The Koovagam Story – A place of Rituals and Belief
Koovagam, a non-descript village in Tamil Nadu, comes to life every year in the Tamil month of Chitirai (April-May) for 18 days of festivities. The transgender community from all over the country converge in this quaint village for 18 days of pomp and subsequent mourning. The Koothandavar temple in this village becomes the centre of their universe for these 18 days.
Although the transgenders, also called Hijras/tirunangai, have always been a part of Indian society, and can be found at every corner of every city at any given time, have been treated shabbily by the society at large. They have been mentioned in our puranas and Mahabharata, Ardhanareeshwar and Shikhandee readily come to mind. But sadly a majority of them are not able to gain acceptance into the mainstream society. They are seen to live a life of misery and striving for respect and love which are out of bounds for them.
With no opportunities coming their way, they are reduced to begging and at times forced into prostitutions to eke out a modest living. Due to this and the peculiar mannerisms they display, the transgender community has always been belittled and looked down upon by the society.
But while that is the general perception of their lives, Koovagam celebrates them and their identity. Every year the transgender community from across the country come together at the Koothandavar temple in this village in Villupuram district to celebrate 18 days long festival of pomp and fair.
The gala takes place at the Koovagam Koothandavar temple that is dedicated to Aravan/Iravan. The festival has been celebrated for over a hundred years and has its roots in the great Indian epic Mahabharat and the great Kurukshetra war held between the Kauravas and Pandavas.
As the story goes, in Mahabharat during the 18th day of the war Lord Krishna to ensure the win of the Pandava clan tries to find about all the good things or any sacrifice that would help. This is when Sahadev, the youngest and most knowledgeable Pandava informs Krishna that a sacrifice of life to goddess Kali would surely ensure the victory of the Pandava clan in the Kurukshetra war. This is when Iravan, the son of Arjun and Naga princess Ulloopi, volunteers. He however, had a last wish – he wanted to get married and experience the pleasures of a married man before his death. Since there were no girls who would marry a man knowing that he would be killed the next day, Lord Krishna transformed himself into his Mohini avatar and married Iravan and also wept like a widow on his death.
This story is strongly believed and practiced by the transgender community from all over the country, where they equate themselves with Mohini ( an avatar of Krishna/ lord Vishnu himself, who is a woman trapped inside a man’s body). They come dressed up as brides at this festival get married to Iravan and mourn his death the next day.
This eighteen day festival is celebrated with much pomp and fair, with songs, dance and also a beauty contest and all the transgenders are seen to arrive at their most beautiful self. But it is the last three days that there is a major number of attraction and crowd coming to visit the festival. There is a beauty pageant where the most beautiful of the participating transgenders is chosen. Then is the day where they all dress up as brides and come to marry the lord of the temple – Iravan. As the lord is but a statue, the pundit of the temple and in many cases the men of the village or the one who have come to witness the festival tie them the Thali (a thin rope tied across their neck to show the mark of a married woman) and declare them as married woman.
The final day is the day of mourning, where the transgenders cut off their thali, break their bangles and finally adorn a white saree a mark of widowhood.
But this festival is not just restricted to the transgenders; there are many men who are found to enjoy cross dressing who take part in the festival and also are many participants who are there to show their gratitude to the lord Iravan for fulfilling their wishes. Thus it is not just the transgenders who get married to the lord at the Koothandavar temple but also ordinary men and women come seeking the boon of a male child. On fulfilment of their wishes many parents send their young boys as a mark of gratitude.
A special mention must also be made about the inhabitants of the Koovagam and surrounding villages. When elsewhere the transgenders are treated with scorn, the people in this area welcome them with open arms and minds. They show considerable empathy and treat them with respect. They offer free food and water to the transgenders during this festival.
Villagers providing refreshments
The statue of Iravan is not constructed as a single one in one place. Different body parts are made in different villages in the vicinity. All these parts are assembled on the last day of the festival before the transgenders pay their final homage. After the homage to their husband (Iravan) there is a sacrifice done (mostly of a goat or hen to symbolize the sacrifice of Iravan at Mahabharat) then they move forward with the final ritual of removing their thali and becoming the widow of Iravan.
Though it is a major festival it is not free from controversies. Complaints of sexual harassment are abundant during the festival. As the festival brings in a huge transgender crowd many men are seen to come there just to seek a night’s pleasure with them. As the transgenders are tradition-bound to consummate the marriage, they look out for suitable and willing partner. Many men find it an easy opportunity to have sex at a very meagre price.
This open prostitution has at times become a nuisance to both the transgenders and women who come to visit the temple. A majority of the young men are found to be drunk and are at times seen to forcing the transgenders to having sex with them.
But today with increasingly higher numbers of transgenders being educated and coming from relatively well-off families, are putting their feet down and demanding a respect and facilities for themselves from the local governing bodies and the people.
With the festival becoming bigger and grander over the years, it has become a platform to educate the people about STD and AIDS because a huge part of the crowd present is some way or the other related to prostitution. The local government body also has been trying its best in providing a safe haven for both the women and transgenders coming to the village for the festival. There are the like of TANSACS (Tamil Nadu State Aids Control Society) who are distributing free condoms, giving free health check up, educating the majority of the villagers and other visitors about the Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) and how to prevent them.
However, with education and some opportunities coming their way in the recent years, there has been a gradual dip in the number of transgenders visiting this festival. But for many who keep visiting the temple it is a way of life and are happy to be a part of such celebration.