Imagine a life where,
You walk into a room and people look away.
You try speaking to them, yelling at them, crying in front of them but no matter what you do, you can’t get a single reaction out of them.
People snigger behind your back, abuse you from far away, look at you with contempt or worst of all, treat your existence with complete indifference.
You either get stared at like a zoo animal or looked through like you’re invisible.
May 1996 : I remember my first encounter with them. I was very scared though I couldn’t explain why but I just was. I followed suit and did what all the other adults in our train compartment did as soon as they entered. I stared out of the window determined not to look back, no matter how much clapping or singing happened right behind my back. After a while, then they went away. Everybody readjusted, stole a glance into the passage to see how far along they’d gone and then scanned the faces of the others around them. All members of that booth satisfied that they’d averted a great danger and their collective ignoring had saved them from trouble.
That’s my first memory of seeing eunuchs up close. I was about ten years old at that time and I remember feeling bad about how I’d treated them. But I didn’t understand them, they were different and my social conditioning hadn’t taught me to how or what to categorize them as. I’m guessing this very lack of understanding was the root of my discomfort. This feeling of discomfort continued well in to my adult life and even spotting them a few hundred meters away made me uneasy.
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Feb 2012 : It was a month before the fellowship got over. Anushri and I were in the thick of the planning the musical, course completion, revisions and three thousand other things. It was a typical day and we were just wrapping up the extra classes around 3 PM. Our conversations strayed course as usual and she asked me out of the blue – ‘Hey, I’ve always wanted to go to this eunuch festival in Tamil Nadu that happens once a year. Would you like to go?’. Without even blinking I said, ‘Sure, let’s go!’. And our entire 21 day trip was planned around this two line conversation and of course, the Koovagam Festival. We started with Hampi covered Pattadakal, Aihole, Badami in Karnataka, then travelled to Koovagam, Tamil Nadu and finally finished this trip in Pondicherry. This super low-budget trip was planned and booked for and all we had on us for this 21 day trip was one backpack.
This extract from the Huffington Post succinctly summarizes the mythological significance of the Koovagam Festival;
“Every year in the month of Chaitra, thousands of hijras, eunuchs and cross-dressers from all over India and neighboring countries flock to the southern Indian village of Koovagam, for Hindu festival celebrating transgender people. This festival at Koothandavar Temple is held in honor of the Hindu deity Aravan (also known as Iravan), who is believed to be the patron god of transgender communities. According to a Hindu legend, Aravan, the son of the Pandava Arjun, sacrificed himself to ensure the victory of the Pandava brothers against the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war. Before he sacrificed himself, Aravan wished to marry a woman and spend the night with her. (Since they couldn’t find a girl at such a short notice who was willing to marry Aravan and become his widow the very next day, Krishna stepped in. ) In order to fulfill Aravan’s request, Lord Krishna transformed himself into the form of an attractive woman, Mohini. After Aravan sacrificed himself the next day, Mohini grieved like a widow, breaking her bangles and beating her chest.
The transgender devotees come each year to reenact the story of Aravan. In a symbolic ritual, the participants take on the role of Mohini and are married to Aravan by the temple priest. The next day they mourn Aravan’s death by participating in ritualistic dances and breaking their bangles.”
A photo diary of my visit to Koovagam which is located about 25 kilometres away from the small district town of Villupuram where we were staying;
From the first time that this issue caught my attention, I’ve grappled with many questions about the transgender community and especially over the past three years, my interest in the subject has become, let’s say, less superficial. This issue is intertwined with two other subjects that both greatly disturb and intrigue me – homosexuality and sex trade. My readings in the last few years on commercial sex workers have given me some insights into the lives of hijras. My work also gave me an opportunity to visit a red light area last year and interact with about forty commercial sex workers in Ahmednagar. (That interaction probably calls for a post by itself) I also had the chance to visit an organization that works specifically on health care issues of the MSM community (gays and eunuch prostitutes). There is so much to know, understand and to repair.
In the Mughal era, eunuchs were frequently employed in palaces by emperors as servants for female royalty, as guards of the royal harem, and as sexual mates for the upper classes. Some of them attained high-status positions in society. But today they earn their living by either selling their bodies, or selling blessings for newborns/newly-weds and through aggressive begging in public parks and trains. The reason for this drastic downfall in their status was the British empire’s entry into India. Section 377, was introduced by Lord Macaulay in 1860 and it punished “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” with either imprisonment of ten years or life and fine. When the Britishers came to India, they had the same trouble as I did when I first saw eunuchs. They didn’t know what bucket to categorize eunuchs under. There’s Male and there’s Female – those are the two categorizes of gender that they understood and didn’t know what to do with this “other” category. Since they couldn’t categorize them, they dumped all the eunuchs far far away from their places of employment and business. Hence, depriving them of all legitimate and dignified means of earning. They were stripped of key positions in the society and thrown away into obscurity.
That trend continues even today, eunuchs live in this country without the status of being citizens. In fact, barring Tamil Nadu no other state even counted them in the census until recently. So these Indians live and walk through the country as nameless identities, abandoned by their own government. There is very little or no medical help available to them. Since they aren’t even technically citizens in most states, you can do just about anything to them and get away with it because there are no judiciary rights protecting them and almost no lawyers who are willing to represent them. So just about anyone can run over them, rape them, abuse them, steal from them and they have NO ONE protecting them. And there are more than 1.5 million in eunuchs in India today. Still wondering why they appear to be so aggressive and mean? The only way you can protect yourself when no one else will, is to grow nails and fangs and if possible, a poisonous tail too. At least then, people will fear you and keep out of your way.
The 15 day festival at Koovagam is one of its kind and the largest gathering of the transgender community in South East Asia. Hijras from all over the country and some from outside the country too, travel to this festival. They get married to Aravan on Day 1, become his widows the next day and then make merry, dress up and participate in the much looked forward to beauty pageant, Ms. Koovagam. This festival is also a space for organizing legal seminars, health and HIV related workshops to educate the transgender community.
2013 hasn’t been a great year as such for me, but I’ve had some very powerful experiences this year and I’m still processing them in my head. Koovagam was already on that list from 2012 on wards. I’m still ruminating over these experiences. I don’t have any concrete takeaways yet but I do have questions and thoughts, lots of them. On some days, I feel my head is going explode with all threads running inside. But 2013 and a very lovely human being have taught me, that having lots of questions and confusion is a great thing. It’s natural and tells you that you’re on the path. Well, then good for me!
So I’ve put down a lot of information in this post, but to really reflect on my Koovagam experiences will take me much longer. In a way, I’m glad that I don’t have quick to offer opinions on this. I hope to remained entangled for life, in the pursuit of answers to my questions from Koovagam.
Oh and yes, Happy New Year everyone! Hope 2014 is kind, forgiving and generous towards you.