Power, identity, resistance, and the Supreme Court: The story of Koovagam

Scenes from the transgender community’s annual event in the backdrop of a most crucial SC hearing.

WrittenBy:Joydip Mitra
Article image


For a better listening experience, download the Newslaundry app

App Store
Play Store

“For us Kinnars, marriage is not made in heaven. We get married on a battlefield.”

This is what Amina said to me while she prepared for her wedding. Amina is a Kinnar, a term her community prefers over other alternatives like Khojja or Aravani or Hijra. She and hundreds of other Kinnars were queuing outside a small temple dedicated to Lord Aravan in the remote village of Koovagam, around 200 km from Chennai.

Their bridegroom was the stiff-moustached, red-faced, fiery-eyed deity who rules over the half-world to which they belong.

Every year, on a full-moon day in the Tamil month of Chithirai, a huge number of transgender people come to Koovagam to marry the village temple deity Aravan, who is also known as Koothandavar. It’s a pan-Indian, 18-day event that’s taken place for hundreds of years – certainly the biggest occasion for the community to come together and share experiences and opinions.

Koovagam effortlessly turns into a platform that is essentially political. From here, demands for social and legal rights are raised by those for whom the battle does not end in just 18 days.

Every year on Chithira Pournami, thousands of transwomen from all over the country assemble at the Tamil village of Koovagam to get married – ritually – to the village deity, Lord Aravan. Parallely this year, the LGBTQIA+ community is fighting for the legislation of same-sex marriages in the Supreme Court.
Koovagam holds the only temple dedicated to Aravan. As the story goes, Lord Krishna married him in his female form, Mohini, shortly before Aravan was to be sacrificed. Transwomen identify themselves with Mohini and reenact this epic wedding, and the symbolic widowing, every year in Koovagam.
These Kinnars, a term they love, are believed to have the power to bless holy occasions, to confer fertility upon others. Their annual ritual attracts a large number of pilgrims to Koovagam.
Members of a Kinnar commune camping in a bus in which they travelled to Koovagam. They live collectively, fighting the stigma attached to them and to earn a living. Almost all Kinnars belong to one of seven lineages. Through a ritual known as ‘rit’, a Kinnar becomes a ‘chela’ or disciple of a senior Kinnar, and from then on is treated as belonging to the lineage her guru is part of.

A Tamil version of the Mahabharata portrayed Aravan as the son of Arjuna and the Naga princess Ulupi. As the story goes, it was customary to sacrifice someone with royal blood on the eve of battle in order to ensure victory. Aravan consented to be the victim, provided he could get married first.

No girl wished to marry a prince destined to die. So it was the Pandavas’ crisis man, Lord Krishna, who stepped in and married Aravan after turning into his female form, Mohini. A day later, Aravan was sacrificed and Mohini became a widow.

This tragedy found great appeal among the Kinnars. As transwomen, they felt one with Mohini.  This is how mythology aligned with real life lived by a section of society and thus, a ritual was born. This epic tragedy – of marriage and sacrifice, of Aravan and thousands of contemporary Mohinis – is enacted in Koovagam every year.  

This year, the weddings took place on May 3, just as the real-life Mohinis were fighting a fierce battle against the central government in the Supreme Court, demanding legal recognition of same-sex marriages. As Amina said, “Mohini was just a projection of Lord Krishna, a man. And then he married Aravan, another man. So it was a same-sex marriage, wasn’t it?”


Koovagam is not the dead land that Kurukshetra must have been. 

“This is the only place where we can bring out the femininity we possess in its finest form,” said Julekha, a transwoman and system analyst at a reputed software company. “Everywhere else, we are mocked and attacked for our feminine soul.”

My own understanding of the trans community was shaped by the 2010 movie Arekti Premer Golpo, or One More Story of Love by Rituparno Ghosh – the finest Bengali filmmaker of recent times who never shied away from asserting his transgender identity. The film was about Chapal Bhaduri, the doyen of Bengali open-air theatre known as yatra. Bhaduri, a transwoman, was also called Chapal Rani, and the film spotlights the pain endured by an artist just for being “different”.

It was difficult for me to reconcile the refined, artistic and educated world shared by Ghosh and Bhaduri with the other times I encountered Kinnars in groups at traffic intersections. But the social and legal stigma faced by someone on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum aligns them with others along the line of resistance. 

I found this resistance in Koovagam – not just of urbans or marginals or subalterns, but of a combined milieu that is “different”. Despite not being “legal”, same-sex marriages have taken place in India for ages, and the concept is not necessarily “urban” or “elitist”. 

I watched Sylvan, a cisgender man from a remote part of Karnataka, tying a mangalsutra around the neck of his gorgeously bejewelled bride, a transwoman. Family elders from both sides were there to help. They may not have seemed to have anything in common with Rituparno Ghosh, or Chapal Bhaduri, or the 11 same-sex couples whose petitions were vehemently opposed by the government of India in the Supreme Court. 

But they all share a common thread. 


Some communes in Koovagam camp inside tents made from political banners and hoardings. The camps spread across the open fields surrounding the temple of Aravan.
Kinnars consider Koovagam to be a place where they can express themselves without fear of violence. Since they assemble here every year, they also treat Koovagam as the venue for their annual ‘Congress’, to confer and chalk out future plans.
Guru Amina and her ‘chelas’ have laid their temporary ‘kohl’ or commune under a tree at Koovagam. A guru is considered one’s mother, and the guru’s guru is one’s grandmother.
A Kinnar claims to have neither jati (caste) nor dharam (religion). In death, they are buried rather than cremated. Most rituals they go by in their community align with Islamic practices. Their marriage to Aravan follows the Hindu rituals, though.

In Kinnar society, the gender system is divided into pantis or cisgender men, kotis or transgender women, and narans or cisgender women. What differentiates a koti from a panti is not their biological gender but their roles in sexual encounters – a panti is always penetrative while a koti is receptive. 

Kinnars don’t consider such acts as homosexual or same-sex, as they think in terms of psychological gender. In Kinnar society, I was told, someone who has a heterosexual relationship with a woman is considered the worst kind of offender. Tagged as berupia, they’re summarily expelled from the commune.

In 2014, the Supreme Court recognised the transgender community as a third gender. Four years later, it decriminalised homosexuality by repealing section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. 

But, as Julekha said, “The government is still reluctant to give same-sex couples the right to marriage because it, from its inherent outlook, wants to keep a minority community out of the social benefits granted by legal marriage.”

The government’s denial endorses a colonial value system – the same system it blames whenever it fails or faces criticism. Before the British came to India, there was no social stigma attached to the third sex. In fact, Jain religious texts are among the richest sources of ancient and mediaeval treatises on the third sex. The Jain system of thought was probably the first to differentiate between the dravyalinga and the bhavlinga – the biological gender and the psychological gender. In Sanskrit and Pali texts, Kinnars were generally referred to as the tritiya prakriti, the third nature. 

The word Kinnar itself is Sanskrit. Hijra, believed to be an Urdu term, was first used after the Mughals came to India in the 16th century. There is evidence of transgender people treated reverentially by Muslim rulers over 600 years – many were trusted administrators and powerful genders, or guardians of the women’s quarters. In Islam especially, the community was treated with respect. From the ninth century to present day, there are sacred, third-gender communities linked to the tomb of the Prophet in Madina and to the Kaaba in Mecca. 

But much of this crumbled when the Victorian value system was forced upon Indian society. Homosexuality was seen as unnatural and criminalised. In 1871, the British passed the Criminal Tribes Act where they bracketed the transgender community with “other dangerous classes” like “the unemployed, vagrants, the poor, criminals, drunkards and prostitutes”. It suspected all persons of “male sex who admit themselves to be the opposite” of kidnapping and castrating children.

The Act kept the transgender community under constant surveillance. Biological men who dressed like women to sing or dance, both in public and in private, were immediately arrested. Lands granted to transgender communities by previous rulers were confiscated. 

Among other Indian leaders, Gandhi struck against the superior colonial status assigned to hyper-masculinity. He reportedly called himself “god’s eunuch”, a symbolic move towards dignity and equity. 

The Criminal Tribes Act was finally repealed in August 1949. But section 377 persisted, as did social persecution. And now, with the return to power of a majoritarian Hindu Right, which subscribes to colonial notions of hyper-masculinity, the Kinnars need to resist more intensely.

It’s this resistance that we find in Koovagam.


Kinnars queuing in their bridal attire to get married to Aravan. They say Koovagam is the only place where they can bring out their femininity in its finest form.
Mohinis have their own markers of beauty, marked by long hair, clean-shaven faces and jewellery. Many regularly take drugs in dangerous doses – called ‘Sunday-Monday golis’ – to change the balance of estrogen and progesterone in their bodies.
Some Kinnars are in steady relationships with straight men, called ‘pantis’. They are wed in ceremonies performed by other Kinnars. These marriages are not legalised in India, and Kinnars have no safeguards if they are treated violently or abandoned.
Marriages between transwomen and cisgender men frequently take place at Aravan’s temple. In the presence of family, the bridegroom ties  mangalsutra around the bride’s neck. Here, one such couple departs the temple after their wedding.

In his book Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, Alfred Kinsey proposed a Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, which later came to be known simply as the Kinsey Scale. He observed that sexuality is fluid, not fixed, and forms a spectrum, not a binary. Applying this scale at random, Kinsey inferred that four percent of society has an ambiguous gender identity.

Applying this to India, that’s three crore people. 

Transgender persons were counted for the first time in India in the 2011 census. It measured only 4,87,803 individuals as the “other” gender, just a fraction of what it should be according to the Kinsey Scale. They were counted as a subgroup under the “male” gender. Clearly most of them didn’t officially declare themselves, fearing social stigma. 

The 2014 Supreme Court verdict, which also directed state governments to extend social welfare schemes to the transgender community, was historic. Yet it delivered little. During the Covid lockdown, the centre announced free rations and a one-time allowance of Rs 1,500 to each transgender person. Only 5,711 received the bank transfer and just 1,229 the rations. It’s likely that many of them lack legal documents – which shows how a large community is made insignificant. 

Visually, Koovagam attacks this political game that chokes a community. Here, transwomen in bridal finery take up all available space. 

Entire communes of Kinnars converge at Koovagam three or four days before full-moon day, Chithira Pournami. They camp around the temple in buses, cards and makeshift tents made of political banners and political hoardings. Hundreds of stalls spring up, selling flowers, garlands, camphor and glass bangles – all essential components of a wedding. The placid village is redefined with mobile ice cream vans, merry-go-rounds, roaming magicians, even circus parties. 

There’s clapping, dancing and singing as groups move towards the temple and the air is filled with a Kinnar language called Hijra Farsi. It sounds like Urdu but has over 1,000 distinct words in its vocabulary, coded to outsiders. But their songs are soft and familiar, like any other love song.


Family members bless a cisgender man after his marriage to a transwoman. This wedding, and many others witnessed in Koovagam, directly contradict the government’s argument in the Supreme Court that same-sex marriages are ‘urban and elitist’ and not recognised by society.
Kinnars speaking before thrusted booms and watchful cameras at Koovagam.
Families bring their children to Koovagam, hoping Aravan will protect them.
Happy couples blessed with children ‘without gender ambiguity’ present roosters to Aravan in gratitude. Animal sacrifice is banned here, so the roosters are released in the temple, from where they smartly make their way out.

A little away from the temple, young girls and boys were grouped around camphor fires. They were silent, their parents lost in smoke. The children were intersex, I was told, untagged as male or female. 

Some of these children go through surgery later in life. Before surgery, it’s customary to bring them to Koovagam and get them married to Aravan. The belief is that Aravan will protect them as a loving partner. A father from Warangal – who works as a small farmer and part-time electrician – told me his daughter’s surgery will cost nearly Rs 30,000. He saved that amount over five years.

The landscape also teemed with happy couples carrying kicking roosters. The roosters were gifts offered to Aravan in gratitude for children born without gender ambiguity. This shows how much gender dictates identities, even in newborn babies, and how far the cult of Aravan stretches. Of course, animal sacrifice is banned in Koovagam, so the roosters were set free in the temple premises. 

The day after the weddings was the day of sacrifice. Early in the morning, a towering idol of Aravan – an angry face without a body, almost like a mask – was ceremonially placed within a tall wooden chariot. Not an inch of the chariot’s wood was exposed; it was wreathed with flowers, while villagers and helpers clung to its sides. 

The chariot was dragged forward, Kinnars purifying the road ahead by smashing coconuts. It reached a mango grove about two km away, where the chariot halted and the idol was brought out. A local priest announced that the chariot was Aravan’s body and detaching his face from it meant he was sacrificed – beheaded.

An infinite number of fires then lit up the semi-dark premises of the mango grove, a contemporary Kurukshetra. Kinnars, or Aravanis, gathered around the fires to get their mangalsutras cut, their flowers torn from their wrists and hair, their glass bangles smashed. They emerged from their ornaments and, collectively, began to cry – first in slow wails, then in hysteric shrieks. 

This collective grief at the symbolic loss of a symbolic husband surpassed all rituals attaining such a fierce physicality that it hurt and burned. It was more than a ritual for a community forbidden by law to marry.

A day after the weddings, a chariot carrying the idol of Aravan sets off from the temple for the deity’s ritual sacrifice. Kinnars cleanse the path heading, breaking coconuts.
 A Kinnar is considered an ascetic if she opts for ‘nirvana’, attaining the right to confer blessings on others. A crowd respectfully parts for such a Kinnar to allow her to come closer to the chariot.
Villagers and temple helpers cling precariously to the chariot and shower flowers on pilgrims.
After the symbolic beheading of Aravan, the Mohinis are ‘widowed’. They gather around fires and remove their ornaments.


In 2019, the BJP government swiftly passed the Transgender Persons’ (Protection of Rights) Act without further scrutiny. It was heavily criticised as undoing all the good of the 2014 verdict, and a number of petitions were filed in the apex court, challenging the Act as unconstitutional. A judgement is still pending.

The Kinnars nurse no illusions about what the government can – and will – do to their rights, even after an apex court ruling in their favour. 

But still, last November, petitions were filed in the Supreme Court seeking the legal recognition of same-sex marriages. They argued that section 4(c) of the Special Marriage Act – which recognises marriages only between a male and a female – is discriminatory and doesn’t count members of the third gender. They demanded that the term “spouse” replace “husband” and “wife” to make the system of marriage more inclusive.

They also sought amendments to the Hindu Marriage Act and the Foreign Marriage Act, saying the laws don’t do justice to third-gender individuals. The government must no longer leave them out of benefits like inheritance, family pension, adoption and surrogacy – all benefits ensured by marriages. 

The petitions were clubbed with similar ones at high courts. A five-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud began hearing the case on April 18. As is expected, the government of India was fierce in its opposition to the legal recognition of same-sex marriages. It talked about elitism and tradition, about society and religious approval. It also said amending the Special Marriage Act requires altering over 160 connected legal status – something only Parliament can do.

Thus, it said the question must be settled legislatively, not judicially. And no one is in doubt about what this government’s “legislative settlement” will be.

The judges finished hearing arguments on May 30. A verdict hasn’t been delivered yet. 

Meanwhile, the Mohinis are also waiting to see if Aravan will step out of the smoky half-world of an epic to become real, physical and, surely, mortal.

In profound grief, a group of Kinnars get their glass bangles smashed.
The mangalsutra that a Kinnar got tied around her neck the day before – a mark of her marriage to Aravan – is cut as per the terms of widowhood.
In grief too, the Kinnars cling to each other as a collective whole. Freed from constraints of political correctness dictated by society, their grief – like their joy – is extreme.
White saris mark the Kinnars ‘widowhood’, with a period of mourning following Aravan’s beheading. Given they are barred by law to choose Aravans of their own in real life, this widowhood marks their legal status.


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like