The members of the transgender community in Tamil Nadu who generously shared time with me described themselves as 'aravani'. Only much later, I learned that many others in their community reject this term and describe themselves as Thirunangai. Respectfully, however, I have retained the term that the people I spoke to used in identifying themselves.
“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. Jayamala is here for an annual festival that takes place in the month of Chithirai in the Tamil calendar (around mid-April to mid-May) and lasts for 18 days.
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.
An early version of this photo essay was published on the photographer's website.