Goddess’s Own Country
(This article was published in the March 7, 2009 issue of the weekly Sahara Time)
I was a small child when I first witnessed the strange procession of men dressed up as women carrying lamps at night seeking blessings from the Goddess of Kottankulangara Bhagavathy temple. I couldn’t believe that those ‘women’ were actually men in disguise! The make-up was stunning. I still remember telling my mother, “Amma, they look prettier than even women!” Mother laughed.
Copyright © Prabhath P
Though I was born in the sleepy Keralite village of Chavara that nestles between the Arabian sea and the Ashtamudi lake, my parents had relocated to Kollam city, about 14 kilometres away. I was born on the culminating date of this unusual temple festival. So the memory of the village and the lamp procession even now fills me with undiluted nostalgia.
I have visited the village many times over the years. However, a visit during the annual temple festival in March is special because not only the villagers and the devotees but also many foreign tourists come to watch the procession, converge at Chavara.
Driving down National Highway 47 in the afternoon, God’s Own Country showed me an interesting mix of urban and country landscapes. Once you leave the city centre, on both sides of the road, hordes of tall coconut palms interspersed with other trees give you the feeling of travelling through a forest. You realise that you are amidst a modern civilisation only when you see the vehicles on the road and the houses that appear to be peeking out of the green cover as you pass by.
Neendakara bridge marks the border of Kollam municipal corporation and the beginning of the rural areas. After the bridge, the highway runs very close to the sea. Neendakara is a famous fishing harbour in South Kerala. As the car approaches the bridge, the smell of the sea envelopes me. I park the car on the roadside and walk along the bridge’s footpath. On one side, there is the expanse of the Arabian Sea. On the other side, the backwaters of Ashtamudi, the eight-headed lake!
Ashtamudi lake is a part of the National Waterway that stretches up to Alappuzha. This lake route is a favourite of foreign and domestic tourists who grab the opportunity to travel by house-boats. The very sight of the lake made me recall a cherished memory. I had been on that scenic lake once in a boat. It felt like a waking dream with the cool breeze and the gentle swaying of the boat. It was like nature’s own cradle. Waking up from the past, I watch the waters from the sea and the lake mingling near the Neendakara bridge. Fishing boats crisscross the waters.
Then there is the Chavara bridge to cross. It is a short bridge compared to the long Neendakara bridge. I get down there too to see the gleaming Chavara canal. The temple of the Goddess Vana Durga (Forest Goddess) of Chavara, who likes to see men in female attire, beckons me. It is barely half a kilometre from the Chavara bridge. The urban-rural overlapping peculiar to Kerala is visible here also. The busy National Highway borders the temple, while on the other side, lush trees loom large near the temple pond. I have never cross-dressed as a woman at this temple. But this intriguing festival never ceases to fascinate me. In the whole world, it happens only in Chavara, Goddess’s Own Country.
The cross-dressing ritual is known as ‘chamaya vilakku’ (make-up lamp) and takes place during the last two days of the 11 days temple festival. The lamp is a specialty of this temple and it is seen only here. It is mounted on a waist-high wooden rod and five flames are lighted on one lamp. Males ranging from small boys and youth to senior citizens carry the lamps. Around 1500 males participate every year.
There is a legend behind the festival’s origin. Some cowherd boys accidentally hit a black shapeless stone while dehusking a coconut and the stone began to bleed. This odd development was revealed to be the presence of Goddess Vana Durga. Vana Durga represents Nature, the Earth Goddess. A temple with a roofless sanctum sanctorum where the sacred stone receives sunlight and rain was constructed. The boys dressed as women for praying to the Goddess. According to another version of the story, a few cowherd boys during their play cross-dressed as girls and offered flowers and kottan (remains of coconut after its milk is extracted) to a stone. Then they had a vision of the Goddess manifesting from the stone and giving them blessings. The cross-dressing ritual later became an annual event. At this time of an unprecedented ecological crisis like global warming, this temple that celebrates a deity that symbolises communion with Nature, highlights the need for humanity to live in harmony with Earth.
Nowadays the festival is well-organised. The cross-dressing men are registered at the temple and make-up, clothes, wigs and jewellery are available for rent. Anyway, some people arrange for make-up and clothing on their own to make sure that their female avatars are created according to their own tastes and preferences rather than the ready-made options offered by the make-up kiosks. Cross-dressers holding the lamps start assembling in the temple compound from 9 pm to get their lamps ignited from the main lamp on the pillar of lamps. They line the road down the Goddess glides in a procession.
The final procession takes place around 4 am around dawn. The ritual concludes when the lamps are put out at the temple premises after the procession. Apart from regular male devotees, recently the ritual has been catching the attention of gays and transvestites too.
Mostly traditional costumes like saree, Keralite ‘settu mundu’ and churidar are preferred for cross-dressing. The youth use skirts too and a few even try jeans. Some men even don dance costume. However, revealing dress is not allowed. The ‘male damsels’ seek the Goddess’ blessings for fulfilling their wishes like success in exams, getting jobs and promotions, finding a soulmate and having a child. There are those who do the ritual for spiritual advancement also, for the prupose of subduing their ego and balancing the feminine and masculine aspects in their psyche. Even those who come for their mundane desires have to set aside their male ego while masquerading as women. In that sense, the cross-dressing ritual could create more awareness about the importance of gender equality in at least some of the men who peform it.
This year the lamp procession is scheduled for March 24th and 25th.The cross-dressing festival is definitely worth watching due to the liberal ethos it presents and its uniqueness. Those who come by train can get down at Kollam Railway station. The nearest airport is in Thiruvananthapuram (71 km from Kollam). Accommodation at affordable rates is available at Kollam. Bus services from Kollam city and the Karunagapally town near Chavara make travel easier. But it is best to travel by car from Kollam to Chavara so that you can do sightseeing on the route at your own pace.