India has plenty of festivals that celebrate every believable myth, occasion and personality. So no surprise that there is a festival exclusively for eunuchs- Koovagam Festival. Koovagam is a unique festival in Asia. The festival has gained much popularity and attended by transgender people as well as the larger LGBTQ community from across India and even Southeast Asian countries and cultural enthusiasts too. Every year in the month of Chaitra (April/May), the sleepy village of Koovagam comes to life during this 18-days festival. This village is located about 25 km away from Villupuram District of Tamil Nadu. The festival primarily held at ‘Koothandavar Temple’.
A Festival related to Mahabharata
The festival history started from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Aravan was a son of the great warrior Arjuna and Naga princes Ullupi. According to the Mahabharata, for Pandavas to win the Kurukshetra war, it required sacrificing life to Goddess Kali. Aravan offered to sacrifice his life for their victory in the battle.
According to a popular belief, Aravan got three distinct boons as a reward for his great sacrifice. First, Aravan asked Krishna to grant him the boon of heroic death on the battlefield. Aravan’s second boon was to see the entire 18-day war. Mahabharata’s Villiputuralvar’s 14th-century version carried the mention of this second boon. On Aravan’s request Krishna granted him to watch the great battle post his demise as well. And of dying gloriously after killing many enemies. Though Villiputuralvar does not actually specify whether Aravan’s head survives to see the complete battle after his bodily death on the eighth day.
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The Third Boon
The third boon was the most important one. Aravan wanted to marry before his sacrifice. So this third boon provided for Aravan. As the marriage entitled him to the right of cremation and funerary offerings, otherwise as a bachelor he would had been buried. However, no woman wanted to marry Aravan, fearing the inevitable doom of widowhood. In the Kuttantavar cult version, Krishna solved this dilemma by taking on his female form, Mohini the enchantress. She married Aravan and spend that night with him.
Aravan sacrificed next day. And Kali lapped up his blood. The Koovagam version additionally related Krishna’s mourning as a widow after Aravan’s sacrifice the next day, after which he returned to his original masculine form for the duration of the war. Koovagam festival honours this mythological incident and thus celebrates the union of various transgender women, also known as Aravanis; to celebrate this festival.
All transgender women visit the temple to replicate his one-day long marriage. On the 17th day of the festival, various transgender women dress as brides wearing bright coloured sarees, colourful bangles, jewellery and ornaments. They visit the temple to marry the deity ‘Aravan.’ The temple priests tie the ‘thalli‘ or ‘Mangalsutra‘ around their necks to signify the marriage, followed by a night of joyous celebration.
The crowds filled the streets to witness the procession and festivities. Lord Aravan’s huge severed head idol joins the big procession. During this festival A fresh coat of paint is applied to the idol. And it is taken out from the temple. After one night, on the next day, the Aravanis gather to mourn the death and sacrifice of Aravan. They change into white sarees with no makeup. The priests remove the ‘thallis’ and the women fiercely break their bangles, signifying their widowhood.
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IMPORTANCE OF THE FESTIVAL
The rejoice heard on the day before converts to cries of sorrow and mourning on the next day. And this is one of the stark contrasts of this festival. Many events are held during the first 16th days’, such as a music, dance beauty contest. The most important event among these is Miss Koovagam beauty pageant. This is specifically for trans people. Many NGOs conduct HIV/ AIDS awareness programmes and seminars on health and sexuality. The festival is also known for being a hub of sex workers.
Being of the biggest trans festival, it records a large number of footfalls every year. Koovagam authorities arrange special buses and cars for the visitors to reach there. Beyond society’s norm and regulation transgender meet each other here without any fear. The festival is extremely significant for many transgender. As this is their only chance to get married. Across the country, trans are rebuked due to their alternate sexuality. They have not a choice but to beg, dance or become sex workers. Although some states, most notably Tamil Nadu have legislated measures for transgender inclusion, much remains to be done. In this bleak scenario, it is festivals like Koovagam that gives them a chance to celebrate their difference and revel in their identity.
Current Status of Koovagam Festival
Due to the COVID19 pandemic, this festival has been cancelled this year. All transgender community understands the current situation. They are praying to their deity Aravan, for this pandemic to end soon.