A temple festival takes place during the last fortnight of April every year in the village of Koovagam in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu. While in many ways similar to temple festivals that take place in many other villages across the region, the Koovagam festival attracts hundreds if not thousands of hijras and aravanis from South India and increasingly, the rest of the country.
The temple’s presiding deity is Aravan or Koothandavar. Local lore has it that during the Mahabharata, the Pandavas keen on ensuring their victory in the war with the Kauravas wanted to conduct a human sacrifice. Not surprisingly, they found it difficult to find someone willing to be sacrificed. Finally, Aravan, the son of Arjuna and the tribal princess Kannigai, came forward offered himself as the object of the sacrifice — with one condition — that he spend one night of marital bliss before he was sacrificed.
This task proved even more difficult as no king was willing to give his daughter in marriage to Aravan, only to be widowed the day after the wedding. Finally, god Krishna appeared as a woman and married Aravan. And after spending his one night of ‘marital bliss’ with Krishna in female form, Aravan was sacrificed the next day.
The hijra ritual takes place along the same lines. Hijras and aravanis are ceremonially married to the idol of Aravan (and hence the name Aravani is a term of identity that many hijras adopt). Often hijras come to Koovagam with their lovers or ‘husbands’ and on the penultimate night of the festival, they all experience a night of ‘marital bliss’. On the last date of the festival, a huge effigy of Aravan pulled through the narrow streets of Koovagam and ceremonially, Aravan is beheaded and his body set to flames, re-enacting the scene from the Mahabharata. Symbolic of their ‘widowed’ status, the hijra’s dress in white, break their thalis and bangles.
The Koovagam festival also sees a number of other cultural events and some health initiatives. The ‘Miss Koovagam’ contest, a beauty pageant for hijras has been regularly held for several years now, and the Tamil Nadu AIDS Control Society conducts health camps for hijra’s and disseminates safe-sex information at the Koovagam festival.
Ask any hijra of how long hijras have been making their annual trip to Koovagam, and you would probably get the answer that the hijra festival at Koovagam is a time-honoured tradition, a cultural practice dating back centuries, if not more. The temple festival, it would in all likelihood be answered, is an essential cultural practice of any hijra or aravani in south India.
Certain historians however, point out otherwise — that the practice of hijras coming to marry Aravan’s idol merged more recently and the practice of men marrying the idol of Aravan was largely and still remains a practice of certain castes in Tamil Nadu. It is entirely plausible for a hijra to affronted by such a claim, that the hijra festival at koovagam is a practice adopted by hijras recently, as such a assertion may perhaps undercut a hijra’s claim to a certain cultural authenticity and sense of identity and history.
Similar issues of identity, history and cultural practice have dominated recent events. Is it in our culture to celebrate Valentine’s day? Is ‘pub culture’ an alien culture? Are spaghetti-strap clad women un-Indian? ‘Culture’ is the fertile ground on which ideas of one’s native-ness or alien-ness are played out. Notions of an authentic culture are more often than not, rooted in a sense of history.
So a cultural argument against, say ‘pub culture’, would go something like this: There is no history of Indians, especially women, drinking in pubs. Hence it is a recent phenomenon and cannot be said to be rooted in Indian culture. It is therefore an ‘alien culture’, and hence it is bad. A counter argument could derive its strength from challenging the historical truth of that statement, by drawing out instances of women drinking alcohol in public, or of how many, many centuries ago a certain king celebrated public drunkenness.
Near-identical arguments are made for and against homosexuality. Those opposed to
homosexuality would argue that it is inherently un-Indian, has never been accepted by Indians and that white people brought homosexuality to India. In response, some would argue that there are many instances of homosexuality in India’s history and culture and would point to text like the Kamasutra or to poems written by Amir Khusro.
Back in Koovagam, it would be difficult for anyone to assert that the Miss Koovagam contest is one that is rooted in history or from time immemorial. Yet, is it a culturally ‘inauthentic’ practice? Merely because it has existed only for the past couple of years, does it make this hijra beauty pageant un-hijra? Maybe ‘culture’ is not something that is rooted solely in the past, and perhaps history does not make unshakable and eternally binding claims on the present.
The beauty and value of ‘culture’ is that it is something that is open to change, dynamic and fluid. The idea that culture is a monolith, and is resistant to change and is something that needs to be protected and insulated from various influences will lead to a ‘culture’ that can, for example, only see Charlie Chaplin as Catholic and oppose his statue, or looks at cassettes and CD’s of the latest Bollywood numbers as corrupting influences.
— The writer is a Delhi-based
lawyer and activist.