(Reuters) – In a desert tent guarded by armed police and a thick-set bouncer, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi is blessing a constant stream of pilgrims, who garland her with marigolds and kneel to touch her feet. Tripathi, a tattooed transgender leader and a former reality TV star, has become an unlikely icon at India’s Kumbh Mela, a huge religious festival being held on the banks of the Ganges river in the city of Prayagraj. Up to 150 million people are expected to attend by the time the festival ends in March.
On Tuesday, her religious movement, called the Kinnar Akhada, became the first transgender group to bathe at the confluence of the holy Ganges and the Yamuna rivers on the first day of the ancient festival, traditionally reserved for reclusive Hindu priests, almost all of whom are men. “After centuries down the line, it was when the community finally got its due,” Tripathi told Reuters, seated on a pedestal next to her Michael Kors bag, juggling calls on an iPhone.