10 May 2006 # IANS
By Papri Sri Raman, Villupuram (Tamil Nadu): India's transvestites, who have faced ostracism for centuries, are discovering their identities and potentials and getting to know their rights and social duties in a tiny village festival here in Tamil Nadu.
Since time immemorial, the Aravanis or eunuch-transvestites have been gathering at the ancient temple of the deity Koothandavar in Koovagam village, about 200 km south of Chennai, to perform an annual ritual of wedding and widowhood.
This year the festival or the day of the transvestites fell Tuesday night. They celebrate their special day by meeting friends and family, participating in fashion shows, debates and theatre, telling their life stories, exhibiting their skills and, of course, giving non-profit organisations like the Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative (TAI) a platform to spread awareness about sexually transmitted diseases and the HIV.
For the TAI, the traditional Koovagam festival is becoming the focus of its HIV/AIDS prevention programmes.
The celebration night is usually a full moon night in the month of 'Chithirai', when Krishna, according to Indian epic Mahabharata, dressed like a woman and married a warrior called Aravan, who died in a battle the following morning.
The celebration includes a wedding ritual, in which the transvestites participate as the bride.
A large number of those who congregate in the Villupuram village during this week every year are sex workers.
This year, the TAI, along with other organisations like the Native Medicare Charitable Trust and the Association for Rural Mass (ARM), launched a programme 'Nalladoru Samudayathirku Nangalum' or 'We too are for a healthy society', to increase the quality of life of the community.
With nearly 300,000 Aravanis in the state, the transvestites have for the first time done away with making demands from the authorities. Besides, more than 100,000 Aravanis cast their votes in the just-ended assembly elections.
The transvestites, backed by organisations, have come up with a memorandum saying that they are a part of society and calling for public support to their activities like anti-polio and anti-HIV/AIDS awareness programmes.
They have also called for assistance in education, behavioural and professional change and weaning the younger generation away from begging.
The festival that ends Wednesday evening is being marked by talent shows, distribution of free butter milk, rallies, discussions on empowerment, fashion shows, theatres and dance competitions.
There is also a mobile health clinic providing free and specialised health checkups for common health problems and for specific STD problems at the temple grounds.
TAI-ARM are also honouring veteran Aravanis who have over the years become role models for the community, unheard elsewhere in the world.
For the last decade, apart from being a mere ritual, this traditional gathering has also become a knowledge meet for the transvestite community.