India is the home of myriad bizarre customs & astonishing rituals. The ‘Koothandavar Festival’- celebrated in India’s ‘Koovagam’ village in Tamil Nadu state is among such weird customs wherein the transgenders flock in large numbers to revive the one of the anecdotes depicted in the great Mahabharata!
The ‘Koothandavar Festival’ is celebrated for 18 days in the months of April & May where the transgenders from the entire nation gather to pay homage to the mythological legend ‘Aravaan.’ This festival is regarded as the largest jamboree of the transgenders in the world.
Koovagam village which is seldom attracts people for most of the year, on ‘Chaitra Pournima,’ becomes a paradise for all the transgender individuals across the country who gather here to marry symbolically with the ‘Aravaan’ & later on to mourn as his widow after his demise. The origins of this unusual yet interesting convention are connected to the ancient Mahabharata- one of the two major epics in India.
According to the Mahabharata, a great war was fought between the ‘Pandavas’ & ‘Kauravas.’ In order to prevail in the war, Pandavas were required to forfeit a man before the Goddess Kali; as such practice would have earned them a guaranteed victory in the war. ‘Aravaan,’ son of the Pandava ‘Arjun,’ born out of his illicit relationship with a Naga princess ‘Chitrangada,’ was one of the most formidable warriors in the legions of Pandavas. ‘Aravaan’ willingly agreed upon sacrificing himself to the goddess Kali.
The brave heart ‘Aravaan’ expressed his utmost wish in front of the Lord Krishna, who was the mastermind of entire Mahabharata. Bachelor ‘Aravaan’ wanted to die as a married man after fulfillment of his sexual desires with a woman, preferably with his wife. The wish wasn’t that practical as none of the woman wanted to marry a man whose life was under the dark shadow of the death.
The Lord Krishna then transformed himself into a beautiful & captivating damsel-‘Mohini,’ married ‘Aravaan’ & later on satisfied his sexual lust. With the first ray of the rising sun, ‘Aravaan’ was presented before Kali as her prey who devoured his body in smaller chunks for 18 days. By that time ‘Aravaan’ realized that he was betrayed. On the final day of the battle, only head & the skeleton of his body were left. Even after being in such a miserable condition, he ambushed upon his enemy with his massive head that rolled over the enemy legions causing the major massacre. ‘Aravaan’ thus played a heroic role in the Pandava’s triumph in the war.
However, ‘Aravaan’ remained stranded on the battlefield, waiting for death with the sorrows of betrayal. He saw Mohini yowling in grief & beating her chest by the sorrowful sight of her husband. ‘Aravaan,’ upon witnessing that sight, felt complacent & took his last breath with the feeling of satisfaction!
The ‘Koothandavar Festival’:-
The festival celebrated in the ‘Koovagam’ village revives the tragedy of the courageous Aravaan in order to pay tribute to his act of valor. ‘Aravaan’ is considered as a patron of the transgenders in India. The transgender individuals who gather in Koovagam symbolize the brides of ‘Aravaan’. A gigantic head of ‘Aravaan’ is prepared & is worshiped throughout the duration of the festival.
First 15 days of the festival are celebrated with joy & fun as all the Transgenders participate in singing, dancing & other pre-wedding ceremonies. The atmosphere of Koovagam gets enchanted with the spirituality & vigor.
The 17th day is the most important day of the festival when all the brides tie knots with the sculpture of ‘Aravaan.’ The priest performs special rituals on the sculpture of Aravaan’s head to summon the spirit of the great fighter. All the transgenders tie the ‘Mangalsutra’ (a symbolic mark of a married Hindu woman) around their necks to become brides of ‘Aravaan.’ Thus, all the transgenders become lawfully wedded wives of the great ‘Aravaan,’ at least for that night. They celebrate the joy of ‘Aravaan’s’ marriage by indulging in splendid dinner & gaiety. Following the great celebration, the mammoth head of ‘Aravaan’ is mounted on a decorated chariot & is taken for a procession around the village.
The 18th day rises with the heart-breaking yelling & sorrowful atmosphere as ‘Aravaan’ is beheaded. All the transgenders who are now the wives of ‘Aravaan,’ cut down the Mangalsutras around their necks; wipe all their bridal make-up; surrender their ornaments & rips off the flowers tucked in their hair. They start screaming & yowling loudly while beating their chests in the way similar to Mohini, who lamented for ‘Aravaan.’ The gloomy transgenders then drape themselves in white clothes of widowhood after taking the ablution in the holy temple pond.
The festival that starts up with fun & excitement of the wedding thus comes to an end with a tearful farewell. The festival celebrated in the memories of the great warrior & the tragedy associated with his life is truly one of its kinds & hence stands tall above all other carnivals & festivals!