Koovagam, Tamil Nadu, India


On 19-20th April, 2016, we visited a pretty unique annual festival that happens in the tiny village of Koovagam, Tamil Nadu, about 70 km inland from Pondicherry. It’s centered around Koothandavar temple dedicated to the warrior-hero Aravan, who is also a patron god of the hijra community (trans women) in India. Aravan is Arjuna’s son and a minor character in the Mahabharata. In a Tamil version of this epic, the need arises for a warrior to sacrifice himself for Team Pandava, and Aravan rises to the occasion. He would go down fighting the next day but today he has a last wish. The bachelor hero wants to marry a woman and spend his last night with her. But no woman would come forward, for who would want imminent widowhood thrust upon her? It is then that Lord Krishna transforms himself into the enchantress Mohini and marries Aravan. The next day Aravan dies and Mohini mourns as a widow.

Perhaps over 5,000 hijras from all over India descend on Koovagam to participate in this 18-day festival. On its second-last day, each of them symbolically marries Aravan in the temple (they play the part of Krishna who had transformed himself into a woman), for which they wear their best saris and put on mangal sutras/thalis (a necklace that married women traditionally wear). They hang out with old friends and sing and dance in the evening. On the morning of the last day, a statue of Aravan is taken around the village on a multi-level, hand-drawn ratha (“chariot”), and he is symbolically sacrificed. All of the hijras (aka Aravanis) become widows, break their thalis, change into white saris, and ritually mourn their husband’s death. Below are some portraits of visiting hijras. We chatted with a few of them, including Shivani from Delhi who has been coming to Koovagam for the last 20 years and transgender rights activist Kalki Subramaniam. [—Namit Arora, 2016]

Curious about the hijras? Check out Namit's essay—Beyond Man and Women: The Life of a Hijra—centered on a powerful memoir by A. Revathi on ‘the lives of hijras, their distinct culture, and their dreams and desires.’

Ratha ("chariot") (1, 2)

Top of the ratha

A man kissing a hijra

Grooming

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Hand drawn chariot (more)

Tossing flower petals at the crowrd

In the streets of Koovagam

Lord Aravan is the red face with moustache

Three hijras (more)

Hijras carrying pots of water against their hips

A man posing with a hijra

Two hijra sisters

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A young hijra wearing a yellow thali (more)

An extreme Shiva devotee at the festival

Wiating for the ratha to arrive here

Piles of camphor and coconuts to burn (more)

Putting turmeric and other rituals (more)

Last day of the festival in Koovagam

 



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