History of the Hijra: Ancient India to Today

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Hijra is a Hindustani term, which can be considered as derogatory. Hijra has been traditionally translated into English as eunuchs, intersex, hermaphrodite and transgender – where the irregularity of the male genitalia is central to the definition.

Many Hijras are born male, only a few having been born with intersex variations. Hijras are also known as Aravani, Jagappa, or Chhakka in the Indian Subcontinent. In India, most members of the transgender community prefer to call themselves Kinnaras referring to mythological beings that are symbols of beauty, paradigmatic lovers and play musical instruments. Many Hijras perform at ceremonies (toli), beg (dheengna), or are sex workers (‘raarha‘) for survival.

‘Am I both man and a woman? am I neither man nor woman? I am a hijra so I can access both states of being’ – Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

Bahuchara Mata, considered patroness of the hijra community Credit: Damian N. Boodram [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Hijras have had a recorded history in the Indian subcontinent culture for thousands of years. Eunuchs are celebrated in sacred Hindu texts such as the Mahabharata and the Kama Sutra. They also enjoyed influential positions in the Mughal courts.

In Ancient India, the depiction of Hijras or Kinnaras was often a common theme in art. Examples of ancient art sculptures are Sanchi, Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, and the paintings of Ajanta. Hijras belong to a special caste. They are usually devotees of the mother goddess Bahuchara Mata, Lord Shiva, or both. Koovagam is a village in Tamil Nadu, India – famous for its annual festival of Hijras, transgender and transvestite individuals. They perform ritualistic dances, hold beauty pageants and hold seminars to discuss the basic rights of transgender people.

Many Hijras have lived in organised all-Hijra communities for generations. Some Hijras undergo an initiation rite into the Hijra community called nirwaan, which refers to the removal of the penis, scrotum and testicles. The Hijra community developed a secret language for protection. It is known as Hijra Farsi, loosely linked to the Hindustani language. It is a unique language made up of about one thousand words.

The most significant relationship in the Hijra community is that of the guru (master or teacher) and chela (disciple or student). The Guru usually supports Hijras emotionally and financially. It appears Hijras join these communities in youth because they want to fully express their feminine gender identity, under the pressure of poverty, ill-treatment, after a period of homosexual prostitution, or for a combination of these reasons.

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi is a transgender rights activist, Hindi film actor and Bharatanatyam dancer in Mumbai, India. | Credit: Timothy Herbert [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
When the British came to power in India, many were disgusted with Hijras. Authorities attempted to eradicate Hijras. British colonialists decided to pass a law in 1897 classing all eunuchs as ‘criminals’ and ‘a breach of public decency’. Violence against Hijras, especially Hijra sex workers, was often brutal in public places, police custody, prisons and even in their homes.

As with transgender people in most of the world, they face extreme discrimination and ignorance in health, housing, education, employment, immigration and law. More recently, Hijras have been seen as propitious and are often asked to bless celebrations such as marriages and births.

Since the late twentieth century, some Hijra activists and non-government organizations (NGOs) have lobbied for official recognition of the Hijra as a ‘third gender’, as neither man nor woman. In April 2014, The Supreme Court in India recognised Hijras as a ‘Third Gender’ in law. However, not all transgender people feel comfortable being referred to as the ‘third gender’. On 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India decriminalised homosexuality by declaring Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional, which was a big step forward for Hijras.

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