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57: Iravan

Iravan's severed head
The story motif of voluntary self-sacrifice during the Mahabharata war is what brings the tales of Barbareek and Iravan (Aravan in some cases) together. This, and the fact that the minor fringe characters usually take the fancy of the marginalized or local groups within the society, has led to specific traditions around both these youths. In the last post we examined the life and death of Barbareek

Let us now look at Iravan, whose sacrifice in the middle of the war, helped Pandavas move closer to victory.

Although a minor character in the Mahabharat, the story of Iravan sees the light of day today in two cults of Tamil origin, and mainly found in Southern India – the Kuttantavar cult dedicated to Iravan in district Villupuram; and the cult of Draupadi.

Location of Viluppuram district where Iravan temple is at Koovagam village

Once Arjuna disturbed Yudhishthira while he was in his bedroom with their common wife Draupadi. As it was decided earlier among the brothers on the advice of Narada, Arjuna had to leave the company of his family and go on hermitage for a year as a penance.

He used this time to explore different parts of the country, learn new techniques of warfare, as well as find new lovers and wives. During these wanderings, he reached the Naga loka (the realm of snakes) near Haridwar at the banks of the river Ganga, and married Ulupi, the princess of nagas, daughter of Naga King Kauravya, and who was smitten by his charms and dragged him to her palace. Some sources say Ulupi was widowed by then. With this union though, Arjuna also bought the wrath of the Naga king and Ulupi’s brothers upon himself. Of course, this hatred could be due to Arjuna killing several snakes earlier during the burning of Khandava forest, or maybe due to the ongoing rivalry between men and snakes at that time.

Arjuna stayed with Ulupi for a while, and then left for further adventures. From their brief union was born Iravan, also called Iravat or Aravanஅராவந  in Tamil, meaning 'righteous'). As Iravan grew up into a fine boy, his mother told him about his real father and family. Fed up with the constant second-citizen treatment and rejection meted out to him by his uncles, and with the new knowledge of his glorious lineage, Iravan was eager to meet his most illustrious father. Arjuna had by then reached Indra’s palace in the heaven. So Iravan followed him to Indralok.

When Iravan finally met Arjuna in Indralok, he was delighted to see his son all grown up. Arjuna instructed Iravan to go back and wait for his return, so that the families can be reconciled. Iravan returned to Naga loka near the Ganges and awaited to hear from his father. *

Things came to pass, and the bitter quarrel between the cousins Kauravas and Pandavas spilled across the entire country, finally resulting in all the kings and princes of the age marching towards the battlefield of Kurukshetra for the Great War. Iravan heard the news, and eager to help his father, took his army of snakes and hastened to the battlefield.

Unlike Barbareek, his loyalty to the Pandavas was clearly stated, and so Krishna and indeed the Pandavas welcomed him to their side. Arjuna was glad to see his son, now a fully grown young lad, brave and well-versed in the art of war.

So, coming to the main part of the story - eventually, the Great War begins. Armies clash with one another. During the battle, Iravan fights many foes, the most prominent are the sons of Subala, king of Gandhara, and brothers of Shakuni. Iravan’s army of nagas (snakes) defeats them and he kills 5 out of the 6 Gandhara princes.

But as the 8th day of the war comes to an end, things look bleak. There is death and destruction and no end in sight. It seems the war will go on forever. Both parties are equally matched. Both have some of the greatest warriors the world has seen. Both are fighting a dharma-yuddha.

In the evening, there is a bipartisan discussion. Both parties agree that the war is taking longer than desired, and is leading to immense and unnecessary bloodshed. People debate what can be done. Suddenly an idea comes forth – maybe a human sacrifice to Kali, the goddess of death, could appease her and conclude the war sooner (the practice of human sacrifice or nar-bali is mentioned in several stories).

But who should the sacrificial victim be? The victim should always be voluntary and willing to give up his life in a human sacrificial rite, and he should also be a specimen of good warrior – with 32 veer lakhshana (marks of valour or bodily signs of a great warrior). A list is drawn out. There are only 4 warriors who make it to the short list – Shalya from the Kaurava side, Arjuna the third Pandava, Iravan the son of Arjuna, and Krishna himself.

While this is going on, Iravan gets to know about the council and comes over. By this time, Krishna has offered himself as a sacrificial victim. But Iravan steps in, and agrees to take his place. Everyone praises the young lad and his bravery. Krishna is pleased and asks him for boons.

Iravan asks for three things. Firstly, he says he would like to a die a heroic death, just like any other Kshatriya prince, rather than dying like a sacrificial lamb. This seems quite legit as a request for any brave and chivalrous youth. Secondly, he was afraid he will die a bachelor and be buried after his death as was the custom for those who have not completed their stations in life, rather than given the proper funeral rites that are usually given to normal, married people. So he asks to be married before he dies. This seems fair, too, as an ask from someone who is giving up his life voluntarily and in a society where funeral rites are very important. And thirdly, which I believe is a later-day attribution from the legend of Barbareek, he wished to see the rest of the battle and Pandava’s victory even though he would be dead.

To emphasize, in return of his self-sacrifice, Iravan asks for three boons – first that he dies a heroic death, second that he does not die a bachelor but is married and lamented on his death just like any other man of station and social standing, and third, specifically as per the tradition in the Draupadi cult, that he can witness the rest of the battle. This last one is the overlap in stories between Barbareek and Iravan, and cause of confusion for the casual enthusiast of the epic.

Krishna accepts all his wishes. Iravan offers himself as a victim, and cuts his own body 32 times, one each for his veer lakshana. After his sacrifice is accepted and offered to goddess Kali, he is brought back to life for day, either by Krishna or by the virtue of him being a naga (snake) and capable of self-regeneration.

For his second wish though, they needed a girl to get him married for a night. But no king would come forward to offer his daughter, knowing that the boy is expected to die the very next day. After several back and forth, Krishna intervenes. He takes the female form of Vishnu, known as Mohini, and gets wedded to Iravan for a night. This is the same Mohini who tricked the demons in the episode of Samudra-Manthan.

Mohini spends the night with Iravan, consummates the marriage and then in the morning lets Iravan go to war knowing he is going to die very soon. She also laments his death like any widow would, breaking her chudis (wedding bangles) and tearing the ornaments. After that Krishna returns to his normal male form, and resumes his duties as Arjuna’s charioteer.

Iravan goes to the battlefield with his naga army while Bhishma is still leading the Kaurava camp, and creates havoc in the Kaurava army, fully aware of his impending doom and probably emboldened further with the knowledge. The Kauravas panic at this.

Finally, Duryodhana sends the Rakshasa Alambusha to fight Iravan. Their battle rages on for a long time, in which both display great prowess of arms. Iravan is brave, mighty and protected by his naga lineage. It is said that people could see the hood of Adi Shesha naga (the primordial serpent and most likely Iravan’s grandfather) over his head as he fought his enemy.

Finally, Alambusha, son of sage Rishyashringa muni and Shanta (supposedly a relative of Lord Rama), who is also well-versed in maya (the art of illusion) being a demon, takes the form of mighty Garuda the Eagle and leaps at Iravan. At the sight of their mortal enemy the Eagle, the snakes including Adi Shesha recoil in terror, leaving Iravan unprotected for a split second. At this stage, Alambusha strikes the deadly blow and kills Iravan by cutting off his head, thus completing the sacrifice, and also giving Iravan the death of a warrior he so wished.

These two boons – that of a marriage before dying and that of a heroic death – are common among most traditions that celebrate Iravan’s story. The most prevalent tradition is among the cult of Kuttantavar in Tamil Nadu, where Iravan is also the main deity and his marriage and death is enacted in a 18 day festival each year. Due to his marriage to a woman who was originally a man (Krishna as Mohini), Iravan (or Aravan or Kuttantavar) is considered the patron deity of hijras, or transgenders. In fact, in the South the transgenders call themselves Aravanis or spouse of Aravan, or Thiru-Nangais or Aalis. During the festival, they get married to a wooden head of Iravan which is later burned, and then they lament his death the next day, just like Mohini did.

Now, the third boon, is usually only found in the cult of Draupadi. This tradition says that after his death, his head was severed and placed on a post high up in the battlefield, just like that of Barbareek, so that he could see the rest of the battle.

This is why in Draupadi’s temples in the South India, one finds Iravan’s severed head, with a mustache, large eyes and ears, two fangs (demonic teeth to remind that he is a naga prince), and a conical crown, often with a snake hood on top. 

However, there is no mention of Iravan after his death in the main story either during the next 10 days of war or after it – which makes me believe that this last part is an attribution from the other story.

In any case, both these human sacrifices are quite poignant and shed a great deal of light on human condition. Iravan’s bravery on the field and his sacrifice egged the Pandavas further, and could have been another reason for the Pandavas, especially Arjuna, to finally unleash their wrath on their cousins.

Iravan is later avenged by Ghatotkacha (son of Bhima, father of Barbareek and cousin of Iravan) who uses Alambusha’s own tricks against him (as he too is a Rakshasa and versed in the mayavi astras or magic). This is yet another connection between Barbareek and Iravan, and a potential reason for confusion for casual readers which melds the characters of Barbareek and Iravan together. But these are indeed two different people.

In any case, both are fantastic stories, with great narrative power and imagination. By being upheld in local and folk tradition, they also help in assimilating some of the fringe groups in the society that are usually marginalized. The confusion and overlap between the two stories was one of my reasons to write them one after the other.

Here, I have attempted to put the common elements of the story as well as the distinctions, which hopefully when juxtaposed would clear the confusing elements of the two stories.

Differences in character and depiction
Son of Ghatotkach and Mowrvi
Was born a Rakshasa
Wielder of three arrows and a golden bow
Did not actually participate in the Great War, as his self-sacrifice happens before the start of the war
Depicted as devout, obedient and well-mannered youth
Did not marry
Died as a sacrificial offering
Son of Arjuna and Ulupi
Was born a Naga-purusha
Expert in maya warfare (illusion)
Has an army of snakes
Fought the war bravely at least for the first 8 days
Defeated Gandhara king Subala’s sons and their army
Depicted as brave and obedient, but neglected son of Arjuna
Krishna married him in the form of Mohini on the night before his sacrifice
Died a heroic death at the hands of demon Alambusha
Was avenged by Ghatotkacha
Narrative Overlap
Self-sacrifice, almost voluntary - common to both stories
Both are depicted as a severed head
The story of head placed at a high place to witness the war seems like later day attribution from Barbareek’s story on to Aravan’s story
Current status and godhood
Considered the god of the loser and tired and down-trodden
Deified as a form of Krishna and venerated in all local groups
Mainly venerated in North and Western India
Temples at Khatu, Sikar, Rajasthan and Gujarat
Venerated as the patron god of transgenders
Deified by Kuttantavar cult and cult of Draupadi
Mainly venerated in South India, specifically Tamil Nadu; and some parts of Southeast Asia
Temples in Tamil Nadu, at Koovagam near Villupuram

11 October 2017

 * In some versions, after these incidents, Ulupi goes searching for Arjuna too – maybe herself fed up with her brothers. She finds that Arjuna has married another woman the princess Chitrangada of Manipur, and has a son name Babhruvahan, and has left her too to go to Indra’s palace. Ulupi tells her story to Chitrangada, who receives her as a soul sister with similar life experiences, and the two live cordially in Manipur. Ulupi raises Babhruvahan as her own son.


Mukul SETHI said…
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Wandering Nomad said…
Thanks Mukul and my best wishes to you too.