Hijras: India’s Third Gender

If you find yourself at a red stoplight in India, chances are you might find them squeezing through the gaps between the cars, tapping on windows, and unceremoniously asking for money. They often wear vibrant outfits and wait at traffic signals as their only means of livelihood. What you see are a group of transgender people -more commonly known as hijra- that make up for almost 4 million in our country. Don’t wince at them when you see them – instead, instead let’s understand when and where they come from starting from its mythology to history.

Who are they?

In Vedic literature, hijras (or transgenders) are recognised as the ‘third sex’ or napumsaka citizens, who were not engaged to copulate. Vedic literature accepted them as ordinary people who deserved rights as any other male or female in a society. It accepted the biological fluidity of transgender people to blend into any sex of their wish. The hijras have been vividly described in ancient Indian literature, mostly the Kama Sutra, the Indian book on sexual behaviour and practices, which was written somewhere between 400 BCE and 200 BCE. Shiva, one of the most significant deities in Hinduism, is said to have a form where he somewhat morphed with his wife Parvati to become the androgynous Ardhanari.

Biologically they are born either as a male but prefer to identify as female or born a female but identify themselves as male. Most hijras tend to under sex change operations

What Mythology Says…

Ironic as it might sound, the same transgender people once occupied a sacred yet ubiquitous place in Hindu mythology, playing a pivotal role in the most famous epics in Hinduism, the Ramayana – where they earned trust by their allegiance towards Lord Rama during his 13-year exile and the Mahabharata – where Shikandi, a transgender warrior, was destined to kill Bheeshma. There has been a disparity in the claims made for Shikandi’s gender, but in noted statesman and politician C. Rajgopalachari’s version, Shikandi was born to King Drupad as a daughter.

However, Shikhandi was given a boon by God to be born with a complete memory of her previous life, where she suffered through the ill-fate of being abducted by Bheeshma and being rejected both by her suitor and lover. Therefore, she vowed to avenge her dishonour by defeating and killing Bheeshma. When King Drupad discovered this, he banished her from the kingdom. However, similar accounts suggest that Drupad himself raised her as a prince. Nevertheless, it is certain that Shikhandini lived like a hermaphrodite.

Another story in Hindu mythology is commonly known as Bahuchara Mata and the Hijras. Bahuchara and her sisters were travelling before their caravan was hijacked by Bapiya, a road bandit. To save themselves, Bahuchara cut off her and her sister’s breasts before cursing Bapiya with impotence. Bapiya could only have his curse lifted if he paid homage to Bahuchara and her sisters by dressing up and behaving like a woman.

In Indian culture, woman’s breasts are viewed as an asset of femininity. Cutting them off would not necessarily transform women into men, but make them neither – just as hijras. Indian culture also is deeply rooted in superstition and the story of Bahuchara Mata could be why mainstream society associates hijras as her descendants, having the power to curse or lift a curse.

What History Books State…

Even during the onset of Islamic rule in India during the great Mughal Empire, eunuchs played a pivotal role in the functioning of the kingdom. In fact, the transgenders or eunuchs were respectable people during the Mughal eras. They lived lavishly, wore grand clothes and had riches to their name. In Mughal history, eunuchs and their presence were most pronounced during the reign of Akbar. They mostly supervised the harem of the imperial kings as women were considered pure and must be protected by unwanted touch. Thus they were both servants of the Mughal women and officers of the empire.

One notable name was the eunuch Niamat, who refuses Adham Khan, a close relative of Akbar, to proceed into the harem chamber. His loyalty definitely earned him a better status. In addition, eunuch Khwaja Talib was a prominent name in the quarters of Aurangzeb as well. Historical accounts suggest that eunuchs were often cunning and conniving people. Even towards the final days of the Empire, during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Mahbub Ali Khan was the Chief Eunuch of the Palace and was a notoriously ruthless enforcer beyond the walls of the royal zenana, and along with the Begum, Zinat Mahal, supported the British and negotiated for their safety following the British attack on Delhi following the Uprising of 1857.

Not only were hijras known to hold religious positions, but they were also sought after for blessings, especially after religious ceremonies. Vedic literature gave them a status; especially being endowed with a variety of skills and being a symbol of good luck at auspicious ceremonies. Nowhere does Vedic literature mention discrimination towards the transgenders in the least, so it may seem surprising thinking about their present marginalised existence in a society that is so deeply rooted in said literature.

But In Reality…

The prejudice against the transgender community is essentially part of the colonial hangover that most Indians still suffer from, despite the British leaving India almost 72 years ago. The British came to India rejecting the presence of the third gender and left no stone unturned in ceasing their existence altogether, by introducing a flurry of strict legislatures that criminalised being a hijra.

The deeply entrenched stigma associated with the presence of hijras can trace its roots back to the vehement opposition by the former colonial government. Sadly, this clouds the fact that the community has been perennially present in the subcontinent, comfortably eclipsing the presence of the British lords in India.

Hijras and their sex work was ultimately a consequence they had to turn to in order to make a living.

Hijras have undoubtedly played a major role in Indian history, but western influence rewrote the fate of transgender people in our modern society. We hope there comes a time when they get the same opportunities as everyone else, and ultimately win in their strive for social acceptance.

Written by Rishi Kant and Shreemoyee Roychoudhury

Edited by Sanjay Kumar

Picture Courtesy – Google Images

Artwork by Ashirwad Ray

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