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Mohini – sometimes translated as “enchantress” (also ‘bewitching woman’) is the god Vishnu in female form.

One of the myths in which Mohini plays a key role is that of the Asura Bhasmasura. This demon was a devotee of Siva and performed austerities that pleased the god, so he granted Bhasmasura (“ash-demon”) a boon – the ability to turn anything to ashes with a single touch. Bhasmasura attempted to test the power of this boon on Siva himself. Siva asked Vishnu for assistance, and he took on the form of Mohini, betwitching the demon with her dazzling beauty. Bhasmasura wanted to have Mohini as his wife, but she told him that she would only marry a man who could best her in a dance contest. She and Bhasmasura began to dance, and Mohini began to perform mudras that involved touching her own head. Bhasmasura, totally englamoured by Mohini, mimicked her, touched his own head, and promptly reduced himself to a heap of ash.

A Keralan myth has it that Shiva, coming upon Mohini dancing alone in a forest glade, was so enchanted by her beauty that he had ‘her’ on the spot and from their union was born the god Ayyapan.

A contemporary festival related to Mohini takes place at the Koothandavar temple in southern Tamil Nadu village of Koovagam. This two-week festival is based on an element in the Mahabharata. The warrior Aravanan (one of the Pandavas) agreed to sacrifice himself in order that the clan could achieve a decisive tactical victory. Aravanan agreed to being sacrificed, but on the condition that he be wedded. But no father would allow a daughter to lose her virginity for a one-night marriage, so Krishna assumed the form of Mohini and married Aravanan, who died in battle the next day. In some versions of the myth, Aravanan was hung as a sacrifice, and it is also said that Krishna remained as Mohini and mourned him for thirty days.

Aravanan has since been deified by some elements of India’s Hijra community as Koothandavar and each year, it is estimated that over 30,000 Hijra and other men who identify with the Hijra lifestyle attend the 18-day festival. Many of the participants come in honour of Mohini, with whom they identify. They tie a string on their wrists to symbolize their marriage to Aravanan, and the next day, the string is pulled off to signify their widowhood.