A BLESSING, IN DISGUISE

International discourses constantly debate about India being a country who’s progress is hindered by the bane of her religious caste based social structure. While there is substance to that claim, in the same breath I can also say that, there are an equal number of examples where the same religious structures have also promoted idea’s of co-existence and gender fluidity.

Our sense of morality and ethicality has also had a beating with the world events over the past couple hundred years.

I often wonder, what if the world social sciences were not so heavily influenced by the west. What if polytheism or paganism was the norm and subjecting societies into a monotheistic mindset would have been considered uncivilised. Would the world fight the same wars it is fighting today in the name of religion?

According to Hindu tradition all animate and inanimate rise and fall in the Supreme Truth. This concept has given rise to numerous unique traditions in Hinduism like the Ardhanareeshwara (Shiva as half man and half woman)

One such festival is the Chamaya-Vilakku (“Chamaya” is make-up, “Vilakku” is lamp) festival held at the Kottankulangara Sridevi Bhagvathy Temple in the Indian state of Kerala. The temple is dedicated to Vana Durga – an incarnation of Goddess Shakti

Legend has it, that a group of cowherds used to dress up as girls and playfully offer remains of the coconut after it is grated and the milk extracted to an idol. Pleased by their devotion, the goddess, in the garb of an ordinary woman, appeared before them and blessed them.

The ritual is a unique offering done by men to the Goddess. On the day, men from all walks of life, young and old, upper castes and lower, rich and poor, all dress up as women for the festival. The offering is made for the fulfilment of desires or as a thanksgiving for a wish fulfilled.

Today, homosexuals, crossdressers and transgenders persons also actively participate in the ritual.

Families come together to support their beautifully dressed men in female clothes and with flowers on hair, lamps in hand, men wait patiently till the wee hours of dawn for the goddess to bless them. Its an utopian world for so many communities that face gender discrimination.

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A male devotee dressed up as a woman. Kotakulangara Temple, Kerala, India 2017

A little boy dressed up as a woman holding the customary lantern at the Chamaya Villaku festival. Kotakulangara Temple, Kerala, India 2017

Idol of Sridevi Bhagavathy at the Kotakulangara Temple. Kotakulangara Temple, Kerala, India 2017

Processions being led by Elephants. Kotakulangara Temple, Kerala, India 2017

Crowd of cross dressed men at the entrance of the Kotakulangara Temple. Kotakulangara Temple, Kerala, India 2017

Festivities go on through the night for 10 days during the Chamaya Vilakku Festival. Kotakulangara Temple, Kerala, India 2017

Shopkeeper selling a wig to men wanting to adorn long hair to complete their look of a woman. Kotakulangara Temple, Kerala, India 2017

A man having makeup applied to himself at a makeshift stall to look like a woman during the Chimaya Vilakku festival. Kotakulangara Temple, Kerala, India 2017

A man being helped by other men to wear woman’s underwear. Kotakulangara Temple, Kerala, India 2017

A male devotee dressed as a woman making his way to the Kotakulangara temple. Kotakulangara, Kerala, India 2017

A male devotee with his friend, waiting for the holy procession to pass by. Kotakulangara, Kerala, India 2017

A male devotee attends the Chimaya Vilakku festival with his mother. Kotakulangara, Kerala, India 2017

Priests of the Sridevi Bhagvaty temple leading a holy procession through the town. Kotakulangara, Kerala, India 2017

A priest. Kotakulangara, Kerala, India 2017

A small brahmin boy blessing devotees at the temple. Kotakulangara, Kerala, India 2017

A male devotee being escorted by his friend through the crowd. Kotakulangara, Kerala, India 2017

Several male devotees holding the holy lamp waiting for the priest to confer the goddesses blessings. Kotakulangara, Kerala, India 2017

A street vendor looks on at the frenzy of festivities happening on the streets of Kotakulangara. Kotakulangara, Kerala, India 2017

Men dressed as women are asked to take pictures with them by other curious men visiting the temple. Kotakulangara, Kerala, India 2017

A man embraces a devotee who has cross dressed as a woman to celebrate the Chamaya Vilakku festival. Kotakulangara, Kerala, India 2017

A man having a picture taken with another male devotee in a makeshift photo studio. Kotakulangara Temple, Kerala, India 2017

Men from all walks of life dress up as women and visitors to the festival revel in the feminine avatar of these men with glee and cheerful banter. Kotakulangara Temple, Kerala, India 2017

Devotees cross dressed as women. Kotakulangara Temple, Kerala, India 2017