Koovagam, India’s Largest Transgender Festival, Opens

Ayush RankaHarani a transgender from Tiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu was crowned the first runner-up at the beauty pageant held a day before the Koovagam festival, April 30, 2012.

Senthil Thomgon is a 36-year-old bellman at the Balaji, one of only a handful of air-conditioned hotels in the dusty city of Villupuram, 162 kilometers southwest of Chennai. The city has a few dosa restaurants and one bus station, which serves the small farming villages that dot this particular region of Tamil Nadu. “I was born here – and I will tell you that on normal days, nothing ever happens,” Mr. Thomgon says. “Villupuram is the silent city.”

But these are not normal days and his neighborhood is anything but silent.

It’s Koovagam: an annual religious festival for hijras, India’s male-to-female transgendered people. The festival celebrates the myth of Lord Krishna taking female form in order to marry Aravan (also called Iravan), a warrior who fought the Mahabharata War with the five Pandava brothers against their rivals, the Kauravas. Aravan volunteers to be sacrificed in order to ensure the Pandava brothers’ success on the battlefield, but wishes to marry and spend a night with a woman before he dies.

While Koovagam is officially only a two-day affair – May 1 and 2 this year – the festivities in Villupuram often go on for weeks. No one takes attendance, but the number of hijras flocking to the city easily number in the thousands – at this point on some streets in Villupuram hijras seem to outnumber non-Hijras by two to one.

It’s the largest gathering of male-to-female trangendered people in India, and arguably one of the most singular cultural celebrations an open-minded traveler could ever hope to encounter, where an influx of hijras, eunuchs, and cross-dressers swarm these usually desolate streets seeking spiritual cleansing, friendship and sometimes casual or paid sex. According to locals like Mr. Thomgon, the festival has been running for over a hundred years now – but it has only started to acquire fame over the past few, as attendance has soared because of more word of mouth in the Internet age.

Villupuram is the closest area with lodging near Koovagam – the rural village the festival is named after. The festival is held in Koovagam because of the presence of a shrine dedicated to Aravan.

Thanks to Villupuram’s convenient locale, the city has evolved over the last 12 years from merely supporting the traditions of Koovagam to actually hosting some of the festival’s most popular elements. Two beauty pageants, one in the morning and one at night (winners from both are crowned “Miss Koovagam”) are held on the day preceding Koovagam’s formal opening and religious ceremony.

In each pageant, elaborately dressed transgender contestants from cities and small towns throughout India lip-sync and perform dance routines to classical Hindi music, golden-era Bollywood songs, or sometimes raunchier, more contemporary Tamil fare. Hijras often live in clans, or families of their own kind, and friends and “sisters” raucously cheer on their local stars. In this year’s morning event, Shakila, a hijra from Chennai, danced for her 10th consecutive year. It was her 15th time attending the festival. She claims to be 30, but appears somewhat older. She also claims that her dance once earned her a photograph inside the pages of National Geographic.
Ayush RankaShakila, a transgender from Chennai, Tamil Nadu holds a dance pose. She has been dancing every year at the Koovagam festival for the past ten years.

“I call my dance ‘Aquila Shaquilla,’ ” she said, gesturing dramatically with long, spreading arms. “It releases me.”

Some newcomers, however, have more practical ambitions. Joanmohi, a graceful 23-year-old hijra from Assam who has been studying Indian classical dance fairly seriously for several years, was excited to showcase her training in a public setting during the evening’s program. Unfortunately for Joanmohi and the other dancers, Koovagam takes place on the full moon night of the Tamil month of Chitrai – a time that is generally regarded as the most humid and punishingly hot period of the Tamil year.

Dancing under bright stage lights wearing an elaborate, bell-adorned costume in a poorly ventilated room can prove to be a significant challenge for even the most determined performer. “It was very hot up there,” Joanmohi said, panting and streaked with sweat after her performance. “But I finished it.”

These beauty pageants, not to mention the massive influx of hijras, journalists, documentarians, and male admirers who trail their every step, constitute a major boon to Villupuram’s economy. Hotels are full. Restaurant workers pull overtime, and shopkeepers turn a hefty profit.

M.S. Velu, 75, along with his 16-year-old-grandson Pugamendhi, runs a small shop beside the hall where the morning beauty pageant is held. The shop has an advantage – a working refrigerator stocked with cold drinks. “For one day a year,” Mr. Velu said, “I have really good business.”

Not everyone in the silent city, however, is as enthusiastic about the changes Koovagam presents to the local community. Outside of a run-down bar on the edge of town called the VVA Lodge, decorated with back-lit pictures of semi-nude women, a male admirer could be seen presenting liquor purchased inside of the bar to a hijra who waited patiently in an auto-rickshaw. Despite the bars’ risqué choice of décor, hijras are not permitted inside. Shahairaj, a waiter at VVA, explains. “It’s a family place,” he says of VVA Lodge. “We don’t allow those types in here.”

Some other bars closer to the center of town that do allow hijras are transformed into pickup joints by an influx of sex workers, and would-be johns. On the streets outside of these bars, men aggressively tease their more provocatively dressed guests. Hijras who wear short dresses, and clacking heels become easy targets for physical and verbal abuse in the shadows of Villupuram’s poorly lit streets. “Some men here respect us,” says Achu, a bright-eyed young hijra grad student from Kerala. Others, she said “are not so nice.”

Inside the more protective confines of the dim, smoky, unventilated bars, transactions for sex last until closing time, or in the case of one bar, until the police finally arrive to break up the action and take bribes. The radically sexual environment seems at odds with almost anything typically seen in modern India – and especially anything situated in such a remote, rural region of the country.
Ayush RankaAmbika, a 49-year-old hijra from Salem, Tamil Nadu has been visiting the festival annually for the last 35 years.

Ambika, a 49-year-old hijra from Salem who has been visiting the festival annually for the last 35 years, connects the erotically charged environment to a newer, more liberated generation of India’s transgendered population. She said she doesn’t bring her boyfriend here because he doesn’t like the way the modern dress, exposing too much flesh.

Many hijras have nothing to do with the pick-up scene, and are here instead to spend time talking with friends and fellow travelers in restaurants and overcrowded hotel rooms. Reshma, a 23-year-old hermaphrodite who traveled from Delhi to the festival couldn’t contain her happiness when asked why she’s been traveling to Koovagam for the last five years. “Where else can I meet friends from all over India and receive the lord’s blessing?” she asks.

by Michael Edison Hayden
Source – The New York Times