A British man worshipped as a goddess in India says he wants to stay there after his six-month visa runs out.
Stephen Louis Cooper has become the centre of attraction in the temple town of Becharaji in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
Devotees have been lining up to seek his blessings and some of them even take him to be the messenger of Bahuchar Mata, the goddess of Indian eunuchs, addressing him as Ma.
Mr Cooper, who says he has been diagnosed with gender identity disorder, likes to wear a sari and be addressed as a woman.
Hence his new name, Pema, meaning lotus, by which everyone now addresses him.
When the BBC caught up with Mr Cooper he was sitting in the temple courtyard dressed in Indian women’s clothes, with rings in his ears and nose as people lined up to seek his blessings.
He told the BBC that he lived in London for five years before starting the journey to Becharaji.
Having failed to qualify in law from Ruskin College in Oxford, he took to working on freelance basis as an illustrator, graphic designer and a photographer.
He said he originally came from Leicestershire but had been travelling all over the United Kingdom.
“All this while I never connected to anything. During my travels I came across pictures of several Hindu gods. On seeing the picture of Bahuchar Mata in one of the shops I could feel my energy being reflected in a different way.
“It was then that people told me about this place and asked me to visit India,” he says.
Mr Cooper has a picture of Bahuchar Mata tattooed on his left arm, which cost almost 100,000 rupees (more than £1,000; $2,000), he says.
The temple complex at Becharaji is visited by large numbers of eunuchs from all over India.
A trustee of the temple complex, PC Raval, told me that there is a belief that by paying their respect here they will gain manhood in their next birth.
There is a fair at the temple on every full moon night which is attended by many eunuchs. The star attraction of the last fair was Mr Cooper, whose blessings thousands sought that night.
“People here have been lovely. They touch my feet and when I touch their head I feel the love and joy – pure and taintless,” he says.
He has a visa that is valid for six months but would love to stay here for the rest of his life. “I will stay here as long as I feel welcome. Maybe for the rest of my life,” he says.
‘Keeps to himself’
During his month-long stay Stephen has picked up a few phrases in Gujarati like “kem Cho” (how are you?) and “chai levu che” (I want to have tea). He is particularly fond of the local sweet, laddoo.
“He normally keeps to himself. We cannot talk in English and he does not know Hindi or Gujarati. He just speaks in monosyllables and sits quietly in the temple meeting people,” says Gunwant Joshi, a trustee of the Ramji temple.
Mr Cooper says that he wants to learn Sanskrit and Gujarati so that he can read more about Bahuchar Mata and Hindu mythology.
He has been staying at the guest house of the temple trust and all the money given to him by the people as offerings he says he has donated to the trust.
“I do my own washing and am called by people to their homes to have food. I love wearing a sari as I find wrapping a sari very sacred,” he says.
Mr Cooper claims to be on very good terms with the eunuchs visiting the temple.
He refuses to do taped interviews and prefers one-to-one communication. And he says he feels hurt by the way the media, particularly the British press and the Indian television channels, have been reporting him. He says India is a big heart and Becharaji is its centre.
PC Raval says that it is matter of pride for the temple that a person of another faith has found solace there and wants to live there for the rest of his life.
We appreciate your support
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.