An annual festival in Tamil Nadu allows transgendered people from near and far to affirm their identity.
It is early spring and, for Tamils, the beginning of the new year, Chithirai. As farmers harvest their crops, many are streaming into a small town about 150 km south of Chennai to celebrate at the Koothandavar Temple, under the full moon. Every year, more than 50,000 members of the transgender community, or aravanis, as they call themselves in Tamil, gather at this temple to take part in the elaborate drama of the Koothandavar festival. An elderly male couple ties the knot at the start of the festival, amidst a crowd that has travelled great distance to be here, some from as far away as Singapore and Indonesia.
The temple itself is centuries old, but the transgender community ‘discovered’ its significance to their experience about three decades ago – an ancient point of commonality described in the Hindu texts. Located on a single street lined with mud huts and surrounded by sugarcane fields, the temple comes alive at the beginning of spring every year, in a burst of 18 days of revelry. This year was no different, as highlighted in the accompanying photographs.
The Koothandavar festival is rooted in the Mahabharata. The story goes that there was a brave virgin prince named Aravan (also referred to as Koothandavar), who agreed to sacrifice himself in the war between the Kauravas and Pandavas to ensure that his family – the latter – would be victorious. His last wish was to experience one night as a married man; but no woman would marry him, fearing a lifetime of widowhood. Ultimately, Lord Krishna assumed the form of a woman, Mohini, married Aravan and consummated the marriage.
The Aravanis thus identify with Mohini. Re-enacting the story, they dress up as brides and symbolically offer themselves in marriage to Aravan, whose marriage to Mohini is believed to have been conducted in the Koothandavar temple. Aravani ‘brides’ stream into the temple, where a priest ties a mangalsutra, a sacred marriage thread, around their necks. After the ceremony, they dance and socialise amidst fireworks and music.
The following day the mood is sombre as Aravanis, still re-enacting Mohini’s fate, symbolically become widows. In mourning, they remove their mangalsutra and bangles, and after bathing don white saris in purification. The festival goes beyond ritual and religion, too. A Miss Koovagam beauty contest is held with great gusto, high heels and dazzling saris. The gathering also offers the Aravanis an opportunity to attend seminars (on HIV/AIDS, safe sex and the betterment of their community) as well as to meet, discuss and plan for next year’s Koothandavar festival under the Chithirai full moon.
Nathan G is a freelance photographer in Chennai.