Third Wave: A call to arms
Originally at http://www.hindustantimes.com/nonfram/170601/indepth.shtml
Third Wave: A call to arms
by Kadambari Murali
Rath, Uttar Pradesh
July 3, 2001
EUNUCHS GO back to history to make history. They are set to
launch a political party at a convention at Rath, which, as the
myth goes, hosted the Pandavas in their year of disguise.
Perhaps the most revered legend of the mukhannis, who are better
known as hijras or kinnars, is the legend of Lord Ram.
They believe that when Ram left for his vanvaas, he was
followed to the banks of the Sarayu river by the people of
Ayodhya. He then turned back and asked all the men and women to
return to the city. When he returned, triumphant after
vanquishing Ravana, he found to his consternation, a group of
people still waiting for his arrival. The mukhannis had
patiently waited 14 years on the river-bank as they had never
been told to return to Ayodhya. Ram blessed them and told them
their time to rule would come in Kalyug. And, the mukhannis
believe, Kalyug has arrived.
According to some estimates, there are close to 10 lakh
eunuchs in India.
But only six people in public yet to account from them. But
that's a start. And now a political party of some sort, to
actually make the Kalyug official. "We are making preparations,
you cannot deny the inevitable," says Naseem, spokesperson of a
convention of mukhannis that is start on Wednesday to discuss,
among others things, the political future of the Third Sex in
India. Talk of a political party of the eunuchs has been doing
the rounds for some time now, but if it actually happens now this
convention would make history.
It is perhaps fitting then that the convention, which is
held every year, should have come after 700 years to Rath, an
other wise nondescript town in the Uttar Pradesh hinterland.
Rath itself has a special story behind it. The lives and laws of
the mukhannis (an Urdu word the kinnars prefer to use) are
governed by rituals that have their origin in legend and have
been passed on from generation to generation in the gupt (secret)
language of only the initiated.
Rath, some 85 kilometres from Hamirpur district headquarters
along a single lane dirt track with pretensions to being a road,
is supposed to be the kingdom of Raja Virat, king of the Matsyas,
the man who hosted the Pandavas during their year of concealment.
It is also the place where Arjuna, cursed by the celestial nymph
Urvashi after he spurned her advances, lived out his year as a
eunuch, Brihannala, the dance teacher to Virat's daughter Uttara.
(The convention is also referred to as the Bharatiya Vrahannala
Though there seems to be no archaelogical basis to verify
that this was the capital of the kingdom of Virat, locals talk of
frequent findings of gold coins under the main market place.
They also speak of some kind of construction below the market and
believe the town they live in rests on the remains of what was
once a place of fabulous riches.
It speaks a lot for the dedication and discipline of the
hijras, a much-derided community, that they made the trip to Rath
-- the road is not easy. Hamirpur district is part of
Bundelkhand, known both for its proud warriors and infamous
dacoits. Most people in the area carry guns, a family who
doesn't own a couple of firerms is unknown. But, says Lakshmi,
who has made the trip from neighbouring Bandha, "This is like an
annual pilgrimage and everyone tries to make the trip."
Though the rituals, begun with the chakpujan (paying respect
to a potter's wheel) and followed by the traditional wedding-
style baraat, will begin only on Wednesday, the guests have begun
converging from different parts of the country from June 9.
Pepsi vendors have claimed their place outside the college,
streamers and garlands festoon the path, generators are in
working order (Rath has a major electricity problem) and the
excitement is palpable.
"This is our shaan," says Naseem. "The people of the basti
help us, bring us lots of things, contribute money." Emissaries
bearing gifts and traditional yellow rice were sent out with
invitations in the four directions six months in advance. At the
moment, there are between two and three hundred participants
here, but people are expected from as far as Tamil Nadu and Assam
and even perhaps Nepal and Pakistan. Till the 29th of this
month, they will talk, meet, hug, observe their secret rasams
(rites) and sing and dance the night away at a local college
where they have based camp, till exhaustion lulls them to sleep.
This time though, there is a difference to this annual
meeting of the mukhannis -- they also have a political agenda to
review. Though Naseem, the guru of the gaddi of Rath and the
person who brought the convention to this town, is quick to
clarify that the convention is primarily the annual meeting where
the mukhannis eat, drink and make merry, there is no denial when
asked if it is also a meeting of the minds of their political
The achievements of Shabnam mausi -- the first eunuch MLA,
from Sohagpur in the Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh; Kamala
Jaan, the Mayor of Katni; Meena Bai, chairperson of the Sehora
Nagar Palika; Heera Bai, a corporator from Jabalpur; and Gulshan,
a corporator from Bina -- are an inspiration for the rest. They
are called the paanch Pandavs of Madhya Pradesh. Add to this the
mayor of Gorakhpur, Asha Devi, and you have a small but
substantial beginning for a crack at political power.
According to Heera Bai, the mukhannis are trying to organise
themselves into a political party, with or without the support of
other political parties. She quickly says that she can speak
only for her state, Madhya Pradesh, the other states must speak
for themselves. In the next breath she adds that people from
Gujarat and Maharashtra have come to her for advice on how to
fight elections. Heera Bai has herself fought two elections --
and won one. She is ready for another battle.
If they have decided on a name for the party they have in
mind, no one's letting on what it is, but Heera Bai says it is a
decision that will be taken jointly by the major mukhannis.
Probably once the convention gets underway.
Naseem, who is talked of indulgently by the people of Rath,
speaks like a seasoned politician already. She says that if the
people of Rath want her to, she is willing to contest the
forthcoming UP Assembly elections. Bhopal's Suraiya wants to
contest the next elections, as does Sarika.
Make no mistake, the mukhannis are not entirely strangers to
politics, the in-house kind. Even if it isn't evident to
outsiders, there is a strict regimentation in their ranks.
Suraiya has the distinction of being voted Kinnar Ms India.
Though no one's telling, she was probably voted on the basis of
having the best looking group. Firdaus, one of her seven chelas,
is quite extraordinary looking. First runner up in the February
contest, she blushes when asked why she didn't win. "Obviously
my guru comes first, she is much greater than I am and very
loving," she says.
The guru-chela relationship is the highlight of the family
life of the mukhannis. Firdaus explains. "The guru is our
mother-father everything. She feeds us, clothes us, takes care
of us at all times. We tell her everything." She points to
Sarika. "She is my cousin as her guru and mine are Guru-bhais.
They were chelas of the same Guru, who is our dadi." In the same
way as ordinary familes, the chelas also take care of the Gurus
when they are old and infirm.
"We have responsibilities to the old and ill," says Naseem,
pointing to Bunty Mai, her guru. "Responsibility passes from
Guru to one hand-picked chela, who is like the elder son." She
has picked Afsana to head the gaddi when her time to pass on
Meanwhile, the mukhannis from Muskara, the neighbouring
gaddi in Hamirpur zila, have reportedly refused to come as they
wanted to host the affair. Locals believe that those from
Muskara believe, probably rightly so, that the influence of
Naseem will increase tremendously if the convention goes off
without a hitch.
At the moment, things are on schedule. The big stage for
the holding of the cultural programmes is nearing completion, the
cold drinks are on the house and water is being served in pre-
prepared plastic packets. The classrooms of the college have
been turned into community type halls, with sparkling floors and
comfortable mattresses. Lunch and dinner are sit-down feasts in
the traditional manner of marriage households.
For a group shunned by the ordinary world of men and women,
and prevented from observing the normal rituals of Indian
society, this type of event holds major importance.
Naseem is at first reluctant to talk of anything political,
but opens in a while. "We are talking about forming ourselves
into a political organisation, with or without the support of
other political parties. The success of one person in becoming a
member of the Vidhan Sabha has inspired a lot of us."
She is, of course, referring to Shabnam mausi. What has
happened in Madhya Pradesh is a motivating factor. The mukhannis
believe they are the best for the job because they are generally
incorruptible. "What do we need money for?" asks one. "We have
no families to pass it on to, we have no use of opulence, no
needs outside of food and shelter. We just use it to help
"If the public likes us, then obviously we will stand for
public responsibility with their support. We have realised that
wherever we have elected representatives, the public is happy,"
"We can follow any religion and have no differences on the
issue, we have no system of caste. Even those from as far as
Madras, speak the same language." She is savvy. "Kinnar quam,
ek quam. I am Muslim, I do namaaz and go to a temple. We all
revere our kulguru, Shikhandi." One thing might be
discriminatory though: The political party they plan to form will
have only mukhannis. Sex is still a divide.
Eunuchs may be cremated or buried, but each gaddi builds its
deceased member a samadhi, in the manner of a saint. "There's
been a lot of attitudinal change in people towards us. We have
not had any problem here with pandits or maulvis, forget the
local people. They are tired of leaders they have, so I may
stand. We also do not forget where we come from. Even if
someone is a politican or studies medicine, they will still take
out a dholak and dance and sing at events."
All this might be true, but whether the mukhannis manage to
organise themselves and gain social acceptance will have to be
seen in the coming months. When Asha Devi became mayor of
Gorakhpur, some UP politicians protested.
As for the basically conservative people of the area, they
might not mind a couple of mayors here or corporators there.
They are a novelty and looked at with indulgence. A whole lot of
mukhannis talking of a kalyug and a full-fledged political party
might be quite another matter.
For now, the mukhannis live in their parallel world. They
are different. People drop their children at their hamlets or
are taken away by force (by their own admission) by the mukhannis
if they find out about the existence of a eunuch child who is
living in the normal world. They have their own customs no one
knows about and locals say they don't want to know about too. If
they try and bring themselves into the material world, they will
no longer be different.
It is a unique paradox.
At the moment though, it looks like the UP elections might
be quite fascinating. The mukhannis have a saying that goes
something like this: "Nikkamme netaon ka ek ilaj, hijron ke sar
par rakh do taaj. (There is one solution to useless politicians,
give the mandate to eunuchs)."
And they are not begging for it, they are preparing to fight
This page first created 6/18/10. Copyright © Stephe Feldman,
2010. Last update: 6/18/10.