Published today, a 25-picture essay “Transgenders: Wed and Widowed in a Day” at www.photojournale.com
How did I get here? The thought did cross my mind, as we wandered into the obscure village of Koovagam on the night of the full moon in Chitrai (April), joining tens of thousands of men, a few hundred transgenders (aravanis), and even fewer ladies, for the annual Koothandavar festival. It was only after shooting several gigabites of image files that the olde penny dropped. We’re in the footsteps of Krishna! And Papaji, who, back in the 1940s, crossed-dressed while still a wartime army officer, in the privacy of the night, complete with makeup and jewellery, to transform himself into a beautiful gopi for his beloved Lord Krishna.
Divinity seemed far from anybody’s mind, as men shamelessly ogled aravanis, though it was a soft and mellow atmosphere as we queued patiently with the pilgrim crowds to enter the temple where Sangithaamma, 27, married Koothandavar (Aravan), the transgenders’ deity.
The next morning, Koothandavar was taken in procession through the streets of Koovagam, upon a two-story high wooden car, hand-drawn by devotees pulling on heavy iron chains. Later, at a wooded grove nearby, the transgenders who had married their deity the previous night went into mourning, cutting off their “thallis” (wedding pendants), smashing bangles, hair in disarray, wailing and beating their chests in grief.
All the ceremonies over, we left the village. Along the way we stopped at a river where some of us took a ‘swim’ — the water was flowing but never more than a meter deep! Back on the bus, suddenly the silence was shattered. Somebody switched on the music. Spaghetti western guitar strumming segued into a driving ‘Native American’ drumbeat, finally settling into an irresistable, disco melody — Tamil film music has it all. Aravanis leap out of their seats and dance! dance! dance!