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 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 vary.
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, etc.
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 of Chennai). Some other towns in South India celebrate this festival also.
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 ceremony.
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 Bhadra (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 Vaisakha (April-May) 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 (October-November).
(Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, pp. 461-467)
Image: Devotees, crossdressers and transgenders assemble in Tamil Nadu for the annual Aravan Festival.