The Mystery of the Threshold
"Ali" of Southern India
 * * *
A Documentary Project by
Ulrike Niklas
In Collaboration with Pondicherry University
(Indo-German Project of Cultural Anthropology)
With the support of DAAD

A Preliminary Account


This article is in fact nothing else but a preliminary account of the project in question. In the meantime, a first phase of research and documentary-work has been accomplished (July-October 1997), the results of which will be published in future volumes of KOLAM, in the form of translations of interviews, bibliographical sketches and more photographic material.

My interest in the "Ali" was created by chance : while I was employed in the French Institute of Pondicherry, we there received the visit of a French photo-journalist, who wanted to make a report on festivals in Tamilnadu. It so happened that just at that time the so-called "Ali-festival" took place at Pillaiyarkuppam. I accompanied the journalist and got thus my first glimpse of these strange but interesting and often very lovely people. During the following years I frequented the festival again several times. I built up friendship with several of the "Ali" who come to Pillaiyarkuppam every year, and I started collecting documentary material in the form of photos, videos and interviews. - Still, I began thinking earnestly about a sincere project on "Ali" only just a few months ago, when I was offered the opportunity to come to Pondicherry on a short-term lectureship sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). By and by the idea developed to combine teaching and research in such a manner, that finally, as the result of the entire project, a documentary video-film (along with a booklet containing more detailed information) should be prepared, and the aim of which would be to give a portrait, as detailed as possible, of the ritual and social environment of the "Ali", as well as of their day-to-day life.

The plan of the project is as follows :

First, we will investigate into the historical dimension, including religious-legendary aspects, for which we will be concerned with literature: Tamil and Sanskrit.

Then, we will turn to the "Ali" of modern times, with the following questions in mind : How and why does someone become "Ali"? - How is their social organization? - The religious and ritual dimensions in the lives of "Ali" (here, among other things, a study of the "Ali"-festival). - The role of "Ali" in society and the way they are regarded (by their colleagues, neighbours, family-members, etc.).

And finally, these rather general and theoretical expositions will be followed by individual portraits of "Ali" (in text and pictures).


The ancient legend about Vishnu in his form as Narasimha relates how the demonic king Hiranya undertook severe penance and gave a large amount of offerings, in order to get a boon granted by the Gods. When it became impossible for the Heavenly Rulers to resist any longer, and they asked him what would be the boon he wanted to get fulfilled, he claimed that he should never be killed

-neither by any human being, nor by an animal,

-neither during day, nor during night,

-neither inside, nor outside his palace.

Reluctantly, the Gods granted the boon. Hiranya now felt sure and invincible enough to start tyrannizing earth and heaven and all the spaces. Soon, the situation became unbearable, and the Gods decided, that something had to be done.

As mostly in such situations in which the world-order is endangered, it was Vishnu who took on an appropriate incarnation and solved the problem: Vishnu came to earth in the guise of Narasimhan, Man-Lion, hence neither human nor animal, and he killed Hiranya at the time of dusk, when it is neither day nor night, on the threshold of his palace, hence neither inside nor outside.

Why do I tell this story here?

Because it is a story mainly about the "threshold" and its mysticism - the "being neither nor" or the "being both at the same time" and hence none of the components exclusively. And this same fact is true, to a large degree, for the "Ali" who form the subject of our present investigation.

The Tamil term "Ali" actually groups together individuals belonging to different forms and different grades of intensity of the phenomenon in question, the only thing they have in common being that they can't be clearly defined as masculine or as feminine.

An "Ali" may be a simple transvestite, an eunuch, a transsexual, or a hermaphrodite. - Throughout India there exist different "societies" of such people, obviously belonging to entirely different cultures. A very common sight in the north India metropolis (Delhi, Mumbai) are the Hijra, which most probably go back to the eunuchs which had traditionally been kept in rich muslim houses and muslim royal courts. - Another cultural background seems to exist in the case of the Yellamma-worshippers in Karnataka, who gather in great number in a small village during the annual festival of this deity. It appears that here, transsexuals and eunuchs have dedicated themselves to the goddess. This cult seems to belong to an identical level of village religion as the Kuttandavar-Aravan cult of northern Tamilnadu (about which we are going to speak more in detail), though to a different cultural environment. Moreover, in Karnataka the geographical proximity to Mumbai results in a mixing-up with the Hijra-tradition.

I have so far studied somewhat more in detail the "Ali" community of Tamil Nadu. Hence, whatever is said in what follows, should be understood as applying only to the "Ali", unless explicitly stated otherwise.

Historical Aspects

Persons in explicit with regard to their sex - and hence with regard to the grammatical gender to be used denoting them - are known right from the beginnings of Tamil Literature onward: Tolkappiyam, the earliest Tamil grammar available, and most probably the most ancient Tamil work available at all, already includes specific mention of persons "where the maleness is dormant" (Albert), which, according to the commentators signifies hermaphrodites with a clearly effeminate character. For them, as Tolkappiyam states, masculine forms are not applicable, hence, the commentators give examples using feminine endings with the verbs. The situation seems to be more complicated in the case of persons whose sex can't be determined, or who are sex-less (thus, obviously, the ancient meaning of the term "Ali"): for them, again according to the commentaries, the rule given above doesn't apply; but there is another rule, according to which, here, neuter forms apply.

This is not the context to enter into a deeper discussion of the grammatical intricacies, nor of the etymology and use of the different words for "Ali" known to Tolkappiyam and its commentators. These are purely philological details to be worked out and to be included in the final stage of this project. What is interesting for us right in the moment, is to observe, that this subject is treated - and in such a comparatively broad manner - by the ancient grammar at all. Shouldn't we understand from this, that at the time of the composition of Tolkappiyam a more or less numerous community of "Ali" was in existence, and was important enough to be treated in a differentiating manner in a general grammar-book?

If we want to search for further clues from literature, there are actually two ways to go. On the one hand we should look for instances of the occurrence of the words given in the grammar and commentaries and of possible synonyms of them. On the other hand we should look out for signs and hints to the phenomenon as such, as may be found in stories and legends, in (classical) literature as well as in oral tales. And here, we can be sure to find a rich "harvest", both in the Sanskrit- and the Tamil-traditions of puranic literature.

Different stories are told about Vishnu's incarnation as Mohini, a beautiful woman. There are several legends according to which Shiva and Mohini get children together (though never the "natural" way). One very famous son of this couple is Aiyanar, conceived by Mohini in her hand, with which she caught Shiva's sperm that he lost, enraptured by the sight of this beautiful woman.

The episode of Mohini's marriage with Aravan, which is central to the religious world of Tamil "Ali", and about which we are going to speak in detail later on, is known only in the southern version of the great epic Mahabharata. Hence, the southern versions of this epic, both Tamil and Sanskrit, have to be scrutinized for this story.

More instances of the occurrence of Vishnu-Mohini can be found, and it should be a part of this project, to collect as many stories and versions as possible.

In the field of Shaiva-mythology, what comes immediately to our mind, is Shiva's form as Ardhanarishvara, in which the left half of his body is female. This form of god obviously existed already in earliest times, when the human mind was mainly preoccupied with concepts of creation and fertility. Later on, when thinking became more and more sophisticated and gave rise to philosophy and philosophically based theology, the androgynous form of god underwent a more and more refined interpretation on a symbolic level, and it can actually be traced up to "shakta" ideas, which claim that Shiva can become active only through his (female) shakti - an idea which is also basic for the philosophical-theological school "Caivacittanta".

Hence, in Vishnu-Mohini we can see the divine "transsexual" and in Shiva-Ardhanarishvara the divine "hermaphrodite". With other words, these concepts are deeply embedded into pan-indian culture up to the present day.

 If a comparative outlook may be allowed: it appears that in ancient greek/roman mythology the concept of hermaphrodism was well known, too, but has later on, through the spread of Christianity I suppose, been wiped out from the consciousness of people. Hence, persons who belong to the groups in question here, are nowadays much more marginalized, and even stigmatized, in western societies, than in the Indian society, which knows better to cope with these phenomena and to integrate them - even if only in the marginal spheres of its system.

"Ali" in Modern Times

Why and how does a person become an "Ali" ?

There are - as to my knowledge - no documents available which would teach us why and how a man would get himself transformed into an "Ali", whether in ancient times or today. Hence, for this part of the project, we have to depend largely on what we can learn from interviews and observations. According to what we came to know until now, the decision to become an "Ali" is a problematic choice, which touches the deepest layers of the personality. Every case is different, and a broad generalization is to be excluded - that's mainly, why we are going to include individual portraits of "Ali" into this documentary.

 In most cases known to us, it appears that the wish to be a female already was there in early childhood, whether innate (hence, without an obvious causing factor), or engendered by environment and education.
Several individuals told me, that this desire (subconsciously in the beginning) was provoked by their position in the family, having been the youngest son in a family with only male children. As the youngest, the boy had to help with household-chores which were normally considered to be "female" works; hence, without his knowledge first, he identified himself more and more with the role reserved for women in the traditional society, so much so, that later on he found it too difficult to find back to his "normal" male role.

Other individuals stated, that they chose to live a "female" life, since they considered the male world as too brutal for them.

Only a single person among the "Ali" known to us declared herself as homosexual from early adolescence on wards.

About the actual operation undergone by transsexuals, information are not easily to be acquired - for obvious reasons: in most of the cases the operation takes place in an environment which is considered holy and ritualistic by the "Ali"-community itself, but illegal by the "outer world". And even if there wouldn't be fear of the law: the context of the operation seems to be highly "taboo" and no outsider can get access.

Still, one "Ali" was willing to speak about these things somewhat openly, and what we came to know from her is the following:

There are different possibilities to get operated, which also reflect different degrees of ritualization of the process. Almost
without any religious element, hence a mere medical case, is the operation undertaken in a specialized clinic, but this only very well-to-do individuals can afford, and it is rather exceptional.

Most of the "Ali"-to-be get treated by persons who could be called "shamans". According to our informants, these persons live or at least practise normally in dense jungle-areas (in this context, Andhra Pradesh is mentioned very often), away from "civilization" (and its laws).

The person who chooses to become an "Ali", will normally go through an initiating phase - different in each single case - before he decides to get his body adapted to the mental process he has gone through and which made him prefer the female role. The operation sometimes involves the use of drugs, and almost always possession and trance, most probably as a traditional means to cope with the severe pain. The wound is treated with hot oil and water, and the patient gets a strengthening diet for about 40 days. After that, he is dismissed. Astonishingly few cases of death as a result from the operation are known.

Please, click on  (in the following parts of the text) to view photos. - We apologize for the bad quality of some of the pictures: in several cases we had to work with ordinary video-material which was digitized with the help of a video-card.

Social Organization

Most of the "Ali" who live permanently in Tamilnadu, are found in Madras and we will mainly focus on them. It appears that the Madras-"Ali" live in different groups in several quarters all over the town. One major centre is Saidapet, another one the region around Parry's Corner. Every group has a leader (often called "guru"), who possesses high authority. The "Ali" don't, however, live next to each other in a "ghetto"-like environment, but spread all over the part of the town, living naturally among a "normal" neighbourhood.

Sometimes two of them live together, and there are quite many cases of transsexual "Ali" which are married to "normal" men . Some of these couples have adopted children (very often girls!), for whom they care very well and lovingly. These married "Ali" lead in fact an almost normal life of married women.

Young "Ali" are very often attracted by the big cities Delhi and Mumbai, where they can more easily make a living -officially with their traditional occupation: singing and dancing, and benedicting at occasions of childbirth; unofficially with prostitution, which obviously allows the more attractive among them to gain substantial amounts of money within a short time (with very few exceptions, rarely anybody, however, is freely outspoken about this).

I have visited several "Ali" in Madras, and from what I saw, I can tell that they seem to be well integrated in their neighbourhood. One person, being a priestess of a temple of Angalamman, even receives higher respect from her environment. She also seemed to be active politically, though only on the small level of her quarter. I have spoken with neighbours and found that there was not the least tendency to mocking remarks or to ridicule her.

Another "Ali" works as a fish seller in a market in Madras, which also means, that she is integrated into "normal" society. There are other individuals who obviously live at home, with their parents or with other near relatives.

We will go more in depth with these case-studies in the course of the project.

Ritual and Religious Life

One episode found only in the Southern version of the Mahabharata is the story of how Vishnu transformed into a beautiful woman, Mohini, gets married to the young hero Aravan, who has been identified with the village-god Kuttandavar.

In the big war of eighteen days, in which the two clans "Pandava" and "Kaurava" opposed each other on the battle-field, none of the two would gain a decisive battle: both were endowed with equal powers. Finally, the gods decided to interfere and made known that the clan in which a young hero would be ready to sacrifice his life in the following day's battle, would win the war. Aravan, the son of Arjuna, who was the greatest hero among the Pandava, declared himself ready for this supreme sacrifice. He posed only one condition: being young and unmarried so far, he didn't want to die as a bachelor. Hence, he demanded to be married that very night. - But which father would be ready to give his daughter into marriage to someone who is surely to die the very next day?

So finally,Vishnu decided to help the Pandava: he took on his role as Mohini and married Aravan. The marriage took place during the night - and the next day, on the battlefield, the young bridegroom died, leaving Mohini behind as a widow.

It is this story which is replayed again and again every year during the festivals at Kuvakkam and Pillaiyarkuppam (and in several more villages, which have not become as famous as these two), and which are popularly known as "Ali-Festivals". Though also normal villagers and devotees participate with enthusiasm in this celebration, it are actually mainly the "Ali", who come to the village every year in great numbers, and sometimes from as far away as Mumbai or Delhi , who identify themselves entirely with this story and with the character of Vishnu-Mohini. At least for "Ali" of Tamil origin - regardless of where they have settled and live at present - this festival appears to be the greatest religious event of the year. In what follows, I will give a tentative description of the festival, as it takes place in Pillaiyarkuppam: The village Pillaiyarkuppam possesses a small temple dedicated exclusively to  Kuttandavar-Aravan in which every year a ten day-festival is held. The climax of this festival are the two last days, vernacularly called "Ali-Festival". The first day, from about noon on wards, groups of "Ali" start arriving. Every group has a traditional host in the village, in whose house arrangements are made for stay and food.

In the later afternoon, joyful singing and dancing starts in front of the  Kuttandavar-temple: the "Ali", all of them wearing saris and female jewellery, dance round-dances normally performed only by women, and sing improvised songs (with often very erotic contents) in anticipation of the marriage-ceremony that is going to take place during the night, and in which all of them, together with thousands of local villagers who participate in this ritual in fulfillment of vows, will become brides of the god ,.

In the early morning of the next day, the god - now a married man - will go round the village in a triumphant procession on a huge chariot,, in order to receive the offerings of the villagers (betel, coconut, bananas, flowers, camphor-flames; here and there also a cock). At about noon, the god arrives back in front of his temple.

And at this moment, the whole atmosphere of the festival changes into its direct reverse: what was joyful before becomes sad, instead of the erotic songs, lamentations are chanted ,, and laughter is replaced by tears and weeping . A sort of general mourning hysteria spreads everywhere: the god has died on the battlefield, and all his brides are widows.

In a second procession Kuttandavar is brought to the cremation-ground : a harvested field at the outskirts of the village - where the funeral rites are carried out. The "Ali" now break their glass-bangles and tear off their marriage-badges . Then they leave the ground and go back to the village to tie white saris as a sign of their widowhood - while the last remains of Kuttandavar (in this case bushels of straw, from which the body of the procession-effigy was built, while his head is made from wood and will be preserved) are burnt , a ceremony to which women normally don't have access. The "Ali", all clad in their white saris, will leave the village the same night - the festival is over.

A more detailed and interpretative description of this festival will be given in a later stage of this project, based on the results from some more spot-investigations, interviews and from literary studies.

One major point still remains to be mentioned.

"Ali" come from very different layers of society: I have met individuals who came originally from very rich families, others from very poor houses, and quite a number emerged out of middle-class households. In the same way, there are "Ali" who come from Brahmin-families, as well as "Ali" from other communities, including the so called Scheduled Castes etc. Moreover I met, also among the Tamil "Ali", persons of Muslim-origin. All these different personalities, once they join the "Ali"-community, do away with their previous identity and its social and religious rules. They adopt a new form of communal life, considering themselves as equals among equals in their community, but for the fact, that they recognize leaders ("guru") from among themselves, and that they respect elder individuals in the same way as they would respect elder sisters, mothers, aunts, ...

They also adopt a common religion and common religious rituals and cults - as to my present knowledge with Vishnu-Mohini in the central position. But this does not exclude the worship of other deities, too, as is the case in every Indian (Hindu) family or -community.



Some Portraits of Individual "Ali"

In the following I will introduce our main informants in a very abridged way. More extensive portrayals will be found in the video-documentation which I hope to accomplish within about one year from now.

Click on the underlined name to load a sheet with portrait-photos

1. Gangu, transsexual; about 50-55 years of age. Owner and priestess of an Angalamman-temple inside the slum of Saidapet. She was born in this slum. During her youth she spent about 7 years in Mumbai (most probably prostitution). When the goddess appeared to her in a dream and asked her to go back to Madras, to install a temple, and to become her priestess, Gangu followed this call and went home. - It appears, that in her environment she is a well respected, even influential personality. I have visited her several times in her hut, and I found that she was treated with respect by her neighbours. Gangu is one of our main informants and interviewees.

2. Kumari, transsexual, in her mid-thirties; a sincere and very intelligent person. She has visited a school at least up to the 10th standard. The greatest part of the year she lives in Mumbai, where she seems to own a lucrative business. - Kumari possesses a very critical mind which makes her one of our most important informants, though - until now - she refused to speak about herself and her biography. Unlike s many other individuals of her community, she does not give the impression to live without any forethought.

3. Meena, homosexual, transvestite - but not transsexual. About forty years of age. She was born in Coimbatore into a middle-class family. She left her home at the age of seventeen, because of difficulties in the family, caused by her inclination. She went to Bombay where within one year she earned enough money to open her own "etablissement". She is now very well off. Every year she attends the festival at Kuvakkam, where she comes along with a larger group of her "girls". - Meena is highly educated and intelligent. She speaks English fluently. She doesn't have any inhibitions and is very outspoken about her life and her environment. Recently she has brought out a booklet, with the help of Ruth Lor Malloy (cf. Below, Selected References). Actually, Meena claims to belong to the "Hijra" of Mumbai, and she also adores the mother goddess which is central in their religious life. Still, she also follows in many aspects rituals and traditions of the Ali of her native Tamilnadu.

4. Parvati, a transsexual of about twenty five years of age. Beautiful, fresh: a lovely young girl by appearance. She is - on first encounter - really an example for a successful transition, both physical and mental. She seems to be very proud of her new identity and obviously feels extremely well n her female role. She has been operated in a ritual way and is ready to speak about her experience quite openly. She seems to live with relatives and claims to gain a living by singing and dancing during domestic rituals.

5. Sikamani, transsexual, about 35 years of age. Works as a fish-seller in a market in the northern part of Madras. During the festival-time, when I met her in the Pondicherry-region, she appeared like an alcoholic, already severely affected by this habit. Most of the times I met her, she was unable to answer in a consistent way to my questions. That s also why I don't know very much about her life-story. - The more astonished I was, when I met her now in her Madras-environment and found her to be a very cute and well-off business-woman. Still she has retained an almost childlike need for affection and appreciation. Though very tough in her business, she displays great generosity toward persons she considers her friends.

To these individual portraits we add two photo-sheets which show MANLY BEAUTY among the Ali and aspects of OLD AGE. -

Selected References


Balaji, Meena. 1997. Hijras: Who we are. By Meena Balaji and other Eunuchs, as told to Ruth Lor Malloy. Toronto, Think Asia Publisher.

Brown, W. Norman 1927. Change of Sex as a Hindu Story Motif. JAOS 67 (pp. 3-24)

Elmore, Wilber Theodore. 1925. Dravidian Gods in Modern Hinduism. Omaha Nebraska. (Repr. Madras 1925). (pp. 11; 18; 30; 37; 44)

Fischer, Eberhard; Jyotindra Jain; Haku Shah. 1982. Tempeltücher für die Muttergöttinnen in Indien. Zeremonien, Herstellung und Ikonographie gemalter und gedruckter Stoffbilder aus Gujarat. Zürich: Museum Rietberg. (Mainly entry: "BahucharÁ", pp. 63-68.)

Francis, W. 1906. South Arcot District Gazetteer. Madras.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. 1988. The Cult of DraupadÍ . Vol.I & II. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press. (cf. Glossaries s.v.   "Transvestism", "Kuttantavar", "Aravan".)

Jaffrey, Zia. 1996. The Invisibles. New York, Pantheon Books 1996. ISBN/ISSN: 0679415777

Kakati, Bani Kanta. 1948. The Mother Goddess Kamakhya. Gauhati.

1952. Vishnuite Myths and Legends in Folklore Settings. Gauhati.

Mehta, Sumant. (1947). Eunuchs, Pavaiyas & Hijaras. (In: ???, Part 2, pp. 3-75.) Ahmedabad: Gujarat Sahitya Sabha.

Meinhard, Heinrich. Beiträge zur Kenntnis des Shivaismus nach den Puranas. (Bes: "Ardhanarishvara: Die androgynische Auffassung Shivas." - s. 27-34.)

Nanda, Serena. 1990. Neither Men nor Women. Wadsworth Publishing Co., Belmont, CAL. ISBN: 0-534-12204-3.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doninger. Women, Androgynes, and Other Mystical Beasts. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press. (Mainly Ch.9: The Comparison of Androgynes.)

Oppert, Gustav. 1893. On the Original Inhabitants of Bharatvarsha or India. Westminster.

Shulman, David Dean. 1980. Tamil Temple Myths. Princeton University Press. (Mainly Ch.IV.9: Sex-reversal: The Male as Goddess and Mother.)

Venkata Ramaayana, N. 1941. Rudra-Shiva. Madras 1941. (pp. 59-60).

Whitehead, Henry. 1921. The Village Gods of South India. 2nd Ed. Calcutta. (pp. 27; 53; 58f.)

To get back to the main text, please click on the underlined keyword

Ali : Transvestite, Eunuch, Transsexual, Hermaphrodite.

Masculine or Feminine : A colloquial expression in low-level Tamil calls these people "ompadu", meaning "9". - This expression is explained as follows: every person normally possesses ten distinguishing features; with the Ali, one feature, viz. the sexual definition, is found missing. Hence, they are people with only nine features. - This "folk"-definition coincides with the etymological derivation given by the Tamil Lexicon for the term "ali", which should be derived from the negating root "al-" and hence denote "a person that is/has not ...".

Transvestite : We here use this term for a person with well-defined sexual features, but with a psychic urge to appear as someone from the opposite sex, hence dressing as a woman (in the case of male transvestites. - We are dealing only with this side of the phenomenon, since female transvestism etc. seems to belong to an entire different sphere and is obviously not supported by a religio-cultural background).

Eunuch : We here use this term for a man who has been bereaved of his male organs by castration, without however having been transformed into a female.

Transsexual : We here use this term for a male who has been changed into a female by a double-operation, most probably supported in most of the cases by a hormone-treatment.

Hermaphrodite : We here use this term for someone who has been born with the distinguishing features of both sexes.

Hijra : Recently, a small booklet appeared, written by Meena Balaji, a Mumbai-Hijra, together with Ruth Lor Malloy, a Canadian Researcher, under the title: "Hijras: Who we are". The booklet gives a first-person account of the life of Hijra in Mumbai and contains quite interesting , though - naturally - biased.

Tolkappiyam : includes the hints in II, 1, 4 & 12 & 57.

Albert : D. Albert, Tolkappiyam, Phonology and Morphology (An English Translation). Madras, International Institute of Tamil Studies, 1985.

Collection-work : It should not be left unmentioned, that a tremendous amount of work in collecting stories and interpreting them, has already been undertaken by authors like Alf Hiltebeitel, David Shulman etc.

Clinic : It appears, that all over India this type of clinics are spread. A very famous one is available in the Punjab, but in southern India, too, specialized hospitals can obviously be found. Until now we could not, however, get any address.

Operations away from Civilization : Nevertheless, from reliable sources we came to know that until a few years ago one old man undertook this kind of operation in a hut-suburb of the small town of Villiyanur (Pondicherry territory).

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