It´s a beautiful night in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. The Moon is nearly full and her glow brightens the night sky. I´ve just had dinner and am walking down a market street. There´s a sense of freedom and safety that I feel in South India. You certainly see a lot more women walking about by themselves than you do in the North, without the sense that you constantly need to look over your shoulder.
Something in my feet stirs and I feel a familiar pulse of energy in the land, calling strongly to me. I turn to my companion and ask him if there´s a temple about. Like a beacon, I feel Her calling to me, her temple pulsing through the soles of my feet.
And I find Her through my feet. Literally. Walking down Eldams Road, we turn into a small alleyway to find a 24-hour clinic. A few days ago I developed some blisters on my feet from walking around in my sneakers without socks on. There are little wounds that haven´t healed very well and are beginning to smell a little.
The doctor turns out to be a bright, curious and highly competent young Muslim woman, dressed in a fully-covered black burqa. She was curious about what I did as I explained I´d been travelling. I replied that I went to sacred places and wrote articles on women and spirituality and she smiled. It was a nice feeling to meet a lovely being able to exude that kind of intelligence, warmth and curiosity, breaking through several stereotypes in the process.
I take my leave and then turn towards the temple. I know I´m exactly where I need to be.
The temple itself is a very small, narrow, one-chamber building. There´s a black, seated statue of a Goddess with an uncharacteristic face. She doesn´t look peaceful, but not exactly war-like either. This of course is the Goddess Draupadi.
In the Mahabharata, Princess Draupadi emerges as a beautiful dark-skinned being from a sacred fire ceremony, conducted by her father King Drupada. She is also known as Krishnaa (female variant of The Dark One – contrary to the way she is commonly depicted in art and film) and is said to possess great powers, much like Lord Krishna himself. Unlike any other figure I know of in Hindu mythology, Draupadi is wedded to five brothers, the princes of the Pandava clan (protagonists of the Mahabharata). She is, in that sense, polyandrous.
Through an act of deceit (and godawful misogyny), Draupadi is staked as part of a claim in a game of dice staged by her husbands´ enemies (and cousins – the Kauravas). She questions the legality of staking her as a claim (as her husband had already lost himself as part of the bet). Nevertheless, she is dragged out publicly by force into the royal court. Some accounts tell us that she was menstruating at that time. Her enemies call her a prostitute on account of her polyandry and try to publicly strip her. She is saved through Divine Intervention (by Lord Krishna).
My sense is that much of the narrative has already been distorted. Many questions still linger around this powerful, enigmatic figure.
Draupadi, in one account I read, has the power to dissolve her enemies to ash through her gaze alone. Why did she not then do so in her time of need?
In ritual practice and worship, some communities continue to worship Draupadi as a Goddess, most notably (in South India) amongst the Vanniyar and other Shudra (allegedly lower) castes. In the temple I visited, I noticed two statues flanking the main deity – Lord Ganesha and Lord Hanuman (which was to be expected). A further statue sat facing the moolasthanam (central alcove) from a corner.
I asked my companion about this figure after I´d returned back to my room and he informed me that it was Aravaan. There are many narratives that surround this figure – but for the sake of brevity and focus – I´ll stick to a brief overview.
In the Mahabharata, Aravaan was a figure who willingly offered himself as a sacrifice so that the Pandavas would win the mighty war. He was said to be of Serpent (Naga) origin, as the grandson of Adi-Sesha (in some accounts). In the South, the offering of one´s body (self-decapitation) as the sacrifice to a Goddess goes back to antiquity – with goddesses such as Kottravai, Kali and Draupadi.
A different narrative links Aravaan with the Aravaani (transvestite) community. As Aravaan was a bachelor at the time of consenting to be a sacrifice, he yearned for marriage (and the rite of consumnation) before his death. One version cites his marriage to Lord Krishna in his feminine form (Mohini). Krishna-Mohini goes through the rituals associated with widowhood and beats his-her breasts in agony at the death of his-her husband. There are very few temples that honor both Draupadi and Aravaan and who celebrate and ritually enact this event each year through performance of ritual, dance, prayer and sexual activity. Aravaani-s transvestites play a significant role in the festivities.
Wikipedia´s entries on Draupadi and Aravaan are great starting places for further research into these traditions – for those interested.
What is also interesting is that I´d passed by Draupadi-Aravaan temples just yesterday on the train – confined to a very specific space in Tamil Nadu. I felt very moved by the lands I saw, especially as they are where my maternal ancestors come from. I had been thinking about the figure of the transvestite and of the great Serpent. These themes all come together through this temple and the figures therein – not something I would have known consciously beforehand.
Returning to the narrative – as I enter the Draupadi temple, I hear my favourite version of the Mahishasura Mardini Stotram (by the Sulamangalam Sisters) play in the background. I express my gratitude at having been guided there – for myself, and for a friend´s daughter in need – and have a brief discussion with Her on sexual politics and the politics of choice 🙂 .
As I leave, I notice that the priest gave me and my companion some yellow powder, which is wholly separate from what you get at Shaivite or Vaishnavite temples. It wasn´t the grey ash (vibhooti), re (kum kum), sandalwood paste – or anything I´d ever seen before. The temple priest explains that he´s given us turmeric ground with raw rice and 18 herbs, bearing great medicinal and spiritual properties. Very unusual indeed, and very very sacred.
I leave the temple with a sense of fulfilment. She´s asked me to write about the experience, and so here She is 🙂
Priestess Bairavee Balasubramaniam PhD
Image: Draupadi´s presented to a pachisi game.jpg – Public Domain vis Wikimedia Commons (Cropped from original)