Eunuchs -- India's Third Gender

by Nabanita Dutt, Jul 21, 2002 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

Their face is their fortune. Caked in cheap rouge, kajal, powder and lipstick, they dress in ill-fitting blouses and colourful saris in a grotesque parody of womanhood as they roam the busy marketplaces in groups, terrorizing pedestrians, hustling for ten or a hundred rupees. These are not your average beggars on the street. With male voices shouting expletives, palms meeting crossways in a trademark clap, they prey on susceptible passersby, who will part with their cash sooner than be treated to the sight of the group collectively lifting up their saris and flashing castrated genital areas right in their faces.

Eunuchs - castrated males - have been in existence since the 9th Century BC. The word derives from the Greek "keeper of the bed" because castrated men were in popular demand to guard royal harems. The practice is believed to have started in China where, at the end of the Ming dynasty, there were as many as 70,000 eunuchs in the grand palace itself and many thousands more waiting to fill vacancies in the royal quarters. In the 1930s, when American journalist Vincent Starrett visited Beijing, he interviewed 33 palace eunuchs, ranging in age from 60 to 80. In his journals, he described the surviving eunuchs as "thin, hairless, fat-lipped and bejowled...with shrill voices and hair which hang down to their necks."

By 1960, the number of Chinese eunuchs had dwindled to 26 living in Beijing, and 1996 saw the death of Sun Yaoting, the last of these noble civil servants who passed away a little before his ninety-fourth birthday.

India is the only country where the tradition of eunuchs is prevalent today. There are about 1 million of them, though their role in life has changed drastically from that of royal servants, confidantes and friends.

Eunuchs, or hijras as they are called here, have become something to be feared. Nobody wants to be accosted by one of them - be nudged with their elbows, stroked on the cheek, taunted, cursed and flashed.

It's by taking advantage of this discomfort and embarrassment at their existence, that hijras in 21st Century India are making their living. Begging isn't their only source of income. It's an age-old custom in the country to have hijras bless childbirths, weddings, housewarmings and other auspicious occasions. The eunuchs are believed to possess occult powers, and their blessings - and curses - are both considered potent.

The community has a complex network system, which informs them of every happy event in the neighbourhood. No sooner has a baby been born in the family that a tinkle of ankle-bells herald the arrival of the hijras. They sing and dance and create a commotion outside the house until the mother has allowed them to look at the baby. Once they have blessed the child they demand exorbitant sums of money in lieu of their good wishes. The inspection also carries an ulterior motive. On rare occasions when the baby is born a eunuch, the hijras insist that the baby is given to them. Often, the families will comply to avoid humiliation in society, and the group will take the child away to their ghettoes to raise him as he should be: as one of their own.

What happens in these ghettoes is a mystery few know about. Most people, in fact, have no notion about how hijras come to be. Some believe they are simply born that way - males without the male genitalia - while others will tell you that they are really men who were forcibly castrated in their youth.

Both views are true, though natural eunuchs are a very rare occurrence and castration isn't always by force. An `operation' as hijras call it, is cause for huge celebrations in the community. It is performed out of doors, and feasts, song and dance are rituals that attend the event, which is orchestrated by the head of the community known as Gurus.

Views differ on the exact process of castration and one would believe that there are several procedures by which the hijras dispense with unwanted male appendages. A common practice, however, begins with the individual being sequestered in isolation for some days during which he is fed on a diet of opium and milk to keep him in a permanent state of intoxication. On a day declared auspicious by the Guru, the boy is laid down on a hard surface and a cord is tied tightly around his testicles to stop the flow of blood. Several eunuchs hold him down as a sharp knife severs the penis and testicles in one swift movement. The wound is bled for a period of hours, to signify the draining of manhood and the onset of womanhood. A metal or wooden plug is inserted into the wound to stop full closure and leave an aperture for the passage of urine. Hot oil is poured over the area and herbs are placed on it to hasten the healing process

Some communities, however, do not consider the procedure complete until the boy has been made to sit on a grinding stone and pushed down until he bleeds from the anus. The drops of blood are taken to signify the first menstruation, and only then is the initiation complete.

Thereafter, the Guru takes over the proper upbringing of the newest member. Everything the young hijra learns about the clan's customs and traditions is at the feet the Guru. His adopted family of fellow hijras provides a loving environment and he is fed, clothed and looked after well until he too feels a sense of security and well-being.

The hijras I met at a ghetto in Bombay's Kamatipura area seemed pretty content with their lot in life. This was in 1995, when all I knew about them was that they were neither men nor women, were rude and aggressive people and lived in areas where outsiders were strictly unwelcome. But I happened to be near a hijra neighbourhood, and in a spirit of adventure, I asked a male friend who was with me, if we could take our taxi close enough to see some of them.

The houses they lived in were typical Bombay chawls - ancient three to four-storeyed structures with a long, common verandah running down the front of each floor. Hijras were everywhere, leaning over the banisters, walking down the narrow street, chatting, laughing, combing each other's hair. The appearance of our taxi caused no stir, and encouraged by this, my friend stopped the car and walked a small distance to chat up a hijra. He'd pretend to be a customer, he said. At that point, I had no idea that hijras also sold their bodies. Yet, many of them were indeed standing at doorsteps, hand on hip, the way I had seen prostitutes pose in the adjacent Kamatipura red-light area. Men were everywhere, walking in and out of the buildings.

A couple of hijras walked up to the taxi in which I was sitting and I watched their progress with mounting fear. The presence of a female in their ghetto must anger these people, and I wondered if they would react violently to this intrusion.

"Look, look your man is chatting up another woman," laughed the taller of the two, gesturing with her hand at my friend who was by then deep in conversation with the hijra he had chosen. She urged me to get out of the cab, and informed me she was Sita and her friend was called Aarti. The `woman' my `husband' liked, she said, was Lata. Not only did they have female names, they also spoke of each other as women. The couple invited me into their house, and it was with much trepidation that I began to climb up the dark, dingy staircase with my friend and his woman in tow.

As we made our way along the second-floor verandah, hijras who were lounging about reached forward to shake my hand. I was amazed to note that I caused more of a flutter among them than my male friend. Used to women who ran away at the sight of them, it appeared I was a novelty in these parts and everybody wanted to get closer and touch me.

The room we were led into contained two beds, and a hijra who looked to be about 70 was cutting vegetables into neat piles. I was wondering how they entertained customers in such a domestic environment when Lata, the one my friend had chosen, pointed at a narrow ladder placed at one end of the room. The ladder led up to a platform which was partitioned into three cubicles. Each contained a stained mattress and a naked bulb hung from a low ceiling. Lata led us into her own cubicle and I gathered this was where they serviced the men. There wasn't enough room to sit cross-legged on the mattress and Lata giggled merrily as we tried to get comfortable without banging our heads on the ceiling.

My friend had paid her Rs 300 for an hour, during which time we said we only wanted to talk to her. The request didn't seem to surprise Lata - probably because I was present and there was little chance of any real action - and agreed to tell us her story.

She used to be a young boy from Bihar before her operation, she said. When she was young, her school-master would take her to lonely classrooms and sodomise her regularly. The discomfort disappeared after a while and when other village men began to prey on her, it didn't feel bad or abnormal. By the time she was 17, Lata knew she liked what the men did to her and she decided to have an operation. She couldn't explain the need to cut off her male genitals and could only say that it made her feel more of a woman. Soon after, having collected enough money for the procedure, she ran away and got herself operated at a local clinic in Bihar which did this kind of stuff. Thereafter, she came to Bombay, having heard that business was good in the city, and was pretty content servicing men who visited this hijra neighbourhood.

Clients who came to their quarters, she said, were often heterosexual men who could not afford a female prostitute. The rest were closet gays for whom hijras were the only source of release for pent-up frustrations.

Before the evening was over and we left the place, I had spoken to several members of the community. While all of them told stories that suggested they had homosexual tendencies, few could explain the need to neuter themselves or adopt the hijra way of life. "We are the third gender," said Sita, my first hijra friend. "There is no room for homosexuals in this society. And none of us can envisage a life where we are forced to marry females and have children by them. So the only way out is to cut off our manhood and become hijras. This is the only community which will accept us and let us live our lives the way we want to. By not being heterosexuals, we are already damned. As a hijra, at least we are not the sole target of the derision and ridicule that society heaps on us. We can endure it as a community."

The feeling that life has shortchanged them often prompts their perverse and obscene behavior in public. "What more do we have to lose?" says Sita. "We are anyway treated worse than an untouchable. If we overdo the kind of behavior that is expected of us, we can twist people's arms and make them pay for our sustenance. It's the least society can do for us."

The freedom this deviant existence affords within the community, however, is not without some restrictions. Their society is strictly hierarchical and a eunuch's life is governed by regulations laid down by his immediate superior. Hijras all over the country are divided into seven `houses'. Each house has a Nayak at its head, below whom come several Gurus. The Gurus in turn rule over the community members and regulate their day-to-day life. While the houses of north India have very rigid systems, the ones in the south are said to be more relaxed in the way the members dress and behave.

The high point of every eunuch's life is the annual festival at Koovagam, a small village 200 miles south of Madras. On Chitrai Purnima, the new year of the Tamil lunar calendar, the sleepy little village becomes a hive of activity as hijras from all over the country converge for a 'ceremony of marriage and subsequent widowhood'.

The scene is adopted from the Mahabharata, one of India's two great epics. During the battle of Kurukshetra, the Pandavas brothers had to sacrifice one warrior to gain a tactical edge over their warring cousins. Their war council selected Aravanan, one of epic hero Arjuna's sons. The boy agreed to die for the holy cause of defeating the wicked Kaurava cousins, but he expressed a wish to marry first. Aravanan's last wish posed a huge problem, for who would knowingly let their daughter marry a man who would die in battle the very next day? To solve the issue, Lord Krishna assumed the form of Mohini, a beautiful woman, and married Aravanan.

The man-woman context appealed to the eunuch community, and for over 500 years, Aravanan has been deified and made central to the eunuch psyche. The hijras see themselves as Mohini, and on the festival day the priest at Aravanan's temple marries them off to the diety. The next day, the priest cuts the mangalsutra, the marriage chain, and the hijras all become widows. After the marriage celebrations and mournings of widowhood are over, the time comes for hijras to mingle and find new mates. A number of competitions take place then, notable among which is the annual beauty contest. In gaudily embroidered saris, elaborate hair styles, make-up and jewellery, the hijras parade down the aisle, showing off their stuff to thunderous applause from the crowds.

In recent years, events such as the hijra beauty contest have begun to receive a lot of public attention, and a group of eunuchs even had the opportunity to model in a professional fashion show, which was well-attended by India's fashion circle and the media. This attempt at bringing them to the forefront of public consciousness was a huge success and the eunuchs who took part couldn't get over the fact that they were sharing the stage with Miss Indias and the country's leading models.

Not quite so much in the media glare, however, are a number of social bodies such as the Hijra Kalyan Sabha and the Dai Welfare Society which are working alongside these eunuchs to give them a proper place in society. "We too want to go to restaurants, visit cinema halls and parks," says Revathi, a hijra activist who was in Calcutta recently at a social meet. "We also want to educate ourselves and improve our prospects. We want to enjoy the privileges of being an Indian, and I believe that in time we will achieve our dream. Hijras have already won elections and entered the field of politics. Movies are being made about us, and people are trying to understand our predicament. In the world's largest democracy...maybe there's hope for us yet."

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