The smell of egg and mutton biriyani fills the air at Shilpa's stall at the 'Aravanis' talent village' near the Koothandavar temple as the Hindu deity is readied for his marriage with hundreds of transvestites in an annual ritual.
Shilpa is an 'Aravani', one who is among nearly 300,000 transvestites who live in this South Indian state and cooking is one skill they have traditionally inherited. They say transvestites are good cooks because mythological hero Arjuna in his disguise as Brihannala, a transvestite, became a palace cook.
Many families in the southern districts believe that until the 'Aravani' stirs the cooking pot, the correct 'pakkuam' or the right degree of cooking will not happen.
And, instead of selling sex on the sidelights of the biggest transgender gathering in the country this week, Shilpa, who is a master chef, along with her team of Aravanis, set up a food stall for the thousands of visitors to Kooavagam village.
The myth of the Aravan is from the epic Mahabharata. Aravan, a warrior, was asked what his last wish was just before he went for a battle. He wanted to experience married bliss and the gods fulfilled his wish, taking the form of a beautiful bride.
The deity at the temple festival in Koovagam village, about 200 km south of Chennai, gets married to thousands of transvestites prettily dressed up as brides at the same auspicious hours when Lord Shiva is said to have married Meenakshi, the goddess of Madurai. The next morning the transvestites mark a period of widowhood, when Aravan goes to war and dies.
In a society where myth and superstition make for a heady mix, the real mistress of spices is Mathana from Ukakadam.
She took to cooking at a tender age of 12 but as her family discovered that she was a transvestite, it shunned her until the Aravani community took her in.
'One elderly Aravani and a Muslim family changed my life,' she told IANS at Villupuram, where hundreds of Aravanis gathered for their pilgrimage to Koovagam village Tuesday.
'The elderly Aravani introduced me to the Muslim family who kept me as their cook for 10 years'. It is this family in Coimbatore that taught master chef Mathana how to make exceptional 'biriyani', a non-vegetarian rice dish.
Her fame, which spread at first just by word of mouth, is such that she has to carry business cards with phone numbers for clients to contact her for party cooking contracts.
The Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative and Native Medicare Charitable Trust (NMCT) have roped her in to train younger Aravanis to cook. 'With TAI and NMCT I am attempting to wean away Aravanis from commercial sex work and give them an alternative,' she says.
Mathana, 53, just directs her disciples these days, saying 'so much of chilli powder and so many cardamoms into the cauldron,' and heavenly aroma rises from the pot of golden rice. Seven to eight such party jobs bring her as much as Rs.5,000 a month, and, of course, recognition as a master chef.
'In our community (Aravanis), people only go for basic education, not for higher education, because they want to start earning at the earliest to become independent. So they go for sex work, as it is easy to find. But there are other ways to live,' she says.
NMCT project coordinator Jeyaganesh told IANS that Mathana and several other Aravanis who cook well have been involved in training the first batch of 26 transvestites.
Soon the second batch of 25 Aravanis will also begin. The trust, supported by TAI, is also collaborating with the famous Madurai-based catering house 'Meenakshi Bhavan' and its chain of hotels and teachers of the catering department of the Avinashilingam Deemed University.
'The batch was first given a 15-day catering training in Madurai with sessions on improving behavior and self-esteem, and then added skill upgrades in Coimbatore for another fortnight.'
'Getting them away from sex work and high risk behavior reduces the risk to contract HIV too,' he said, adding that the project was popular among the community.
Catering trainer Sathyanathan, who trained Shilpa, says, 'They have natural talent and are easy to train in cooking and catering'.
Shilpa's favorite is soya cutlet, and as she offers hers to taste, she vehemently insists, 'I don't like sex work, I don't even want to teach. I like cooking and that is what I will be doing the rest of my life.'