J Rajasekharan Nair tracks down the unique ritual in Kerala where men dress as women, to please the Goddess. (Savy online, May 2006)
Forty-eight-year-old Vijaya Kumar shaved off his moustache, first time since he became an adult, and pierced his ear lobes to sport a pair of earrings. He then did penance for three days before he presented himself as a woman, wearing a sari and blouse, at the stroke of midnight in front of Goddess Durga. Holding an oil lamp, he waited there, his heart full of contentment, for having fulfilled the vow he made to the deity 20 years ago that he would shed his entire male persona and dress up like a woman for two days.
Vijaya Kumar was not the only one. There were thousands of men like him. Holding the lamp, they stood for hours on either side of the road in front of Kottankulangara temple in Chavara in Kerala as the caravan of the deity moved with a lot of pomp and show.
Gearing up for the ‘gender change’
For Vijaya Kumar, an employee of the Kerala State Rubber Works, and the likes of him, the whole exercise was purely religious. Clement, one of the many makeup men who camp near the temple during the festival every year, too was excited about this annual ritual. A dance master by profession, Clement first performed puja before he started applying pancake on the face of Vijaya Kumar, his first client that day. For the men who ‘changed their gender identity’, for that night, it was the most valuable thing in their life — their identity — they were offering to the Goddess. Family members watched their ‘sons-turned-daughters’ hold the lamp for the Goddess until dawn cracked in.
Moments of wildness
Amidst all this, there were also some — the transgenders and transsexuals, most of whom were sex workers — who participated in the event just to celebrate their sexuality. Dressed in colourful women’s costumes, they thronged to Chavara from across Kerala, checked into the nearby lodges and made the whole area a place for commercial sex activities. They walked through the lanes making advances at the male devotees and soliciting them for sex. It was not rare to find them even ‘making out’ in the vicinity of the temple. “I come here to enjoy dressing like a woman and do sex work in that dress code, which I cannot think of doing elsewhere,” says Ravi, a commercial sex worker.
Invoking the temple wrath
The temple authorities and the local people were obviously furious with the offending behaviour of the male sex workers, who created quite a nuisance on the streets. It was indeed a difficult problem to tackle. “How can we identify between a sex worker and a devotee?” asked Manoharan, a native. “We tried to beat them away, but it didn’t help at all.”
Moreover, since most of them dressed in revealing, loud clothes, the temple management enforced a rule that the devotees should dress very modestly – in a sari and blouse, without exposing their hips, abdomen and navel. That worsened the situation further as the male sex workers refused to comply with the temple authorities’ wishes and broke the order, while the authorities could do little but watch!