[Assam] [assam] Koovagam, India's Largest Transgender Festival Opens
bbaruah at aol.com
Wed May 2 17:00:47 IST 2012
New York Times (May 2, 2012
Koovagam, India’s Largest Transgender Festival, Opens
By MICHAEL EDISON HAYDEN
Harani, center, a transgender from Tiruvannamalai district in Tamil
Nadu was crowned the first runner-up at the beauty pageant held a day
before the Koovagam festival, April 30, 2012.
Senthil Thomgon is a 36-year-old bellman at the Balaji, one of only a
handful of air-conditioned hotels in the dusty city of Villupuram, 162
kilometers southwest of Chennai. The city has a few dosa restaurants
and one bus station, which serves the small farming villages that dot
this particular region of Tamil Nadu. “I was born here – and I will
tell you that on normal days, nothing ever happens,” Mr. Thomgon says.
“Villupuram is the silent city.”
But these are not normal days and his neighborhood is anything but
It’s Koovagam: an annual religious festival for hijras, India’s
male-to-female transgendered people. The festival celebrates the myth
of Lord Krishna taking female form in order to marry Aravan (also
called Iravan), a warrior who fought the Mahabharata War with the five
Pandava brothers against their rivals, the Kauravas. Aravan volunteers
to be sacrificed in order to ensure the Pandava brothers’ success on
the battlefield, but wishes to marry and spend a night with a woman
before he dies.
While Koovagam is officially only a two-day affair – May 1 and 2 this
year – the festivities in Villupuram often go on for weeks. No one
takes attendance, but the number of hijras flocking to the city easily
number in the thousands – at this point on some streets in Villupuram
hijras seem to outnumber non-Hijras by two to one.
It’s the largest gathering of male-to-female trangendered people in
India, and arguably one of the most singular cultural celebrations an
open-minded traveler could ever hope to encounter, where an influx of
hijras, eunuchs, and cross-dressers swarm these usually desolate
streets seeking spiritual cleansing, friendship and sometimes casual or
paid sex. According to locals like Mr. Thomgon, the festival has been
running for over a hundred years now – but it has only started to
acquire fame over the past few, as attendance has soared because of
more word of mouth in the Internet age.
Villupuram is the closest area with lodging near Koovagam – the rural
village the festival is named after. The festival is held in Koovagam
because of the presence of a shrine dedicated to Aravan.
Thanks to Villupuram’s convenient locale, the city has evolved over the
last 12 years from merely supporting the traditions of Koovagam to
actually hosting some of the festival’s most popular elements. Two
beauty pageants, one in the morning and one at night (winners from both
are crowned “Miss Koovagam”) are held on the day preceding Koovagam’s
formal opening and religious ceremony.
In each pageant, elaborately dressed transgender contestants from
cities and small towns throughout India lip-sync and perform dance
routines to classical Hindi music, golden-era Bollywood songs, or
sometimes raunchier, more contemporary Tamil fare. Hijras often live in
clans, or families of their own kind, and friends and “sisters”
raucously cheer on their local stars. In this year’s morning event,
Shakila, a hijra from Chennai, danced for her 10th consecutive year. It
was her 15th time attending the festival. She claims to be 30, but
appears somewhat older. She also claims that her dance once earned her
a photograph inside the pages of National Geographic.
Shakila, a transgender from Chennai, Tamil Nadu holds a dance pose. She
has been dancing every year at the Koovagam festival for the past ten
“I call my dance ‘Aquila Shaquilla,’ ” she said, gesturing dramatically
with long, spreading arms. “It releases me.”
Some newcomers, however, have more practical ambitions. Joanmohi, a
graceful 23-year-old hijra from Assam who has been studying Indian
classical dance fairly seriously for several years, was excited to
showcase her training in a public setting during the evening’s program.
Unfortunately for Joanmohi and the other dancers, Koovagam takes place
on the full moon night of the Tamil month of Chitrai – a time that is
generally regarded as the most humid and punishingly hot period of the
Dancing under bright stage lights wearing an elaborate, bell-adorned
costume in a poorly ventilated room can prove to be a significant
challenge for even the most determined performer. “It was very hot up
there,” Joanmohi said, panting and streaked with sweat after her
performance. “But I finished it.”
These beauty pageants, not to mention the massive influx of hijras,
journalists, documentarians, and male admirers who trail their every
step, constitute a major boon to Villupuram’s economy. Hotels are full.
Restaurant workers pull overtime, and shopkeepers turn a hefty profit.
M.S. Velu, 75, along with his 16-year-old-grandson Pugamendhi, runs a
small shop beside the hall where the morning beauty pageant is held.
The shop has an advantage – a working refrigerator stocked with cold
drinks. “For one day a year,” Mr. Velu said, “I have really good
Not everyone in the silent city, however, is as enthusiastic about the
changes Koovagam presents to the local community. Outside of a run-down
bar on the edge of town called the VVA Lodge, decorated with back-lit
pictures of semi-nude women, a male admirer could be seen presenting
liquor purchased inside of the bar to a hijra who waited patiently in
an auto-rickshaw. Despite the bars’ risqué choice of décor, hijras are
not permitted inside. Shahairaj, a waiter at VVA, explains. “It’s a
family place,” he says of VVA Lodge. “We don’t allow those types in
Some other bars closer to the center of town that do allow hijras are
transformed into pickup joints by an influx of sex workers, and
would-be johns. On the streets outside of these bars, men aggressively
tease their more provocatively dressed guests. Hijras who wear short
dresses, and clacking heels become easy targets for physical and verbal
abuse in the shadows of Villupuram’s poorly lit streets. “Some men here
respect us,” says Achu, a bright-eyed young hijra grad student from
Kerala. Others, she said “are not so nice.”
Inside the more protective confines of the dim, smoky, unventilated
bars, transactions for sex last until closing time, or in the case of
one bar, until the police finally arrive to break up the action and
take bribes. The radically sexual environment seems at odds with almost
anything typically seen in modern India – and especially anything
situated in such a remote, rural region of the country.
Ambika, a 49-year-old hijra from Salem, Tamil Nadu has been visiting
the festival annually for the last 35 years.
Ambika, a 49-year-old hijra from Salem who has been visiting the
festival annually for the last 35 years, connects the erotically
charged environment to a newer, more liberated generation of India’s
transgendered population. She said she doesn’t bring her boyfriend here
because he doesn’t like the way the modern dress, exposing too much
Many hijras have nothing to do with the pick-up scene, and are here
instead to spend time talking with friends and fellow travelers in
restaurants and overcrowded hotel rooms. Reshma, a 23-year-old
hermaphrodite who traveled from Delhi to the festival couldn’t contain
her happiness when asked why she’s been traveling to Koovagam for the
last five years. “Where else can I meet friends from all over India and
receive the lord’s blessing?” she asks.
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