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Experience file Dossier : Human Rights in India

Koovaagam, Tamilnadu, May 2007

Aravanis celebrates Koovaagam festival

The file contains an on the spot experience of the Koovaagam festival of the Aravanis. The festival becomes a suitable opportunity for HIV/AIDS campaign.

Keywords: India

On the day of Chitra Poornima, May 1, on the streets of Villupuram in Tamilnadu Aravanis dressed in garish clothes, horrible wigs and loud and gaudy make up can be seen everywhere. Even when they wandered around the streets talking loudly and occasionally passing lewd comments among themselves, not one in the town paid any attention to them. The people of Villupuram know these people descend on their town once a year on their way to Koovagam village.

Marry to become widow

Aravanis are a sexual minority. They are typically the third gender often referred to as eunuchs/ hijras. Every year they celebrate the Koovaagam festival on 4th and 5th of May near Villupuram in Tamil Nadu. During the time, the Aravanis are married off to God Aravan (from whom they derive their own identity), and the following day, they break off the Thali and become widows. This is in keeping with Indian mythology where, God Aravan is beheaded the day following his marriage. Villupuram at the time, was inundated with Aravanis from all over India, most of them dressed in all grandeur, befitting that of a traditional Indian bride.

The aravani temple is located in the village Koovagam in the Ulundurpet taluk in Villupuram district, and is devoted to the deity Koothandavar. During the festival, the aravanis reenact a story of the religious epic Mahabharatha: the mythical wedding of Lord Krishna (who had assumed the form of a woman) and Lord Aravaan, son of Arjuna, followed by Aravaan’s subsequent sacrifice. They then mourn Aravaan’s death through ritualistic dances and by breaking their bangles.

HIV/AIDS awareness campaign

Many non-governmental organisations that work to curb HIV/AIDS were also present at Villupuram, using the occasion to educate trans-genders on the risks of the deadly virus. Prominent among them is the Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative, or TAI, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

According to 2003 data, there are 40,000 Aravanis in Tamil Nadu. TAI is working with 10,000 Aravanis in 14 districts of the state.

“Though the Koovagam festival has been happening for several decades, for the last few years, the number of people coming here has increased tremendously. So also the risks of HIV/ADS. As a group, Aravanis are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than even female sex workers because they are marginalised and do not receive medical care. It is also very difficult to work with this group. So, we use this festival as an opportunity to enlighten them on the risks of HIV/AIDS,” said Jayashree of TAI.

An annual beauty pageant is also held, as well as various health and HIV/AIDS seminars and cultural programmes. The beauty contest included a question and answer session to decide the winner. The questions quizzed them on their knowledge of HIV/AIDS. The message in all of them was prevention of HIV/AIDS.

Hijras from all over the country travel to this festival. They stay in lodges at Villupuram and some in the small huts of relatives or friends in the village itself. During night they engage in singing, dancing and even open sexual activities.