The Koothandavar Festival of Koovagam, Tamil Nadu, must count among the most bizarre rituals observed in India. Hundreds of transgenders gather here for 18 days in April-May to observe the festival, which has roots in a legend from the Mahabharata. This is the largest gathering of transgenders in the world.
For most of the year, Koovagam is a sleepy village but during the festival, which culminates on Chitra Pournami, it becomes a magnet for transgenders from across the country. The atmosphere is charged with sexuality and the festival draws people seeking sexual encounters with the transgenders.
Aravaan, son by illicit wedlock of the Pandava Arjuna and a Naga princess named Chitrangada, was a valiant warrior. He offered himself up to Krishna to be sacrificed to Goddess Kali, as only such a sacrifice would guarantee victory for the Pandavas in the great war. The sacrifice was to be conducted at dawn on the battle day. Aravaan had but one wish that he asked of Krishna. He wanted to die a married man, after consummating his lust with a woman. Now this was not an easy proposition, as which woman would willingly submit to be married to a man whose death was imminent? Yet, Krishna offered to make arrangements to grant his wish. Ever the masterly illusionist, Krishna transformed himself into the enchantress Mohini, married Aaravan and satisfied his sexual desires. At dawn, Aravaan was offered in sacrifice to Kali, who consumed him bit by bit over 18 days. On the final day of the battle, Aaravan realized he had been tricked – he was left with nothing but his head and a skeleton. Assuming his enormous martial form, Aravaan’s head rolled over the enemy forces and crushed them. The battle was eventually won. As Aravaan lay dying, he saw Mohini beating her chest and wailing as a widow grieves at the death of her husband. Blessed by that sight, Aravaan breathed his last.
The 18-day festival at Koovagam celebrates this chapter of the Mahabharata. The shrine in the village is dedicated to Aravaan and the highlight of the festival is the marriage of Aravaan to Mohini. The transgenders who gather here signify the brides of Aravaan. For the duration of the festival a gigantic head of Aravaan is fashioned and painted. During the first 15 days, the transgenders indulge in song, dance and merrymaking.
On the 17th day, the priest performs special rites to the idol of Aravaan and, invoking the spirit of the warrior into his own form, ties the mangalsutra (the sacred marital thread) around the necks of the transgenders gathered there. Just for the night, they are all now brides of Aravaan. After a night of celebratory dining and merriment, the gigantic head of Aravaan is mounted on a chariot and taken in procession around the village.
At dawn on the 18th day, the air is ripped by sharp wails as Aravaan is beheaded. Following tradition, his widows rip the mangalsutras from their necks, tear the flowers out of their hair, discard their ornaments, and beat their chests as Mohini mourned Aravaan. Taking a holy dip in the temple pond, they don the white garbs of widowhood.
On April 14, 2014, the Supreme Court of India, acting on a 2012 petition, made a landmark observation in which it recognized transgender citizens as a third gender.