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The Koovagam festival is the biggest transgender festival of India that takes place for 18 long days in the month of Chaitra (according to the Hindu Calendar), that is in March/April. This unique festival unites the entire transgender and transvestite community from across India. Koovagam is a small village in the Ulundurpettai taluk in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu. The 'Koothandavar Temple' is the place where this festival is primarily held. Lord Aravan, from the epic Mahabharata, is one of the core elements of this festival. He is worshipped by all the transgenders that visit Koovagam during this festival. Various mythological stories trace back to the importance of Lord Aravan among this specific community. Koovagam festival is also referred to as the Kuthandavar-Aravan Mela.
CULT OF ARAVAN
Koovagam, also known as the story of a thousand weddings and one funeral, is a legend that is derived from the epic Mahabharata. It is the story that revolves around Aravan, one of the sons of Arjuna who was willingly sacrificed to Goddess Kali during the battle of Kurukshetra. This sacrifice was necessary for the win of the Pandavas against the Kauravas. Lord Krishna, who was very pleased with this selfless sacrifice, granted Aravan three boons. His first wish was to die a heroic death on the battlefield. The second was that he could watch the entire battle even after his death. The third wish was that he wanted to be married before he died. As no woman wished to suffer impending widowhood for the rest of her life, no one stepped forward to marry Aravan. To fulfil his wish, Lord Krishna transformed himself into Mohini and married him. The marriage was consummated and the following day, Aravan was sacrificed to Goddess Kali. Mohini was distraught and mourned her husband’s death before transforming back to Lord Krishna. Aravan is also worshipped by the transgender people of the region, where they are known as aravanis or, more specifically, as thirunangai (for transgender women) and thirunambi (transgender men).
Koovagam festival commemorates this mythological incident and thus celebrates the union of various transgender women, also known as Aravanis; in order to celebrate this festival. The first 13 days are celebrated with grandeur. There are diverse performances, singing and dancing along with several workshops and seminars on awareness regarding HIV/AIDS organized and conducted by various NGOs. One of the major attractions of this festival is the transgender pageant which showcases a fashion show and the competition for the title ‘Miss Koovagam’. This title is of utmost importance to all the transgender women in the hope that they will finally be accepted by their birth families if they win.
On the fourteenth day, the transgenders dress themselves as brides or Mohinis; wearing bright coloured sarees, colourful bangles, gajras (floral garlands), gold jewellery and bridal makeup. They carry with them various puja items, kalasha (pot) and thali (Mangala sutra or sacred thread) made of dried turmeric. They visit the Koothavandar Temple in order to marry the deity 'Aravan.' In the sanctum sanctorum, a group of priests officiate the marriage ceremony and each transgender woman gets married to Aravan individually. The priests act as representatives of Aravan and tie the ‘thali’ or sacred thread, around their neck and apply sindoor (vermillion) in the partition of their hair, both symbols of marriage for Hindu women.
On the 16th day, the image of Aravan is taken out in a procession. During this procession, followers of the Aravan along with onlookers gather for their deity’s darshan, and participate in pulling his chariot. The newly married transgender women gather at a designated ‘mourning ground’ called ‘Azhukalam’. When the procession reaches there, the thick floral garlands are removed from Aravan’s effigy. This symbolises the removal of his flesh during his sacrifice on the battlefield. The image of Aravan kept in the temple sanctum is only of his severed head. His face is painted bright red, symbolic of his devotion to Lord Krishna. During the festival, the head and pupils are given a fresh coat of paint and brought out of the temple to be paraded through the village. It is kept in the temple throughout the rest of the year.
After his death, his widowed partners collectively mourn by removing their thalis (Mangala sutra) and smashing their bangles. They cry aloud, beat their chests and lament their widowhood, before bathing and changing into fresh white sarees as Hindu widows commonly wear. It should be noted that this widowhood is only symbolic and temporary, and the transgender women return to their usual colourful garments after a short period of time. They can return next year to repeat the marriage ritual.
The festival is not just a cultural event but an occasion for the collective expression of transgender identity. Beyond the beautiful faces are hidden many struggles for social recognition, respect and equal opportunities which are lost when we eroticise them as a group. Gender is a powerful collective identity for the transgender community; it binds them. For cisgender people, it can be difficult to understand the gender dynamics. A festival like Koovagam is a rare occasion when the transgender community can openly flaunt their sexuality and gender identity in public without facing censorship or mockery. This is as much a political statement as a cultural one. The collective lamentation of Aravan’s death can also be seen as the community’s catharsis and their collective protest against the discrimination they face in society.
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Photo credits – C. Pattabiraman