CHENNAI: At a time when the country continues to be divided on the opinion whether women should enter temples or not, Ravi Amma, a priestess from the transgender community, has made strides, creating an unprecedented revolution in inclusivity.
For the last 12 years, she has been the head priestess at the Thiruvengatamudayan Krishnamari Amman Temple, Old Washermenpet, which has a footfall of more than 100 devotees every day. Speaking to Express, the 38-year-old resident of Soliapannan Street recalls her whirlwind journey.
Clad in a checked green-yellow shirt and veshti, Ravi Amma is busy interacting with devotees. She’s swift, and one cannot but notice her confident demeanour and abstract tattoos.
“I dropped out of the Corporation school in class 6 and used to be around small roadside shrines in Washermenpet, helping clean the premises, buying fruits for the puja and dressing up the deity,” she recalls.
Over time, her steadfast devotion and service in the upkeep of the shrines and assisting in the conduct of pujas were recognised by the locals.
By the age of 16, she had learned the art of being a priestess — from draping saris to the deity, chanting slokas to offering darshans. “I have no guru. I saw what other priests did and grasped everything from day-to-day life,” she smiles.
When she turned 18, an incident fuelled her to take up the role as a priestess. “When I wanted to enter the sanctum sanctorum of a temple in Tondiarpet, a priest told me to ‘step aside’.” That was the first time she felt discriminated. “I thought: ‘How am I any lesser?’,” she shares.
After the incident, she went back to her daily life of maintaining local temples. Two years later, during the Kumba Abhisekham of a temple built by VG Bose, a resident of MCM Garden, Old Washermenpet, her life took a serendipitous turn.
Ravi Amma had taken it upon herself to help the temple priest make arrangements for the ritual. The event was a grand success. Later, the head priest decided to quit the temple management due to health-related issues, leaving a void.
A new lease of life
Bose, who had observed Ravi Amma’s sincerity during the Kumba Abhishekam decided to offer her the role of the temple caretaker. She readily agreed and never turned back.
Following the transition, she has conducted several Kumba Abhishekams, Ganapathi Homams, and other ceremonies. Except for selective unpleasant incidents, she tells us she has never felt different being a priestess in a conservative society.
“First, my family accepted me. They are neither rich nor did they have education but they had the heart to not see me differently,” says the priestess, whose father is a coconut vendor; mother, runs a pushcart tiffin service, and brother, an auto-rickshaw driver.
The society, she says, accepts members of the transgender community only based on their needs and faith. “People have faith in god and here in my society, people had the heart to understand that I am a person who is dedicated to god and recognised me for my passion and service,” she says.
The temple which is headed by Ravi Amma was initially a Bajanai madam and used to house only the idol of Lord Krishna.
After her initiation, she brought about a cultural change in the temple by installing an Amman idol with donations from the residents and named the temple Krishna Mariamman temple. Interestingly, the Sangam period temples have had priestesses to the deity Maari Amman, and Ravi Amma says she is “taking forward the age-old tradition”.
“The temple is open to all. Neither nature nor god has set any rules barring anyone from entering the temple. It is the rules set by people,” she says.
Some devotees also perceive her as a divine manifestation. “People find me divine. They share their problems and get solace by talking to me,” she shares. Despite recurring incidence of violence against the transgender community, Ravi Amma believes transgenders are gradually being accepted in society.