Most of us find Mahabharata to be a very mystifying chronicle. This is because Mahabharata has a lot of characters and each character is associated to the other in some or the other way.
As this epic has so many legendary characters such as Pandavas, Draupadi, Kauravas around whom the whole story revolves, people are not quite familiar with the other characters that also have a crucial role in the epic.
Today, I will try to narrate you the story of Aravan or Iravan, one such minor yet crucial character of Mahabharata. It is from his lineage that the transgender are said to have been born. That is why the transgenders or hijras are also known as Aravanis.
The story of Lord Aravan can be called one of the most tragic tales of Mahabharata where he sacrifices himself for the greater good. But he does leave a lineage before he dies which makes him immortal in the history of mankind. Want to know his story? Then, read on.
Aravan was the son of the great Mahabharata warrior, Arjuna and his wife Ulupi, the Naga princess. Aravan is the central God of the cult of Kuttantavar. Like his father, Aravan was a fierce warrior.
He participated in the Kurukshetra war with his father and the other Pandavas. He fought bravely and gave himself up for a huge sacrifice.
The earliest source of mention regarding Aravan is found in Peruntevanar’s Parata Venpa, a 9th-century Tamil version of the Mahabharata.
There it talks about a special sacrificial ritual known as the ‘Kalappali’, which means sacrifice to the battlefield. It was believed that whoever performs this sacrifice ensures victory in the battlefield.
In this ritual, the most valiant warrior must sacrifice his life in front of Goddess Kali in order to ensure the victory of his side. Aravan volunteered to sacrifice himself in the ritual.
In Parata Venpa, Aravan asks Krishna to grant him the boon of a heroic death in the battlefield. Aravan is believed to have been granted a second boon – to see the entire 18-day war.
The third boon is found only in the folk rituals. This third boon provides Aravan to be married before the sacrifice, entitling him to the right of cremation and funerary offerings (bachelors were buried).
However, no woman wanted to marry Aravan, fearing the inevitable doom of widowhood. In the Kuttantavar cult version, Krishna solves this dilemma by taking on his female form, Mohini, marries Aravan and spends that night with him.
The Koovagam version additionally relates Krishna’s mourning as a widow after Aravan’s sacrifice the next day, after which he returns to his original masculine form for the duration of the war.
Aravanis Aravan is known as Kuttantavar in the cult which bears his name, and in which he is the chief deity.
Here, the marriage of Aravan and Mohini, her widowhood and mourning after Aravan’s sacrifice form the central theme of an 18-day annual festival either side of the night of the full moon in the Tamil month of Cittirai.
The Alis or the Aravanis (transgenders) take part in the Koovagam festival by re-enacting the marriage of Aravan and Mohini. It is believed that all the Aravanis are married to Aravan and hence, when the sacrifice is re-enacted, the Aravanis become widows of Aravan and mourn his death.