The Koothandavar Festival is the primary festival of the Hijras or the ‘third sex’.  It is held every year in Koovagam, a remote village in the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu in India.  Celebrations begin on the full-moon day of Chitra, the local equivalent of April/May in the western calendar, and spill over into the next day. Transgender men and women assemble here to celebrate their unique sexual identity, by identifying themselves with Lord Krishna. One the greater Gods of the Hindu pantheon, Lord Krishna is a beloved deity throughout India, both for his naughty ways as a child, and his conquest of 16,000 wives when he came of age.
        This festival is a ritual re-enactment of a slice from His mythical life and times. During the great Mahabharatha war, Aravan, the son of Krishna’s dear friend Arjuna, had to be placed in a vulnerable position, as per the exigencies of war strategy. Knowing full well that this meant his death, Aravan agreed for the greater good of his people. As a last wish, Aravan wanted to be married; but none of the women were willing to marry someone who was certain to die the next day. Lord Krishna, ever ready to fulfill the desires of those dear to Him, transgendered himself and took on the form of a woman of extraordinary beauty. In this effeminate form, Lord Krishna is known as Mohini. Aravan is now enshrined as Lord Koothandavar, and there is a temple for his ritual worship in the Koovagam village.
       In the Koothandavar Festival, the Hijras play the role of Krishna and deck themselves up in silk sarees, jewelry and other finery. A man who plays the role of Aravan weds them. This is how the Hijras came to be called Aravanis, or wives of Aravan. That night is one of merry making, song and dance. Many straight men join in the festivities to have sex with the Aravanis.  The next morning the Aravanis continue imitating the legend, and cry and mourn for their mythical husband Aravan who has died on the battlefield. This is the traditional version of the festival. In more recent times, modern elements like beauty pageants are also being absorbed into the festival.
        Surveys indicate that there are 5-6 million Aravanis or ‘third sex’ people in India. Ancient texts reveal that in days of yore, they had a rightful place in society. In the famous grammar treatise, the Mahabhasya that dates back to circa 200 BC, Patanjali makes it abundantly clear that the three grammatical genders in Sanskrit are derived from the three sexes in society.  
        Historical studies also show that the Aravanis enjoyed royal patronage during the Muslim and Hindu rule. All that changed in the era of the British Raj, when they were classified as a ‘criminal tribe’. After India gained independence, their rights were restored but their social standing never quite recovered from the oppression it suffered under British. Today they are treated as outcasts and alienated from the common run of society. Their employment opportunities being rather dim, most third gender people have little choice but to earn their living through sex work and begging.
 The photographs that follow are taken during the Koothandavar Festival from 2006 to 2012.
                                                                                                                  Text: Shiva Shakti