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Marlies Klugmann / Mahesh Balasubramanian

My Big Indian Wedding

Centuries of history, Indian gods and transgender pilgrims: The annual Koothandavar Festival in South India is tolerant, colourful and, at times, violent.

For most of the year, the small village of Koovagam in South India is just as unexciting as any other village around. The people there follow their regular day-to-day lives, pray at the temple, and fetch water from the river. But between April and May every spring, the whole landscape turns into a bustling scene of brightly dressed people adorned with flowers and engaging in music and celebration as they roam the streets.
The annual Koothandavar Festival is held around the village’s temple and attracts thousands of transgender pilgrims from all over the country. For 18 straight days, every street and every corner is home to groups of hijras, a word used to refer to people who identify as a third gender. The village has gained worldwide attention for this celebration. It offers an open stage for the transgender community to live out various sexual orientations and concepts of gender. It draws visitors from the surrounding villages, and also from cities like Chennai and Bengaluru. On the negative side, the growth of the festival has reportedly increased the incidents of sexual violence against participants in recent years.

The backstory

Said to be practiced for hundreds of years, the Koothandavar Festival is a re-enactment of a mystic tale about the Indian deity Krishna. In order to win a war, Krishna had to sacrifice a young man to the goddess of war. Aravan volunteered to be that sacrifice, but he had one wish: to be married before his death. Since no woman was willing to marry a man who would make her a widow the very next day, Krishna agreed to marry the young man. He took the form of a woman named Mohini, and married Aravan. They spent the night together before Aravan was sacrificed the following day. Now a widow, Mohini then mourned the death of her husband.

The celebration

Transgender people in India consider themselves incarnations of Mohini, the female form of the god Krishna. During the festival, they travel to Koovagam to re-enact the one-day-marriage to Aravan. For the first 16 days, people celebrate, and often hold beauty pageants and various contests to name the most talented and beautiful community members. On the 17th day, during the full moon, they all gather at the Koothandavar temple in the village where priests recite spiritual mantras and perform a wedding ceremony. The temple priests deck the transgender community present out in flowers and tie a yellow string known as the mangala sutra around their necks, a ritual usually executed at Hindu weddings by the groom. Once the string or necklace has been knotted around a woman’s neck, she is officially married. Thus through this ritual, every transgender person at the festival becomes Aravan’s bride for one day.
After a night of celebration, singing, and dancing, the ritual turns painful when followers mourn Aravan’s death the next day. Filled with sorrow and grief, the festival participants rip off their strings, cry, and beat their chests. To signal their status as widows, the transgender festival goers then clothe themselves entirely in white. This ritual marks the end of the festival. After 18 days, everyone goes back to where they came from and the small village returns to life as usual for another year.

The violence

The spectacular nature of the Koothandavar festival draws people from all over India, participants as well as bystanders. The number of visitors has started to decline, however, as incidents of rape and violence against transgender people have increasingly dominated the media coverage. Although hijras are a commonplace in India, they have not yet been fully accepted by mainstream society. Social exclusion and stigmatization puts them at high risk of poverty, which often forces them to turn to prostitution. AIDS, HIV and other sexual transmitted diseases are therefore widespread problems among the transgender community. So NGOs and civil society organisations have begun using the media attention generated by the festival to promote sexual rights and improve sexual health. Additionally, the number of police officers present has been considerably increased to prevent abuse and protect the festival’s participants. Not very long ago, police and villagers were dead set against accepting the festival in Koovagam. Today, hundreds of households welcome their guests, offer them shelter, and provide them with food.
In a way, the annual Koothandavar festival has helped improve conditions for transgender people and has received more and more approval over the years. It offers a space for the justice and freedom this sexual minority has generally been denied. Yet the fear of being harmed still keeps many participants away. Violence against sexual minorities has yet to be addressed in political and societal debates and crimes are often not prosecuted. Without support and protection, perpetrators all too often get off scot-free.

Text by Marlies Klugmann. Photos by Mahesh Balasubramanian.

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