Hindu Festivals Popular With
the Third Sex
By Amara Das Wilhelm
For thousands of years, people of the third sex have maintained
prominent roles in many religious festivals all over India. At
some of them, third-gender devotees actually preside over the
festivities and constitute the majority; in others, they maintain
a noticeable presence and carry out specific functions such
as dancing, offering blessings, etc. Amid the festive
atmosphere of a Hindu holiday, the presence of crossdressing
men and other members of the third sex never fails to complete
the colorful pageantry. Under British rule, crossdressing
was highly discouraged and even criminalized in most places. However,
it persisted as an ancient Hindu tradition, especially within
the context of religious festivals, and is now gradually being
revived. Ideally, third-gender devotees should be welcome
at all Hindu festivals and their presence considered an auspicious
sign of peace and prosperity.
There are many different types of third-gender devotees. The
most visible at festivals are the male-to-female crossdressers
who are generally transgenders and effeminate gay men. Others
are transvestites who live as men due to social pressure but
who appreciate the chance to flaunt their feminine side on
such occasions. A good number belong to the various third-gender
sects of India—the hijra, aravani, ali, jogappa, sakhi-bekhi,
etc.—and some are even eunuchs who have undergone ritual
castration. Many masculine gay men can also be found
in attendance, along with lesbians, bisexuals, the intersexed
and other types of third-gender minorities. Some of the
festivals cater to specific gender types; for instance, gay
men are more prominent at the male-oriented Ayyappa festival
(where crossdressing is virtually non-existent and females
are prohibited), while male-to-female crossdressers are most
commonly visible at festivals honoring the various Hindu goddesses
such as Bahucara-mata and Durga-devi.
As with any festival, motives for attendance can vary. Most
third-gender devotees are sincere in their worship and consider
themselves devotional practitioners (sadhakas or sadhakis)
and humble servants of their venerated deity. A few others,
however, may come merely for the festivities, social interaction,
or to make a show of themselves. In any case, it is important
to follow all local customs carefully—crossdressing may
not be appropriate at certain times or places during the festival
and homosexuality is still highly stigmatized in India. Respecting
local customs and maintaining a humble, reverential attitude
are imperative if one wants to achieve the true spiritual benefit
of the holiday.
Below is a short summary of some of the more prominent festivals
associated with the third sex. Most of these relate to
the worship of gender-variant deities or important pastimes
in which a deity has changed his or her gender. They
fall on specific days of the year and are calculated according
to the Hindu calendar. Be sure to check with festival
organizers for the exact dates since local calculations may
Deity worshiped: Sri Iravan (Aravan in Tamil)
and Sri Krsna as Mohini-murti.
Description: This festival celebrates Sri Iravan’s
marriage to Lord Krsna’s Mohini form and his subsequent
sacrifice. In order to assure victory for the Pandavas
in battle, Iravan, the son of Arjuna, agreed to sacrifice himself
to goddess Kali. His last request before dying was to
marry and lose his virginity but since no girl would marry
a man about to be sacrificed, Krsna assumed His Mohini form
and fulfilled Iravan’s request. The festival lasts
for six days and reenacts both the unusual marriage and
Iravan’s sacrifice. Thousands of crossdressers,
transgenders and homosexual men assemble together for what
is perhaps the largest of all third-gender festivals in India. At
the climax, an effigy of the local Koothandavara deity (Iravan)
is burned and thousands of crossdressers express their great
distress by wailing, beating their chests, breaking their bangles,
When: The main festival day is celebrated on the Tuesday prior to the full moon of Vaishaka (April-May; called Chaitra in Tamil Nadu). The entire
festival begins four days before that.
Where: Koovagam, Tamil Nadu, India. Koovagam
is a very small, rural village, so accommodations should be
made in the nearby town of Villupuram (174 kilometers south
Deity worshiped: Sri Ayyappa, the son of Siva
and Vishnu (as Mohini-murti).
Description: As the son of two male deities,
Sri Ayyappa is very popular with the third sex. The main
festival for Lord Ayyappa is held in winter atop Mt. Sabarimalai,
a remote, forested mountain in Kerala. Tens of thousands
of male pilgrims make the long trek up to the deity’s
main shrine in the belief that it will keep Lord Ayyappa free
from marriage (women from ten to fifty years of age are prohibited
from making the pilgrimage). The festival celebrates
Ayyappa’s killing of the demon Mahisi and his retirement
to the mountaintop for meditation.
When: The main festival day falls on the Makara-sankranti,
when the sun enters Capricorn (mid-January).
Where: Sabarimalai, Kerala, India. Accommodations
can be found in the nearby towns of Pamba and Sannidhanam.
Deity worshiped: Sri Bahucara-devi.
Description: Sri Bahucara-devi is the goddess
of male castration and is very popular with transgenders, transsexuals, hijra,
eunuchs and so on. Each day of the week Bahucara-devi
rides on a different animal carrier; on Sundays and full-moon
days she rides a cock, and this is the special day for hijras and
crossdressers to come worship the goddess. The temple
is located in Gujarat on a holy site that is said to be the
place where Lord Krsna performed His tonsure or hair-cutting
When: Sundays and full-moon days. The
two largest festivals are held on the full-moon days of Chaitra
(March-April) and Asadha (June-July).
Where: Bahucharaji Taluka, Gujarat, India. The
temple is located on the Mehsana Viramgam State Highway No.
7, about 110 kilometers northwest of Ahmedabad.
Deity worshiped: Sri Bhagavati-devi.
Description: This festival is held at the Kottankulangara
temple in Kerala. For two nights during the month of
Chaitra, thousands of men of all types dress up as women and
offer themselves to Sri Bhagavati-devi, an expansion of the
goddess Durga. In a special ceremony called Chamaya-vilakku,
the crossdressers grasp tall, lighted lamps and wait for the
procession of the goddess in the form of a sila or
stone to pass by. The goddess Bhagavati then blesses
the pilgrims and showers all good fortune upon them. The
crossdressing festival is based on a story surrounding the
temple’s origin: Long ago, a group of cowherd boys worshiped
a stone in the mood of shy, young girls. After some time,
the goddess Bhagavati personally appeared before them to accept
their worship and become the stone. The Kottankulangara
temple was then constructed to house the stone deity and formal
worship was commenced, along with the annual festival. The Chamaya-vilakku celebrations
are very well organized; the crossdressing men are registered
at the temple and makeup, dresses, wigs and jewelry are all
available for rent on site.
When: The two festival nights are held on the
tenth and eleventh days after the Mina-sankranti,
when the sun enters Pisces (late March).
Where: Chavara, Kerala, India. The Kottankulangara
temple is just a few miles outside the city of Kollam.
Deity worshiped: Sri Ganesha.
Description: The half-elephant form of Sri
Ganesha represents the “queerness” found in Hinduism
and is very popular with the third sex. Ganesha is famous
as the celestial guardian and gatekeeper who removes all obstacles
and is merciful to all. The Ganesha-caturthi festival
celebrates the god’s appearance when his mother, Parvati,
fashioned him from clay. It is celebrated all over India,
but the festivities in Mumbai at Chowpatty Beach are the largest
and most popular. Clay deities of Ganesha are worshiped
for ten days and then taken in procession to the beach, amidst
throngs of mostly male worshipers, where they are then immersed
into the sea and dissolved. Most of the third-sex attendees
of this festival are gay men but some crossdressers can also
be found participating in the procession.
When: The main festival day falls on the fourth
day of the waxing moon in Bhadrapada (August-September).
Where: Mumbai, Maharastra, India. The
largest celebrations occur at Chowpatty Beach.
Deity worshiped: Sri Gangamma-devi.
Description: Sri Gangamma-devi is an expansion
of the goddess Yogamaya or Subhadra and is worshiped as the
younger sister of Lord Venkatesvara, a popular Deity of Lord
Vishnu in Tirupati of Andhra Pradesh. The famous eight-day
festival, known as Ganga-yatra, is celebrated throughout
South India during the month of Jyestha (May-June) and is well
known for its crossdressing festivities. These are based
on a pastime in which Gangamma-devi assumed seven disguises
in order to evade the advances of a local king. On the
eighth day, the goddess became angry with the king and killed
him. The final four days of the festival are the main
time for crossdressing.
When: Festivities begin seven days prior to the Vrsabha-sankranti, when the sun enters Taurus (mid-May).
Where: Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, India.
Navaratri and Dasara Festivals
Deity worshiped: Sri Durga-devi (on Navaratri) and
Sri Ramacandra (on Dasara).
Description: Navaratri is a nine-day
festival celebrating the goddess Durga and held during the
month of Ashvina (September-October). The seventh day
of the festival is specifically known as Durga-puja,
and the tenth day is Dasara, a celebration commemorating
Lord Ramacandra’s victory over the demon-king Ravana. This
festival is also known as Rama-vijayotsava and is
observed by burning an enormous effigy of Ravana, along with
fireworks. Navaratri and Dasara are
held side by side all over India and at some temples there
is crossdressing in honor of the goddess. In Tamil Nadu,
girl children are blessed with new dresses and sweets on these
days and treated as representations of the goddess. In
homes where there are no girls, small boys are crossdressed
and honored in their place. At some temples such as the
one in Udipi, the Krsna Deity is dressed up as a beautiful
young girl with saris, jewelry and so on, and at the Tiruvanaikovil
Siva temple on the banks of the Kaveri, a priest will wear
a sari and headdress of the goddess while offering puja to
Lord Siva on her behalf. In Kulasekarapattinam, also
in Tamil Nadu, men traditionally dress up as women during Navaratri and
go house-to-house asking for donations for the festival. On
the tenth day of Dasara, they come to the Mutharamma
Durga temple crossdressed for the purpose of offering prayers
and receiving blessings from the goddess.
When: Navaratri falls on the first
nine days of the waxing moon in Ashvina (September-October). Dasara falls
on the tenth day.
Where: Traditions vary throughout India. The
Mutharamma temple is in Kulasekarapattinam, Tamil Nadu. Kulasekarapattinam
is a small, rural village, so accommodations should be made
in the town of Tiruchendur (15 kilometers away).
Deity worshiped: Sri Yellamma-devi and Renuka.
Description: Sri Yellamma-devi is worshiped
as an expansion of the goddess Durga. She saved the life
of Renuka-devi who thereafter became her close companion and
maidservant. There are many temples of Yellamma-devi
throughout India; the ones at Saudatti and Badami in Karnataka
are among the largest. They are associated with the devadasi cult
as well as the jogappas—crossdressing men and
homosexuals who, like the devadasis, serve the temple goddess
as dancers and prostitutes. Festivals worshiping the
goddess involve large celebrations and festive parades of nude
or semi-clad devadasis along with the crossdressing jogappas.
When: The main festivals are held on the full-moon days of Chaitra (March-April) and Magha (January-February),
with the Magha festival being the largest.
Where: Saudatti and Badami, Karnataka, India. Both
of these villages are somewhat remote but can be reached from
the town of Belgaum.
There are other festivals that are important to the third
sex but where their presence may or may not be visible. These
include the Kumbha-mela festivals celebrated at Prayaga,
Haridvara, Ujjain and Nasik during the month of Magha (January-February); Siva-ratri, Gaura-purnima and Holi celebrated
in Phalguna (February-March); Rama-navami celebrated
in Chaitra (March-April); the Ratha-yatra and Hera-pancami festivals
of Lord Jagannatha at Puri celebrated in Asadha (June-July); Sri
Krsna-janmastami celebrated in Bhadrapada (August-September),
and Kali-puja, Diwali, Govardhana-puja and
Sri Krsna’s Rasa-lila celebrated in Kartika
(From the book, “Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex.”)