Koovagam (Part 1)

Well, it’s that time again. Summertime. In most parts of India, summertime brings sunny, cloudless, yet humid weather with highs in the lower 100s and lows in the upper 80s. Yet, in spite of these unforgiving weather patterns, it also happens to be the time for one of India’s largest religious festivals, the Kuthandavar-Aravan Mela (aka Koovagam Festival), which takes place in a small town called Koovagam, located in the middle of Tamil Nadu, the southern-most state of India known for its exceptional heat. The mela (festival) is best known for its open inclusion of transgender participants. The festival annually attracts over 100,000 participants and observers, numbers that resemble, but hardly rival, the Kumbh Mela (the world’s largest religious festival which attracted about 15 million attendees in Allahabad during January and February of this year). Koovagam can be best described as a mini-Kumbh, whose participants engage in a series of rituals while visually reenacting a story in the Mahabharata, one of Hinduism’s most important texts. The following video is an interpretation of the story and account of the event from the perspective of a Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam dancer named Taejha Singh Susheela. Highlighting the perspective of an observer, this video is one of two that illustrate and (silently) critique the participant/observer divide; My next blog entry will contain interpretations from Koovagam participants within the transgender communities. Here’s part one:

At Koovagam, transgender and male participants retell the marriage and immediate widowhood of Mohini, the female manifestation of Lord Vishnu/Krishna. The story, told in four sentences, goes like this: Arjuna’s son named Aravan, agrees to sacrifice himself to the goddess Kali in order to ensure his people’s victory in an important war that was essentially caused by a territorial dispute. But, as a condition of his sacrifice, Aravan requests to be married so that someone may mourn for him upon his passing. There were no willing female volunteers near the battlefield. So, in order to fulfill his wish and ensure his people’s victory, Vishnu/Krishna turns into Mohini and becomes his wife for the night.

Aravanis (aka the transgender participants) take on Mohini’s role throughout the course of the ritual’s two days taking place on Tuesday, April 23rd and Wednesday, April 24th. On Tuesday, the Aravanis marry Aravan through the ritualistic tying of a Thaali (turmeric-infused thread) and flower garlands around their necks and wrists inside the Koovagam temple. Bangles are also put on serving as the metaphorical icing of the marriage cake. During the evening, various celebrations ensue. Then, on Wednesday morning, the Aravan diety is carried around the temple grounds on a massive mobile float. At the end of the procession, Aravan’s ceremonial decapitation takes place. Finally, at a specific location approximately 1 km outside the temple grounds, participants break their bangles, cut the Thaali and garlands to mark the beginning of widowhood. Transgender participants also ceremoniously lament for their lover, bathe at a watering hole, and out on white saris as is traditionally practiced by Hindu widows.

According to Taejha, the rituals are performed as a way to celebrate transgender identities within the context of Hindu mythology and scripture. For many, it is the performative affirmation of third-gender selfhood in Indian society. The parallel between transgender participants and Mohini (aka Krishna in drag) is pretty obvious. However, like drag performers, Vishnu is able to revert to accept male manifestation after Aravan’s death, whereas transgender participants do not/cannot. While Mohini enters the “battlefield” for two days, transgenders have to fight on the battlefield their entire lives. “Their battlefield is the battlefield called life,” says Taejha. “It is actually for this reason that transgender participants mourn.” This, at least according to him, is the “word on the street.” For a participant-oriented interpretation of these events and the reasons behind them, check out my next Fulbright-mtvU post.

As expected, there was also a large media presence from local and even international news organizations. Much of the media coverage was positive, but some was also negative, exposing some of the age-old problems that still plague the transgender communities in India.

Additionally, this year, three “Miss Koovagam” beauty pageants, featuring some well-known transgender personalities in India, took place on Monday night and Tuesday morning. Interestingly, Padma Submramanium, one of the most famous exponents of Bharatanatyam dance, inducted the ceremony at one of the beauty pageants. My next video will largely feature these events.

Aside from losing my precious sound recorder (which I consider to be my own personal sacrifice symbolizing everlasting solidarity with Aravan), baking in the sun to the point of exhaustion, and sometimes battling with other photographers for the perfect shot, I had a great time. In fact, I met some amazing people (participants and media observers alike) who I can now call my close friends. I always say that nothing brings people closer together than sweat.

Stay tuned for the next Fulbright-mtvU posting on this in the near future. In the meantime, however, take a peek at some of my pictures gathered while there.

A BIG thanks goes out to Taejha Singh Susheela, the talented Mohiniyattam dancer who briefly played the role of Mohini herself for the purposes of this project. Also, I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to Varsha Yeshwant Kumar, the fiery photographer and videographer who kept our boat afloat. Without their support, this (and the next) video would not have been possible!

26 thoughts on “Koovagam (Part 1)

  1. Nicely edited and done ! Loved the part where there were pictures of Krishna, Arjun and Kali on the backdrop while the names were enunciated!!!! Feel good having been a part of this wonderful effort 🙂 Thanks for making it possible ~
    Way to go Jeff !!!
    Hugs and Kisses

    Like

  2. I just watched Koovagam. it is very informative and done beautifully. Learned something new. Keep up the good work.

    Like

  3. Wow, a religion and a text that dates back up to 5000 years back, and the rituals and stories and their meaningfulness still thrive.

    Vishnu himself creates a space for the third gender in this world with his Mohini avatar, who are we to deny them this right?

    Priyamvad

    Like

  4. Congratulations on this first part of your research. For scholars of Hinduism, anthropologists, sociologists and historians is an excellent material to understand an aspect of Hindu society and religion that few scholars have tried to study seriously, still consider taboo. I think is an excellent material for the general public also, because they may see an aspect of India that also exist in other societies of the world, and helps us to understand the diversity and richness of the human being.

    Like

  5. Learnt a lot from this video Jeff. India has these fascinating ancient rituals and stories and that I find powerful, cathartic and liberating. Taejha emulates these qualities beautifully and eloquently. Looking forward to the rest of your work. Thank you.

    Like

  6. Hi would you mind letting me know which web host you’re working with?
    I’ve loaded your blog in 3 different web browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot quicker then most.
    Can you recommend a good web hosting provider at a honest price?
    Kudos, I appreciate it!

    Like

  7. Today, I went to the beach with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave it
    to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put
    the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off
    topic but I had to tell someone!

    Like

  8. It was extremely dilfucift for me to understand what my child experienced during her turn on the exam table .but my heart reached out to want to embrace and protect her. I did what I thought was right and listened as the specialist physician candidly and carefully spoke to our parental questions. I encouraged my child to ask any questions and express any concerns even though I realized that the moment was too big for her and the overwhelming fear of being associated with her anatomy and not her soul was consuming her.Later in the car on the way home, I quietly listened as my sweet child wept openly in the back seat of our car about the tragic enigma of her life .and at such a young age .while my wife tenderly listened and consoled her. why did God make me this way?! I don’t want to live like this! . Now I was silently crying too as I carefully winded my way through the rush hour traffic. She is too young to have to embrace this challenge.But maybe Jen is right and she is stronger and braver than I can imagine. Its me who I have to make sure is ready first.

    Like

  9. Fantastic blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

    I’m planning to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or
    go for a paid option? There are so many choices out
    there that I’m completely overwhelmed .. Any tips?

    Appreciate it!

    Like

  10. It is helpful to diiiungtssh between strategies for an overall foundation initiative (e.g., reducing air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley) from strategies for the grants to particular organizations that may be aspects of the initiative (an environmental justice group working on one aspect of the problem).For a complex philanthropic initiative like this one, with many grants, the foundation must usually play an overarching role. The happy exception is when a foundation is fortunate to find a strong organization so aligned with its mission that it can make a general operating support grant (which is ideal from everyone’s point of view when missions are aligned). Here, the grantee organization develops strategies, the foundation examines them in the due diligence process and invests in the organization if it believes the strategies are robust and the organization has the capacity to implement them.When making grants for particular projects, who develops the strategy depends on what expertise the funder and grantee can contribute to the process. The grantee organization is always involved, but a foundation with experts on its staff may also have valuable knowledge to contribute. In the best of all worlds, strategies are co-constructed, with each party contributing what it has to offer.

    Like

  11. In our work, we’ve modified and evvoled the ToA/ToC process to suit the needs of the groups we work with and have integrated other tools, particularly to build on ToA for action planning. (See Basic Steps and Tips and Lessons Learned). While we found a0discussions on the logical linkages between activities and shorter and longer term outcomes as well as the broader vision to be of value, it is often challenging for organizations to embed the ToA in their organizational planning and reflection practices without support and guidance. Getting participants to take active roles and even leadership in the process can be helpful. We designed this facilitation guide to helps groups to lead their own ToA Processes. While at some point in the process ToA is best facilitated by an external consultant who understands the process well, the guide can help groups get started using easy to follow steps. In addition, the guide can support initial ToA meetings in distant locations that can then feed into larger ongoing organizational processes for multinational or multi-site organizations or collaborative initiatives aiming to develop an meta level or umbrella theory. We also describe a ToA approach for a group interested in linking directly to action planning, and created an early post here how we used ToA as part of a participatory assessment for a donor.a0

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s