India is known for its many festivals, the more you travel, leaving behind the bright lights of the city and into the interior parts of the country, the more enthralling and mesmerising each festival becomes. They are not just about the coming together of people to celebrate; rather every festival has a story behind it, linked to mythology, gods, and goddesses.
The state of Tamil Nadu at the southern tip of India boasts of some extremely unique celebrations; one such is Mayanakollai, which is celebrated mostly in the districts of Vellore and Villupuram. Mayanakollai literally means â€˜pillaging of the graveyard.â€™ Macabre, yes? The first time I witnessed Mayanakollai, I was riveted by the very fact that this festival began in a graveyard.
In the Vellore district, Mayanakollai is celebrated in the Tamil month of Maasi (February to March) a day after Maha Shivaratri. It dates back to the pre-Vedic times and is a purely Dravidian celebration.
It may have initially originated as a prayer for the ancestors, hence the need to assemble at a burial ground, paying obeisance to their forefathers.
On the day of the festival, a brightly bedecked goddess Angala Parameshwari is taken upon a chariot by devotees, in a procession through the city. They finally make their way to a burial ground near the Palar river.
It is a matter of pride and a proclamation of faith, and all the individual group of devotees try to outdo one another in their displays of colour, decoration, lighting effects and more.
In this manner, Angala Parameshwari takes on different moods â€“ happy, sad, angry, benevolent.
The people too are dressed up: you will find them sporting large, artificial tongues which hang out of their mouths, their faces done up in different colours, with a disproportionate nose or eyes. They carry with them tridents or spears, and sometimes even live chickens and lambs. The overall effect is almost like a Halloween parade.
Entrails of goats and buffaloes are worn like garlands â€“ bloody and grotesque, but enchanting. The fest is not the prerogative of men alone â€“ Thirunangais (transgender women) are an integral part of this parade.
At the burial ground is a mammoth mud statue of Angala Parameshwari. Each group arrives at the burial ground and makes their way to the statue. At the foot of the clay figure, they are seized with frenzy. As I watched, one devotee bit off the neck of a chicken, collected the blood that gushed out and mixed it with rice, which was then made into balls and offered to the goddess. The remaining was thrown at the eager and almost hysteric crowd.
What is the origin of this festival? The search for an answer took me to Melmalayanur, a small town in Villupuram district where the oldest and most popular temple to the goddess is located. The temple itself was built over a thousand years ago and is situated next to a burial ground.
The temple priest was able to give me a good account of the myth upon which this festival is based.
Goddess Parvathi once mistook Brahma for her husband Shiva, as he had five heads then, and fell at Brahmaâ€™s feet. Furious when he found out, Shiva cut off one of Brahmaâ€™s heads. Offended by this, Brahmaâ€™s wife Saraswathi cursed Shiva that Brahmaâ€™s head would be attached to Shivaâ€™s shoulder, and would eat any food offered to him.
Hungry and forlorn, the cursed Shiva was forced to roam in burial grounds trying to forage for food. The gods were saddened by Shivaâ€™s condition and appealed to Vishnu to find a way out of the mess.
Vishnu instructed Parvathi to make kozhukattais, mixed with riced and blood, and place it on the ground in front of Shiva. Parvathi did as she was told. The greedy head immediately detached itself from Shivaâ€™s shoulder and fell to the ground to devour the food. At that very moment, Parvathi manifested as the fiery goddess Angala Parameshwari and crushed the head with her foot.
Having now lifted the curse, Parvathi fused herself to Shivaâ€™s left side and became one with him.
Just outside the Melmalayanur temple is a huge statue of Shiva-Parvathi; the right side is Shiva and the left is Parvathi. It is believed that Angala Parameshwari resides permanently in Melmalayanur.
This legend explains why devotees dress up as the goddess and pay obeisance by eating the rice mixed with blood, but does not explain the Thirunangaisâ€™ relationship with Angala Parameshwari as their own special god. Nor does it go into the details of why devotees wear entrails around themselves.
Outside the temple in Melmalayanur, Thirunangais work as fortune-tellers and are visited by hoards of devotees who go to them for solutions to their problems.
I spoke to an elderly Thirunangai, who told me another story.
The demon king, Vallalarajan wanted more power. So he performed a long and arduous Tapasya that Iswara (Shiva) would be born to his wife, Villalasini. The gods were satisfied with his lengthy prayers and the boon was granted. He was further blessed with a boon that Vishnu, Brahma, and Indira would protect his fortress and his pregnant wife.
Without the mighty gods, the world fell into darkness and despair. The remaining gods went to the sage Narada for advice, who told Parvathi to appear in the court of Vallalarajan in the form of a mendicant or fortune-teller. She did, and predicted that the king would indeed have a son, but would soon after be killed, and his fortress destroyed.
The queen was almost due to deliver but even so, enraged by the prediction, Vallalarajan threw her into a jail cell inside the fortress.
Now that she was within the walls of the fortress, Amman (Parvathi) changed her form and became a midwife and was just the person required to tend to the queen.
Once she was alone with the queen, Amman took on the form of the fiery Angala Parameshwari. She ripped open the belly of the hapless queen and garlanded herself with the queenâ€™s intestines. The child took on the form of Shivaâ€™s fearful Bhairava. Together they destroyed the fortress and killed the demons. The fortress itself became a huge burial ground. Parvathi then fused herself to Shiva and they took on the man-woman form.
The fortune teller Thirunangais believe themselves to be this form of Parvathi and believe that Amman speaks through them.
This worship is peculiar to the transgender community of Tamil Nadu. In the north, many transgender women pray to Bahuchara Mata, a deity in Gujarat. However, the Thirunangais in the South prefer to identify themselves with the Tamil Goddess â€“ Angala Parameshwari.
Views expressed are the author's own.