KOOVAGAM, India—In the middle of India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu is the hamlet of Koovagam––a spit of dry dust surrounded by two empty rice fields and crisscrossing dirt pathways that converge like veins into the heart of town. At the center is a temple––a modest structure adorned with statues of gods and goddesses, where incense sticks burn. Surrounding the temple are market stalls that, on a normal day, offer displays of spices, flour, and seasonal fruits and vegetables for the town’s handful of residents. But, on the full moon of the Chithirai month of the Tamil calendar, generally late April or early May, flamboyant arrays of offerings, religious figurines, and refreshments fill the stalls for tens of thousands of townsmen, women, children, and Aravanis, or transgender pilgrims.

The occasion is the Kuthandavar-Aravan Mela or Koovagam, from which this village draws...

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