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Drawing from Myth to Become Mistress of Spices

The smell of egg and mutton biriyani fills the air at Shilpa's stall at the 'Aravanis' talent village' near the Koothandavar temple as the Hindu deity is readied// for his marriage with hundreds of transvestites in an annual ritual.

Shilpa is an 'Aravani', one who is among nearly 300,000 transvestites who live in this South Indian state and cooking is one skill they have traditionally inherited. They say transvestites are good cooks because mythological hero Arjuna in his disguise as Brihannala, a transvestite, became a palace cook.

Many families in the southern districts believe that until the 'Aravani' stirs the cooking pot, the correct 'pakkuam' or the right degree of cooking will not happen.

And, instead of selling sex on the sidelights of the biggest transgender gathering in the country this week, Shilpa, who is a master chef, along with her team of Aravanis, set up a food stall for the thousands of visitors to Kooavagam village.

The myth of the Aravan is from the epic Mahabharata. Aravan, a warrior, was asked what his last wish was just before he went for a battle. He wanted to experience married bliss and the gods fulfilled his wish, taking the form of a beautiful bride.

The deity at the temple festival in Koovagam village, about 200 km south of Chennai, gets married to thousands of transvestites prettily dressed up as brides at the same auspicious hours when Lord Shiva is said to have married Meenakshi, the goddess of Madurai. The next morning the transvestites mark a period of widowhood, when Aravan goes to war and dies.

In a society where myth and superstition make for a heady mix, the real mistress of spices is Mathana from Ukakadam.

She took to cooking at a tender age of 12 but as her family discovered that she was a transvestite, it shunned her until the Aravani community took her in.

'One elderly Aravani and a Muslim family changed my life,' she told IANS at Villu
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