Brides for a day

The Hindu, India
May 25, 2013
SINDHUJA PARTHASARATHY

The distinctly modern struggle for gender identity finds expression in
the hoary traditions of Aravan’s temple in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu.

My gender identity is fabricated and instinctive, illusionary and
real, pivotal and irrelevant to the person I am. However, my identity
crisis should be a non-issue to the people I work with, the political
career I build or the social causes I work on. A revolution of sorts
to challenge the social and economic exclusion of the transgender
community is long overdue,” says Sowmya, a transgender person who
contested in the recent elections in Karnataka.

A lot has changed in the lives of transgenders such as Sowmya (or Anu
who works in the court of law) who are challenging conventional
societal norms and foraying into mainstream professions. What has not
changed through the years is the ritualistic and increasingly
extravagant celebration at Koovagam, a village in Ulundurpet taluk in
Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu, which houses the 400-year-old temple
of Aravan.

According to the Mahabharata, Aravan, the son of Arjuna, sacrificed
himself to ensure the victory of the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra war.
However, he wished to marry before he died and so Krishna transformed
into Mohini and married him. After Aravan was sacrificed, Mohini
grieved like a widow.

Transgenders gather at Koovagam every year to re-enact this story. In
a symbolic ritual, they marry the Lord Aravan and mourn his death the
next day by performing the rituals of widowhood.

Koovagam is misconstrued as the place for radical sexual expressions,
focusing obviously on the façade of effeminacy. Hence the festival is
reckoned to be an avenue to live a sexual fetish. However, a visit
changes these notions and challenges one’s paradigms of gender
identity, sexual orientation and gender dysphoria.

Chandran, a poet at the temple, says, “Marriage is like a nombu, a
penance of sorts; one has to do to attain moksha.” For the transgender
community, the longing to traverse the distance between fantasy and
reality manifests in their marriage at the temple. Similarly, angst,
despair and grief from their daily lives manifest in a dramatic form
during the widowhood rituals.

Sowmya and others put Koovagam in perspective. “Our yearly ritual of
illusionary marriage and widowhood is a vociferous expression of our
yearning to be seen as equals, the way Aravan, a great warrior, did by
embracing a transgender, Mohini, in love and with dignity.”

Perhaps the riches of our Constitution are yet to reach the
transgender community. Not only do the promises of social, civic,
economic and political equality remain elusive, but the challenges of
inclusivity, harassment, and lack of gainful employment also persist.


Photofile: Brides for a day
http://www.thehindu .com/features/ magazine/ photofile- brides-for- a-day/article474 5967.ece

Copyright© 2013, The Hindu

http://www.thehindu .com/features/ magazine/ brides-for- a-day/article474 6014.ece

 

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