The festival of Koovagam

 

   The presiding deity of the temple at Koovagam, a tiny village about 30 kilometres outside Villupuram, is Aravan. In the Mahabharata it was prophesised that the Pandavas would win the battle of Kurukshetra only if they sacrificed a ‘perfect’ male from among themselves. Aravan, the virgin son of Pandav prince Arjuna, offered himself up for sacrifice. But he had a request: that he be allowed to spend one night as a married man. No king was willing to give his daughter in marriage only to have her widowed the next day, so finally, Lord Krishna assumed female form and married Aravan, and after a night of sexual bliss, Aravan was beheaded.

   Every year, during the first full moon of the Tamil month of Chittirai (April- May) aravanis converge at Koovagam to commemorate this ancient narrative. The transgenders of Tamil Nadu identify themselves with the female form Krishna assumed for his night with Aravan. Hence they call themselves aravanis—wives of Aravan (as opposed to hijras, the term common to the rest of India).

   At the temple grounds, thousands of visiting aravanis (as well as young men from around the region for whom Aravan is a family deity) act out the role of Aravan’s bride. Dressed in their best saris they line up outside the temple carrying offerings of camphor, coconuts and bananas in small plastic baskets. Inside, amid a breathless crush of jostling bodies, clanging bells and the overpowering smell of the burning camphor, the priests tie turmeric-coated sacred marital threads around the aravanis’ necks and allow them a splitsecond audience with the idol of Aravan.

   Later, the aravanis celebrate their ‘wedding night’ through countless acts of sex with panthis—something more than just clients this night—in the fields and groves around the village temple. All through the night shadowy figures disappear and emerge from behind trees and bushes. As dawn breaks, the aravanis emerge to mourn the inevitable death of their mythical husband. A giant, garland-laden effigy of Aravan is pulled through the narrow village streets before being ceremonially beheaded and set to flames. The aravanis then don widow’s weeds, break their bangles and grieve with an intense—albeit rather contrived—passion.

   The Koovagam festival serves to validate the aravanis’ place within a traditional social structure. It’s a place this sexual minority has long been struggling to carve out for itself by appropriating local rituals, folklore and legends in different parts of the world. Over the years, however, the festival has also morphed into a unique space for transgenders in southern India to bond, share experiences, and coordinate their campaign for recognition. In the process, they also manage a bit of guilt-free debauchery.

   INDIA'S TRANSGENDER COMMUNITY has more than 4,000 years of recorded history. As per Hindu mythology, hijras represent the half-male, half-female image of Shiva—an image symbolic of a being that is ageless and sexless. The hijras’ third sex dimension is said to infuse them with ‘Shiva shakti’ (the power of Shiva) and give them supernatural powers to
bless or curse.

   Mythological associations aside, hijras have always been a fringe group in Hindu society; feared and hated for their gender bending and sexual non-conformity far more than they are revered for any Shiva shakti. Segregated and excluded from most occupations, they often turn to begging and sex work to earn a living. It’s an existence fraught with danger; they are often victimised and degraded by both clients and the police. Indeed, the Indian transgenders’ struggle for day-to-day survival often trumps their fight for basic human rights.

But this has been changing in recent years. And nowhere is it more evident than among the aravanis of Tamil Nadu. In 2009, the Tamil Nadu state government began providing free sex-change surgery, the only administration to do so outside Cuba and Brazil. The same government recently established a transgender welfare board for its estimated 80,000-strong aravani community that offers special third-gender ration cards, passports and reserved seats in government-run educational institutions.

The Festival of Koovagam

  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • The Koovagam Festival, 2009/2010. Copyright Senthil Kumaran / Trikaya Photos
  • previous
  • next