Transgendering Celebrations: The Politics of Sexuality in Koovagam and Kottankulangara Chamayavilakku.

Abstract : With genderspeak gaining volume and lexical complexity over the ages, it becomes imperative that the factors that have come together to consolidate our perceptions of gender and sexuality be examined. The sociological, religious and colonial drives that have been documented also contain within them the coded narratives of the need for sexual conformity that are not far from our current concepts of eugenics. Religion, especially Christianity, when combined with the colonial agenda was a potent crusade-like force that left far reaching effects on cultures worldwide. Modernity and its implications are yet another concern of this paper. The interesting position that the transgender occupies in the midst of such deliberations is examined in the context of body, nationhood, life chances and the jostle for an economy backed identity. As a round up the paper takes into account the fomenting of a transgender lexicon that is trying to validate itself through invoking infallible allies (culture, religion)- which were once the favoured tools of the agents of an earlier modernity project.

Keywords: transgender, third gender, religious sanctions, Christianity, colonial modernity, gender reversal, cross-dressing, sexual conformity

‘Male’ as hot as fire / ‘female’ cool as water / ‘Transsexuals’ — what do we call them?/ That’s what they say’. (Felicia Hughes- Freeland, qtd. in Karim 101)

The above bit from a pop song is loaded in that it articulates the expectations that society has from the performers of ‘mainstream’ genders on one hand, on the other, the song leaves a gap after ‘transsexuals’—the significant pause as though some redeeming qualities are being groped for, and finally, there is a shrugging, weak call to name them. And at last, the powers that be—the ‘they’—give up; thus also, bringing up the social category ‘Us’.

The perception of sex as biological and gender as ascribed and performative has percolated down to form the basics of the corpus of gender studies. Researches based on clothes, hair styles, jobs, smoking patterns, and even reproductive responsibilities have gone on to derive theories based on the ‘staged’ aspects of gender. But the concept of multiple genders has often been problematised. The troubling presence of transgenders has forced the rigid boundaries of gender to become flexible and inclusive.

While alternate sexuality is gaining acceptance, deliberate or biologically triggered gender crossings are not favourably viewed. Sexuality is a largely private and, on most occasions, an invisible matter. Also, on levels of acceptance, the human being can easily, glibly be compartmentalised into homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual. The mathematics is rather simple. But when genderspeak happens there are eunuchs, transgenders—transmen, transwomen—transsexuals, drag artists etc. And the permutations start to look complicated and make for uncomfortable social statistics. Then, there are those who insist that the ‘trans’ be dropped altogether as they are ‘mentally’ or ‘physically’ men or women. In addition to manually, visibly crossing genders they have also crossed sexes. For this the organs that society deems as requisite for acceptance are grafted or surgically induced via the gender medicine cabinet. Gender crossings become even more complicated as apart from social acceptance, state sanction is also needed. The transperson is stuck with no relevant documents that translate into proof of state allegiance thus creating gender-traumatised refugees. Gordene MacKenzie views transgenderedness as

. . . . a symptom of the cultural illness brought on by a rigid bipolar gender system, whose cure may only be effected by the radical transformation of the current gender system . . . to dismantle the current one-nation-under-gender-divided-and-

unequal and recognise the transgender nation. Only when this becomes a possibility, can there occur a true Gender Revolution. (qtd. in Ramet 14)

MacKenzie’s ideas seem encouraging as they point out the society’s need to come out of the gender binary, and when linked to the edifice of nationhood, there is a call for inclusiveness and co-existence which is vital. But the error lies in examining transgenderism as a relatively new trait that indicates cultural health. Because, that is not the case.

Recorded histories of transgenders as social participants place them at 400 years or even more, and also locate them at almost all civilisations. Their presence in those societies did not seem absurd or undesirable as gender was related to work done, and if an individual participated in certain activities of a society, his/her gender and thereby life-cycle patterns were fixed on the basis of those activities; as was in the case of the Berdache Indians. The points of control in terms of marriage and kinship extended to all the genders of the said society.

In the course of progress of human civilisation, intricate changes in thinking patterns equating power to sexuality and body, compounded by monotheistic modes of belief altered configurations of gender co- ordinates. The body became a site of intense preoccupation and discussion, and the male body became a repository of all that is powerful and desirable.

In Christianity too, this trend was visible. Drawing from the Greeks and the Romans, masculinity denoted honour and public recognition. This can be discerned in the cross-dressed saints of early Christianity. Saints and ascetics such as Perpetua, Thecla, Matruna, Eugenia, etc., cross-dressed and aspired for religious glory by preserving their virginity and seeking honour in a ‘manly’, courageous way. Their accounts contain vivid dreams of becoming men, fighting naked, and gaining crowd appreciation. There is also the assertion that before Christ, there is no male or female—but by embracing male dignity, there is a transcending of female shame and the associated indignity.

Further, in early Christian documents like the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Philip, there is a ‘cosmic gender crossing’ (Torjesen 86). While Mary Magdalene’s position as an apostle is debated over, Peter

asserts that as a woman, she does not have the qualities that are needed. Jesus differs as he says, ‘Behold, I myself will lead her so as to make her male that she may become a living spirit like you males, for every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Torjesen 87). Karen Jo Torjesen feels that the idea Jesus conveys is that ‘social femaleness is radically different from cosmic femaleness. In fact, both men and women are symbolically female until they have entered a state of salvation’ (87). The upshot is that assuming the generic human being to be male, ‘every description of the Christian process of salvation is a form of gender crossing for women’ (89).

Through processes like conquests, migration, evangelism, the emphasis on gendered binaries and resultant persecution and relegation of the Other have come through. Religion and state backed laws created an order of morality that pushed to the recesses, the bracketed erotic minorities who moved on secretively. It is a well known matter that although sex and sexuality came under taboo topics, there was intense scrutiny of the same through documentation, pamphlets, treatises, and monographs, as pointed out by Michel Foucault. Also, Patricia Caplan refers to research that shows

the dominant Anglo-American definition of women as especially sexual creatures was reversed and transformed between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries into the view that women were less lustful than men. Cotts’s [1978] work on the ideology of what she terms female ‘passionlessness’ links it to the rise of evangelical Christianity between the 1790s and the 1830s. Ministers portrayed women as more sensitive to the call of religion than men, but the tacit condition for their elevation was the suppression of female sexuality, or, as another historian of the same period puts it, ‘The mutation of the Eve myth into the Mary myth.’ (qtd. in Srivastava 27)

In this context, it is interesting to examine the project of colonial modernity with special reference to India. The Empire was going through particularly taxing times in terms of uncontrollable quantities of pornographic literature pouring into London from the colonies and vice versa. The battle against obscenity saw a new dimension entering the realm of governance—the governmental authority being used by society

to culturally control the working masses and other ‘vulnerable’ consumers like women, young people and the colonised. When this combined with the ideas of the medical profession the result was a moral-medical axis leading to what Alison Bashford called the project of ‘imperial hygiene’ (Heath 117). The project tried ‘development by sanitation . . . colonising by means of the known laws of cleanliness rather than by military force’ (117). Connecting obscenity to hygiene ensured alacrity in imperial interest and served to provide a righteous passion that was so essential to colonial ventures.

Thus propaganda surrounding illness, disease, miscegeny served to bring about self-regulation, and by the 1870s, London did manage to rid its reputation as ‘the smut capital’ of the world (119). But the project of modernity, hygiene, and sanitation did come at a great cost, especially in India—the creation of ‘moral colonial subjects,’ who, officials in charge of regulation believed to be capable of self control (123). Also, the tables were turned.

. . . British culture—and by extension the empire that pervaded— became perceived of as a threat to the strength and purity of the Indian ‘race’ and ‘nation’. Colonial modernity thus became pitted against national desire, but nationalist desire in turn justified its authority by claiming to be the true agent of modernity and modernisation. (Gikandi, qtd. in Heath 123)

Indians thus saw themselves as more moral and modern than the colonisers—a view that can be heard echoed very often even today in India. The modern Indian was preoccupied with rejecting the old, tightening boundaries of race, caste and gender, thereby entertaining concerns of obscenity in the public sphere.

Thus, it comes as a natural consequence of the intense self, societal, and governmental policing that the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code of 1861 deals with prohibition of ‘unnatural sex’. Under the purview of this, especially tribal and non-Hindu communities were thought fit to be kept under surveillance. In the Criminal Tribes and Castes Bill of 1872, tribals and eunuchs were seen as particularly susceptible to committing crimes. The notion continues today as tribes that carry on prostitution, brewing alcohol etc. as traditional work are

often harassed. The eunuchs were prohibited from carrying out their work or becoming custodians of minors. The Muslims too were perceived as the Other and seen as prone to deviant behaviour. Possibly because propagating the courtesan tradition of the Mughal courts, the local dancers were generally taught to behave in the Muslim tradition of tehseeb and made to speak Urdu—considered a very polite yet poetic and erotic language. Mehfils of ghazals and shayiri were sites of intense eroticism and gradually the Muslim way of life began to be seen as a danger to the Hindu patriarchal, ordered way of community, leading to ‘heightened fears of sexual contact between Muslim men and Hindu women In

the paradigm which sees the outsider violating the Hindu household, Muslims began to replace Christian missionaries’ (Srivastava 19).

The singing and dancing transgenders of that time were seen in the same light as the courtesans because they too followed the same traditions of behaviour. Also, the fear that they could entice caste-Hindu men to commit ‘unnatural acts’, and thereby taint personal purity and that of their religion, was a key factor in relegating transgenders as freaks. On the other hand, there was considerable respect given to castrated or biological transgenders who were said to be blessed by Lord Ram, and the Goddess Durga. Thus, in spite of modernity stepping in as a regulatory authority, religion did create some leeway which was then fiercely held on to by the transgenders.

Thus, culture, politics, and historical research will provide an insight into the sexual politics that governs the sociological semantics of India. The transgenders have worked out the need for a culturally cross- referenced pedigree. There is also the need for religious sanction for them to express themselves so as to hide a sense of shame and lack of sexual confidence that has come about through years of colonial and modern propaganda. The Indian family now has an agenda. It is a productive and procreative unit. By creating and heading a family man creates and governs the nation. Hence, more family means more subjects to govern, and virility leading to recognition of personal and political power. The masculinising of Hinduism by femininising Islam and Christianity is also a vital pointer. Also, the processes of profiling the number of followers of different faith, exhorting community members to turn up for public

meetings as a show of strength are all movements towards this empowerment through procreation.

At such times, the non-productive, non-procreative transgender is undesirable as no contribution to this sort of nationhood can be made. In the staging of power politics, the transgender is seen as a representative of the emasculated subject, and hence to be shunned, shamed or cured.

The body—as an artifact—also contributes to national, social, sexual and sociological discourses. Increasingly, bodies have become markers of identity through body art, facial hair and clothes. The body of the 21st century is not only a canvas; it is a laboratory, an agent of ideology that schematises the semantics of sexuality, culture, politics and religion, through art and science (specifically medicine). The visual scope of the body too has enhanced. Necklines plunge, waist lines dip, inner wear deliberately displayed to make a statement. There has been a counter movement as sanctioned by religion to cover up such bodies, especially those of women. This harkens back to the days when women’s mobility was controlled to prevent inter-caste and religious exchanges.

The internet and commercial revolution have put the common body on display. The sharing sites such as My Space and You Tube have broken the mystic appeal of sculpted pieces on visual media. Self-filming and home videos have allowed an incursion of visually induced pleasure into the once private realm of sex. The body is no longer private—it is almost unavoidably linked to one ideology or the other. In this scenario, the body is the equivalent of a billboard, and so, for transgenders, the body announces their choice of being. It is at this stage that the state and medicine—an approximation of the medico-moral alliance of the colonial project—lay claim to this body.

This aspect has been brought out very clearly and sensitively in

C. S. Lekshmi’s film on transgenders—Degham. The transgenders featuring in the film are from various walks of life, different ages and have access to different facilities. As they speak of their experiences, a sense of triumph shows through. The barriers they have overcome seem to have empowered them enough to give them the strength to organise and mobilise. Today, the transgenders seek to speak for themselves rather than hide under the LGBT banner. Apart from seeking religious approval,

there is a systematic effort to engage in modern parlance through education, self-help groups, and demand for jobs and dignity.

The gender identity thus becomes the defining parameter for citisenship. A sense of national identity comes only from a sense of belonging. In the absence of this, there are parallel nations (consisting of like-minded individuals) and governments that fight for their rights, thereby simultaneously enforcing the idea of a powerful parent nation consisting of the opposing majority and at the same time, destabilising this parent nation by revealing its weakness and lack of coherence/ cohesiveness. The agent of destabilising is the subject’s body which is the theatre for conceptualising, directing and performing desire subsequently paving way for orientation and classification (gay, lesbian, transgender, butch, leather, dominating, SM etc). Just as sexual identity is a contradictory force, gender too is a normative and destabilising factor, especially when it is performed in drag as pointed out by Judith Butler in Bodies that Matter (1993). Drag allegorises,

. . . heterosexual melancholy, the melancholy by which a masculine gender is formed by the refusal to grieve the masculine as a possibility of love; a feminine gender is formed (taken on, assumed) through the incorporative fantasy by which the feminine is excluded as a possible object of love, an exclusion never grieved, but ‘preserved’ through the heightening of feminine identification itself. (Butler 235)

The transgender thereby not only embodies in a stronger manner, the intricacies of heterosexual relations, he/she also parodies and thereby subverts them. While transgender discourse claims to liberate participants from the closet by giving expression to their difference, it drives home a structure of kinship that is as rule-bound as the ‘boxed in’ genders that are supposed to be transcended. For example, transgender societal relations like guru, chela, hijra, kothi, panthi, nirvan (reborn through castration) are maintained quite rigidly. There is also the initiation ceremony by which transgenders are inducted into the community. This ritual is symbolic of the religious sanction that those of the third gender have in our society. Unfortunately, this feel-good factor does not last long enough as lack of education, resources and income force many to take up sex work. Traditionally, transgenders are performers who danced

at life-cycle celebrations like birth and marriage. The changes in lifestyle prevalent in the country have led to these opportunities drying up leaving many with no choice. The element of religious sanction comes from a strong presence of transgenders in the myths and religious texts of ancient India. Among these the Mohini and Renuka figures are the reference points for transgender rites and rituals. While Lord Vishnu turned into Mohini—the celestial beauty in times of trouble—thus unabashedly using beauty and sexuality (for the good of the world; religion would have it no other way), the murdered Renuka’s sons transposed the head of their mother on to the body of a lower caste woman and vice versa, and served the mother as eunuchs1.

The Koovagam festival at the Kutthandavar Temple2 in Villupuram, Tamil Nadu revolves around the myth of Mohini. During the battle of Mahabharata, the Pandavas needed a human sacrifice to ensure victory. Prince Aravan, son of Arjun, volunteered on the condition that he should be able to marry before he dies. No damsel came forward to marry the doomed man; so Lord Krishna took the form of Mohini, married Aravan, and upon his being sacrificed the next morning, mourned him. At the Koovagam, the transgenders in general, are called Aravanis—the wives of Aravan. On a designated day the priest of the Aravan temple ties the nuptial thread around the assembled Aravanis who thus marry Aravan and celebrate the ‘wedding night’. The thread is cut the next day and the Aravanis mourn the death of their ‘husband’ for the next forty days. But the Koovagam was not always so prominent a festival. In 1921, the Right Reverend Henry Whitehead documented the village deities of South India in his The Village Gods of South India. He points out that most village deities or grama-devatas are female in the Dravidian tradition possibly because the Dravidians are agricultural people and worshipped the female principle in nature. He mentions the temple of Kuttandavar which was in the South Arcot District in the village of Devanampatnam. Villupuram where the Koovagam festival takes place was a part of South Arcot District till 1993. Whitehead does not mention transgenders at all. He observes:

. . . a crowd of men dressed as women come to the shrine with talis on their necks. In the evening at sunset the tali is cut, because the god has died and all the people dressed as women have

become widows There is apparently no immorality connected

with his worship . . . . The members of the Padaiyachi caste . . .

who have been educated in recent years and have risen in the social scale tend to give up the worship of Kuttandavar. (Whitehead 27-28)

Thus he finds that education and wealth lead to the men folk abandoning the practice as they find it socially embarrassing. The adoption of the Koovagam festival by the transgenders has a history of around thirty years. The idea could be to have a God of their own with whom they could identify and present as a talisman for garnering popular support. Aravan and the Mohini narrative fit the pattern of rituals and lore that are so essential in gaining a cultural history and acceptance. This is not to say that the transgender presence in India is new or unheard of. However, the coming of the British and the resulting smear campaign had led to transgenders being branded unclean and freakish – their marginalisation was more severe than that of the Indian male who was termed effeminate and devious. Thus the Koovagam is a means of creating a tradition that can be identified with and projected as a culture of their own. Moreover, the rituals that are part of the festival are the processes that transgenders find to be in their comfort zone.

Also relevant in this context is the Chamayavilakku festival at the Chavara Kottankulangara Sridevi Temple in Kollam, Kerala. At the culmination of the festival, men dress up as women and hold lamps and offerings for the Goddess. The festival is not really meant for transgenders as the purpose of the cross-dressing is wish-fulfillment. But due to the nature of the festival, there is a burgeoning transgender presence. The legend behind the temple throws light on the origin of the Chamayavilakku. A group of cowherd boys chanced upon the deity when they hit a coconut against a stone to dehusk it. It is said that the stone began to bleed. On consulting astrologers, the presence of Vana Durga was revealed, and a temple was built on the site. The little boys dressed as girls and held lamps to welcome the Goddess.

Another version has a lot in common with the transgender cult of Bahucharamatha. In this version, the cowherds used to dress as girls and venerate a stone and playfully offer kottan (the squeesed out kotthu) to it. The Goddess was pleased by their devotion and blessed them.

Bahuchara Matha—a manifestation of the Goddess Kali—is said to appear before men and asks them to become hijras to serve her, and thereby become her children. If they obey, they are guaranteed a life as virile, potent men in the next birth, so goes the belief. Therefore, the men who undergo emasculation are called Nirvan or the ‘reborn’, and are the elite among transgenders. These demands that the Goddess makes on her devotees bring to mind images of devourment, beheading and castration— which contain the resonances of rebirth and initiation. The Goddess who is worshipped as mother thus is made to vacate an incestuous space through ritual and actual castration. For the Chamayavilakku, the men shave off moustaches as it seems ungainly to dress up so, thus undergoing the ritual castration which enables them to become better men or later prove their strength through the fulfilled wishes.

Serena Nanda feels that the devotee castrates himself or by the Goddess and thus relieves himself of the anxiety over his inability to fulfill the sexual needs of the mother. Sudhir Kakar attributes this to the cultural suppression of the eroticism of a young mother that is turned full force towards her young son whose birth has enhanced her status, but this closeness is abruptly disrupted in the seventh year leading to a conflict in the child’s mind between the image of the demanding mother and the pangs of separation. Later this fear leads to avoidance behaviour in marriage which then causes a repeat of the same process, finally causing men to fear the sexuality of adult women.

What is common between the two festivals is the strong history supplemented by religion and myth that sanctify and sanction the practices that are visible comments on sexual mores, gender bending, socially designed masculinity, femininity, and the power of parlance and presence. The difference rests in the acts of passing and expressing that Kottankulangara and Koovagam put across respectively. This is indicative of the difference in cultural, social, and political support that transgenders in the two states receive. Seeing the massive presence of transgenders in Tamil Nadu, the government has put in motion steps to bring them into the mainstream, namely through education, franchise and job opportunities. This is a clever political ploy to garner votes, but beyond that it is a positive move towards inclusion. The advocacy for gay rights is hotting up. Though transgenders and others do come under

this umbrella, they are seen as siphoners who gain from the big picture. This could be because while the ‘coming out’ of the upper and middle class gays has lent an informed and articulate voice to the campaign, the transgenders are yet to get there. Perhaps, Koovagam is the transgenders’ own pride march. Kerala, on the other hand, is yet to match up to the level of commitment that its neighbouring state is showing.

The Chamayavilakku provides an avenue for examining the tendency of passing. Passing refers to the hiding of one’s true sexual preferences and trying to appear as normatively male or masculine or female or feminine. While the transgender population in Kerala chooses states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra to ‘come out’ permanently, the Chamayavilakku is a carnival site where, under the aegis of a religiously sanctioned festival, the transgenders ‘appear’ for two nights. This includes persons from other states also. The festival thus seems like a stage for elusive sexuality. Chamayavilakku is interesting from the point of view. We have the all-male Sabarimala3, the all-female Attukal Pongala4, and the in-between Chamayavilakku. But the in-between is allowed with the instruction or even warning to be temporary. Chamayam means make- up. So, with the coming off of the make-up, the adopted roles must also be doffed. But the question is do they really come off?

The two festivals become a major site for cultural performances— an arena of consent and contestation. The transgender replicates the message received from society, and is under pressure to notch up a performance that matches up to the ‘expectations’ one has from a transgender. There is also pressure exerted on the transgender to follow the patterns of kinship and relationships prevalent in society, which is a performance of a different kind. This in turn requires heterosexual performers to tighten up their structures and become exemplary, thus dictating the ‘must and cannot do’ of sexual and social performances. There is also the anxiety of ‘appropriate reaction’ along with the heterosexual gase. Perhaps, the two festivals are a stage of realisation and execution or negation of desire, where direct enactment or transposition takes place. Old genders are performed and new ones formed. In enunciating the vocabulary of the Indian modernity, one can discern a shift in the view that is taken of gender centric roles not only by the heterosexual majority, but also by the transgenders themselves. The

pride that education, articulation and financial backing brings is explicit in the way the onus is placed on society to live upto the expectations of the transgenders. The anxiety of performance is reversed. The Goddess smiles and Aravan is waiting.


  1. Renuka is the wife of sage Jamadagni and the mother of the warrior sage, Parasurama. Upon witnessing acts of love between the two semi- divine beings, she lost the purity she was famed for.

[She is said to have conceived without sexual intercourse, as her husband was keen on preserving her purity.] Upon discovering this, the angered sage ordered his four sons to kill her, which they refused to do. He cursed them to become eunuchs. The fifth son, Parasurama, agreed to kill her on the condition that she would be resurrected. Later, the four sons placed their mother’s head on the body of her lower caste servant who had also been killed, while the servant’s head was placed on Renuka’s body. The resultant figures were Renuka and Yellamma. The four sons followed the mother to serve her as priests. Yellamma became the goddess of all outcastes.

  1. The Kuttandavar Temple in Villupuram has Aravan as the deity. The sanctum sanctorum has only Aravan’s head which is huge, with wide eyes and a robust moustache. The face is painted a bright red as is often the practice with regard to demi-gods and goddesses in South India. During the Koovagam, a straw body is attached to the head, and then the deity is taken out on a procession. The body is later burnt, symbolising Aravan’s death. This practice finds a resonance in the fertility cults seen in many parts of the world. The death-resurrection cycle is enacted to indicate mortality, the pass over of all things old, and the possibilities of a new beginning. In the Aravanis’ context, the ritual may point towards a cathartic state of being as through the festival, the transgenders are a party to death, mourning and the promise of a comeback.
  2. The Sabarimala Temple in Kerala is in honour of Lord Ayyappa, the eternal bachelor god. Born of Lord Shiva and Mohini, Lord Ayyappa occupies a central role in the study of patterns of Kerala masculinity and codes of purity.
  3. The Attukal Pongala is in honour of the Devi. At the Attukal Temple in Trivandrum, Kerala, women gather annually to cook and offer Pongala (ritual offering that must boil over). The pongala usually consists of rice,

a curry, and payasam (sweet dish)—all cooked within the precincts of the temple and nearby areas. The fame of the festival has spread so much that it has gained an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the single largest annual gathering of women.


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SONIA J. NAIR. Is M. Phil student at the Institute of English, University of Kerala.

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Is M. Phil student at the Institute of English, University of Kerala.

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