The Aravani Festival is an eighteen-day event in southern India that commemorates the one-day marriage of Aravan, a hero selected for human sacrifice, and Mohini, a beautiful female incarnation of the god Krishna. It is also a festival that draws Aravanis (male-to-female transgender people devoted to Aravan, also known as alis and hijras (people born male or intersex who dress as women and may undergo ritual castration).“Aravani,” ”Ali” and “hijra” are sometimes treated as synonyms, and sometimes as distinct identities.
The largest Aravani festival is held every year in the town of Koovagam, near Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu, India in the month of Chithirai (April-May) at the Koothandavar Temple. Approximately twenty-five thousand Aravanis and hijras from Singapore, Malaysia, and all over India attend the festival. They collectively take on the role of Mohini, symbolically marrying Aravan and then going into a state of mourning and widowhood the next day. Aravan festivals in Tamil Nadu and those dedicated to Bahuchara Mata (hijras’ patroness-goddess) in the Indian state of Gujarat are among the most important in the hijra yearly cycle of public devotion. The festival in Koovagam is also a site for LGBTQ activists to support the hijra community.
In the Mahabharata (“Great India” epic), the Pandavas (“Five Brothers”) must sacrifice one of their fighters to win the goddess Kali’s favor in an upcoming battle with their Kaurava cousins over who will rule their kingdom. Aravan (alternate spelling: Iravan, Iravat, and Iravant), son of the great hero Arjuna (one of the Pandavas), is chosen to die. Aravan makes three requests before he dies:
1) To die on the battlefield
2) To watch the battle
3) To marry the day before being sacrificed
No woman would be allowed to marry a doomed husband and become a widow only a day later, so the god Krishna turned into the beautiful enchantress Mohini, spending that final night with Aravan as Aravan’s wife and lover.
Explanations vary as to how the other requests were granted. One account says that he was sacrificed by having his flesh cut up (alternate: Aravan cut the flesh off his body himself), leaving his head and skeleton to miraculously witness the battle in its entirety, after which the living head was killed by a demon. Another account relates that his dismembered body came together and he was killed anew on the eighth day of the battle. A third version states that his sacrificed body came back together, his head was cut off on the eighth day, and his head watched the battle for the next ten days.
Aravan is associated with the cobra, and his mother Ulupi was a naga (snake-being) princess. In some variations of the myth, Aravan was also a eunuch.
The Koothandavar Festival in Koogavam
Among the festivals dedicated to Aravan, the Koothandavar Festival in Koogavam (also known as the Ali Festival) is significant. Male brides have been marrying Aravan annually for at least one hundred years. The presence of large numbers of hijras and Alis at the festival is considered a more recent phenomenon, perhaps since the 1970s, but the issue is debatable since hijras and other male-to-female identities have been around much longer than that, and those scholars recording the history may have chosen to ignore the presence of males who did not conform to heteronormal standards.
Much of the festival centers on a three-dimensional image of the head of Koothandavar (Aravan-as-deity) that is infused with Koothandavar’s soul. The head is paraded in the streets and set atop a tall frame bedecked with flower garlands representing his body.
Two days before the first full moon of Chithirai (fourteenth and fifteenth days of the festival), Aravanis and hijras arrive in Koogavam to sing and dance in praise of their future husband. During the festival, they and a number of Straight-identified men will dress as brides, go to the Koothandavar Temple, and obtain a thali (mangalasutra or thread and token symbolizing their status as married women, to wear around their neck from the officiating priest who stands in the place of Aravan. One-night marriages with masculine-identified men known as panthis, who attend the festival in large numbers to have sex with the brides, are common that same evening, marking the festival as an erotic as well as spiritual celebration of love.
On the sixteenth day and the first full moon, Aravan is symbolically sacrificed to Kali by removing the garlands from the frame supporting his head. The brides then become widows, break their thalis and wrist bangles, and weep openly for their dead spouse.
Festival and Activism
Aravani Festivals have become focal points for LGBTQ activism as Gay-friendly organizations reach out to several thousand Aravanis, an increasing number of celebrants identify as Gay, and the media are drawn to the festival. The Villupuram District Aravanis’ (Women) Welfare Association and the Tamil Nadu AIDS Control Society has sponsored safer sex promotion, meetings to address Aravani/hijra concerns, and entertainment such as races and the Miss Koogavam beauty pageant. Activists have also confronted those Straight-identified men (including panthis) who perpetuate a homophobic folk custom of publicly ridiculing the widows of Aravan when they go into mourning.
Hiltebeitel, Alf. The Cult of Draupadi. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991 (1988).
Thurston, Edgar. Omens and Superstitions of Southern India. New York: McBride, Nast and Company, 1912.