Originally stored at http://wwwa4.udic.org/~abb6418/hijra.html
HIJRAS OF INDIA: PARADOX AND SURROGATE FAMILIES

    With their whimsy and genderless faces, they reminded me of
    Shakespearean fools.  They were like the shadows and the 
    critics of society.  Everything about them suggested paradox;
    they were not men, nor were they women; they were not invited
    to perform, but neither were they uninvited (Jaffrey 19)

Zia Jaffrey encountered the hijras for the first time when they appeared at a wedding in India that she had come to attend from America. Her encounter was unanticipated, as most of the initial encounters by non-Indians who write accounts about the hijras have seemed to be. Her intention of illustrating the life of the hijras was immediately discouraged by her Indian acquaintances when announced, and they reasoned, "If you're going to write about India, why don't you choose a subject that shows our good side?" (18). For the subject of the hijras among many middle-class Indians can be controversial, and thus shrouded in obscurity.

Even the definition of a hijra has ambiguities depending on whom is inquired. A hijra herself may take pride in being, above all else, a ritual performer, sanctioned by the gods to bless families, while eschewing talk of what may be her primary work: prostitution. An outsider, upon first sight of them aggressively attempting to seize a customer on the street, may believe the hijras to solely be prostitutes. Others are familiar with the hijras only as female performers and seemingly self-proclaimed fate-manipulators who arrive in a band to dance and sing and bless, or perform badhai, at weddings and births. Their presence can be thought of as auspicious with regard to their capabilities for manipulating divine energy, or, on the contrary, as loathsome and calamitous with regard to their infertility despite, and as well as what people may see as the threat of their free and overwhelming sexuality.

Most writers, however, after extensive study of both hijra communities and the surrounding societies, have arrived at more of a formal definition, inclusive of the requisite characteristics of a hijra and also allowing for the potential variations.

The most common requisite has to do with the physical qualities of a person's sex. A hijra, although possibly born as either a male or a female, is impotent, even after the onset of puberty: a female may not receive her period or develop female secondary sex characteristics and rather, grow facial hair; a male's penis may be malformed or small and may not grow as he grows. Other hijras may be born as hermaphrodites as well, with neither gender's genitals developing fully; these hijras have been noted to say of themselves that they were "born this way" and "neither man nor woman" (Nanda 101). The word hijra itself "implies a physical defect impairing the male sexual function" in Urdu (14).

However, not all hijras have these physical defects, and many are "made hijras" who have chosen to castrate themselves in order to render themselves impotent. It has even been said, as well, that, of these "made hijras," not all have voluntarily been emasculated; there are accounts of hijras, whom at a young age, had been forcibly "recruited" and castrated by hijra communities: "Everybody assembled outside our home. There were 15 hijras who had come there. They were shouting, abusing and even became violent...My parents agreed to give me to them. Thus, I got into hijra cult unwillingly" (Sharma 71).

Another central quality of the hijras, though not always requisite, is that they wear women's attire and jewelry. Prostitution requires such, and "it is absolutely required for their performances, when asking for alms, and when they visit the temple of their goddess Bahuchara" (Nanda 17). They generally keep their hair long as well: "One of the punishments meted out by the elders to a hijra who has misbehaved is to cut her hair. This is considered a disgrace and an insult." They are fined if caught shaving, for they are taught to "pluck out their facial hair so that their skin remains smooth like a woman's." They are also expected to "behave in a perfect feminine way" (Sharma 36). Although the hijras who don't live in hijra communities may work in what is a traditionally male occupation, they "imitate, even exaggerate, a woman's 'swaying walk,' sit and stand like women, and carry pots on their hips, which men do not" (Nanda 17). Overall, they try to maintain as much of an outwardly feminine appearance as possible, and a success in doing this is often praised by hijra peers; failure is chided by hijra elders.

Being a hijra entails some notions of occupations that seem full of contradictions. It has been asserted that "the hijra role is primarily a form of institutionalized homosexuality developing in response to tendencies toward latent homosexuality in the Indian national character," suggesting that hijras had only been seeking a subculture into which their sexual "deviance" would be accepted (9). Others have denied that any hijras are homosexuals or prostitutes at all, choosing to declare that they are "dancers only." Surely this sort of declaration commands more respect from the larger society, and thus, much to the skepticism of younger hijras, the elder often claim that "we hijra are like sannyasis (ascetics), we have renounced all sexual desire and family life." However, although "the only honourable function that society permits them is in the blessing business," (Klammer 18), the majority of India's 50,000 to 1.25 million hijras are homosexual prostitutes (Nanda 10).

When hijras admit following this occupation, the occupation that has contributed the most to the "lower than untouchables," (Klammer 18) stigma of the hijras, they often do so with a disclaimer: "it was the only way they could earn a living" (Nanda 53). Another factor is that a lower, newer or younger disciple hijra, a chela, is economically tied to her guru, or the elder or leader of the hijra household, for the household is like a surrogate family, where the younger show deference to the elders. Many times it is designated by the guru which job each chela will take depending on what the chela seems proficient at doing: "Every person has some specialty. Some sing and dance, some play the dholak [sacred two-sided drum used in performance]" (102). Thus, the chelas often have no say in the prostitution customers the guru may set up for them. A prostitute hijra, Kamladevi, complains about her guru's perpetual severity concerning any possible loss of income: "But here at Lalitha's also, life is so hard. Yesterday I had 20 to 25 customers and still, if I take a rest, Lalitha will say, 'You're going on sitting and chatting, you're wasting your time and not looking after the customers'" (62). To further frustrate a hijra whose occupation as prostitute has always been or has just become downright unappealing to them, upon leaving a hijra household willingly or by expulsion, it is a trying task to be re-accepted or even to find acceptance elsewhere (Sharma 117). Consequently, many hijra prostitutes will remain as such until old age, sickness, or the call of an acceptable (i.e. acceptable by the guru) "husband" takes them.

Hijras with the occupations of dancers and singers who perform badhai are, as mentioned, the more "respectable" deviation of hijra. Even still, hijras are often fear inspiring, viewed as bothersome, and are not generally explicitly invited to the births or weddings. In fact, they are often explicitly not invited by some shopkeepers, whom they also patronize for fees: "[these shopkeepers] settle on a 'contract' with one hijra group; they agree to give a fixed sum of money weekly, or even monthly, to avoid harassment by this hijra group and others" (Nanda 50). Many wonder with confusion and no conclusion how the hijras, without fail, find news of new births and weddings that were thought to be kept secret and so often show up at them. Apparently, the guru of a household sends her chelas out in their designated "territory" of the city to "ceaselessly comb the houses and maternity hospitals...to find out when and where a child, particularly a male child, has been born or when a marriage is about to take place" (48). When such is found, the chela leaves a mark in chalk on the doorway to indicate that this house is "taken" by her particular household.

When the group shows up for the ceremony, it is seemingly an automatic defeat for the family who tries to send the hijras away, for hijras demand to perform and will not easily go: "hijras are reputed to never be satisfied with what they are offered" (49). Generally they will get more money and gifts than the family is initially willing to give; until they do, they may insult the family, threaten to lift up their skirts, shout obscenities, or curse the family or newborn to impotence or death. If the family summons the police, it often turns out that the police support the hijras out of their own fears: "people most often try to send the hijras away satisfied because of the fear or shame of their abuse if they are angered" (49).

Sensing that one family was "obviously middle class" and could afford the three thousand rupees fee, Madhu, a hijra, after blessing the new son of the family, refused to yield when the father says, "We are not rich..." Madhu then begins to prophesize the future: "You have been lucky, your first child is a son. But who knows what the second child will be?" At this suggestion, the family hands over the money, protecting the future child from a female or hijra lifestyle (Klammer 18).

The birth performance itself can be anything between "merely a short song and a blessing" and "a more elaborate performance involv[ing] singing, dancing, and clowning" (Nanda 48). Three or five or more hijras are involved, one always playing the dholak. Often the singer "performs schmaltzy songs about love and suffering" (Klammer 16), perhaps also miming the process of pregnancy: "she stuffed a large pillow under her sari. She then returned to the group, clowning and imitating the slow, ungainly walk of a pregnant woman" (Nanda 2). The movements have been described as "a grotesque, sexually suggestive parody of feminine behavior, which caused all of the older ladies to laugh loudly and all of the younger women to giggle with embarrassment behind their hands" (1). Another hijra performs and "danced before them in an outrageously inviting and sexual way, and winking salaciously at five-year-old Kishan, she bent down to touch his genitals...bringing the audience into gales of laughter" (3). After the performance, a hijra passes money over the baby's head to bless it and fight evil spirits.

She also examines the baby's genitals, and if noticing an abnormality or what seems like a precursor to hermaphroditism, might verbally claim that the child, "being of neither sex belonged to them [the hijras] only" (Sharma 70). Finally she wishes upon the baby fertility, the power of creating new life, that which the hijra herself does not possess.

A wedding performance is similar in that songs (often film songs or well-known folk songs) are sung. The hijra blesses the newlyweds for fertility. Occasionally, a more orthodox family will not allow the new bride to be too physically close to the hijra, fearing that the hijra's infertility is contagious. Unlike the birth performances, the wedding performances will often include the hijras' impromptu verses, that often mock the groom, "suggesting perhaps that [he] was born out of wedlock" (Nanda 5). Although "these verses are all received in fun...there is a more serious undercurrent," however. Because the groom's family is thought of as having higher status than that of the bride, the resentment in such a relationship is lightened for the moment by this "ritual of reversal." Much of this free verse is rather cynical, controversial and unabashed in its commentary on Indian householdership, a state that hijras forfeit without every truly knowing.

A recurring question among outsiders is why these hijras, "impotent and emasculated men, have this traditional ritual role of conferring blessings of fertility on newborn males and on newlyweds." This may be due to allusions in revered Hindu myths.

One ancient reference to hermaphrodites and eunuchs is a favorite of hijras. In the Ramayana, when Ram was exiled from his native city of Ayodhya to the forest for 14 years, he turned around to find that most of the people of Ayodhya had followed him halfway through. He told them, "Men and women, turn back," and with that, those who were "neither men nor women" did not know what to do, so they stayed there. They were still there when Ram returned to Ayodhya 14 years later, and Ram blessed them (Jaffrey 29).

Hijras may also identify with Shiva, a deity who contains within himself both male and female energies, a conception that the Tantric Hindus also deem true of the Supreme Being. He is an ascetic who was requested to create the world and thus submerged himself under water for a thousand years. When he emerged, only to see that the world had already been created by Brahma, who had been worried in Shiva's absence, Shiva broke off his linga (phallus) and let it fall into the earth, judging it useless. The hijras, who see the castrated phallus as "the embodiment of creative tapas [ascetic energy]," rejoice in Shiva whose castration "does not render him asexual, but extends his sexual power to the universe" (Nanda 30). The linga "becomes a source of universal fertility as soon as it has ceased to be a source of individual fertility." Hijras worship Shiva, the androgynous, also in his being married to the Mother Goddess, and have been said to try to emulate this union (de Bary 201).

Arjuna, of the Mahabharata, is likened to Shiva as well. Well-known stories show Arjuna, in the disguise of a eunuch as a payment to an enemy who defeated him, and later as a helper to the king's daughter as she is about to get married. In this act, he is both refusing to marry her himself, and "his feigned impotence paves the way for the birth of the princess' child, just as it is the presence of the emasculated hijras at the home of a male child that paves the way for the child's virility and the continuation of the family line" (Nanda 31). Some hijras believe that anyone born on Arjuna's day will become a hijra.

Eunuchs were revered historically in other cultures. Many Muslim hijras (who often live and work with Hindu counterparts together in the same household) know that eunuchs were sought out to guard the women of the harem under Moghul rule. Rulers were "exceedingly generous and renowned for their patronage of the hijras" (23).

Much of the writings that chronicle hijra life seem to suggest a similar pattern among hijras. As a child, usually born a male, as early as 5 years old, the subject comes to realize, through his parents or by himself, either that his body is not developing or developing ambiguously, or that his emotional attitudes towards others are not "normal" of his gender, or both: "It was told to me by my brothers and parents that I should not put off my clothes before anyone in the school" (Sharma 35). The male child may be ostracized and teased by other children: "Since the children of my age would never play with me, I used to roam purposelessly" (64). He may associate with only the girls and identify with them: "..although I was a boy, I refused to wear pants.." (Nanda 57). He may try to emulate the females he knows, dressing up in female garb, trying to move like them, and develop romantic interests on male figures: "I felt like I would like to have a man" (86).

His family may outright castigate him, think of him as a curse God put on them, and try to prevent further aberrations from "normal" behavior: "I would shave the hair off my face, but my brothers would throw away the blade so I couldn't shave. They would catch me and draw a mustache on me with the eyebrow pencil...my father would send his orderly from the Police Department to accompany me to make sure I didn't do these things" (58). Conversely, some families wistfully accept the hijra child: "My mother would calm me down, saying, 'Don't feel annoyed when people tease you. You are God's child, and those children do not know your value'.." (100).

He may attract men to him, become "spoiled" (deflowered) by them, and eventually meet hijras: "..there was another lecturer in the school and he also spoiled me...around this time I came into contact with the hijras" (58). They will coercively or subtly introduce him to their lifestyle, after which he may join their household, have doubts and go back home, rejoin, and then continue the cycle until comfortable. When comfortable, and after the hijras have adequately assessed his character and the time is deemed auspicious, they will initiate him.

Initiation varies with the physiological state of the child: if the child is a hermaphrodite, his nose and ears will be pierced; if the child has a penis, he will go through a formal emasculation with no anesthetic and a ceremony lasting 40 days. Either way, the child is reborn as a hijra; the rite of passage is called nirvan, which translates to "rebirth," "calm and absence of desire," and "the dawn of a higher consciousness" (26). After this, the child continues a typical hijra lifestyle, whether as a prostitute, a performer, some sort of servant, or a beggar. In the communal household setting, the chela relinquishes most (50 to 100%, but closer to 100%) of what she earns to her guru, maintaining an economic as well as a spiritual dependence in the relationship (53). This chela hijra may grow to eventually be a guru, or move away either because of personality conflicts, restlessness, or to get "married." Usually, even the hijra who moves away will remain in touch with her guru and send money to them, thinking of the guru as her mother (47).

This mother-daughter relationship of the guru and hijra is a fascinating one with a religious and social basis. As mentioned, hijras identify with Shiva for his devotion to the Mother Goddess (specifically Mata Bahuchara) and devotion is equivalent to submission. The Goddess, "represent[ing] an ambivalence toward the real mother that is perhaps universal," (33), contains both the power to give life and charity, and the power to destroy those who anger her by disobeying. She is angered by the consort who, being her son as well, refuses her "incestuous" advances and thus she must castrate him in violence. After this, she protects the son because he is in ultimate submission to her. The Goddess "will protect the devotee...but only after she has castrated him...She will give him life, but only after she has killed him" (34). The worshipper's "anxiety over his inadequacy to fulfill the sexual needs of the mother is resolved by self-castration in order to appease the mother."

This may tie in to the hijra in the theory that Indian mothers may "turn the full force of her eroticism toward an infant son," (35), because of her role as an Indian wife. Indian culture leads her to repress her erotic needs, distance herself from her husband (within the context of a joint family), and concentrate on raising the children. When she has a son, she is elevated in status, and her need to bring him up to be a perfect young man will foster a great intimacy between the two. As the child grows and feels the contradictory desires to free himself and become independent, and yet to retain her protection, he may want to "attempt to remove his masculinity -- that which he vaguely perceives to be the basis of his conflict with his mother" (36). Hijra emasculation is "a way to both flee the sexually demanding mother and be reconciled with her," and this is somewhat personified by the mother-daughter relationship of the guru and emasculated chela.

The hijra has her own place in the greater context of Indian society, partially due to a wealth of historical religious references and a size that grows every year with the growing rate of impotence in India (The Times of India). Though they are often feared for their power and outspokenness by the middle class they have managed to harness social support and economic security as partly self-sufficient, communal societies all over India.

Whereas in the West, most are uncomfortable with deviance from the black and white gender roles of male and female, Indian hijras refuse to be unnoticed or categorized in their ambiguity.


copyright 1998, anne jelly. a few rights reserved


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This page first created 8/16/05 by Stephe Feldman. Last update: 8/16/05.