“This is our festival. For 10 days, we live a different life. I’ve been in a trance for the past few days, and I don’t want to come out of it,” says Jayamala, a 26-year-old aravani I met in Koovagam village of Viluppuram district in 2014. (Aravani is the name for a transgender woman in Tamil Nadu.) Jayamala is here for the annual Koovagam festival that takes place in the month of Chithirai in the Tamil calendar (around mid-April to mid-May) and lasts for 18 days.

Many transgender persons from across the country come to Koovagam for the beauty pageants, music and dance competitions, and other events. Many come to be ‘married' to Lord Aravan. This ‘wedding’ takes place at a temple devoted to Koothandavar (as Aravan is locally known), and it’s an enactment of a story from the Mahabharata.

The story goes like this: Aravan, the son of Arjuna and Naga princess Ulupi, agrees to be sacrificed to goddess Kali so that the Pandavas can win the war against the Kauravas. His dying wish is that he is married. However, no one is willing to marry him since he will be sacrificed the next morning. So Krishna takes on female form as Mohini, weds Aravan – only to be widowed the morning after.

At the Koovagam festival, aravanis enact these rituals of marriage, sacrifice and widowhood. When I arrived, the marriage celebrations had begun. Inside, the temple priest was performing the wedding rituals for one aravani after another. Outside, aravanis were dancing, and buying garlands, thalis, bangles.

I met a group of aravanis from Bengaluru; Prajwala, the group leader, told me, “I have been coming here for  12 years. It’s difficult for us to live in this society. But this place gives me hope that someday we’ll be accepted. Becoming the wife of a deity is a recognition for us.”

While the festival is mostly a joyous event, it has a darker side too. The aravanis speak of sexual harassment by men in the crowds, and verbal abuse by the cops. But Ivy, a 37-year-old aravani, says, “Still, I come here and will continue to do so.”  She disappears into the crowd. I wanted to ask her what brings her back every year. But the answer is evident: this is their festival. It’s where they are welcome for who they are.

The temple dedicated to Lord Aravan (known locally as Koothandavar) is in Koovagam village, about 30-40 kilometres from Viluppuram town in Tamil Nadu. A man whipping himself in front of a temple.
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

The temple dedicated to Lord Aravan (known locally as Koothandavar) is in Koovagam village, around 30 kilometres from Viluppuram town in Tamil Nadu 

Aravanis enact a story from the Mahabharata in which they get married to Lord Aravan. Here, they are seen getting ready for the wedding. A transgender woman decorating another transgender's hair with flowers
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Aravanis enact a story from the Mahabharata in which they get married to Lord Aravan. Here, they are getting ready for the wedding

One of the priests at the Koothandavar temple begins the wedding rituals. He ties a yellow thread called thali around the neck of each aravani to consecrate her union with Aravan.
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

One of the priests at the Koothandavar temple begins the wedding rituals. He ties a yellow thread called thali around the neck of each aravani to consecrate her union with Aravan

Married to her lord, an older aravani leaves the temple feeling content.
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Married to her lord, an older aravani leaves the temple feeling content 

Despite the social ostracism that transgender women face, people also regard them as ‘lucky’. They gather outside the Koothandavar temple to receive blessings from aravanis.
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Despite the social ostracism that transgender women face, people also regard them as ‘lucky’. They gather outside the Koothandavar temple to receive blessings from aravanis

Pinky (centre), the leader of a group of newly-wed aravanis from the outskirts of Chennai, is thrilled to be married. A portrait of three transgender women
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Pinky (centre), the leader of a group of newly-wed aravanis from the outskirts of Chennai, is thrilled to be married 

Once they’ve tied the knot, the aravanis rejoice. Pinky (right), in a gleeful moment, kisses her best friend and sister bride Mala. A transgender woman kisses another transgender woman on the cheek.
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Once they’ve tied the knot, the aravanis rejoice. Pinky (right), in a gleeful moment, kisses her best friend and sister-bride Mala 

The wedding ritual is complete, and it’s now time for some revelry. The aravani brides break into song and. dressed in bridal attire, continue the celebrations all night.
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

The wedding ritual is complete, and it’s now time for some revelry. The aravani brides break into song and dressed in bridal attire, continue the celebrations all night 

The next morning, the last day of the festival, it’s time for the ritual of Aravan’s sacrifice.
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

The next morning, the last day of the festival, it’s time for the ritual of Aravan’s sacrifice. And the aravanis begin mourning – they gather together, form circles and cry loudly 

A priest breaks an aravani’s bangles – one of the rituals of widowhood. Visibly distraught, she begins to sob.  Many visitors stand around watching the rituals
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

A priest breaks an aravani’s bangles – one of the rituals of widowhood. Visibly distraught, she begins to sob. Vistors stand around watching

People from nearby villages, who have come for the festival, gather around
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

The priest cuts off the aravanisthalis and throws them into a fire outside the temple. People from nearby villages, here for the festival, gather around

The aravanis must now shed their bridal attire and wear a widow’s whites.
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

The aravanis must now shed their bridal attire and wear a widow’s whites. Here, an aravani weeps soon after the priest gives her a white saree 

Aravanis beat their chests and hit their heads, expressing pain over Aravan’s sacrifice.
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Aravanis beat their chests and hit their heads, expressing pain over Aravan’s sacrifice

Near the temple are the remnants of what used to be signs of marriage – scattered garlands, broken bangles and cut up thalis
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Near the temple are the remnants of what used to be signs of marriage – scattered garlands, broken bangles and cut up thalis

An aravani, dressed in white, walks away from the temple; she usually continues to mourn the death of Aravan for up to a month
PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

An aravani, dressed in white, walks away from the temple; some continue to mourn the death of Aravan for up to a month

An early version of this photo essay was published on the photographer's website.

Ritayan Mukherjee

Ritayan Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based photography enthusiast and a 2016 PARI Fellow. He is working on a long-term project that documents the lives of pastoral nomadic communities of the Tibetan Plateau.

Other stories by Ritayan Mukherjee