The distinctly modern struggle for gender identity finds expression in the hoary traditions of Aravan’s temple in Koovagam, Tamil Nadu.

My gender identity is fabricated and instinctive, illusionary and real, pivotal and irrelevant to the person I am. However, my identity crisis should be a non-issue to the people I work with, the political career I build or the social causes I work on. A revolution of sorts to challenge the social and economic exclusion of the transgender community is long overdue,” says Sowmya, a transgender person who contested in the recent elections in Karnataka.

A lot has changed in the lives of transgenders such as Sowmya (or Anu who works in the court of law) who are challenging conventional societal norms and foraying into mainstream professions. What has not changed through the years is the ritualistic and increasingly extravagant celebration at Koovagam, a village in Ulundurpet taluk in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu, which houses the 400-year-old temple of Aravan.

According to the Mahabharata, Aravan, the son of Arjuna, sacrificed himself to ensure the victory of the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra war. However, he wished to marry before he died and so Krishna transformed into Mohini and married him. After Aravan was sacrificed, Mohini grieved like a widow.

Transgenders gather at Koovagam every year to re-enact this story. In a symbolic ritual, they marry the Lord Aravan and mourn his death the next day by performing the rituals of widowhood.

Koovagam is misconstrued as the place for radical sexual expressions, focusing obviously on the façade of effeminacy. Hence the festival is reckoned to be an avenue to live a sexual fetish. However, a visit changes these notions and challenges one’s paradigms of gender identity, sexual orientation and gender dysphoria.

Chandran, a poet at the temple, says, “Marriage is like a nombu, a penance of sorts; one has to do to attain moksha.” For the transgender community, the longing to traverse the distance between fantasy and reality manifests in their marriage at the temple. Similarly, angst, despair and grief from their daily lives manifest in a dramatic form during the widowhood rituals.

Sowmya and others put Koovagam in perspective. “Our yearly ritual of illusionary marriage and widowhood is a vociferous expression of our yearning to be seen as equals, the way Aravan, a great warrior, did by embracing a transgender, Mohini, in love and with dignity.”

Perhaps the riches of our Constitution are yet to reach the transgender community. Not only do the promises of social, civic, economic and political equality remain elusive, but the challenges of inclusivity, harassment, and lack of gainful employment also persist.