Devotees pull the cart carrying the statue of Aravan around the village on the second and final day of the festival in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu.Ayush RankaDevotees pull the cart carrying the statue of Aravan around the village on the second and final day of the festival in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu.
Human beings often seek spiritual healing out of a sense of psychological pain. In the case of India’s hijra population, a group with a tradition that spans back until at least the Kama Sutra period, their sources of pain are sociologically complex, poorly documented, but difficult to deny: According to outreach groups like the Mumbai-based gay rights organization Humsafar Trust, India’s hijra population has a staggering rate of H.I.V. infection that numbers somewhere between 29 and 49 percent.
Simultaneously dehumanized as both good and bad luck omens by conventional Indian lore – hijras are often shoved to the edges of Indian society with few resources for earning money outside of begging (“mangti”), offering blessings on auspicious occasions (“bhadai”), and prostitution (“pun”). Even the act of making love for hijras remains debatable in Indian society as a crime.
So, at the conclusion of the Koovagam Festival, when legions of hijras dress in bright white and weep real tears as part of a ceremony mourning the death of Aravan, the warrior who Hindu god Krishna married after taking female form – it’s not difficult to connect those tears with the real life trauma that haunts their community outside of mere ritualistic play.
A group of transgenders are seen outside the Koothandavar temple in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu, after they perform the traditional ritual of breaking their bangles and adorning a white saree.Ayush RankaA group of transgenders are seen outside the Koothandavar temple in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu, after they perform the traditional ritual of breaking their bangles and adorning a white saree.
Dr. Mohan Kumar, a psychiatrist at Columbia Asia Hospital in Bangalore, made the trek down to Koovagam out of what he loosely described as a sense of dedication. Dr. Kumar has worked with transgendered female patients from across India’s vast economic divide, and says that the cathartic release the festival provides is very real, and in some ways, necessary. “You’d have to write a book rather than just an article or two to get closer to how it really feels,” Dr. Kumar says. “Most transgendered women in India are getting sex, sex, sex – but rarely do they receive compassion or love. And the majority of Indians still believe that it is a vile curse, that these people are disgraced in the eyes of god.”
Dr. Kumar says the ritualized enactment of the feminized Krishna’s love for Aravan is extremely powerful in hijra and Indian trangendered communities not only because of the cathartic healing the mourning ceremony provides through the release of tears but also because of a positive, aspirational element embedded in the story. The myth, ultimately, is about true love. “When Lord Krishna takes a female form for one night – he sleeps with Aravan. But it’s romantic love,” he said. “And so when Aravan dies, Krishna endures the sorrow of a devoted wife losing her lover.”
In traditional Hindu culture, when a woman loses her husband, she refrains from wearing color. Color can of course mean loud outfits (not unlike the ones worn in the wild Villupuram days leading up to the festival) but also jewelry, like bangles. At the close of the festival, the hijras fall at the feet of a large, artfully constructed idol of Aravan. Playing the part of widowed wives and dressed in simple white, they cry at the feet of the idol, and break their bangles before him.
To sensitive observers, the spectacle can be emotionally affecting, like Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” but from a different world.
A group of transgenders mourn after the traditional breaking of the bangles and cutting of the Taali in the village of Koovana Naththam, near Koovagam, Tamil Nadu.Ayush RankaA group of transgenders mourn after the traditional breaking of the bangles and cutting of the Taali in the village of Koovana Naththam, near Koovagam, Tamil Nadu.
After Koovagam, the immense idol is pulled up a winding dirt road through surrounding territories by scores of villagers. And as the festival goes, so too go the fly-by-night food and drink stalls that capitalize on the festival’s massive attendance, the remaining journalists, and the sleep-deprived hijras who gave their last shreds of energy to the closing of the festival.
The ultimate destination for the gigantic Aravan is the arguably even more obscure farming community of Koovana Naththan. There, burrowed into a forested enclave surrounded by sprawling fields, the villagers pay homage to it, and light fires. Around the fires, small, passionate circles develop where men and women kneel and burst into prayer. Taalis, small ropes that unite husband and wife during Hindu wedding ceremonies, are broken in mourning and left hanging on trees in massive quantities. The massive clumps of rope that are formed look almost dreamlike, like wax Matthew Barney sculptures. Broken glass bangles litter the ground. The villagers often break the bangles and the walk on the glass with bare feet without wincing – it’s a jaw-dropping display of stoicism.
Food offerings given to Aravan are then eaten by the villagers before the sculpture is taken away, deeper into the wilderness of Koovana Naththan and beheaded. By that time, the patches of fire on the dirt ground, sustained by burning taalis and bangles, serve as the primary source of external lighting.
By late Wednesday night, only a few villagers stay in Koovagam to take in what little remains of the festival – the garbage-strewn ground, the multicolored lights decorating the temple, and the rented camels chained to the trees beside the circus tent.
And back in Villupuram, where hijras and transgendered women once dominated pedestrian crossways and poured joyfully in and out of open-spaced hotel courtyards, only a three or four local hijras remain – inside a bar, begging for handouts.
This is the final installment of a three-part series about India’s largest transgender festival. Read about the festival’s opening and beauty pageants here, and keeping law and order here.
by Michael Edison Hayden
Source – The New York Times