A small village situated around 200 km from Chennai comes alive every year for 18 days. Koovagam, situated in the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu, hosts the largest transgender festival in India.
The festival falls in the month of Chaitra (somewhere around April or May) and transgender communities and visitors from around the country and continent congregate to celebrate the transgender community.
Aravanis at the Koovagam Festival
The last few days of the festival are the most important ones for the trans community. For the first fourteen days the villages surrounding Koovagam come together and have their own rituals and practices. The fifteenth day is when the trans women arrive to celebrate their identity.
The Aravanis, who are followers of Lord Aravan, get together and have a total ritualistic (and super fun) set of days and ceremonies as a testament to their faith (read this article to know more about Lord Aravan and what his deal is).
What goes on at the festival?
The most important days of the Koovagam festival are the last three days. Two are the old-school ritualistic ones and one is a more recently added tradition.
Miss Koovagam - More than Pageantry
Miss Koovagam is the annual pageant for trans women. It has evolved from being just a glamorous beauty pageant since its inception.
Now, trans women competing for the title must showcase both awareness and a plan for creating social impact for the transgender community.
Miss Koovagam is celebrated with much fanfare, especially because it focuses on appreciating beauty and inclusivity as well as raising awareness about the prevalent issues within the transgender community. Multiple healthcare, government, and non-profit organisations collaborate to bring this event to life.
(These are the winners of this year’s Miss Koovagam pageant!)
The Wedding Ceremony
Aravanis pride themselves on being Mohini (the female form Lord Krishna took to marry Lord Aravan before his sacrifice in the Kurukshetra war), and each year they travel from around Tamil Nadu and the country to participate in the annual wedding.
Thousands of weddings take place, and transgender women celebrate their marriage to their deity every year, even though it is for just a night.
To be honest, it gets quite wild out there on the wedding night. Think parties at a frat house, but apply it to this quaint village in Tamil Nadu. Yep, that’s how intense, fun and celebrated this ceremony is. But it all just leads to the final day of the festival, which takes a total of 180 on the festival fever.
The Mourning and Last Rites
The next morning, the married women gather and mourn the sacrifice of Lord Aravan. They burn his effigy and participate in their mourning rites.
As per tradition, they break their bangles, perform last rites, and participate in a mourning ceremony that is honestly quite indescribable. You can feel their loss, it’s as if they really have lost a loved one. All in all, it’s something that can’t be put into words.
The Koovagam festival brings people of the transgender community together as a unit.
They celebrate the identity that is unique to themselves, and during those few days, they feel like they belong in a space that they can call their own. Religion and mythology can have the power to be inclusive and unite, and this festival is a prime example of this.