[Editor’s Note: This piece is written by a person hailing from a priestly caste as they negotiate their faith for themself. We invite folx from diverse caste locations to share their stories of navigating faith, whether they be narratives of reclamation, distinction from monolithic Hindu tradition, outright rejection or any other treatment.]
When I was a kid, our family use to visit a Yellama temple, where several ethnic transwomen from the Jogini community would dress up as Goddess Durga, dance and do things which conventionally may need a lot of conviction. These women would walk on inflamed coal, balance several Hundis on their head and even pierce themselves with humungous needles. One time, as I was watching the ritual, one of them came to me and handed me a rose flower, put her hand over my head, and said, may the Devi bless you.
This isn’t a singular or one-off religious event displaying gender non-conformity that I have had the chance to witness. I also recollect a cult in Bengal in whose tradition, a man would deck himself up as Kali and parade across the village and give blessings to everyone. The villagers would offer a red saree, put Sindhur on her forehead while the person completely immersed themself into the trance of being the goddess. These visuals as a child made me see feminine gods as more powerful and internalizing them over the masculine gods.
I am born into a family with weird ideologies regarding religion and politics. My father who works as a priest at a temple by day and engages in discussions about the communist revolution at night, is a person who believes religion but also questions it time and again to seek answers. For me, I don’t get along with what’s written in the scriptures but reclaim faith for myself as I want it to be, and that has made all the difference.
My faith plays a huge role in my queerness. For me, seeking faith is like eating fish, we don’t choke on the thorns but take the meat. Lot of things have been written negating the queer existence in the faith that I was born into, but the onus of accepting that is on me. I always felt my inner soul was a Devi , a feminine figure that is highly conscious, tames toxic masculinity, curtails rigid structures , one who is liberated from every rule of the gender binary.
Lately I have been fascinated by the Shakta cult, where Devi seems to be a core figure. But, when I see an image of a goddess, I always see them represented by the bodies of cis women. The trans-women whom I had witnessed weren’t presented at the forefront and when realizing so, how do I connect with my fate? That was a tough question to ask. When things are rigidly stated in our faith, our faith then depends on how we make it sensible. I felt a huge relief with transposing my Drag with my faith.
I started painting gods on my face and created looks inspired by these imageries. Dressing up my queer body as a god became a ritual for me to connect with my faith. It may be a closeted ritual, or a way where I impose my personal gender politics into my faith. I started creating photo projects with my body as canvas, posing asmany a Devi.
In 2021, as a part of Navaratri, I thought of doing a ritual of dressing myself up on all the 9 days as a Devi. Not a ritual that is passed down, but embodying the energy that we believe in, and it was indeed the most surreal experience.
I picked up the tradition of Matrikas, a group of mother goddesses who are always depicted together in Hinduism. The Matrikas are often depicted in a group of 7, often referred to as the Saptamatrika(s) (Seven Mothers). The idea behind it is that “Mothers are to be made with cognizance of (different Hindu) gods corresponding to their names.” They are associated with these gods as their energies (Shakti’s).
Brahmani from Brahma, narasimhi from Vishnu, Maheshvari from Shiva, Indrani from Indra, Kaumari from Skanda, Varahi from Varaha and Chamunda from Devi. The identity that amalgamated masculine and feminine energy was my core inspiration in creating these looks.
This drag ritual helped me connect to the image in a personal way and express these images through ny gender variant body. I could redefine the idea for myself, of a femininity that is inclusive of trans and non-binary bodies . This aspect of Matrikas’ gender fluidity made me connect better with the nature of my faith, in a manner that accepts and gives space to reclaim the images for myself. As depicted in a famous scene in the movie PK , placing a sticker with the image of a deity on one’s face would make people avoid slapping it. Dressing up as God somehow made me think that this would negate the abuse, trauma and ridicule I would get as a queer person as I shield behind the images of my faith.
The body now becomes a tapestry to reclaim my faith releasing it from the boxes of gender, allowing myself live my authentic self.