A devotee sits in front of a priestess and hands her a lemon. The priestess holds the lemon in her palm and meditates for a minute, before turning to the devotee and stating that their house has problems. The devotee nods in assent and explains their problems. The priestess listens patiently throughout and asks a few questions. The priestess then closes her eyes in prayer and offers words of advice and solace to the devotee, with an assurance that all their problems will be solved and then blesses them.
The priestess here is Ravi Amma (Mother in Tamil), the transgender head priestess of the Thiruvengatamudayan Krishnamari Amman temple in Chennai’s Old Washermanpet locality. Having been the head priestess of the temple for 13 years now, people come from far and near to offer prayers to the temple’s deities and seek blessings from Ravi Amma, whose words of wisdom have been known to come true.
Ravi Amma told Indianexpress.com that she always had an interest in religion and spirituality and even at the tender age of seven, she preferred to visit a temple instead of going to school. “I never used to go to school. Instead, I would skip school and go to a temple nearby where I would assist the priests in performing pujas (prayers). I have always wanted to enter the spiritual line and become someone who is respected in the field. I am here today because of a journey that I began 33 years ago,” said the 40-year-old priestess.
A native of Chennai, Ravi Amma was born as Ravikumar. She came out as transgender at the age of 10 upon realising that she loved to dress up well when compared to boys her age. “The reason I came out as transgender was because of movies. I used to watch a lot of Tamil movies where the heroines were dressed up as Amman (Devi). I used to love that and kept telling myself subconsciously that I too wanted to dress up in a saree, wear fine jewellery and sit like Amman. Rather than saying that I changed my character, I would like to say that I was born this way,” said Ravi Amma, who was given the name Rasika after coming out.
Unlike other members of the transgender community, Ravikumar’s transition to Rasika was accepted wholeheartedly by her family, who continue to support her in her endeavours till date. “My parents and brother did not oppose my decision because I was in the spiritual line. Had I fallen into bad company and come out as transgender, my parents would have opposed my decision. I used to wear chandanam (sandalwood), kumkum (vermillion) and vibhuti (ash) on my forehead at all times and after a while, my parents themselves realised that their son was interested in religion and decided to let me pursue my passion,” said Ravi Amma, who continues to live with her family today.
The priestess had dropped out of the corporation school in her locality in sixth grade to pursue her interests in religion. She learned to chant the Vedas (religious texts) and prayers partly through the guidance of the priests from the local temples and partly by observing the priests, reading prayer books and self-learning.
Ravi Amma said that had she studied anything else such as law or medicine, people would not come in search of her. “When it comes to religion, at least 10 people come in search of me with the belief that I can bring some good into their life. Moreover, if people who are older than me are seeking my blessings, it means that I am getting their respect and a good name today,” she said. In a lighter vein, she added that the fact that everyone knows her name today is something that she is proud of.
The priestess’ journey was fraught with a lot of hardship and she said that at that time, the only thing that kept her going was her belief in God. She was often ridiculed for her interests in religion and spirituality, given that she was a transgender.
Lady Luck soon dealt her a favourable hand 13 years ago, when the temple, sans a head priest or priestess, had celebrated its first Kumbhabishekam, a temple festival which is celebrated once in 12 years. There, Ravi Amma was unanimously appointed as the temple’s head priestess, for a monthly income of Rs. 3,000 after people appreciated the efforts she had taken to help the organisers manage the festival. “At that time, the temple only had a Krishna idol. I brought in the Devi idol, which later gave the shrine the name Thiruvengatamudayan Krishnamari Amman temple,” said the priestess. Later, she was given the ownership of the temple following which she conducted the temple’s second Kumbhabishekam in 2018.
The news was met with much jubilation by the people in her locality, who adore and respect the priestess and call her Amma, which earned her the name Ravi Amma, given that Ravi is her birth name. Sathya, a devotee who frequents the temple every day to meet the priestess, said that the temple grew famous after Ravi Amma took over as the head priestess. “I believe that God is here in this temple. Amma solves all our problems and whatever she says comes true. And Amma always celebrates festivals with grandeur even if she does not have the means to do so,” said Sathya. She added that she had visited the temple at a time when she had lost all interest in living and it was the priestess who counselled her and gave her a new lease of life. “I feel at peace here and come here every day after work,” said Sathya.
Although she was handed over the temple, it was the combined efforts of Ravi Amma, her devotees and people in the locality that has made the temple into what it is today. Together, they helped procure robes and ornaments for the deities, lamps and other essentials for the shrine. The priestess charges Rs. 150 from devotees for personal consultations, which later goes into the temple fund. The money is used to celebrate festivals such as Krishna Jayanti, Navratri, a festival for Devi in the Tamil month of Aadi and the temple’s annual festival.
Ravi Amma is often assisted in her rituals by her adopted son, Vasanth and a few locals. Vasanth, who used to live on the same street as Ravi Amma used to often address her as Amma and accompany her to temples. She too began calling him her son and later adopted him. “He assists me with everything at the temple,” she said.
“I love helping my mother at work. Moreover, she is alone and has nobody to help her so I come down to the temple to assist her and spend time with her everyday after work,” said 23-year-old Vasanth, who now works in the catering business. When asked on what he loves the most in the temple, pat comes the reply, “My mother!”
Ravi Amma‘s ascension as a head priestess has broken glass ceilings in the religious circle, given that that are few transgender and zero women priestesses today. Further, the priestess has no rules in her temple save one – menstruating women are not allowed to enter the temple during their periods because the main deity is Lord Krishna. Although there are a few who are still hesitant to enter a temple managed by a transgender, the priestess says that she is happy with the few who believe in her and find solace in her temple. “I cannot force people to visit the temple. Whoever wants to visit here is welcome to do so,” she said.
Ravi Amma has earned a huge name for herself in the locality and she hopes to do good for more people until the end of her time. The priestess said that one day, she would like people to say that despite being a transgender, she has achieved so much in life and in religion. “I do not want people to look at me and say, ‘She was born a transgender and died a transgender’. Rather, I would like people to look back at me and say, ‘Despite being a transgender, she has come so far and earned a lot of respect and a big name in religion throughout her life’,” said the priestess.
The priestess hopes that more people are made aware of this temple in the city. Further, she intends on handing over the role of head priestess to either another transgender priestess or her future daughters.