India’s Third Gender: Transgender people in Hindu Society

November 3, 2015

Now, in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that acknowledges the existence of India’s third gender, journalist Michael Edison Hayden and photographer Sami Siva travel to Koovagam, one of the world’s largest transgendered festivals, to profile some of India’s transgendered women, and offer an intimate glimpse into their lives.India’s transgendered women have a documented history dating back to the Kama Sutra, but continue to live on the fringes of society. HIV/AIDS has plagued the transgendered population for decades, but these women are sometimes denied hospital care and treatment.

Koovagam is a Hindu religious festival set in a Tamil Nadu village. It draws thousands of transgendered women from across India, and finds its basis in a story from the Mahabharata in which Krishna transforms into a woman one night to marry Aravan, before the latter is sacrificed to an early death.

The festival, which falls along the schedule of the full moon between April and May, is more than just a cathartic ritual: It’s also one of South India’s largest hubs for prostitution. Without any available avenues to find legitimate employment, sex work is often the only recourse transgendered woman have to make money, putting them at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Michael Edison Hayden is an American writer based out of Mumbai. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera America, Financial Times, Slate, and The Times of London, among others.

Sami Siva, a Canadian photographer of Indian origin, has covered post-conflict, geopolitical and social-issue stories in Canada, the U.S., Eastern Europe, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and India. His work has been published in The New York Times, TIME, The Globe and Mail, Report on Business Magazine, The National, Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), among others. He is currently working on a long-term photography project concerning India’s internal struggles in the context of ethnic identity and nationhood. He is based in New Delhi.