Transgenders in India are a marginalised community. Known as 'hijras' (in north India) or 'aravanis' (in Tamil Nadu), they are ostracised by society at large. While a few have broken into professional careers, most have no option but to resort to prostitution or begging, singing and dancing in the street from shop to shop, hustling for small change. In north India, they are a normal feature of weddings, where they appear uninvited and as if by magic, trading their blessings for a fee.
In contrast to this miserable situation, once a year transgenders come into their own when they gather to celebrate their divine connection during the Koothandavar Festival which is held with the full moon during the Tamil month of Chitrai (April-May). The obscure village of Koovagam in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu, is overrun by thousands of visitors, mostly men, some from neighbouring villages and towns, others from cities all over south India, and a few from the north. The transgenders are hopelessly outnumbered, though easily recognisable, dressed in their finest saris, with elaborate makeup and fancy accessories.
The Koothandavar Temple in the centre of Koovagam village is beseiged by pilgrims, with long and patient queues, each devotee awaiting his or her turn for 'darshan' (seeing) of the god. Many of the transgenders among them have come to marry their deity, Lord Koothandavar, the Tamil name of Aravan, re-enacting the ancient tale from the epic Mahabharata.
The Mahabharata chronicles the power struggle between two branches of a ruling family, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, leading to a great war between them. In order to propitiate victory in this all-out war, the Pandavas offer to the gods a human sacrifice, Aravan, son of Prince Arjuna who is the youngest of the five Pandava brothers. The willing Aravan's last wish is to be married, just for one night. No maiden volunteers to wed the handsome warrior for a night, only to to widowed for the rest of her life. Then Lord Krishna, avatar of Lord Vishnu, takes the form of the beautiful damsel Mohini, marries Aravan and they enjoy a night of marital bliss. The next morning Aravan is sacrificially put to death. The Pandavas eventually win the war.
Thus, the transgenders of Tamil Nadu today identify with the god Krishna, the original transgender, and take Lord Aravan (Koothandavar) as their husband, calling themselves 'aravanis.'
Photo documentary story by Indian photographer Dev Gogoi (Hits: 28303)
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