Goddess in the World: Ethical Self Making Among Thirunangai Transgender Women in Chennai

Aniruddhan Vasudevan is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas. He was the recipient of the 2016-2017 AIIS Joe Elder College Year in India Junior Fellowship.

In 2016-2017 he conducted fieldwork for his Ph.D. dissertation with a group of Thirunangai transgender women in Chennai. His focus was on the importance of the worship of Goddess Angalamman to the Thirunangai life-world, so he worked closely with those Thirunangais who were deeply involved in goddess worship and articulated this special attachment in various ways. He arrived at this particular phenomenon quite fortuitously when his earlier project became unviable. But, as he proceeded with the earlier decision to meet elders in the community in order to understand the various dimensions of Thirunangai kinship, he soon found that Goddess Angalamman had a central role in their lives. The Goddess kept showing up in various ways: in self-narratives, in the striking visuality of home shrines, in the way others spoke of Thirunangais, etc. This was particularly true of those who lived in north Chennai and those who lived elsewhere in the city but considered the various neighborhoods of north Chennai as their home. In his dissertation, he use pseudonyms for all my interlocutors from the field.

A younger Thirunangai helps a senior Thirunangai Maruladi dress up as Goddess Angalamman the night before Mayana-k-kollai ritual

Those who embody the goddess in moments of trance are called ‘Maruladigal’ in Tamil – a term that applies to all genders. And those Thirunangais who perform this ritual function of trance embodiment, divination, and healing are called ‘Thirunangai Maruladigal’ – literally, ‘Thirunangais who dance the trance’ (Tamil plural forms such as ‘Maruladigal’ and ‘Thirunangaigal’ often become anglicized plural nouns when used in English language texts – ‘Maruladis’ and ‘Thirunangais’). He spent a great deal of time with such Thirunangai Maruladigal and recorded their stories of engagement both as priestesses to the goddess and as elders in the Thirunangai community. They balance their significant roles in, at least, two different worlds: the world that revolves around their intense attachment to the goddess, and the world of Thirunangai kinship in which they hold important places as community elders, mothers, gurus, etc.

A full piece about Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s research can be found in the fall DAK 32