Half a life

Creating awareness and seeking freedom at the Koovagam transgender festival

India Eunuchs Festival Wedded to tradition: An effigy of Aravan is taken around in a temple cart during the festival | AP


April 24, 25

Koothandavar Temple, Koovagam, Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu

TILL NINE YEARS AGO, I used to go to the Koovagam transgender festival at the Koothandavar temple in Tamil Nadu, and do the rituals that many of my friends still do.

Legend has it that during the Mahabharat dharmayudh, Lord Krishna became a woman named Mohini and married Aravan, the son of Arjuna. After spending a night with his wife, Aravan sacrificed himself to ensure the Pandavas victory against the Kauravas.

Most transgenders who visit the temple believe they are the mohinis, the brides of Aravan. They follow the rituals of marrying Lord Aravan, also known as the Koothandavar. The priest, representing Aravan, ties the thaali in the night. Throughout the night, transgender women dance, sing, pray and celebrate. The next morning, Aravan’s effigy is taken in a temple cart around the village and it is beheaded, with thousands of people praying and singing.

After the beheading, the bereavement begins—women weep in groups and sing oppari (traditional song of lament), their thaalis cut, bangles broken, flowers on their tresses removed and the kungumam (sindoor) wiped off. Most transgender women do this as a tribute to Lord Aravan and Krishna, the Mohini.

Though there are more than 11 temples for Aravan in Tamil Nadu that perform the same rituals and pujas, the Aravan temple in Koovagam has become more famous because thousands of transgenders from all over the world throng the temple during the festival. Beauty pageants like Miss Koovagam and other cultural events held here have added to the festival’s popularity. The festival has also become a major platform for the Indian transgender community to present its issues to society and to the international media.

A priest ties a thaali around a transgender woman as part of the ritual | AP A priest ties a thaali around a transgender woman as part of the ritual | AP

I had performed these rituals thrice. Becoming a widow and wearing a white sari, even for a day, would make my heart weep. I would feel sad and depressed. “We are transgender women. Who would want to marry us? We are like the paper flowers—we look beautiful, but we have no fragrance. This is our destiny. We should do this,” said my friend Esa.

But, every time my thaali was cut, the flowers taken away and the sindoor wiped off, I would feel more and more unhappy. And, I realised this was not my destiny, this was not the destiny of transgender women. We aren’t born to weep in sadness and embrace this widowhood. We are battling for recognition and acceptance. I will not accept our lives as fateful and sad. I vowed not to embrace this practice of suppression imposed on women in the name of rituals. This is not my destiny.

For the next many years to come, even though I went to the festival, I stopped doing this ritual. I felt better and happy. I am not married to anyone, not to the rituals, not to culture and not even to God. I am an independent, free-spirited woman, who stands for equality, justice, a better life and respect for transgender women. So, what if we still aren’t recognised by society and accepted by families as suitable brides? We are battling for equal rights and we are positive we will change our own lives for the better. I untied myself from the clutches of patriarchal practices. I design my own destiny. I stand tall and proud. I am single and happy. Even if no one wants to marry me, I won’t die a lonely life. I have a whole lot of other things to celebrate and I live my life intensely. I am already married to my art, my activism and my poetry.

I find my womanhood in freedom.

Subramaniam is a transgender activist and artist.