Iravan also known as Iravat and Iravant, is a minor character from the Hindu
Hinduism is the predominant and indigenous religious tradition of the Indian Subcontinent. Hinduism is known to its followers as , amongst many other expressions...

 epic of Mahabharata
The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India and Nepal, the other being the Ramayana. The epic is part of itihasa....

. The son of Pandava
In the Hindu epic Mahābhārata, the Pandava are the five acknowledged sons of Pandu , by his two wives Kunti and Madri. Their names are Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. Although, Karna is told by Lord Krishna that according to the laws and ethics he is the first son of Kunti making...

 prince Arjuna
Arjuna in Indian mythology is the greatest warrior on earth and is one of the Pandavas, the heroes of the Hindu epic Mahābhārata. Arjuna, whose name means 'bright', 'shining', 'white' or 'silver' Arjuna (Devanagari: अर्जुन, Thai: อรชุน, Orachun, Tamil: Arjunan, Indonesian and Javanese: Harjuna,...

 (one of the main heroes of the Mahabharata) and the Naga
Naga or NAGA may refer to:* Nāga, a group of serpent deities in Hindu and Buddhist mythology.-People:* Nayan / Nayar/Nair people of Kerala Society* Naga people, a diverse ethnic identity in Northeast India...

 princess Ulupi
Ulūpī or Uloopi, in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, was one of Arjuna's wives. While Arjuna was in Manipur, the widow Naga princess became infatuated with him. She caused him to be abducted after he had been intoxicated with potent concoctions and had him conveyed to her realm in the netherworld. ...

, Iravan is the central god of the cult of Kuttantavar —which is also the name commonly given to him in that cult—and plays a major role in the cult of Draupadi
In the epic Mahābhārata, Draupadi, also known as ' is the "emerged" daughter of King Drupada of Panchāla and the wife of the five Pandavas. When Yudhisthira becomes the king of Hastinapura at the end of the war, Draupadi becomes the queen of Indraprastha...

. Both these cults are of South India
South India
South India is the area encompassing India's states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well as the union territories of Lakshadweep and Pondicherry, occupying 19.31% of India's area...

n origin, from a region of the country where he is worshipped as a village deity
Village deities of Tamil Nadu
Village deities of Tamil Nadu that do not belong to the Agamic pantheon of Hinduism are found in almost all villages throughout India and Tamil Nadu in particular. They are known as Kaval deivam or guardian spirits in Tamil...

 and is known as Aravan . He is also a patron god of well-known transgender
Transgender is a general term applied to a variety of individuals, behaviors, and groups involving tendencies to vary from culturally conventional gender roles....

 communities called Ali (also Aravani in South India, and Hijra
Hijra (South Asia)
In the culture of South Asia, hijras or chakka in Kannada, khusra in Punjabi and kojja in Telugu are physiological males who have feminine gender identity, women's clothing and other feminine gender roles. Hijras have a long recorded history in the Indian subcontinent, from the antiquity, as...

throughout South Asia).

The Mahabharata portrays Iravan as dying a heroic death in the 18-day Kurukshetra War
Kurukshetra war
According to the Indian epic poem Mahābhārata, a dynastic succession struggle between two groups of cousins of an Indo-Aryan kingdom called Kuru, the Kauravas and Pandavas, for the throne of Hastinapura resulted in the Kurukshetra War in which a number of ancient kingdoms participated as allies of...

 (Mahabharata war), the epic's main subject. However, the South Indian cults have a supplementary tradition of honouring Aravan's self-sacrifice to the goddess Kali
' , also known as ' , is the Hindu goddess associated with power, shakti. The name Kali comes from kāla, which means black, time, death, lord of death, Shiva. Kali means "the black one". Since Shiva is called Kāla - the eternal time, Kālī, his consort, also means "Time" or "Death" . Hence, Kāli is...

 to ensure her favour and the victory of the Pandavas in the war. The Kuttantavar cult focuses on one of the three boons granted to Aravan by the god Krishna
Krishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...

 in honour of this self-sacrifice. Aravan requested that he be married before his death. Krishna satisfied this boon in his female form, Mohini
Mohini , in Hindu mythology, is the name of the only female Avatar of the god Vishnu. She is portrayed as a femme fatale, an enchantress, who maddens lovers, sometimes leading them to their doom. Mohini is introduced into the Hindu mythos in the narrative epic of the Mahabharata...

. In Koovagam
Koovagam is a village in the Ulundurpettai taluk in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu. It is famous for its annual festival of transgender and transvestite individuals, which takes fifteen days in the Tamil month of Chitrai ....

 (கூவாகம்), Tamil Nadu
Tamil Nadu
Tamil Nadu is one of the 28 states of India. Its capital and largest city is Chennai. Tamil Nadu lies in the southernmost part of the Indian Peninsula and is bordered by the union territory of Pondicherry, and the states of Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh...

, this incident is re-enacted in an 18-day festival, first by a ceremonial marriage of Aravan to Alis and male villagers (who have taken vows to Aravan) and then by their widowhood after ritual re-enactment of Aravan's sacrifice.

The Draupadi cult
Draupati Amman
Draupati Amman is a deification of the character from the Hindu epic Mahabharatha, namely Draupadi, primarily amongst the Telugu and Tamil people of India, Sri Lanka and other countries. Draupati was the wife of the five Pandava brothers in the Mahābhārata epic.There are number of temples dedicated...

 emphasizes another boon: Krishna allows Aravan to witness the entire duration of the Mahabharata war through the eyes of his severed head. In another 18-day festival, the ceremonial head of Aravan is hoisted on a post to witness the ritual re-enactment of the Mahabharata war. The head of Aravan is a common motif in Draupadi temples. Often it is a portable wooden head; sometimes it even has its own shrine in the temple complex or is placed on the corners of temple roofs as a guardian against spirits. Aravan is worshipped in the form of his severed head and is believed to cure disease and induce pregnancy in childless women.

Iravan is also known in Indonesia (where his name is spelled Irawan). An independent set of traditions have developed around Irawan on the main island of Java
Java is an island of Indonesia. With a population of 135 million , it is the world's most populous island, and one of the most densely populated regions in the world. It is home to 60% of Indonesia's population. The Indonesian capital city, Jakarta, is in west Java...

 where, for example, he loses his association with the Naga. Separate Javanese traditions present a dramatic marriage of Irawan to Titisari, daughter of Krishna, and a death resulting from a case of mistaken identity. These stories are told through the medium of traditional Javanese theatre (Wayang
Wayang is a Javanese word for theatre . When the term is used to refer to kinds of puppet theatre, sometimes the puppet itself is referred to as wayang...

), especially in shadow-puppet plays known as Wayang Kulit.

Etymology and other names

According to the Monier Williams
Monier Monier-Williams
Sir Monier Monier-Williams, KCIE was the second Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, England...

 Sanskrit–English Dictionary (1899), the name Iravan, also spelt Irawan, is formed from the root Iravat (इरावत्), also spelt Irawat. In turn, the root Iravat is derived from Irā (इरा)—closely linked with Iḍā (इडा)—meaning "possessing food", "endowed with provisions" or, by extension, "comfortable" (as used in the Mahabharata and the Rig
The Rigveda is an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns...

 and Atharva vedic scriptures). Alf Hiltebeitel, George Washington University
George Washington University
The George Washington University is a private, coeducational comprehensive university located in Washington, D.C. in the United States...

 professor of religion, suggests that the Sanskrit name Iravan or Iravant is derived from Iḍā-vant, "one who possessed Iḍā". The French Indologist Madeleine Biardeau
Madeleine Biardeau
Madeleine Biardeau was a prominent Indologist from France.- Early life :Madeleine Biardeau was born into a middle-class family of small entrepreneurs. She was educated at the prestigious Ecole normale supérieure of Sèvres, in 1943, where she studied philosophy...

 describes religious use of the word Iḍā as reference to an "oblatory substance consumed by the participants from which comes all fecundity of the sacrifice". Based on this definition, Biardeau concludes that Iravant means sacrificial victim in the Mahabharata. Iḍā is also used elsewhere to denote a substance that Devas
Deva (Hinduism)
' is the Sanskrit word for god or deity, its related feminine term is devi. In modern Hinduism, it can be loosely interpreted as any benevolent supernatural beings. The devs in Hinduism, also called Suras, are often juxtaposed to the Asuras, their half brothers. Devs are also the maintainers of...

 (demi-gods) and Asura
-In Hinduism:In Hinduism, the Asuras constitute a group of power-seeking deities, sometimes considered sinful and materialistic. The Daityas and Danavas were combinedly known as Asuras. The Asura were opposed to the Devas. Both groups are children of Kasyapa...

s (demons) vie for.

Iravan is generally known as Aravan, also spelt as Aravaan in South India. He is revered as a deity in two southern Indian Hindu cults: the Kuttantavar cult (dedicated solely to Aravan), and the cult of Draupadi (Aravan's stepmother and Arjuna's wife). In his own cult, Aravan is also known as Kuttantavar (கூத்தாண்டவர்), originating from the legend of Kuttantavar killing the demon Kuttacuran. This name is sometimes spelled as Kuttandar, Khoothandavar or Koothandavar.

The South Indian, Tamil name, Aravan, is popularly believed to be derived from the word aravam (அரவம்) (snake). Aravan's association with snakes is also apparent in his iconography.


Aravan is always worshipped in temples in the form of his severed head. He is usually depicted with a moustache, pronounced eyes and large ears. Typically, he also wears a conical crown, a Vaishnava tilak mark on his forehead and earrings. Aravan is often depicted with a cobra hood over his crown, cobra heads sprouting through the crown, or a snake emerging from behind the crown. Even the chief Koovagam icon features a serpent on Aravan's crown.

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.

Aravan-head icons are either painted or unpainted portable ones for processions; they are housed together in the temples of his shrines. Koovagam, Kothadai, Kothattai and Pillaiyarkuppam have icons painted with a red face and multi-coloured ornamentation. Unpainted black stone images of the Aravan-head are seen in Kothattai, Madhukarai and Pillaiyarkuppam.

Some paintings also depict the sacrifice of Aravan. In these scenes, he is often depicted bowing to Kali, while his head is about to be severed; or, as in one Sowcarpet
Sowcarpet is a sprawling neighborhood in the northern part of Chennai, India. It is a bustling commercial area of the city and a range of wholesale markets are located here. Sowcarpet is one of the older neighborhoods of the city with narrow streets and vintage buildings...

 painting, a self-decapitated Aravan holds both a sword and his own severed head, offering the latter to the goddess.

Historical development

Iravan first appears as a minor character in the Mahabharata as the son of Arjuna, the chief hero of the epic. The background to the Mahabharata infers a date that is "after the very early Vedic period
Vedic period
The Vedic period was a period in history during which the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, were composed. The time span of the period is uncertain. Philological and linguistic evidence indicates that the Rigveda, the oldest of the Vedas, was composed roughly between 1700–1100 BCE, also...

" and before "the first Indian 'empire' was to rise in the third century B.C.", so "somewhere in the eighth or ninth century." It is generally agreed, however, that "Unlike the Vedas, which have to be preserved letter-perfect, the epic was a popular work whose reciters would inevitably conform to changes in language and style." The earliest surviving components of this dynamic text are believed to be no older than the earliest external references to the epic, which may include an allusion in Panini's 4th-century grammar manual Ashtadhyayi (4:2:56). It is estimated that the Sanskrit text probably reached something of a "final form" by the early Gupta period
Gupta Empire
The Gupta Empire was an ancient Indian empire which existed approximately from 320 to 550 CE and covered much of the Indian Subcontinent. Founded by Maharaja Sri-Gupta, the dynasty was the model of a classical civilization. The peace and prosperity created under leadership of Guptas enabled the...

 (about the 4th century CE). The editor of the first great critical edition of the Mahabharata commented: "It is useless to think of reconstructing a fluid text in a literally original shape, on the basis of an archetype and a stemma codicum. What then is possible? Our objective can only be to reconstruct the oldest form of the text which it is possible to reach on the basis of the manuscript material available."
Iravan is also mentioned, as the son of Arjuna and Ulupi, in passing references in two Puranas ("sacred texts") known as the Vishnu Purana
Vishnu Purana
The Vishnu Purana is a religious Hindu text and one of the eighteen Mahapuranas. It is considered one of the most important Puranas and has been given the name Puranaratna...

(4:20:12)—also with a text history from the late Vedic through the Gupta periods—and the Bhagavata Purana
Bhagavata purana
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa is one of the "Maha" Puranic texts of Hindu literature, with its primary focus on bhakti to the incarnations of Vishnu, particularly Krishna...

(9:22:32)—traditionally dated to the Vedic period but dated by modern scholars to the 9th or 10th century CE.

Although the original Sanskrit version of the Mahabharata records Iravan's (Sanskrit name) death during the 18-day Mahabharata war, the Tamil versions discuss Aravan's (Tamil name) ritual self-sacrifice to Kali before the war. Hiltebeitel relates this to the South Indian glorification of "heroic" self-mutilation and self-decapitation before a goddess. He takes particular note of a scene towards the end of a puranic text, Devi Mahatmyam, in interpreting old Tamil sculptures depicting a warrior king spilling his own blood, as in the Purana, in adoration of a goddess of victory. In the Tamil sculptures, the goddess is Korravai
Korravai was the ancient goddess of war and victory and mother of Murugan, the Hindu god of war, now patron god of Tamil Nadu. The earliest references to Korravai are found in the ancient Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam, considered to be the earliest work of the ancient Sangam literature. Korravai is...

, who became associated with Durga
For the 1985 Hindi Film of Rajesh Khanna see DurgaaIn Hinduism, Durga ; ; meaning "the inaccessible" or "the invincible"; , durga) or Maa Durga "one who can redeem in situations of utmost distress" is a form of Devi, the supremely radiant goddess, depicted as having eighteen arms, riding a lion...

 and hence Kali. He also finds parallels in the Telugu
Andhra Pradesh
Andhra Pradesh , is one of the 28 states of India, situated on the southeastern coast of India. It is India's fourth largest state by area and fifth largest by population. Its capital and largest city by population is Hyderabad.The total GDP of Andhra Pradesh is $100 billion and is ranked third...

 legend of the sacrifice of Barbarika
In the Mahābhārata, Barbarika was the son of Ghatotkacha and Maurvi , daughter of Muru, a Yadava king.Barbarika was originally a yaksha, and was reborn as a man....

—another Mahabharata character—and its variants in Rajasthan
Rājasthān the land of Rajasthanis, , is the largest state of the Republic of India by area. It is located in the northwest of India. It encompasses most of the area of the large, inhospitable Great Indian Desert , which has an edge paralleling the Sutlej-Indus river valley along its border with...

 (see also: Khatushyamji
In Hinduism, Khatushyamji is a name and manifestation of Barbarika, son of Ghatotkacha. This manifestation is especially popular in the Indian state of Rajasthan...

), Himachal Pradesh
Himachal Pradesh
Himachal Pradesh is a state in Northern India. It is spread over , and is bordered by the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir on the north, Punjab on the west and south-west, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh on the south, Uttarakhand on the south-east and by the Tibet Autonomous Region on the east...

, Garhwal
Garhwal Division
Garhwal is the north-western region and administrative division of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand which is home to the Garhwali people. Lying in the Himalayas, It is bounded on the north by Tibet, on the east by Kumaon region, on the south by Uttar Pradesh state, and on the north-west by...

, Kurukshetra
Kurukshetra is a land of historical and religious importance. Historically the land belonged to Punjab now a district in Haryana state of India. It is a holy place and is also known as Dharmakshetra . According to the Puranas, Kurukshetra is named after King Kuru, the ancestor of Kauravas and...

, Bundelkhand
Bundelkhand anciently known as Chedi Kingdom is a geographic region of central India...

 and Orissa
Orissa , officially Odisha since Nov 2011, is a state of India, located on the east coast of India, by the Bay of Bengal. It is the modern name of the ancient nation of Kalinga, which was invaded by the Maurya Emperor Ashoka in 261 BC. The modern state of Orissa was established on 1 April...

. Most notable among the similarities between Aravan and Barbarika is the boon to witness the entire duration of the Mahabharata war—through the eyes of the severed head, despite the sacrifice.

The first account of Aravan's sacrifice is found in Parata Venpa—the earliest surviving Tamil version of the Mahabharata—by Peruntevanar (9th century). The tale is later retold by Villiputuralvar in his 14th-century Makaparatam and by Nallapillai in the 18th century. The legend is also mentioned in the text Khoothanvar Sthala Purana, associated with the shrine of Kuttantavar.

Another source of Aravan traditions is the folk-theatre of Tamil Nadu, called koothu
Koothu , means dance or performance in Tamil language, is a folk art originated from the early Tamil country. But more precisely Koothu refers Therukoothu that is street dance or street play since it will be performed village squares. At early age the art of entertainment reached its peak in...

. Aravan Kalappali (or Aravan Kalabali), "Aravan's Battlefield Sacrifice", is a popular theme of the traditional Terukuttu
Terukkuttu or Kattaikkuttu is a Tamil street theatre form practised in Tamil Nadu state of India and Tamil-speaking regions of Sri Lanka. Terukuttu is a form of entertainment, a ritual, and a medium of social instruction. The terukkuttu plays various themes...

("street theatre"). Aravan Kalappali tells the story of Aravan's pre-battle self-sacrifice to the goddess Kali
' , also known as ' , is the Hindu goddess associated with power, shakti. The name Kali comes from kāla, which means black, time, death, lord of death, Shiva. Kali means "the black one". Since Shiva is called Kāla - the eternal time, Kālī, his consort, also means "Time" or "Death" . Hence, Kāli is...

 to win her support, guaranteeing victory for the Pandavas (Arjuna and his brothers) in the Mahabharata war. Aravan Kalappali is staged annually in the villages of Melattur
Melattur, Tamil Nadu
Melattur is a panchayat town in Thanjavur district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It is located 18 kilometres from the town of Thanjavur. It is famous as a place of origin of the Melattur style of Bharatanatyam founded by Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer and a series of dance-drama performances called...

, Kodukizhi and Yervadi, according to various forms of the koothu folk-theatre. In Karambai, Aravan Kalappali is performed as part of the cult of Draupadi, on the 18th day of an annual festival (April–May), to please the goddess.

In modern interpretations, Aravan's head symbolizes not only self-sacrifice but also regeneration and continuity, because of his ability to see the war after his sacrifice. For example, Iramacamippulavar's Merkolvilakka Kkatai Akaravaricai (1963)—which narrates the tale of Aravan—ends with the conclusion that Aravan continues to live on as a folk hero in Tamil Nadu, because he embodies "the ideal of self-sacrifice." Aravan is considered to be a representation of the cost of war; he evokes the "countless innocent" reluctantly sent by their mothers "to be consumed by the insatiable Goddess of War." Indologist David Shulman
David Dean Shulman
David Dean Shulman is an Indologist and regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the languages of India. His research embraces many fields, including the history of religion in South India, Indian poetics, Tamil Islam, Dravidian linguistics, and Carnatic music...

, on the other hand, considers Aravan's sacrifice to be a reworking of the serpent sacrifice in the Tamil epic tradition.


While the marriage of Iravan's parents is mentioned in the first book of the Mahabharata, Adi Parva
Adi Parva
Mahabharta Book 1 Adi Parva is a book about how the Mahabharata came to be narrated by Sauti to the assembled rishis at Naimisharanya. The recital of the Mahabharata at the Sarpasatra of Janamejaya by Vaishampayana at . The history of the Bharata race is told in detail and the parvan also traces...

 (the Book of Beginnings), both the birth and death of Iravan are mentioned later, in the sixth book, Bhisma Parva
Bhisma Parva
The Mahabharata Book 6 Bhisma Parva is the Book of Bhishma, The first part of the great battle, with Bhishma as commander for the Kauravas. In this Parva Sanjaya narrates the formation of the region known as Jambu. Here has been described the great depression of Yudhishthira's army, and also a...

 (the Book of Bhisma). In this sixth book of the epic, Arjuna, the third Pandava brother, is exiled from Indraprastha (the capital city of the Pandava kingdom) to go on a one-year pilgrimage as a penance for violating the terms of his marriage to Draupadi, the Pandava brothers' common wife. Arjuna reaches the north-east region of present-day India and falls in love with Ulupi, a widowed Naga (serpent) princess. The two get married and have a son named Iravan; later, Arjuna proceeds with his pilgrimage, leaving Iravan and Ulupi behind in Nagaloka, the abode of the Nagas. Iravan is described as being born parakshetre, literally "in a region belonging to another person", interpreted by Hiltebeitel as "upon the wife of another". Iravan grew up in Nagaloka, protected by his mother, but was rejected by his maternal uncle because of the latter's hatred of Arjuna. After reaching maturity, Iravan, hoping to be reunited with his father, departs for Indraloka
In Hinduism, Svarga is a set of heavenly worlds located on and above Mt. Meru. It is a heaven where the righteous live in a paradise before their next reincarnation...

, the abode of the god Indra
' or is the King of the demi-gods or Devas and Lord of Heaven or Svargaloka in Hindu mythology. He is also the God of War, Storms, and Rainfall.Indra is one of the chief deities in the Rigveda...

, who is also Arjuna's father. Upon meeting his adult son, Arjuna requests his assistance in the Kurukshetra War.

Thus Iravan finally reaches the battlefield of Kurukshetra to assist his father and Pandavas against their cousins and opponents, the Kauravas. On the first day of war, Iravan fights a duel with Srutayush, a Ksatriya king who had been a daitya
In Hinduism, the Daityas are a clan or race or Asura as are the Danavas. Daityas were the children of Diti and the sage Kashyapa. They were a race of giants who fought against the Devas because they were jealous of their Deva half-brothers...

(demon) called Krodhavasa in a prior incarnation
Reincarnation best describes the concept where the soul or spirit, after the death of the body, is believed to return to live in a new human body, or, in some traditions, either as a human being, animal or plant...

. Srutayush is later killed by Arjuna. On the seventh day of war, Iravan also defeats Vinda and Anuvinda, the princes of Avanti
Avanti Kingdom
The former Avanti kingdom was one among the many kingdoms ruled by the Yadava kings in the central and western India. Ujjayani was its capital along the river Kshipra, a tributary of river Charmanuati, which itself is a tributary of river Ganges. The Ujjayani of the past is currently known as...

, who are later killed by Arjuna.

On the eighth day of the war, Iravan combats the princes of Gandhara
Gandhāra , is the name of an ancient kingdom , located in northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Gandhara was located mainly in the vale of Peshawar, the Potohar plateau and on the Kabul River...

, sons of king Suvala, and the younger brothers of Shakuni
Shakuni , an avatar of Dvapara, the personification of Dvapara Yuga, was the brother of Gandhari in the Mahābhārata. He was portrayed as an extremely intelligent but devious old man, who was very fond of his nephew Duryodhana. He won the kingdom of the Pandavas' for his nephew, as a wager in a...

, the treacherous maternal uncle of the Kauravas. The brothers Gaya, Gavaksha, Vrishava, Charmavat, Arjava, and Suka attack Iravan, supported by the whole Kaurava army, but Iravan's army of Nagas slays all but one of their opponents. Iravan, the "chastiser of foes"—versed in maya (illusion)
Maya (illusion)
Maya , in Indian religions, has multiple meanings, usually quoted as "illusion", centered on the fact that we do not experience the environment itself but rather a projection of it, created by us. Maya is the principal deity that manifests, perpetuates and governs the illusion and dream of duality...

—slays five of the Gandhara princes in a sword fight; Vrishava alone escapes death.

Agitated by this reversal, the eldest Kaurava, Duryodhana
In the Hindu epic the Mahābhārata, Duryodhana is the eldest son of the blind king Dhritarashtra by Queen Gandhari, the eldest of the one hundred Kaurava brothers, Emperor of the world at that time which means Emperor of India or Bharatvarsha as it was known at that time, cousin and the chief...

, orders the rakshasa
A Rakshasa or alternatively rakshas, is a race of mythological humanoid beings or unrighteous spirit in Hindu and Buddhist religion...

(giant) Alamvusha (or Alambusha), son of Rishyasringa, to kill Iravan. This time Alambusha, as well as Iravan, uses illusion in combat. Alambusha attacks Iravan with a bow, but Iravan counters, breaking Alambusha's bow and slicing the giant into several pieces. Alambusha's body, however, reconstitutes itself. Then Iravan assumes the form of the serpent Shesha
In Hindu tradition, Shesha or Sheshanaag is the king of all nagas, one of the primal beings of creation, and according to the Bhagavata Purana, an Avatar of the Supreme God known as Sankarshan. In the Puranas, Shesha is said to hold all the planets of the Universe on his hoods and to constantly...

 (Ananta), and his serpent army surrounds him to protect him. Alambusha counters this by assuming the form of Garuda
The Garuda is a large mythical bird or bird-like creature that appears in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology.From an Indian perspective, Garuda is the Hindu name for the constellation Aquila and...

 (the eagle-man), the eternal foe of the serpents, and devours the serpent army. Ultimately, Alambusha kills Iravan by cutting off his head, though Iravan is later avenged when Ghatotkacha
Ghatotkacha , is a character in the Mahabharata, the son of Bhima and the giantess Hidimbi . His maternal parentage made him half-rakshasa and gave him many magical powers that made him an important fighter in the Kurukshetra war, the climax of the epic...

, his cousin, finally kills Alambusha.

Selection as sacrificial victim

The earliest source of Tamil traditions regarding Aravan is found in Peruntevanar's Parata Venpa, a 9th-century Tamil version of the Mahabharata. One of the features of this work is its reference to a rite it calls kalappali ("sacrifice to the battlefield"), a term found only in Tamil versions of the Mahabharata. This is a ritual performed before battle to ensure victory. In Peruntevanar's narrative, just before the Mahabharata war, Duryodhana—the leader of the Kauravas and opponent of the Pandavas—learns from the Pandava's expert astrologer, Sahadeva
Sahadeva was one of the five Pandava brothers according to the epic Mahābhārata. He was one of the twin sons of Madri, who invoked Ashvins using a mantra shared by Kunti for a son. His twin brother was named Nakula...

, that the day of the new moon
Amavasya is the Indian name for a New moon. The word Amavasya is common to many Indian languages especially Sanskrit, Hindi, Assamese, Kannada, Bengali, Konkani, Marathi, Oriya, Telugu, and Gujarati...

, indeed the very next day, would be the most auspicious time for a kalappali. Consequently, Duryodhana approaches and convinces Aravan to be the sacrificial victim for the kalappali.
The god Krishna, who is a close friend of and advisor to the Pandavas, hears of Duryodhana's plan, and devises one of his own, to ensure that Aravan will give himself as a sacrifice on behalf of the Pandavas rather than the Kauravas. Krishna first discusses the issue with Yudhishtira (Dharma
Dharma means Law or Natural Law and is a concept of central importance in Indian philosophy and religion. In the context of Hinduism, it refers to one's personal obligations, calling and duties, and a Hindu's dharma is affected by the person's age, caste, class, occupation, and gender...

 or Dharmaraja), the eldest of the Pandavas, recommending the sacrifice to Kali as a part of an ayudha-puja ("worship of the weapons"). Krishna establishes that there are four candidates most suited to being offered as the victim: Shalya
In the epic Mahabharata, King Shalya was the brother of Madri , as well as the ruler of Madra-desa or the kingdom of Madra. Thus, he was the maternal uncle of Nakula and Sahadeva and was loved and revered by the Pandavas. When he was young, he entered a competition among princes and nobilities to...

, who is on the side of Kauravas; Arjuna, the commander of the Pandavas; Aravan; and Krishna himself. From this shortlist, Krishna finally narrows the best choice down to Aravan. Aravan agrees to undergo the kalappali on behalf of the Pandavas but mentions his prior commitment to Duryodhana.

Later Tamil sources provide variants to Peruntevanar's version. In Villiputuralvar's 14th-century version, Krishna first offers himself as the sacrificial victim, but Aravan volunteers to replace him. There is no mention of Duryodhana in this version of the legend. In other accounts, Aravan is sacrificed in order to counteract the Kauravas' sacrifice of a white elephant. In the traditions of the village of Neppattur, in the Thanjavur district
Thanjavur District
Thanjavur District is one of the 32 districts of the state of Tamil Nadu, in southeastern India. Its headquarters is Thanjavur.-Geography:...

, Aravan is described as being so strong that he could slay all the Duryodhanas at once, thus preventing any war from happening. So Krishna prescribes the human sacrifice of Aravan in order that "the greater sacrifice of the war can take place".

In terukkuttu performances, at the time of Aravan's sacrifice, he is often compared to Puru
The Purus were a tribe, or a confederation of tribes, mentioned many times in the Rigveda, formed around 3180 BCE. RV 7.96.2 locates them at the banks of the Sarasvati River. There were several factions of Purus, one being the Bharatas...

 and Bhishma
Bhishma or Bheeshma or Devavrata or 'Bhishma Pitamah' was the eighth son of Kuru King Shantanu who was blessed with wish-long life and had sworn to serve the ruling Kuru king. He was one of the most prominent characters of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. He was the grand uncle of both the...

, characters in the Mahabharata who gave up their youth and sexual fulfilment for the sake of their respective fathers, Yayati
Yayati was a Puranic king and the son of king Nahusha and one of ancestors of Pandavas. He was a great scholar of Vedas. He had five brothers, Yati, Samyati, Ayati, Viyati and Kriti. He had two wives, Devayani and Sharmishtha. Devayani was the daughter of Shukracharya, the priest of Asuras ....

 and Santanu
Shantanu was a Kuru king of Hastinapura, who is mentioned in the great epic of the Mahābhārata. He was a descendant of the Bharata race, of the lunar dynasty and the ancestor of the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The Rigveda mentions Shantanu. He was the youngest son of King Pratipa of Hastinapura...

. In the drama, after acquiring Aravan's approval, Krishna approaches Aravan's mother, Ulupi—Nagakanni or Nakakanni ("Serpent maiden") in Tamil, for her consent. At first she strongly opposes her son's proposed sacrifice but finally relents when Aravan appeals to her, explaining that he belongs to Kali alone.

Finally, in all versions of the tale, Krishna tricks the gods Surya
Surya Suraya or Phra Athit is the chief solar deity in Hinduism, one of the Adityas, son of Kasyapa and one of his wives, Aditi; of Indra; or of Dyaus Pitar . The term Surya also refers to the Sun, in general. Surya has hair and arms of gold...

 (the Sun) and Chandra
In Hinduism, Chandra is a lunar deity and a Graha. Chandra is also identified with the Vedic Lunar deity Soma . The Soma name refers particularly to the juice of sap in the plants and thus makes the Moon the lord of plants and vegetation. He is described as young, beautiful, fair; two-armed and...

 (the Moon) to co-ordinate their movements so that the day of the new moon will fall one day earlier—the current day. This allows Aravan to make the initial sacrifice of flesh on behalf of the Pandavas, only making the rest-offering on behalf of Duryodhana the following day, yet fulfilling his promise to Duryodhana by doing so.

Three boons

In Parata Venpa, Aravan asks Krishna to grant him the boon of a heroic death on the battlefield at the hands of a great hero. Although Parata Venpa mentions only one boon, the overall Tamil tradition preserves a total of three distinct boons associated with Aravan. The single boon of Parata Venpa, according to Hiltebeitel, indicates an early (9th-century) effort to harmonize the Tamil tradition of Aravan's pre-battle sacrifice with the original Sanskrit account of his death during the battle at the hands of Alambusha (Alampucan in Tamil).

In both the Kuttantavar and Draupadi cults, Aravan is believed to have been granted a second boon—to see the entire 18-day war. A second boon is indeed found in Villiputuralvar's 14th-century version of the Mahabharata. In this version, Aravan is granted boons of watching the battle for a "few days" and of dying gloriously after killing many enemies, though Villiputuralvar does not actually specify whether Aravan's head survives to see the complete battle after his bodily death on the eighth day.
The third boon is found only in the folk rituals. This third boon provides for 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 (see also sati
Sati (practice)
For other uses, see Sati .Satī was a religious funeral practice among some Indian communities in which a recently widowed woman either voluntarily or by use of force and coercion would have immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre...

). In the Kuttantavar cult version, Krishna solves this dilemma by taking on his female form, Mohini
Mohini , in Hindu mythology, is the name of the only female Avatar of the god Vishnu. She is portrayed as a femme fatale, an enchantress, who maddens lovers, sometimes leading them to their doom. Mohini is introduced into the Hindu mythos in the narrative epic of the Mahabharata...

 the enchantress, marrying Aravan, and spending 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. The terukuttu performance presents a stylised wedding ceremony followed by Mohini's abrupt departure, which is taken to signify that the marriage is unconsummated. Another version, popular with transsexuals, cites the reason behind Aravan's wish to be "coital bliss" and tells explicitly about consummation of the marriage. This third marriage boon is not, however, uniform across all the folk traditions. In other legends, Krishna arranges some other pre-war marriages. In Thanjavur, the marriage of Aravan and Mohini is unknown; instead it depicts Aravan as married to Paravanacciyal, the daughter of Krishna's younger cousin-brother Satyaki
Yuyudhana , better known as Satyaki , was a powerful warrior belonging to the Vrishni clan of the Yadavas, to which Krishna also belonged. According to the Puranas, he was grandson of Shini of the Vrishni clan, and son of Satyaka. Satyaki was devoted to Krishna and his best friend Arjuna, with...


Hiltebeitel theorizes that both the first (heroic-death) and third (marriage) boons originated with the Kuttantavar cult, while the second boon originated with the Draupadi cult. The Kuttantavar cult ritualizes both the heroic death and the marriage ceremony—enacted by ali (officially, "eunuchs" in Tamil Nadu). Whereas, in the Draupadi cult it is the clay head of Aravan, fixed on a posta and witnessing the re-enactment of the 18-day war, that is prominently ritualized. Additionally, Draupadi-cult texts from Thajavur concentrate only on this second boon, omitting the other two.

The pre-battle sacrifice is incompatible with the first and second boons, but the cults have their own explanations. The self-sacrifice prior to the war is incompatible with dying a heroic death during the war and both are incompatible with living to see the full duration of the war. The Kuttantavar cult resolves the first dilemma, holding that Aravan's body reconfigured itself after the sacrifice and that Aravan went on to die a heroic death on the eighth day of the war. The Kuttantavar cult are not overly concerned about the second boon of Aravan's continued observation of the war. On the other hand, the Draupadi cult are not overly concerned about the first boon of the heroic death; they resolve the second dilemma, regarding Aravan's continued observation of the war, holding that Aravan was able to watch the entire war through the eyes of his severed head. A third view harmonizes all the boons, holding that Aravan's body reconstituted after the sacrifice; he then fought heroically until being decapitated on the eighth day, observing the remainder of the war through the eyes of his severed head.

In any case, the pre-battle sacrifice is the common element in the Tamil traditions. After Aravan requested and was granted his boons, he was ready for the sacrifice. He proceeds to the Kurukshetra battlefield. While Yudhishtira is worshipping Kali in his "hall of weapons", Aravan removes his epaulettes and chest plate. He then cuts his body into 32 pieces—one cut for each of his 32 bodily perfections—which are offered by Yudhishtira to Kali. In a terukuttu performance, this is depicted by covering the actor playing Aravan with a white cloth from the neck down. It is also believed that Aravan's spirit may possess the actor at this point. Sometimes a chicken is sacrificed on stage in a terukuttu performance to signify the sacrifice. In Villiputuralvar's retelling, an elephant is sacrificed to the goddess, complementing Aravan's own self-sacrifice.

Aravan, after being stripped of his flesh, has only his head and skeleton remaining. Krishna advises him to pray to the Naga, Adi-Shesha
In Hindu tradition, Shesha or Sheshanaag is the king of all nagas, one of the primal beings of creation, and according to the Bhagavata Purana, an Avatar of the Supreme God known as Sankarshan. In the Puranas, Shesha is said to hold all the planets of the Universe on his hoods and to constantly...

, his grandfather, and father of Ulupi. Adi-Shesha coils himself around Aravan, becomes his flesh and restores his body. To fulfil the second boon, Krishna orchestrates the heroic death by making one of the enemy strong enough to defeat the mighty Aravan. Krishna selects Alambusha. Then, depending on the version of the story, Krishna either advises Alambusha to assume the form of Garuda via a heavenly voice, or he sends the true Garuda
The Garuda is a large mythical bird or bird-like creature that appears in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology.From an Indian perspective, Garuda is the Hindu name for the constellation Aquila and...

 to assist Alambusha. At the sight of Garuda—his perennial "eagle" adversary—Shesha uncoils in fear, leaving Aravan unprotected and leading ultimately to Alambusha beheading the weakened Aravan.

Aravan to Kuttantavar

A traditional story local to Koovagam describes how Aravan came to be known as Kuttantavar. After the war, while the Pandavas are boasting about vanquishing the Kauravas, Krishna asks Aravan—the sole witness of the entire war, "who was truly responsible for winning this war?" Aravan replies that he saw two things: Krishna's discus decapitating the enemy, and his conch shell collecting their blood. This reply is understood to give all the credit for the victory to Krishna.

Aravan's opinion enrages the proud and quick-tempered Bhima, whose influence in deciding the outcome of the battle is covered at great length in the Mahabharata. However, before Bhima can wound Aravan, Krishna orders Aravan's head to be dropped in the river Caraparika, where he assumes the form of a child, and is eventually found by the king of Chandragiri, a city on the river bank. The child cries "Kuva Kuva", when picked up by the king, who therefore names the location Kuvakkam (Koovagam). The king also names the child Carapalan ("reed-child").

The tradition goes on to relate that Carapalan grew up, going on to kill the demon Kuttacuran, who had wounded his adopted father in battle. Draupadi—identified in this tradition with the Supreme Goddess
In Hinduism, Mahadevi or "Great Goddess" is a term used to denote the Goddess or Devi that is the sum of all other Devis - an all encompassing Female Deity as the consort or complement to an all encompassing Male Deity or the Ultimate Reality in Shaktism.She is often identified with a specific...

—blesses Carapalan with the new name Kuttantavar—the slayer of Kuttacuran—and grants him a temple in Koovagam.

There are variants within this tradition. Some versions give the credit for finding the child to Queen Kirupanci of Chandragiri. Others omit mention of the king of Chandragiri altogether, and omit reference to the Koovagam temple. Instead they focus on the demon Kuttacuran and an apparently impossible boon granted to him that he will be killed by a person having only a head and who was born from water. Vishnu, incarnated as Krishna, informs the gods that Aravan will kill this demon. With this in mind, the head of Aravan is consigned to the river and is transformed into a child called Kuttan ("born from water"), who kills the demon.

Following and temples

Hiltebeitel argues that the Kuttantavar cult might represent the original Tamil tradition regarding Aravan, however it is no longer the only tradition that venerates Aravan. The Draupadi cult has developed traditions and rituals of its own.

Most Kuttantavar devotees reside in the Tamil Nadu districts of Cuddalore
Cuddalore District
Cuddalore District is a district of Tamil Nadu state in southern India. The city of Cuddalore is the district headquarters. For the first time, urn burial grave goods were found in the village of Marungur in the district, carrying inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi from the 1st century...

, Thiruvannamalai, Vellore
Vellore District
Vellore district is one of the 32 districts in the Tamil Nadu state of India. Vellore City is the headquarters of this district. It had a population of 3,477,317 as of 2001. It is 37.62% urbanised...

 and Villupuram. Draupadi's devotees have also spread across these districts, as well as into the Kanchipuram
Kanchipuram district
Kanchipuram district is a district in the northeast of the state of Tamil Nadu in India. It is bounded in the west by Vellore and Thiruvannamalai districts, in the north by Thiruvallur District and Chennai District, in the south by Viluppuram District and in the east by the Bay of Bengal. It lies...

 (former Chingleput) district. Her temples can also be seen in the Thanjavur district
Thanjavur District
Thanjavur District is one of the 32 districts of the state of Tamil Nadu, in southeastern India. Its headquarters is Thanjavur.-Geography:...

 and beyond, to the southern districts of the states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The temples of Kuttantavar are fewer than the Draupadi temples and are restricted to a belt running from the Cuddalore and Villupuram districts through to Coimbatore. Thirty-two of these temples are particularly prominent; Koovagam
Koovagam is a village in the Ulundurpettai taluk in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu. It is famous for its annual festival of transgender and transvestite individuals, which takes fifteen days in the Tamil month of Chitrai ....

 is the foremost. The 32 temples are:
Coimbatore district
Coimbatore District
Coimbatore District is one of the more affluent and industrially advanced districts of the state of Tamil Nadu in India. Coimbatore is known as the Manchester of South India. It one of the most industrialized towns of Tamil Nadu. It has the highest GDP among the districts of Tamil Nadu, even ahead...

  • Cinkanallur (Singanallur-Neelikonampalyam)
  • Kancappalli
  • Kumaramankalam
  • Kuricci
  • Kuttampati
  • Tutiyalur (Thudiyalur)

Cuddalore District
  • Kotthattai
  • Puvanakiri
  • Tevanampattanam
  • Tiruvetkalam

Erode district
Erode District
Erode District is a western district of the state of Tamil Nadu, India, with Erode as its headquarters. Until the year 1996, Erode district was called as Periyar District....

  • Kalarikiyam

Salem district
Salem District
Salem District is a district of Tamil Nadu state in southern India. The city of Salem is the district headquarters. Other major towns in the district are Mettur, Omalur and Attur...

  • Palaiyacuramankalam
  • Panaimatal
  • Pelur
  • Tetavur

Thiruvannamalai district
  • Cerppapattu
  • Kilvanampati
  • Tevanur
  • Vetantavati
  • Viranantal

Vellore District
  • Colavaram
  • Otukkattur
  • Pulimetu
  • Putur
  • Vellayampati

Villupuram District
  • Konalur
  • Koovagam (Kuvakkam)
  • Pennaivalam
  • Tailapuram

Pondicherry Union territory
  • Madukarai
  • Pillaiyarkuppam

The severed head of Aravan is a common motif in Draupadi's temples. Often it is a portable wooden head; sometimes this even has its own shrine in the temple complex. Icons of Aravan's head are also often placed on the corners and edges of Draupadi temple roofs. As a pey or bhuta
Bhūta is a Sanskrit word that has several meanings:* true, matter of fact, reality, existing, present, being or being like anything, consisting of, mixed or joined with...

(spirit), Aravan acts as a guardian against other spirits, for the temple itself, and also for the Patukalam ceremony. Patukalam, in the Draupadi cult, is the symbolic ground on which the Mahabharata war is ritually re-enacted. In the taluk
A Tehsil or Tahsil/Tahasil , also known as Taluk and Mandal, is an administrative division of some country/countries of South Asia....

of Thajavur, Kumbhakonam and Pattukkotai, Aravan's head is enshrined permanently in a mandapa
A mandapa in Indian architecture is a pillared outdoor hall or pavilion for public rituals.-Temple architecture:...

or within a temple niche
Niche (architecture)
A niche in classical architecture is an exedra or an apse that has been reduced in size, retaining the half-dome heading usual for an apse. Nero's Domus Aurea was the first semi-private dwelling that possessed rooms that were given richly varied floor plans, shaped with niches and exedras;...

. The largest known Aravan head is found at the Hajiyar Teru temple in Kumbhakonam
Kumbakonam , also spelt as Coombaconum in the records of British India , is a town and a special grade municipality in the Thanjavur district in the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Located 40 kilometres from Thanjavur and 272 kilometres from Chennai, it is the headquarters of the Kumbakonam...


Kuttantavar cult rituals

Aravan is known as Kuttantavar in the cult which bears his name, and in which he is the chief deity. His main temple is in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu. Here, the marriage of Aravan and Mohini, Krishna's female form, and her widowhood and mourning, after Aravan's sacrifice, forms the central theme of an 18-day annual festival either side of the night of the full moon in the Tamil month
Tamil calendar
The Tamil calendar is a solar and sidereal Hindu calendar used in Tamil Nadu. It is also used in Pondicherry , and by the Tamil population in Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius and Sri Lanka. It is also used by Telugu speaking people in Tamil Nadu...

 of Cittirai
Chaitra is a month of the Hindu calendar....

 (April–May). The day of the full moon is the central day of the festival, when Aravan's sacrifice is ritually re-enacted.
Alis, who call themselves Aravanis or Thirunangais (திருநங்கை) in this geographic area, take part in the Koovagam festival by re-enacting the marriage of Aravan and Mohini. The Alis participate in similar Kuttantavar festivals, of smaller scale, in other villages like Tevanampattanam, Tiruvetkalam, Adivarahanattum—5 miles (8 km) north-west of Chidambaram
Chidambaram is a fast growing industrial city in Eastern part of Tamil Nadu and the taluk headquarters of the Cuddalore district. It is located in 58 km from Pondicherry, 60 km from Karaikal, and 240 km south of Chennai by rail...

—and Kotthatai (all in Tamil Nadu) and also in Pillaiyarkuppam, in the Pondicherry. Although local Alis have been part of this festival for many years, since the 1960s, a large number of Alis have come to the festival from further afield: from throughout Tamil Nadu, from the whole of India, and even from as far away as Singapore. About 25,000 transvestites, including the Alis, visit the festival. Francis's account of 1906 records men dressed as women, from Vanniyar
Vanniyar , refers to a very large social group of people spread all across South India. Vanniyars primarily live in modern Tamil Nadu where they speak Tamil, while in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala they speak their native South Indian Dravidian languages namely, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam...

 and other Sudra
Shudra is the fourth Varna, as prescribed in the Purusha Sukta of the Rig veda, which constitutes society into four varnas or Chaturvarna. The other three varnas are Brahmans - priests, Kshatriya - those with governing functions, Vaishya - agriculturalists, cattle rearers and traders...

 castes, becoming part of the festival—a "popular feast of Sudras", but there is no explicit mention of Alis. It also records that the ritual marriage of the men to Kuttantavar and their widowhood occurred on the last day of the festival, unlike the present form of the festival, which has the marriage ceremony on the 14th day, and the widowhood ceremony on the 16th day.

During the first six days of the Kuttantavar festival, Aravan's head (cami) is "danced" around the streets of Kuvagam, with music and fireworks accompanying it. Each household offers a puja (a kind of devotional ceremony) to Aravan, with lamp-waving, coconut-offerings and other rituals. Traditionally, goats and chickens are sacrificed. On the 13th day, Aravan's "soul" is ritually transferred from his head to a pot, and the head is repainted. On the evening of the 14th day, a 20 feet (6.1 m) high post is erected on a processional chariot. The post will support Aravan's head and body later in the festival. After the post-setting ceremony (kampam niruttatal), young and middle-aged men (farmers and traders from Koovagam and surrounding villages) who have vowed to marry Aravan purchase thali
A Mangalsutra is a symbol of Hindu marriage union in South Asia. It is a sacred thread of love and goodwill worn by women as a symbol of their marriage...

s—the traditional mark of a married woman, in this case a pendant with a piece of turmeric
Turmeric is a rhizomatous herbaceous perennial plant of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae. It is native to tropical South Asia and needs temperatures between 20 °C and 30 °C and a considerable amount of annual rainfall to thrive...

 at its centre. The priest, representing Aravan, ties the thalis around their necks in the inner sanctum
Garbhagriha or Garbha griha is the small unlit shrine of a Hindu temple.Garbhagriha or ' is a Sanskrit word meaning the interior of the sanctum sanctorum, the innermost sanctum of a Hindu temple where resides the murti of the primary deity of the temple...

 of the temple. Even married men and men afflicted with diseases, all dressed as women, are described as ritually "marrying" Aravan in the festival, to please the deity.

The Alis arrive in increasing numbers from the 14th through the 16th day. Late on the 15th night, they dance with the flower-crown (karakam) of Aravan, which is believed to possess his power. After this dance, the priest marries the Alis to Aravan through the traditional thali-tying ceremony. The Alis then conduct sex work, symbolic of consummating their ritual marriage. A "night of wild revelry and sexual promiscuity" follows for the Alis. However, the villagers who married Aravan are not described as having sex in any of the accounts. While Alis wear women's clothes and jewellery, villagers marrying Aravan on account of wish-fulfilment vows made to him retain their ordinary men's clothes.

Early on the 16th day, the "soul" of Aravan is transferred back to his repainted head and the cuvami tirukkan tirattal ("opening of the god's holy eyes") ceremony is performed with painting of the pupils. The head is then paraded around the village on a portable platform called a ketayam. The ketayam is accompanied by two other platform-chariots, one holding the chest plate and epaulettes of Aravan—without which the festival is considered incomplete; the other carries his flower-crown. The ceremony ends with a sacrificial offering of roosters. Aravan's head is fixed on the post, with his large epaulettes and chest plate fixed to his body, which is made of straw and surrounded by a garland. The image is then paraded across the village in preparation for his kalappali and ritual re-enactment of his death on the eighth day of the war. At noon his chariot turns north, a symbolic gesture representing his kalappali and then he is turned to face the ceremonial Kurukshetra battlefield, symbolizing his entry onto the battlefield to die at the hands of Alambusha. On arrival in Kurukshetra, the garlands are removed, indicating the removal of his flesh and his defeat on the eighth day of war.

Returning from the battlefield, the chariot turns towards the location prepared for the ceremonial mourning rituals, the "weeping ground" (alukalam). The "widowed" Alis, with their hair dishevelled, lament the death of their "husband" as he performs the kalappali. The garlands from Aravan's image are thrown at devotees one by one, symbolizing his gradual loss of vitality. At this "weeping ground", the Alis mourn Aravan's death by breaking their bangles, beating their breasts and discarding their bridal finery, like the legendary Mohini-Krishna. They cut their thalis, which are flung at a post erected for the ceremony (vellikkal). After bathing, they put on white sari
A sari or sareeThe name of the garment in various regional languages include: , , , , , , , , , , , , , is a strip of unstitched cloth, worn by females, ranging from four to nine metres in length that is draped over the body in various styles. It is popular in India, Bangladesh, Nepal,...

s as a mark of their widowhood. The Alis bear these signs of widowhood for a month before re-adorning themselves with bangles and coloured saris again.

At mid-afternoon, as the chariot reaches alukalam, Aravan is stripped to his skeletal straw body. Most Alis have left and men wedded to Aravan also break their thalis and bangles and perform all the rites of widowhood (the vellikkal rites) before the image of Aravan. Meanwhile a paratiyar (Mahabharata-reciter) tells the story of the culmination of the war, symbolic of Aravan fulfilling his wish of seeing the war. Hiltebeitel suggests that while the Alis weep for Aravan's kalappali, the villagers weep for the death of an ancestor, as life leaves Aravan's head at the end of the war.

Also at the alukalam, a symbolic sacrifice of cooked "blood rice" is distributed in honour of the deceased Aravan. This rice is believed to make childless women conceive. After the death rites at dusk, the chariot is now considered a "house of death", and the lifeless head is removed from the frame of its skeletal body, then covered by a cloth, and finally paraded around the village as though at a funeral. The head is taken to the temple of Kali, where is it "revived". In a ceremony called vitaiyatti ("the return dance"), the head is once more danced around the village, right up until early morning on the 17th day. On the 18th and final day, the head is decorated and paraded around the village a final time. In the evening, the pujari ("priest") as Yudhishtira (Dharmaraja) crowns Aravan's head in a coronation ceremony held in the inner sanctum of his temple.

Draupadi cult rituals

Devotees of Draupadi commemorate the Mahabharata war by conducting an annual festival known as patukalam. This festival usually begins with a kuttu ("drama") re-enacting Draupadi's wedding. During the festival, the actor playing the part of Draupadi (and other women participating in the public ceremonies) lament the death of Aravan and the other heroes of the war. There is some variation in the length of the patukalam festival and in the day allocated to performing the kuttu of "Aravan's sacrifice" (kalappali), but wherever the ritual kalappali is performed, that place is declared to be, symbolically, the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

In Irunkal, Tamil Nadu, this kuttu is usually performed 16 days before "patukalam day", the last day of an 18-day festival. In Singapore, however, the kuttu is performed on the day of the new moon in the Tamil month of Purattaci (September–October). In shorter 10-to-12 day festivals, the kuttu and ritualisation of Aravan's kalappali are performed on the concluding night of the festival, as can be observed in Bangalore and in and around Chennai—at Sowcarpet, Alantur and Punamalli.

There is also variation in how Aravan is represented in the festivities. While permanent wooden Aravan heads are used in temples in Chennai and Pondicherry, in rural areas the head and body of Aravan are made of clay; both are destroyed at the end of the festival. At Tindivanam, a headless clay and bamboo body of Aravan is modelled, showing him in a heroic position, kneeling on his left knee and holding a bow. A clay head is then ceremoniously fixed, making the effigy about 7 feet (2.1 m) tall. The officiating priest first takes a sword, striking pieces from the head. Then, a pumpkin is sliced into 32 pieces, symbolizing 32 pieces of Aravan's sacrificed body. Next, Aravan is fed his own "blood", represented by the blood of goat, sacrificed to Aravan beforehand. Aravan's body from the neck downwards is then covered with a bloodstained white cloth. Finally, blood-soaked rice is sprinkled on Aravan's face. Devotees, as in the Kuttantavar cult, believe eating this rice from Aravan's face, recovered after the ceremony, can induce pregnancy.

In Cattiram Karuppur, near Kumbhakonam, a 25 feet (7.6 m) statue of Aravan is constructed horizontally and placed on the ground. Aravan's story is then re-enacted; one of the actors, believed to be possessed by Kali, kills a rooster over the statue's neck, symbolizing the sacrifice. Again, blood-soaked rice is distributed to devotees, especially childless women. Similar rituals associated with a symbolic sacrifice and blood-soaked rice are performed in Melaccari, Alantur, Punamalli and Villupuram. At Alantur and Punamalli, a goat is sacrificed, in Cuddalore, Patirikkuppam and Villupuram, a cock is sacrificed. In the districts of Cuddalore, Thanjavur and Villupuram, Aravan's head is hoisted to an elevated position to watch over the patukalam and the symbolic re-enactment of the Mahabharata war.

Javanese traditions

The Indonesian island of Java, run by the Srivijaya
Srivijaya was a powerful ancient thalassocratic Malay empire based on the island of Sumatra, modern day Indonesia, which influenced much of Southeast Asia. The earliest solid proof of its existence dates from the 7th century; a Chinese monk, I-Tsing, wrote that he visited Srivijaya in 671 for 6...

 dynasty of Sumatra
Sumatra is an island in western Indonesia, westernmost of the Sunda Islands. It is the largest island entirely in Indonesia , and the sixth largest island in the world at 473,481 km2 with a population of 50,365,538...

 from the 7th century, partly practised Hinduism
Hinduism in Java
Hinduism has historically been a major religious and cultural influence in Java. In recent years, it has also been enjoying something of a resurgence, particularly in the eastern part of the island.-Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms:...

. This included transmission and adoption of the Mahabharata traditions. "The earliest evidence of the penetration of the Sanskrit epics into rural areas is found in the Sangsang
Sangsang is a village in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. It lies at an altitude of 4676 metres . The village has a population of about 201 people.It lies approximately 16.9 miles north of Dobe and 17.4 miles west of Zhabsang.-See also:...

 copper plate inscription issued in the name of King Balitung
Sri Maharaja Rakai Watukura Dyah Balitung Sri Dharmodaya Mahasambu was the king of the Kingdom of Mataram. He reigned circa 899–911. His territories included Central Java, East Java, and Bali.- Origin :...

 in AD 907." A "rendering of the Mahābhārata (IAST original) into Javanese was undertaken under the patronage of King Dharmawangśa
Dharmawangsa was the last raja of the Kingdom of Medang from 990-1006 CE. He succeeded Sri Makutawangsawardhana. Dharmawangsa was the patron of the translator of the Mahabarata text into Old Javanese...

 Tĕguh (AD 990–1016)", culminating in "a recital of the Wirāṭaparwa
Virata Parva
Mahabharta Book 4 Virata Parva is the book of the Mahabharata about the 13th year of exile spent incognito at the court of Virata.-External links:* by Kisari Mohan Ganguli....

 for 'one month minus one evening'—commencing on 14 October and ending on 12 November 996." This first translation into Javanese was "abbreviated" and in "prose". However, East Java
East Java
East Java is a province of Indonesia. It is located on the eastern part of the island of Java and includes neighboring Madura and islands to its east and to its north East Java is a province of Indonesia. It is located on the eastern part of the island of Java and includes neighboring Madura and...

nese poets later started producing native metered kakawin
Kakawin are long narrative poems composed in Old Javanese, also called "Kawi", written in verse form with rhythms and metres derived from Sanskrit literature. Poets used a formalized literary language, rather than the vernacular...

, expanding on themes from the parvas ("books" or "chapters") of the Mahabharata, and freely importing these into Javanese settings. Petrus Josephus Zoetmulder
Petrus Josephus Zoetmulder
Petrus Josephus Zoetmulder S.J. was a Dutch expert in the Old Javanese language. He came from Utrecht and was associated with the Society of Jesus by 1925. He worked at Leiden University in the 1930s. His first work appeared in 1930 and he continued to write into the 1990s...

 commented: "These men and women with their Indian names are essentially Javanese, acting like Javanese, thinking like Javanese and living in a Javanese environment."
The stories of Iravan, usually spelled Irawan in Java, along with others from the Javanese version of the Mahabharata, are told in traditional Javanese theatre (wayang
Wayang is a Javanese word for theatre . When the term is used to refer to kinds of puppet theatre, sometimes the puppet itself is referred to as wayang...

), as well as shadow-puppet plays known as wayang kulit. As in India, Irawan is described as a son of Ardjuna (Arjuna) and Ulupi. While in India, Irawan's mother Ulupi is a Naga (serpent), in Javanese legends she is the daughter of the sage Kanwa (Jayawilapa in puppetry) of the Yasarata hermitage. Irawan is born and brought up in the hermitage under the care of his mother and grandfather, away from his father. Irawan and his stepbrother Abhimanju (Abhimanyu
Abhimanyu is a tragic hero in the Hindu epic, the Mahābhārata. He is the son of Arjuna and Subhadra, who is the half-sister of Lord Krishna...

) or Angkawijaya are the protagonists of more than 40 lakons ("scenes", "dramas" or "plays") set in the Amarta Period, the era of the Pandawas (Pandavas). In these lakons, Irawan is depicted as a lijepan character—"a small, extremely refined, controlled character, whose manner is modest". In the wayang kulit, he is referred to as a bambang ("refined knight"), depicted with a white face and dubbed with a light, floating voice. Irawan is also described as determined and calm.

Irawan Rabi
A popular lakon named Irawan Rabi ("Irawan's wedding") tells about the love of Irawan and Titisari, a daughter of Kresna (Krishna). While Titisari is engaged to Irawan, Baladewa (Baladeva), Kresna's brother and an ally of the Kurawas (Kauravas), wants her to marry Lesmana Mandrakumara, the son of Durjudana (Duryodhana), initiating a dramatic conflict. The conflict that ensues ends up being three-sided, among the Pandawas, Kurawas and the ogre-kingdom, whose evil ogre-king Barandjana plans to kidnap Titisari. The confusion that follows results in the outwitting and humiliation of the Kurawas. Siti Sendari, the eldest daughter of Kresna and the estranged wife of Abhimanju, takes advantage of the situation and schemes to bring Irawan and Titisari together, while also mending her relationships with her husband. Though officially Irawan and Titisari are the hero and heroine of the lakon, in reality they are mere spectators, not the movers, in the play. Brandon describes Irawan as a minor character. Irawan is also depicted as unassertive and manipulated by others, which is common in South Asian theatre. Another lakon called Serat Lampahan Pregiwa Pregiwati also relates a tale about the love of Irawan and Titisari.

Serat Gambiranom

In a lakon called Serat Gambiranom, written in macapat verse by Mangkunegara IV's court poet R. M. Ng. Wiryakusuma in 1883, and embellished by anonymous later poets, Irawan becomes the king of Ngrancang Kencana and earns the title Prabu Gambiranom. Yet another lakon, Irawan Maling, discusses a duel between Irawan and Angkawijaya.

The kakawin text Irawan(an)taka ("Death of Irawan"), also known as Parthawijaya ("Arjuna's Victory"), describes Irawan's death in the Bharatayuddha (Mahabharata war). At the beginning of the Bharatayuddha, Irawan advances to the battlefield along with his brothers. Together, they kill many Kurawas. Later, the demon (ditya) Kalasrenggi encounters Irawan. Kalasrenggi, whose father was killed by Ardjuna, mistakes Irawan for Ardjuna because of the similarity of their appearance and kills him. Arjuna then kills Kalasrenggi to avenge Irawan's death. The death of Irawan is placed at the very beginning of the war in the Javanese version of the Mahabharata. The puppetry version of the story places this encounter between Irawan and Kalasrenggi even before Irawan's meeting with his father, ahead of the Bharatayuddha.

External links

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