. In Indian culture, marriage is supposed to be a ritual compulsory to be undergone as part of the cycle of life. A spinster has to undergo a lot of stigma.

Marriage for this special category of people, in a conventional sense may not be possible or feasible, yet the cultural orientation and socialization (the Samskaras), with respect to marriage are so strong that it creates a lack of fulfilment. If they express their desires and yearnings to the society, which views them suspiciously and oddly, they may only get jeered at.

Coming to a remote village, in a remote part of India, away from their own day to day surroundings, in the company of friends and associates who have similar desires, and get married in a temple, is indeed very comforting to them. The local people accept such marriages without questioning the logic of it and become part of the festival for their own reasons.

Among those who come, some can be described as females trapped inside a male body. They need to give expression to their femininity in an atmosphere that considers their femininity real and not feigned.

There are many among them who wear ordinary male clothes when they are in their own routine surroundings but when they come to the temple of Kutandavar, they are dressed in fashionable female costumes and deck themselves with fine jewelry. The festival provides them ample opportunity to behave as they yearn to do. Even they hold ‘fashion shows’, in Villupuram, one day before the marriage day, to display their latest female outfits.

You also find many couples – one dressed as a female and another dressed as a male, walking hand in hand in the festival bazaar buying bangles and trinkets. This kind of behavior will not be accepted in a conventional Indian market place but for people of Kuvagam it is normal and human. I think people of Kuvagam are more liberated, more broadminded and more hospitable than many of us, the city bred urban puritans, and why not? After all their ancestors created the festival.