Eunuchs converge on a small village in Tamil Nadu to live a mythological tale from the Mahabharata
As the full moon rises in the Tamil month of Chitirai (April-May), hijrasósome estimates put the number at 35,000óconverge at Koovagam, a small temple town near Ulundurpettai in Tamil Nadu. They come from as far away as Delhi and Mumbai to this village, which is no more than a few thatched huts and a temple, to get married and through the ceremony relive a story from Hindu mythology.
Legend has it that before the Maha-bharata war, it was prophesised that the Pandavas would win the battle, if, and only if, they sacrificed a ëperfectí male from amongst themselves. The warrior chosen for the sacrifice was Aravanan. But he had one request: he should experience married bliss before he died. There was just a day to go before the sacrifice, and a bride had still not been found for Aravanan. After all which girl would want to be married and widowed in the space of a day.
Krishna, the blue-skinned god, taking pity on Aravanan, decided to take the form of a woman, Mohini, for a day and wed Aravanan.
The annual 10-day Chittirai-Pournami festival is a re-enactment of this episode from the epic. The presiding god of the village, Koothandavar (as Aravanan is known in Tamil Nadu) is the bridegroom and the eunuchs who throng the village the brides. The temple priest, who represents Aravanan, ties the mangalsutra around the neck or the wrist of the brides, who typical of hijras, sport heavy makeup, gaudy saris, flashy jewellery and fresh flowers, jasmine being the bloom of choice, in their hair.
For the occasion, the village that exists in oblivion for the rest of the year, shakes of the dust. Typical of melas in India, stalls spring up selling trinkets, eatables, bangles, flowers and coconuts.
Eunuchs are not the only ones who descend on Koovagamó though this is their meccaófor the festival. Dangas, men who dress up as women for the duration of the mela, are not an uncommon sight. Also, in attendance are the panthis. They are male devotees, who may be here to seek sexual encounters with hijras, as ìhusbandsî of hijras or men with wife and families who want to just want to enjoy the mela.
Once in the village, the hijras, like many a bride to be, meet friends, discuss clothes and makeup and wait for the big day. The ìwedding nightî is one of merry-making and revelry. The morning after, the day Aravanan is said to have been sacrificed, is one of ritual mourning. A likeness of Aravanan is carried in procession around the village and burnt at the village ghat.
After the funeral, the eunuchs change into white saris and as part of the ritual mourning break their bangles, tear the strings of flowers from their hair and have their mangalsutras cut off.
The next day, the hijras go back to cities from where they came and the village sinks back into dusty oblivion.