“Love has its ways. Unique ones. Love takes peculiar forms and shapes. It comes from places you don’t expect, and refuses to be what you want it to be. It is as permanent as the promise of a passing cloud and as transient as the wail of an infant. It flees from the definitions you want to box it in. It becomes a violent hurricane sometimes and at others a tranquil desert night. It grows beyond the philistine ideas of age and time, parochial definitions of morality, and categorical descriptions of companionship that society attempts to impose on us."

Ruby is telling me about love, the way her community sees it. “Year after year, I plead with the koothandavar (the deity) for kadhal (love) and kalyanam (marriage)," she says.

The temple priest ties the ‘mangalsutra’ as a representative of Lord Aravan in a symbolic ritualistic gesture of marriage

I befriended Ruby soon after I got to Villupuram, the nearest town from Koovagam. “Why wouldn’t you shoot me naked? Don’t you find me attractive?" she asks me, flaunting her newly acquired bust-line while pushing the helm of her sari down to show off the tattooed scorpion on her navel. She had treated me to a display of silk saris, evening gowns, wigs, lingerie, jewellery and stilettos that would be used for the popular transgender beauty pageant, “Miss Koovagam", in a few hours.

She talks about sex and her demanding clients. “It puts food on the table. It is a job, just like yours. The better you are, the more money you get," she smirks impishly. “After all, most of us eke out our living by either begging or indulging in sex work."

As we speak of love and sexual orientations, she asks: “Why is our love abnormal? Can any form of love be abnormal? Do you know what is normal? Why can’t they let us be?" She tells me I would be meeting aravanis (transgenders), kothis (effeminate homosexuals) and panthis (the so-called straight male clients of the kothis) at the festival.

I walk all day on the hot streets of Koovagam, trying hard not to second-guess people’s identities or sexual orientations.

Koovagam, a nondescript hamlet in Tamil Nadu, lightens up during the annual festival. “Miss Koovagam" is a glitzy affair. Talent and entertainment shows, IQ rounds, cultural performances: a feast of colours and fashion. The contest is organized by the Villupuram District Aravanis (Women) Welfare Association, which also doubles up as a forum to build awareness around HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. After many rounds of ramp walks, dances and questions, Chayya Singh, a contestant from Bangalore, wins the title.

A transgender person looks at herself in the mirror after the wedding ceremony

“Over the years, they have come to terms with it, or maybe they have resigned themselves to their fate. I wish I had graduated, got a decent job and then got the sex-change operation done," she says. “I was in a hurry in my insecure teens, and like many others, moved to Mumbai." She now supports herself as a bar dancer in Bangalore. “At least, I don’t spend every night with a new man nor do I beg at traffic signals," she adds with a smile.

******

D-Day at the festival.

I head to the grounds with Ruby and Chayya, dazzling in their finest traditional Kanjeevarams and temple jewellery, gleaming at the thought of becoming a bride once again.

In the Mahabharat, it was prophesized that the Pandavas would win the battle of Kurukshetra only if they sacrificed a “perfect" warrior male from among themselves to please Goddess Kali, who is the keeper of the Kurukshetra grounds. Prince Aravan, a son born out of an illicit relationship Arjun had with a certain Naga princess, offered himself up, provided a few conditions of his were satisfied.

One was his wish to marry, and consummate the marriage, before being beheaded. Since no woman was willing to be widowed a day after her wedding, Lord Krishna took the form of Mohini to marry Aravan.

The following morning, Aravan was beheaded and his head left on the Kurukshetra grounds for him to watch the rest of the war—his other condition. He saw his widow Mohini beating her chest and bemoaning his death.

Chayya Singh, who went on to win the Miss Koovagam title, walks the ramp

The sanctum sanctorum allows a very narrow strip of light to penetrate and is presided over by the local priest or pujari. He makes an offering of coconut, bananas and camphor to the deity, and recites various mantras to invoke the spirit of the Lord. He then ties the thaali(the mangalsutra).

A poet who regularly visits the festival narrates the history of the temple, the valour of Aravan and the significance of marriage “Marriage is a tavam (penance or tapas) that leads you to moksha," he explains.

I make friends with Sonika just after the marriage rituals. “This yearly marriage and revelry brings us huge solace; we wait for this gaiety all year." Sonika hurriedly excuses herself to celebrate the wedding night.

There are countless men—panthis—lined up along paddy fields and coconut groves. Sex is regular fare here. I see shadowy figures of couples copulating in the night as I rush back home.

I run into Sonika later that night, only for her to plead with me: “Can you buy me dinner? The cheapo gave me just 100 and didn’t even use a Nirodh (a brand of condom)." She hurls a few abusive Tamil words.

I cringe. I pay.

******

After the effigy of Aravan is burnt, transgenders perform the rituals of widowhood—the ‘thaalis’ are torn off, bangles broken and songs of mourning sung

On the last day of the festival, a procession of the Aravan effigy travels all around the village before being ceremonially beheaded and consigned to the flames.

What follows is a tragic event that would make any ancient Greek philosopher proud. Lord Aravan’sdeath is mourned through a high-pitched wail emanating from the transgenders who have just lost their coveted status as wife. They cry, they weep, they scream, they whimper; bangles are broken, the sacred sindoor is washed off their foreheads, the string of flowers is yanked from their hair, and finally, the thaali is torn off their mortal bodies.

I stand among the transgenders and try to capture all the frenzied action through my viewfinder. The broken glass bangles and thaalis fall on me. They sing songs about their ill-fated life, and wish their sexual status was only incidental. They cry over their birth, their mixed identities and their craving to find a soulmate. Having been at the festival twice, I too find solace in joining the community in its cathartic rituals of mourning. I wail.

There is unreasonable taboo attached to the Koovagam festival, as it is imagined to be a place for radical sexual indulgences and, therefore, an avenue to experiment with perverted fetishes. However, a visit to the festival will challenge the rigid binaries of gender identity and sexual orientation that we have been conditioned to. It will hopefully also make one see that transgender rights are human rights.

The community has suffered years of discrimination, humiliation and oppression, and continues to live on the fringes of society. They are often hated and feared for their sexual non-conformity and outrageous sexuality. Equity and equality remain a pipe dream; social and economic exclusion persists. And this festival is a radical appeal to our society to see them as equals, just the way their Lord Aravan did by giving the status of a bride to the transgender Mohini.

On my second visit to Koovagam, in 2013, I too prayed to Koothandavar. I prayed for my transgender friends to find the kind of great love they seek. Love that unites them in their brazen regard for life and death, in their anxious dialogue with God and devil, in the proud embracing of their own supremacy and insignificance. Love that lets them be.

Sindhuja Parthasarathy is a freelance travel and social documentary photographer. A version of this article first appeared on www.thealternative.in

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