Hijras. Kinnar. Masiba.
There are many names for this special, unique community whom have existed for decades. Throughout my research process I will be referring to them as Hijras.
Hijras are predominantly neither male nor female; some are hermaphrodites, meaning they have both male and female genitals, also know as being found intersexed at birth. Hijras can also be translated into eunuchs where the emasculation operation consists of surgical removal of the penis and testicales, but no construction of a vagina (Nanda 1990).
Hijras are an ostracised group in society, where Hall and O’Donovon state how the hijras occupy a marginalised position in the Indian social matrix, as their ambiguous gender identity provokes conflicting feelings of awe and contempt (1996: 228). However, this was not always the case, where Hijras were once accepted in society and belonged in the upper class group. Throughout their incarnations in history, India’s eunuchs have been portrayed as providers of verbal as well as sexual relief: as overseers of the king’s harem (Livea, 1997: 432). The Hijras were known to live in the palaces residing with the king and queen, hence being trusted to guard the ladies of the harem, under Moghul rule (Nanda 23).
The Times of India also recently wrote an article reminding its readers of Hijras’ historic glory, where Historians say transgenders were highly valued for their strength, ability to provide protection to women’s palaces, and trustworthiness that allowed them to live among women with fewer worries (Verma 2014).
However, when the British colonised India in the 18th Century, British Raj introduced a new law. Section 26 of The Criminal Tribes Act 1871 (Act XXVII) classified all Hijras as criminals, stating
‘any Eunuch so registered who appears, dressed or ornamented like a woman, in a public street or place, or who dances or plays music, or any public exhibition, may be arrested without warrant, and shall be punished with imprisonment to two years, or with a fine, or with both.’
The British saw the Hijras as a threat, and thus inherently immoral and corrupt (Gust 2014). The criminalisation led hijras to step down from the hierarchy ladder, despite this act being repealed in 1952.
Furthermore, in the case of National Legal Services Authority Vs Union of India, the judgment of page number 1, 1 states “Seldom, our society realizes or cares to realize the trauma, agony and pain which the members of Transgender community undergo, nor appreciates the innate feelings of the members of the Transgender community, especially of those whose mind and body disown their biological sex. Our society often ridicules and abuses the Transgender community and in public places like railway 2 stations, bus stands, schools, workplaces, malls, theatres, hospitals, they are sidelined and treated as untouchables, forgetting the fact that the moral failure lies in the society’s unwillingness to contain or embrace different gender identities and expressions, a mindset which we have to change.”
It is evident that India are beginning to realise their neglection on the Hijra community, where they have clearly listed al the locations where this has happened. The fact that they have written the word ‘mindset’ precisely defines the society itself, where needless to say India’s citizens are narrow-minded, where they traditional, taboo views need to be shifted to the current generation.
Likewise, in the same case of National Legal Services Authority Vs Union of India, the judgment of page number 2, 2 states “We are, in this case, concerned with the grievances of the members of Transgender Community (for short ‘TG community’) who seek a legal declaration of their gender identity than the one assigned to them, male or female, at the time of birth and their prayer is that non-recognition of their gender identity violates Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. Hijras/Eunuchs, who also fall in that group, claim legal status as a third gender with all legal and constitutional protection.”
Indeed, not only has the Indian Supreme Court (2013) granted the community official ‘Third Gender’, but they have introduced educational prospects, access to hospitals and doctors for pre and post operations, opening up HIV Centres, to provide separate public toilets, introducing welfare schemes and to create public awareness for the betterment of their lifestyles.
Unfortunately, although this judgement acknowledges equality for Hijras, being written on paper doesn’t mean it is implemented in society. Indeed it will take time, but now landing in the year of 2015, since the ‘Third Gender’ rule of 2013, although there has been a slight change, negligence in society still remains, especially in different parts of India.
Hijras have since struggled to find a place in society, to regain acceptance and the respect they deserve as human beings, thus becoming intuitionally disenfranchised from society.
Many years ago, in the pre-colonial era, Hijras have also appeared in Hindu ancient scriptures such as the Epic Mahabarat and the Ramayan. I read further into how hijras were embedded in the scripture of Mahabharat, where I remembered a TV series I was shown when I was younger. The whole story of Mahabharat has been translated into a Television series, where actors and actresses play key roles of God, avatars and residents of that era. Here is the episode (skip to 25:15), which shows Arjun, God Krishna’s disciple, whom is dressed as a female portraying his knowledge in the customs of classical Indian dance.
The episode above shows Arjun the hero of the two Mahabharat epics (Nanda, 1990: 17), whom is dressed in female attire. The story follows how Arjun and his brothers are in a game of dice with his enemies, where the defeated party must go into exile for 12 years and remain incognito for the 13th year (Nanda 1990: 30). Thus, as the five brothers, also known as ‘Pandavas’ lose, they must survive in the jungle for 12 years, with one year in disguise. Arjun states that he will hide himself in the guise of an eunuch and serve the ladies of the court (Nanda 1990: 30). It is this role he plays as a female, where he learns to dance gracefully and wears feminine clothes and jewellery in order to not be recognised by anyone.
The Ramayan also consists of key element of the hijras, where Serena Nanda, in her book, interviews a local hijra, Gopi whom explains the tale in detail.
In the time of the Ramayana, Ram fought with the demon Ravenna and went to Sri Lanka to bring his wife, Sita, back to India. Before this, his father commanded Ram to leave Ayodhya [his native city] and go into the forest for 14 years. As he went, the whole city followed him because they loved him so. As Ram came to the banks of the river at the edge of the forest, he turned to the people and said, “Ladies and gents, please wipe your tears and go away.” But those people who were not men and not women did not know what to do. So they stayed there because Ram did not ask them to go. They remained there 14 years and when Ram returned from Lanka he found those people there, all meditating. And so they were blessed by Ram (Nanda 1990: 13).
I found this vastly interesting, where I searched all over the web to find images and videos, or even illustrations but couldn’t find anything to denote the tale. However, it is said that at this stage Ram blesses them with the powers they hold today. Clearly, it is evident that Hijras have markings way back in ancient times where they were appreciated by God and seen as a faithful avatar, neither male nor female.
Most of India’s hijras were raised as boys before taking up residence in one of the many hijra communities (Hall and O’Donovan 1996: 228). Hence, with their families rejecting their gender identity and not understanding their gender dysphoria, hijras join their community where they are welcomed not only with acceptance but with a new family.
As the hijras join their community, it is vital to be castrated. Nanda Serena, in her book Neither Male nor Female, explains how emasculation is the major source of the ritual power of the hijras (1990: 24). The castration is not only a source of removing the ‘male-ness’ from their bodies, but forms a unique part of their identity. This forms a strong connection with the Mother Goddess, Bahuchara Mata and Lord Shiva. It is in the name of this goddess that hijras shower blessings of fertility and prosperity on a newborn child or a married couple (Nanda 1990: 24). The process of castration is called the ‘Ling Puja’, where Nanda reassures that it is only after the emasculation operation that hijras become vehicles of the Mother Goddess’s power (Nanda 1990: 25). To be classed as a true hijra, castration is absolutely necessary.
Serena Nanda explains how the castration ceremony is completed. She explains,
The client’s penis and scrotum are tightly tied with a 28 Chapter Three string, so that a clean cut can be made. The client looks at the picture of Bahuchara and constantly repeats her name, Mata, Mata, Mata. This apparently produces a trancelike state during which the dai ma (midwife) takes the knife from her sari and makes two quick opposite diagonal cuts. The organs—both penis and testicles—are completely separated from the body. A small stick is put into the urethra to keep it open (1990: 28).
As painful as that sounds, it emphasises the devotion the Hijras have towards the Mother Goddess and passion for truly forming a new avatar of being neither male nor female. The blood which flows, is considered the ‘male part’ (Nanda 1990: 28) and thus it should be kept flowing, to illustrate getting rid of the maleness.
It is evident that the castration process is a necessary and vital aspect of the Hijra culture, where it truly defines their identity as a Hijra and strengthens their connection with Bahuchara Mata. Interestingly, this is one way to also identify their presence, where people claim there are fake Hijras. Thus they are known to lift their skirts to prove their real status and how they truly belong in their caste.
The Hijra community consists of the most significant relationship, the Guru (Master or Teacher) and Chela (Disciple), (Bullough and Bullough 1993: 9). It is know for each newly member to have one Guru each whom they look up and spend the rest of their life with. Hence this Guru would have a Guru above them, which would be their Chela’s great Guru. It is very similar to a Grandmother/mother/daughter relationship, where it all falls like a pyramid. This where the Guru is expected to take care of the Chela as a parent does of a child, and the Chela is expected to be loyal and obedient to the Guru (Nanda 1990: 45)
Within the household of several Hijras, they each have their own Chela and Guru, thus forming a family. Likewise, with their own families rejecting them at a young age, the Hijras don’t have much emotional support. Thus they create fictive kinship relationships, such as ‘daughters’, ‘mother’s’ and ‘sisters’ (Bullough and Bullough 1993: 9).
As I was reading further into the depths of the Guru-Chela relationship Gayatri Reddy’s book, With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India, I came across a further discovery of their devotion. Reddy states how the hierarchical obligatory relationship is evidenced by the nature of the duties and responsibilities towards one another. This meaning, in terms of its structural logic, their bond may be read as marital or affinal bond (Reddy 2005: 162). Thus, as a speculation, along with the castration, the hijras also take part in a further ritual, which ties the knot between the Guru and Chela. However, Reddy confirms that this is not how the hijras read this relationship; it is rather them engaging in symbolic meanings of their new avatar (Reddy 162).
Interestingly, as we begin to understand this relationship between the Guru-Chela, it becomes clearer on what their roles and duties entail. For example, the Chela is expected to mourn for her Guru’s death, wearing a white sari and breaking her bangles, thus enacting a Hindu widow (Reddy 2005: 162).
With their strong connection with Bahuchari Mata, Hijras have special powers to bestow luck and grant fertility. They usually attend marriage ceremonies, where they perform dances and bless both the bride and groom. The hijras function at this performance is to bless the married couple for fertility (Nanda 1990: 4). Likewise, they would know when a baby is born in their city, thus they would attend the birth ceremonies to bless them with luck and aprosperous future. In return for these blessings, the hijras would receive money, clothing, jewellery and sweets.
However, I discovered a blog which interviewed a local Hijra called ‘Laxmi’ whom argues,
But can badhai alone fill our stomachs? Obviously not, and so we supplement our earnings by begging on city streets, and performing sex work, and dancing in bars and night clubs. Dancing comes naturally to us hijras (Raode, n.d).
Unfortunately, since the ostracism of hijras, many have become sex-workers and have no choice but to join prostitution. Even though some may be educated, due to discrimination, they are not open to the equal workforce.
The Criminal Tribes Act 1871 (Act XXVII) Section 26
Habitual Offenders Act 1952
National Legal Services Authority Vs Union of India and others http://supremecourtofindia.nic.in/outtoday/wc40012.pdf> and  [online] Available from <
Verma, R (2014) Mehrauli graves remind hijras of past glory. [online] Available at <http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Mehrauli-graves-remind-hijras-of-past-glory/articleshow/33841084.cms> (April 17 2014)
Raode, V (n.d) Laxmi’s Story [online] Available from <http://wordswithoutborders.org/article/lakshmis-story#ixzz3XlUbuYAY>
Gust, O (2014) Hyperbole and horror: hijras and the British imperial state in India [online] available at <http://notchesblog.com/2014/01/06/hyperbole-and-horror-hijras-and-the-british-imperial-state-in-india/>
Serena, N (1990). Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India. Belmont, Calif. Wadsworth Publishers.
Hall, K and O’Donovan, V (1996) Shifting Gender Positions Among Hindi-speaking Hijras.In Victorial Bergvall, Janet Bing, and Aice Freed (eds), Rethink Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice. London: Longman. 228-266.
Livea, A (1997) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Oxford University Press (1 Nov. 1997)
Bullough, V. Bullough, B (1993) Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender. University of Pennsylvania Press (1 Jan. 1993)
Reddy, G (2005) With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity In South India (Worlds of Desire: The Chicago Series on Sexuality, Gender, & Culture) University of Chicago Press (2 Aug. 2005)
Chopra, B. R (1988) Epic Mahabharata TV Series
Sagar, R (1987) Ramayan TV Series
Tomar, A (2014) Mahabharat Full Part – 56 Agyatvas in Matsya Desh [online] Available from <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbH2duVPhWw> (May 15 2014)
Images used in blog post:
Singh, Y (2012) Speaking up for the rights of young transgender and hijra community members [online] Available from <http://www.allianceindia.org/320/> (June 1 2012)
Siva (2012) Concept Art [online] Available from <ttp://www.coroflot.com/yogmaya/Concept-Art> (November 5 2012)
Pedraza, I (2014) India Supreme Court Recognizes Hijra as a Third Gender [online] Available from <http://pilr.blogs.law.pace.edu/2014/04/18/india-supreme-court-recognizes-hijra-as-a-third-gender/> (April 18 2014)
Bayu, G (2013) Bangladesh Secara Resmi Mengakui Jenis Kelamin Ketiga [online] Available from <http://www.suarakita.org/2013/11/bangladesh-secara-resmi-mengakui-jenis-kelamin-ketiga/> (November 12 2013)
British Raj of Crayford (n.d) [online] Available from <http://www.britishraj-crayford.co.uk/>
Khemka, A (n.d) Munna Guru – portrait of a eunuch [online] Available from <http://www.inter-asia.org/journal/correlative_photo/vol7/no2/photono2.htm>
Katyal, M (2014) Takeshi Ishikawa: HIJRAS – The Third Gender of India [online] Available at <http://www.emahomagazine.com/2014/12/takeshi-ishikawa-hijras-the-third-gender-of-india/> (December 8 2014)