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Indian society has never been so welcoming to the transgender community. Laws were passed, a lot of transgender rights organizations came into existence but still, the taboo remains.
In a country which considers this community unacceptable, there is this one village which stands out of the box by hosting the biggest transgender festival in the Indian subcontinent. Koothandavar (Aravan) Temple of the Koovagam village which lies in the northern part of Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu is famous for its annual transgender festival. The festival which is celebrated in the Tamil month of ‘Chitrai’ (April or May) lasts for 18 days and attracts thousands of people from all over the country.
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The roots of this centuries-old festival go back to the Legend of Mahabharata. On the 18th day of the Mahabharata war, the Pandavas had to sacrifice a pure warrior to goddess Kali in order win the battle.
So Aravan/ Koothandavar volunteered but expressed one final wish to Lord Krishna – to be married before his death. No women came forward to marry Aravan as it would land them in a lifetime of widowhood. So Lord Krishna took his ‘Mohini’ avatar and married Aravan.
Transgenders who consider themselves as the brides of Koothandavar comes to this small South Indian village to be a part of Koovagam festival. On the 17th day of the festival, they dress up as brides and wears the sacred thread (Mangalsutra) around their neck and consider themselves getting married to the Lord, which is then followed by their traditional dances and music. On the 18th day, the festival concludes by sacrificing Aravan and then widowing his brides. The brides break their bangles, cut off the sacred thread and mourn the death of their husband.
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Apart from being something traditional, the festival has been used as a platform by the transgender community to organize activities like blood donation campaigns and awareness programs about STDs. In recent years the major attraction of this festival is the transgender beauty pageant called ‘Miss Koovagam’.
Brides of Aravan mourning his death
Image Credits : Instagram - @suriya_kathir
In India, transgenders are considered an outcast and are never accepted to the mainstream society which is often why they resort to sex work or begging. For the transgender community, this festival is one of the few occasions where they feel accepted and considered relevant. And for the rest of us, Koovagam is a reminder that they also deserve a place in society.