In the last two articles, we read about Barbareek, aka Khatu Shyam Baba, a North Indian deity prevalent in parts of Rajasthan and adjacent areas. Today we will read about a similar myth from the South India. Please note the striking similarities.
This is the myth of Iravan which is prevalent in Tamil Nadu and the nearby areas.
Iravan was the son of Arjuna and Uloopi, the Naga princess. During the 13 year exile for the Pandavas, one year was spent by Arjuna as a penance and during this year he is supposed to have travelled far and wide. This was actually done for him to forge alliances and acquire weapons and powers. It was during this one year that, he visited what is present day North-East of India. There he came across Uloopi and they get married. However, the relationship was a very brief one as Arjuna had to move on soon after his marriage. Iravan was born out of this brief relationship. However, Arjuna gets to see his son only prior to the war of Kurukshetra and asks him to join the war, which the brave Iravan agrees to.
There are no major reasons or events leading to his sacrifice, except for the fact that he was a brave warrior and the principle of offering sacrifice prior to the war. There are different versions of the sacrifice in the case of Iravan. Some say that he offered to be sacrificed on the 18th day of the battle to Ma Kali. The more prevalent belief is that he was sacrificed at the beginning of the war. However he was rewarded by a couple of boons for the heroic deed. One was that his head would witness the entire battle from a hilltop. The other boon was that since he wanted to die a heroic death, he wanted to be mourned by a widow after his death.
|Ritual enactment of lamenting the|
death of Iravan by eunuchs
Having agreed to the boon, there was one problem. No woman wanted to marry him and be his wife for a night as he was to die the very next day. Seeing this Krishna decides to take his previous form of Mohini, the enchantress, gets married to Iravan and spends the night with him. Later in the morning, after his death, Mohini mourns the death of Iravan like a widow. There are different versions to this aspect, in different parts of the state and its neighbourhood with some eliminating the episode of Mohini’s mourning completely. Even to this day, in a ritual enactment of the mourning, many transvestites and eunuchs enact the ritual mourning by crying, beating their chests and breaking bangles on the day of the said sacrifice of Iravan. In some Krishna temples, he is decked in a white saree for a day, to mark the day as the day of widowhood.
What is interesting to note is that more than worship or a religious following, Iravan is a very popular folklore and a common theme or subject of folk theaters and plays. This myth could just have been woven to lend divinity to Iravan the folk hero by associating him with Arjuna and Lord Krishna of the epic Mahabharata. His face makes for very colourful masks and is a great hit with the locals in the rural areas. He is also referred to as the god of the transvestites and the eunuchs who are locally referred to as Ali’s also referred to as Aravani (that of Iravan).
In some of the plays which dramatizes the whole episode of Iravan, he is compared with the likes of Puru and Bhishma who are known to have sacrificed for their fathers, Yayati and Shantanu respectively. Iravan’s sacrifice of his life for the victory of his father is seen as bigger than that of Puru who gave up his youth for his father Yayati and Bhishma who gave up the throne and matrimony for his father, Shantanu.
Though there are similarities with that of Barbareek, there are some prominent differences, besides the parentage of the two.
First and foremost, the heroic allusions are missing in the case of Iravan, though the same does find mention in the dramatic enactments of Iravan. Nowhere is there reference of his infallible arrows and his participation in the war having a pre-condition.
Second, Lord Krishna does not have the role of testing Iravan; rather here he is central to being part of the sacrifice. He does suggest the sacrifice, but he does not make it obligatory as a word given for charity as done in the case of Barbareek. Thus in this myth, Krishna actually comes out as a savior who bails out Iravan with his last wish.
Third, the association with the transgender and transvestites is a bit of an enigma. How this practice of Iravan being a god for the community and the ritual enactment of mourning by them came about is unknown. However, one can theory could be that the marriage could not be said to be consummated as ultimately Mohini was a male and the relationship was thus not normal. Also, except for the mourning by the widow of Iravan, there wasn’t anything of a marriage as he was still deprived of a coital bliss, something that the community is deprived of too. The identification of the Ali’s state with that of Iravan and thus the lament is quite understandable. (If there are any other theories, then please feel free to forward the same to the Blog..).
During this period a number of fertility rites are also performed. One of them is that prior to the ceremony, a goat is killed and the blood of the goat is smeared with cooked rice and the same is offered to idols of Iravan. It is believed that this rice eaten by women can help them conceive. The presence of such rituals actually bears testimony to some ancient practice (even tribal practive) which has got assimilated with the popular epic. The strong folk-connotation also refers to some folklore associated with a popular folktale.
An interesting myth, but localized as per the region.
It is said that there are similar characters in other parts of India like Bundelkhand, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh. There is a popular version of Iravan in Java too, but that’s for another day!