American Ethnological Society
Oral Presentation Session
Goddess Angalamman is worshipped by various Tamil communities in southern India. Thirunangai transgender women are particularly devoted to her worship, and many of them serve as priestesses, ritual officiants, and mediums for the goddess during moments of trance. While their devotion to Angalamman offers them a place in the cultural world alongside other communities who also worship her, their own narrativizing of the Thirunangai-Goddess relationship helps them distinguish themselves from others through fresh interpretations of myths, iconography, and gender. Thirunangais (especially the Maruladis, those who ‘dance the deity’ in trance) have their own readings of why they are special to the goddess, why she is central to their transgender identity, and why she might herself be a transgender goddess. Through a discussion of mythological and iconographic interpretations offered by two Thirunangai devotees of the goddess, this paper shows that while such narrativizing offers a rich sense of self and meaning to many Thirunangais, they do not find the need to make known their specific theology. Such an approach, this paper argues, helps them balance their expressions of oneness with and separation from the non-Thirunangai world around them. This presentation charts the place of religious practice and interpretations of religious knowledge among Thirunangai transgender women in their balancing of identity and difference in everyday social life in the city of Chennai in southern India.