India is a land of rich heritage and culture. Every major faith in the world has its place in the country living in harmony. With over 36 popular festivals, India is known for its religious importance and diversity. But every year, along with the major festivals, we also witness a significant number of unique, uncommon and unusual rituals which are celebrated across the country. From Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu to Animal Weddings, from Made Snana to Tossing infants from the roof for good luck in Karnataka. From the North to the South, from the East to the west such festivals are celebrated with the same importance as others. But out of all these festivals, one particular celebration makes us bat an eye.
Every year in the month of Chaitra(April/May), a small village called Koovagam in Tamil Nadu is buzzing with life and sets the stage for the upcoming 18-days big celebration. But what makes one look twice is that the festival is one of the largest gatherings of the transgender community from across the country. The popularity of the festival has crossed the borders and nowadays is attended by the transgender as well as the LGBTQ+ communities from Srilanka and Southeast Asian countries.
The festival is unique in its way and is celebrated to commemorate a story from the Mahabharata, one of the major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. On the 18th day of the Kurukshetra war, Aravan, one of the sons of Arjuna offers himself as a sacrifice to Goddess Kali for the victory and greater good of the Pandavas. Aravan is the chief deity of the Koothandavar cult and is worshipped by the transgender people of the region. Hence they are also known as aravanis or as thirunangai (for transgender women) and thirunambi (transgender men). The 18-days festival is also a reference to the 18 days long Kurukshetra war.
The village of Koovagam in Villupuram district hosts this celebration with its significance around the Koothandavar temple. The festival has its roots in Mahabharata which tells us the story of Aravan. Aravan, a Naga warrior and a son of Arjuna and Naga princess Ulupi, participated in the Kurukshetra alongside the Pandava clan. To appease Goddess Kali, the Pandavas had to offer a sacrifice to ensure victory. At Lord Krishna's request, Aravan offered himself as a sacrifice and was offered three boons. The first one was a heroic death on the battlefield. Second, to be able to see the entire battle of Kurukshetra even after his death. And third, to be married before his death. But no woman volunteered to marry a man who’d make them a widow the very next day for the rest of their lives. Hence, to fulfill Aravan’s third wish, Lord Krishna transfigured himself into Mohini and married him. The next day Aravan was immolated to Goddess Kali and Mohini was heartbroken and mourned her widowhood before she transformed back to Krishna. She is a bride for a day and after Aravan’s death, becomes a widow the next day.
Koovagam is the biggest annual transgenders' festival in India. The festival involves various cultural events like singing, dancing, beauty contests, fashion shows, plays, and seminars on various topics like HIV/AIDS awareness for the first 16 days and continues for the next two days before it ends on a Chaitra Pournami(full moon day). One of the main highlights is the 'Miss Koovagam' beauty pageant event for transgenders. The title 'Miss Koovagam' comes with respect and pride.
On the 17th day of the Koovagam festival, the transgenders dress up as Mohini and flock to the Koothandavar temple for their marriage with the deity Aravan. Thousands of brides dressed in fine sarees, bangles, floral garlands, adorned in gold jewelry and bridal makeup gather at the temple with the sacred thread(mangal sutra). The celebration is a sight to behold when a group of priests officiates the wedding and every transgender present there is married to Aravan individually. The temple priests act like the deity himself and tie the mangalsutra. Later that night, the transgenders perform their traditional 'kummi adi' dance near Koothandavar temple after getting 'married’.
The next morning, the last day of the festival, an image of Aravan is taken out on a procession that is attended by thousands of people. Devotees gather in large numbers to pull the chariot as a part of the last day of the festival. The procession goes around parts of the village and finally ends at a designated mourning ground called ‘azhukalam’. The newly married transgenders are gathered here to mourn the death of Aravan and step into widowhood. After the death, the widowed partners cry aloud, beat their chests, and mourn collectively by removing their thalis(mangalsutra) and breaking their bangles. Finally, they wear white sarees which represents their acceptance into widowhood.
The transgender community of India has been subjected to constant harassment and discrimination. They have been exempted from experiencing a normal life at workplaces, public spaces, and society as a whole. This has resulted in them resorting to begging and sexual activities. In 2014, India's Supreme court recognized transgender people as the third gender in a historic ruling. "It is the right of every human being to choose their gender," it said, ordering the government to allot quotas in jobs and education fields along with other key amenities.
The festival of Koovagam plays an important role in the lives of the entire transgender community in India as they feel that the festival is the only place and time where they’re truly acknowledged for who they are. It’s also a place where they can meet new people and make new associations. The festival also acts as a medium of empowerment and acceptance for the transgender community. Though the Government has recognized them as the third gender, it’s about time that we as a society stop this unfair discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community and begin to understand and accept that there is absolutely no difference between the cis community and the LGBTQ+.
Image credits: Google Images
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