India’s largest transgender festival begins

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Koovagam, the largest transgender festival in India, and in Asia, has opened in the eponymous village near the south Indian town of Villupuram, roughly 160 km southwest of Chennai.

The annual celebrations, also known as Kuthandavar-Aravan Festival, constitute a tradition that is thought to be centuries old, though it has become more well-known in recent years thanks to online popularity, and increasing visibility of LGBT campaigns in India.

The festival commemorates the myth of Lord Krishna adopting the female form to marry Aravan (or Iravan), a warrior who fought with the Pandavas against their rivals, the Kauravas, in the Mahabharata War. Aravan, during the battle, offers to be sacrificed for Pandavan victory, but desires to marry and spend a night with a woman before he dies.

To mark these celebrations, tens of thousands of trans women, cross-dressers, hijras (or kothis) descend from all parts of India, and hundreds of participants in recent years from abroad, to the town of Koovagam, where they re-enact the myth over three days, where they symbolically marry the soldier-deity, and then, on the final day, attain widowhood which they bemoan and bewail together. Koovagam contains the largest temple in India erected in honour of Aravan.

Although locals in Koovagam and Villupuram are tolerant of these celebrations, businesses tend to be more reserved in their reception of these tourists, often to the point of violence and discrimination.

The official celebrations will end on Wednesday, but, unofficially, the festival lasts at least a fortnight. The festival will also include a beauty pageant, which will crown a Miss Koovagam.