Over the decades, the Koovagam festival has become one of the largest gatherings of transgender people in the world.

Mahabharata characters come alive at this festival celebrating gender-fluid AravanisAravan's procession before sending him for sacrifice
Features Let's Talk LGBTQ+ Thursday, June 30, 2016 - 16:29

The Mahabharata is one of the most fascinating literary texts you can come across in Sanskrit. From plots, sub plots and stories to characters, dialogues and the inherent philosophy, you will never encounter a more awe inspiring read. While there have been numerous oral and folk versions that have seeped into its discourse, it remains the first text which gives crucial space to members of the transgender community.

In the Suptika Parva you come across Shikhandi - born as a girl child to Drupada the king of Panchala, he becomes a eunuch later. In his previous birth he was a woman called Amba. Bhishma had abducted Amba along with her sisters Ambika and Ambalika and forced them to marry his weakling of a brother, Vichitravirya.

Amba swore to take revenge and prayed to Shiva. Shiva answered her prayers and agreed to make her the cause of his death, but only in the next birth. Eager to finish her revenge, Amba leaped into a pyre.

In the next birth Amba was born with female genital organs but raised as a man named Shikhandi. She was trained in the art of warfare and was going to take her revenge on Bhishma in the war of Kurukshetra. Shikhandi was married off to a woman. On the wedding night, Shikhandi’s wife was horrified to discover that her husband was actually a woman.

King Drupada tried to explain that Shikhandi was a man with a female body, but the woman refused to listen and went to her father, who swore to destroy the Panchala kingdom.

Blaming himself for the mess, a distraught Shikhandi went to the forest to commit suicide. In the forest he meets a Yaksha called Sthunakarna. He narrates the entire episode to the Yaksha. Taking pity on him the Yaksha gave him his manhood for one night.

Now armed with the Yaksha’s manhood, Shikhandi made love to a concubine sent by his father-in-law to prove he was not a woman and to send his wife back.

Meanwhile Kubera, king of the Yakshas, was furious with what Sthunakarna had done and so cursed Sthunakarna that he would not get his manhood back so long as Shikhandi was alive. And it was this Shikhandi, someone who was in between two genders, facing Bhishma at the war to take her revenge. Shikhandi changed the course of the war and the rest of the story is known.

The other interesting character is Arjuna himself. In the Virata Parva of Mahabharata, Arjuna has to fulfil a curse. The story of the curse is that Indra invited his son Arjuna to visit. In Indra’s kingdom the heavenly damsel Urvashi is attracted to Arjuna and Indra decides to play the middleman.

He sends Urvashi to Arjuna one night. Arjuna is not interested in making love to Urvashi and instead calls her a mother. This was because Urvashi one once married to an ancestor of the Kuru dynasty. Feeling insulted at this, Urvashi cursed Arjuna that he would spend his life as a eunuch.

This curse was realized in the Virata Parva when the Pandavas had to go into exile and spend the thirteenth year in disguise. Arjuna becomes Brihannala, a eunuch dance teacher and spends a year teaching dance to princess Uttara.

In another version of the epic, the story of Aravan stands out. Aravan was the son of Arjuna and his Naga princess Ulupi.

According to ‘Parata Venpa’ an eighth century version of Mahabharata written by Perundevanar in Tamil Nadu, special sacrifice rituals were made during the war. One sacrifice ensured that whoever performed and gave his life to goddess Kali would bring victory to the war.

The young and unmarried Aravan, also called Koothandavar in the text, volunteers to sacrifice himself for the victory of the Pandavas. However, before this he requests Krishna that he would like to be married for a day, so that when he died, he would be honoured with all the funeral rituals and customs that were needed. Bachelors were buried and Aravan did not want that with his body.

Krishna agrees to Aravan’s condition but no woman is ready to marry Aravan with the fear of early widowhood. Krishna takes on the form of Mohini and marries Aravan. After the first night of consummating their marriage, Mohini bids a farewell to Aravan and allows him to conduct his sacrifice. 

Year after year scores of transgender people gather in the village at the Koothandavar temple in the village of Koovagam in the Villuppuram district of Tamil Nadu. You can find a little video about the temple here:

 

 

They conduct this 18-day long festival. They enact the entire episode of Mohini marrying Aravan and sending him off to sacrifice. After that they enact the ritual of becoming widows and mourn Aravan’s death. The priests in the temple take on the duty of tying the ‘Mangalasutra’ or sacred marriage thread around the necks of hundreds of eunuchs as a symbolic gesture.

On the penultimate day Aravan is taken around the village in a grand procession before he is sent off to his sacrifice. The priests come and snap the thread from the necks.  After that the eunuchs dress in white to mourn.

Over the decades the Koovagam festival has become one of the largest gatherings of transgender people in the world. Transgender people in Tamil Nadu are called ‘Aravanis’ with respect to their culture and customs. Every Aravani wishes to be present in Koovagam and participate in this ritual.

 

Aravan in the Koovagam temple

 

For the 18 days that the temple observes the festival, transgender people become living characters of the Mahabharata. It is their faith in this story and its customs that has kept the Aravani community going strong for decades. More than anything it is an occasion to gather, share their life stories, live, eat, sing and dance together, spend time once a year meeting old friends.

The whole village becomes a friendly place for members of different sexualities to gather. Over a period of time, even the Tamil Nadu state Tourism has realized the importance of this festival. They have arranged good transportation facilities. The Aravani community contributes to the state revenues in their own way.

The festival is held after the full moon in the Tamil month of Chittirai. If you have friends who follow the traditional Tamil calendar, check the dates with them. Do try to visit it as it could be a once in a lifetime spectacle to witness. Moreover, visiting this place means showing your support and solidarity with these sexual and gender minorities who have been working hard to assert their rights and space in the mainstream society.

Images courtesy – Pooja Iyer,  Sethumaran K 

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)

 

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