Anjali has always referred to Thulasi as her amma (mother). The proud mother is smiling as she tells us this, her curls held in a bun, her pink saree neatly tied. Thulasi is a trans woman and mother to her nine-year-old daughter.

Thulasi was in her late teens when she began referring to herself as ‘Karthiga’. Later, an official made a mistake in her ration card and wrote ‘Thulasi’ – a gender fluid name in Tamil. She happily adopted it then and answers to both names.

She lives with her daughter Anjali in a small, thatched hut in Dargas, an Irula hamlet in Thiruporur taluk of Tamil Nadu. Thulasi’s wife separated from her when Anjali was an infant, and so she brought her up as a single parent. The couple lost their nine-year-old first-born child in cyclone Vardah in 2016.

Now in her forties, Thulasi has been part of a thirunangai (Tamil word for a trans woman) group for several years. Looking fondly at Anjali who is sitting on her lap she continues, “I would take her along with a milk-bottle in her hand to our [ thirunangai ] meetings.”

PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru

Left: Thulasi with her daughter, Anjali in their home in Dargas, an Irular hamlet in Thiruporur taluk of Tamil Nadu. Right: A photo of Thulasi holding Anjali as a baby

PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru

Left: Thulasi sings with Thenmozhi (blue sari) before Thenmozhi passed away during the Covid pandemic. Right: Thulasi has been part of a thirunangai group for several years

When Anjali was around four years old, Thulasi was keen to be recognised as her mother and so switched from wearing a veshti (a garment worn by men) to wearing only sarees. She says she did this also on the advice of Kumudhi, a 50-year-old thirunangai , whom Thulasi considers aaya (grandmother).

Referring to this moment when she started asserting her gender identity as a woman, she says, “ Vilambaramaave vandhutten [I came out openly].”

To mark this transition, Thulasi underwent a ritual wedding with Ravi, a 40-year-old relative from Vedaiyur in Tiruvallur district. In this custom, common among trans women in Tamil Nadu, the marriage is merely symbolic. Ravi’s family – his wife Geetha and two teenage daughters, accepted Thulasi into their family as a blessing. “We all, including my husband, call her ‘ amma’ . She is like a god to us,” says Geetha.

Thulasi continues to live in Dargas and meets her new family on special occasions.

Around the same time, her seven siblings began calling her ‘amma’ or ‘sakthi’ (goddess) after she began wearing sarees everyday. They believe her transition has to do with the grace of the goddess (amman arul ) .

PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru

Left: Thulasi and Ravi had a ritual wedding to mark her transition to wearing a sari every day. Right: Ravi's wife Geetha puts flowers in Thulasi's hair while Anjali, Ravi and Ravi's daughter look on

PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru

Thulasi and Ravi with Anjali (left). Thulasi's family considers her a blessing. 'It is like the amman [ goddess]) has come home,' her late mother Senthamarai had said

Everyone in her tightly-knit Irula community was aware of her gender and so there was no need to hide it, says Thulasi. “My wife too knew fully well about me before we got married,” says Thulasi. “No one ever said I shouldn’t behave or dress in a certain way, neither when I wore a kudumi [tiny knot of hair] nor when I started wearing saree,” she adds.

A friend of Thulasi, Poongavanam recalls friends asking why Thulasi behaved ‘like a girl’. “Our village was our world. We had not seen anyone like him [Thulasi]. We accepted thinking there are people like this too,” he says, dismissing the idea that anyone ever disrespected or teased Thulasi or Anjali.

Her parents, Senthamarai and Gopal, now in their late seventies, also accepted her the way she was. Seeing her sensitive nature when Thulasi was young they decided, “ avan manasa punpadutha koodaadhu [we must not hurt his feelings].”

“It is a good thing [that Thulasi wears sarees]. It is like the amman has come home,” says Senthamarai, joining hands and closing her eyes in a silent prayer, echoing the family’s sentiment that Thulasi is the manifestation of their goddess. Senthamarai passed away in late 2023.

Every month, Thulasi travels 125 kilometres with her thirunangai community to visit Melmalayanur, a temple town in Viluppuram district and bless the devotees. “People believe that a thirunangai’s word comes true. I never curse people, only bless them and accept what they give us,” she says. She also believes that her choice of wearing sarees everyday has made her blessings more effective and she has even travelled to Kerala to bless a family.

PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru

Left: Thulasi gets ready for the Melmalayanur temple festival. Right: baskets belonging to Thulasi's thirunangai family for the celebration. Trans women gather in front of the temple to bless people

PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru

Left: Thulasi with her thirunangai family and members of her extended family including Ravi at the Melmalayanur temple festival in February 2023. Right: Thulasi offering a prayer and blessing a devotee. 'I never curse people, only bless them and accept what they give us,' she says

Her knowledge of herbal remedies for common ailments used to bring in an income but that has been declining the last few years. “I have cured a lot of people. But now, they all see their mobile and treat themselves! There was a time I earned even 50,000 [rupees]. It became 40,000 then 30,000, now I hardly earn 20,000 in a year,” she sighs. The Covid years were the hardest.

Along with managing a temple for Irular goddess Kanniamma, Thulasi started taking up noor naal velai (MGNREGA) work five years ago. She works on farms along with other women in Dargas, earning around Rs. 240 a day. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act guarantees 100 days of employment in a year to rural families.

Anjali is enrolled in a government residential school near Kancheepuram district. Thulasi says her education is a priority. “I’m trying my best to get her educated. During covid, she didn’t like being away in a hostel. So I kept her close to me. But there was no one here to teach [her],” she says. In early 2023 when Thulasi, who studied till Class two, went to enrol Anjali in the school, she was felicitated as the first transgender parent.

While some of Thulasi’s thirunangai friends have chosen to undergo gender affirming surgeries she says, “everyone accepts me the way I am, what is the need to undergo a surgery at this age?”

But the constant chatter on the topic in the group makes her reconsider despite the fears of side-effects: “summer may be a good time to undergo surgery. Healing would be faster.”

PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru

Left: Thulasi is also a herbal healer. She is looking for medicinal plants around her home in Dargas to use in concoctions. Right: Thulasi and Anjali at the Melmalayanur temple

PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru

'I’m happiest now!' she says, laughing and breaking into an occasional dance during the temple festival

The cost is no small amount – roughly Rs. 50,000 for surgery and hospitalisation at private hospitals. She wants to explore Tamil Nadu government’s policy for free gender affirming surgeries for trans persons and see if she can get state support.

In February 2023, Thulasi along with Senthamarai and Anjali visited Melmalayanur temple to celebrate the popular festival called masaana kollai (also known as mayaana kollai ).

Holding her mother’s hands Anjali pranced along the crowded temple streets meeting old friends. Ravi and Geetha came with their extended families. Thulasi’s thirunangai family – her guru , sisters and several others joined them.

Thulasi, with a large red vermillion dot on her forehead and a long braided wig was chatting with everyone. “I’m happiest now!” she said, laughing and breaking into an occasional dance.

“You ask Anjali how many mothers she has,” Thulasi said to me at a family festival.

I did and Anjali promptly replied, “two” as she grinned and pointed to both Thulasi and Geetha.
Smitha Tumuluru

Smitha Tumuluru is a documentary photographer based in Bengaluru. Her prior work on development projects in Tamil Nadu informs her reporting and documenting of rural lives.

Other stories by Smitha Tumuluru
Editor : Sanviti Iyer

Sanviti Iyer is Assistant Editor at the People's Archive of Rural India. She also works with students to help them document and report issues on rural India.

Other stories by Sanviti Iyer