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Dying before the Mahābhārata War: Martial and Transsexual Bodybuilding for Aravāṉ

  • Alf Hiltebeitel


Two tamil mahābhārata folk cults that I have studied recreate the Indian epic's “sacrifice of battle” in their festivals, and rethematize, in the symbolic registers of south Indian village goddesses and regional kingdoms, its meditations on death and regeneration (Hiltebeitel {1976} 1990:245–360; 1988a:394–435). One is the cult of Draupadī (the epic's chief heroine); the other that of Kuttantavar, son of Arjuna (the epic's chief hero) and the serpent-woman UlupT. I will focus here primarily on the latter. Kuttantavar is a Tamil deity whose myths and rituals orchestrate multiple, multiform deaths. The enormity of death that is incorporated in either cult's performance of the Mahābhārata war is, in the Kūttāṇṭavar cult, condensed into the reiterated deaths and revivals of this one hero, and expressed metaphorically through mythic and ritual forms of body-building—involving icons, effigies, and persons—that construct, transform, dismantle, and reconstruct bodies and heads. Although the metaphor could also apply to Draupadī cult rituals, it is especially appropriate for Kūttāṇṭavar, who is built up like Kirilov in Dostoievsky's The Possessed. What is surprising in his cult, and or moment for this paper, is that this primarily martial metaphor has been appropriated by Alis, Tamil transsexuals or “eunuchs.”



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Dying before the Mahābhārata War: Martial and Transsexual Bodybuilding for Aravāṉ

  • Alf Hiltebeitel


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