The story begins with 12,000 rupees. This is the amount of money I was given to visit another fellow’s project. Our Fellowship class gathered in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu for midpoint, and ever since then I’d been itching to return and visit Chennai, the state’s capitol.
Over the course of my first day in Chennai, I found myself falling in love with this bustling little city. It’s situated on the coastline of Tamil Nadu, and has good public transportation and a laid-back feel that you only find in beach communities. My friend, an American India Foundation Clinton Fellow named Swathi, lives and works at an incredible organization called Pudiyador, which run programs for children living in the fisherman’s slums on the beach. Each center is located in or next to the community it serves. Programs are supplemental to mainstream education, and range from art and theater to a variety of sports teams who compete in tournaments across India.
After spending the morning touring around Chennai, which included some incredible, multi-story, rainbow painted Hindu temples, Swathi took me to Pudiyador, where we watched the children perform their latest ‘drama’ (theater performance) and then ran around the beach and the streets of a fishing village with their youth group, ending the night at one of the youth group member’s home for amazing South Indian dosas (think a thin pancake or thicker crepe). Swathi is an example of the fellowship’s success. She has tight-knit relationships with people throughout the NGO and the communities in which she works, and has made a long-lasting impact on the lives of children and youth in Chennai.
On Sunday I hugged Swathi goodbye and boarded a train with an eclectic group of individuals; some of whom I knew and some of whom I met upon boarding. The group included Ned and Ilana, two fellows known as the “creative geniuses” of our class; an amazing transgender activists named Olga; and a student named Divya who spent her graduate degree studying the transgender community in India. We met two other transgender activists and friends of Olga, Anjali and Pooni, at Koovagam, and they assisted us throughout the week.
Ned and Ilana’s mission was to document ‘Koovagam,’ an annual festival in rural Southern India primarily attended by ‘thirunangai,’ a Tamil word for a transgender woman, primarily used to refer to Tamil trans women; and hijras, (he Hindi name for a trans woman) from across India. Ned and Ilana are spending a year documenting the community across India and creating an incredible multimedia project; with the idea that the public could access a wide variety of perspectives on the Indian transgender community. To the best of my knowledge, this type of project has never before been done. My mission was to help in any way I could and to try to learn as much as possible.
Koovagam is an important mela (festival) document as part of this project, and like all festivals, it originated with a story.” The festival originated with a story, of course. Koovagam is held in a village with a special temple dedicated to a God named Aravan. The story begins when Aravan discovered he would die the next day. Unmarried, he searched for a woman to marry as his last wish, but was unable to find anyone due to the strong stigma around widowhood in India. Krishna, a famous Hindu God, changed himself into a woman and married Aravan for the night, which included sleeping with him. The next morning, Aravan died and the female Krishna broke her bangles and removed her mangalsutra (a necklace married, South Indian women typically wear; both bangles and mangalsutra signify marriage) and wailed from “the pain of being a widow.”
At present, the festival occurs over the course of about a week, with the main evening as a reenactment of Aravan and Krishna’s marriage. Not only hijras, but also many men and community members whose families worship Aravan will go and ‘marry’ the God idol, found in a temple in rural Tamil Nadu. The next morning, they will break their bangles and wail. That’s the simple version. Here’s what actually happens:
Hijras, families and communities who worship Aravan, and many, many men flock to the area a couple of days before the ‘main evening’ which is determined by the Tamil Calendar, falling on the night of the full moon on the month of Cittirai. There are a series of events created and executed by HIV/AIDS NGOs, such as a ‘Miss Koovagam’ pageant and many opportunities to dance and/or show off your latest outfit. Some people live the majority of their lives as men and only reveal their true identity at Koovagam, where they know they will not be ridiculed or ostracized. One woman, whose body resembled that of a 6’5″ tall husky male, changed her outfit 5 times a day, wigs included. We spent two days attending beauty pageants and dances, spent time watching transgender women putting on make-up, and community member’s reactions to the festival, etc. The team used mediums that ranged from photography, video, and sketching, to recording audio, which often consisted of one-on-one interviews.
One interesting aspect of the transgender community and the festival that I was unaware about until we arrived was that transgender women are often employed as sex workers; partially from their inability to gain formal employment, sometimes due to lack of formal education. As a result, hijras were picking up men everywhere in Villupuram, and there was a very large community of men staying in the hotels on “business trips,” who were clearly paying trans women to engage in sex acts with them. I was initially scared that the men who were seeking the services of the hijra community would approach us as well, but we were actually quite protected by a variety of factors which could have ranged from our whiteness, our gender or the cameras – our poor friends were the ones being harassed. (To clarify: Olga runs an NGO for transgender rights and Pooni and Anjali have a dance studio.) Typically, hijras work in the sex industry and live in homes of 4-6 other transgender women, paying and supporting the house ‘mother’ until they are 35-40 and are too old to work in the industry; at that point they transition into a ‘mother’ role. Sometimes hijras have long-term clients who become their ‘lovers,’ or with whom they have a ‘relationship; these relationships typically end when that man is married off by his family or when he decides to leave. I’m not sure how I feel about this entire situation (am definitely still processing) but thought it was really important and wanted to share.
Day three and four are when things got ‘interesting.’ Olga, our primary guide in the hijra community became very, very sick (as did the rest of us later on) and was unable to guide us through the most important and dangerous part of the festival, the marriage. Ned also had to head back to Chennai, which left me and Ilana (both under 5’2″ teeny tiny girls), our friend Divya, the social worker, and our two friends Anjali and Pooni (both trans women). The marriage and day of death are much more dangerous than the days leading up to the festival because the large crowds can become very excited, and both the very emotional marriage and mourning rituals can easily spiral out of control. Recognizing this, we all sat down to make a safety plan, agreeing that film and photos were not worth anyone being hurt.
On the third day we headed over to the village in which the temple is situated (which was slightly far from where our hotel and the main community of hijras was staying). There were thousands of men, women, hijras and children running through this small village, around a large open field, all of which was centered around the colorful Aravand temple. Tattoos were being administered on the side of the road in the most unsanitary fashion, hijras were seen blessing community members (traditionally hijras are considered to have somewhat magical qualities amongst them, including the ability to bless or curse you); men with slightly worn ice cream trucks sold slightly off-tasting ice cream to children, hijras and men flirted in corners and wandered off into bushes or distant fields, and most importantly, thousands of people (including hundreds of hijras) lined up at the temple to marry Aravand (who was represented in the form of an idol at the center of the temple). During daylight the festival was insane but not scary. However, when night fell there was a shift in the energy. Children disappeared back into their homes and there were a lot more men, many whom were drunk. We stuck together like glue, tried to stay in well-lit areas, and befriended the police who ended up escorting our group out back to our car to ensure we were safe (which was so kind). People were very receptive of the cameras as well and they acted as a sort of ‘safety barrier’ between us and the crowd. At about 10 pm, the families had almost completely disappeared and we started to be trailed by a group of men, so we made a rapid exit with the police’s support.
The last day of filming never felt unsafe, just overwhelming. We returned to the festival at 8 am with daylight on our side, ready to film. Thousands of hijras and community members, many of whom had slept in the village, were painted in red and yellow face paint, singing and dancing circles around an offering which was then set on fire, in way too close of proximity to the houses on either side, in my opinion. I was feeling overheated and flu-ish by noon, so I observed Ilana and Divya running around documenting. At one point I was sitting in the doorway of someone’s home, watching hundreds of community members dance around this 2-story tall fire, while Ilana documented from the home’s roof and Divya was documenting in the crowd. All of a sudden there was a lot of screaming and running, pushing and fighting, and Divya came running out of the crowd (thank goodness). Apparently, someone had sacrificed a live goat and chicken, cutting their heads off and throwing them both into the fire without warning. That was not something that we all expected to happen. After that incident, I decided to return to the car and slept until they were finished taking video of the bangle breaking. We made a rapid return to the hotel, collected our things and ran to the train station to catch our train back to Chennai, from where I flew out the next day.
This long-winded story is filled with details that may or may not be easy to process. However, the point is that Ned and Ilana are creating an incredible, unique documentation of the hijra community in India, and this project will be available for viewing sometime in the next year. Please do look out for it. You will learn so much about the transgender community, identities, family structures, and of course, the festival.