Revered and Reviled: Life as India's Third Gender
Transgender women, intersex people, and "eunuchs" are sought out to bestow fertility blessings. But they're also feared, and kept largely invisible from public life.
All photography by Ana Singh
Hundreds of photographs of children line Shri Buhacharaji Mataji Temple in Gujarat, India. They gaze moonily out from behind their plastic laminates, smoky kohl smeared around their eyelids. The uninitiated might assume these photographs are a kind of memorial. But actually they're a celebration—the children are the offspring of previously childless couples who come here from far and wide to honour the Hindu mother goddess, Bahuchara Mata. They came with one goal in mind: to receive a blessing from a hijra, a member of India's third gender, who are believed to have a direct line to the goddess.
When couples finally succeed in giving birth, they return to paste a photograph of their baby on the wall as a kind of buyer's testimony. It's proof of the Goddess's powers, and the new parents' faith in the hijra to have performed the miracle.
As a group, hijras encompass transgender women, intersex people, and so-called "eunuchs" – though these Western categories don’t apply in quite the same way. Hijra use feminine pronouns, but identify as a separate group. Socio-cultural anthropologist Adnon Hossain, who writes on race relations and gender diversity, puts it even more simply: "Hijra, the icon of sex/gender non-conformism in South Asia, are 'male-bodied' people who identify as female and sacrifice their male genitals to a goddess in return for spiritual prowess."
This is a word that is at once an identity and, for many Indians, an insult. But simply identifying as a hijra is not usually enough to be considered one. Most undergo a culturally-specific sex reassignment surgery, performed by another hijra. It's considered to be a kind of rebirth and, as Gayatri Reddy writes in her 2005 ethnography With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India, “serves to elevate them … to the real of asexual sacredness.”
The operation, which takes place without anaesthetic, is illegal and life-threatening, leading some Indian regions to consider offering a medical alternative free of charge. Traditionally, however, it is spoken of and performed in absolute secrecy. Recovery, which takes 40 days, is slow and painful. New hijras eat a special diet and recover in semi-seclusion. Afterwards, they're dressed as brides, and in a special ceremony blessed with the power of the Mother Goddess. From this moment on, they are given new names and new identities.
Leaning against the temple wall, two hijras clap to attract the attention of passing worshippers, who have traveled long distances to seek fertility blessings from India's third gender. The younger hijra, Chaya-de, wears large gold earrings that loop over the tops of her ears, and an elaborate purple sari with a string of embroidered flowers around the hem. Her feet are bare.
Worshippers bow to Chaya-de and hand her rupees. She, in turn, sweeps her hands over their heads in a motion of blessing, warding off evil spirits and bringing them good luck for whatever they're seeking: fertility, wealth—even a better apartment. Dusk is falling, and soon she will return to the commune in which she lives. She's been in this spot all day.
Hijras have been part of Indian life for millennia, but only received legal recognition in 2014 when the Supreme Court of India created a "third gender" category within the OBC (Other Backward Class) bracket. A few years earlier, in 2011, the Census made its first attempt to count the number of hijra in India: an estimated 490,000. In Delhi alone, there are some 30,000.
The vast majority of hijra live in communities led by a "guru", who instructs them on questions of household management and how to make a living. From the age of 12 or 13, they leave their families for good to join these units, where, rather than having children of their own or maintaining a relationship with their parents, they enter into a relationship with a guru who is at once parent, teacher and boss. The guru is expected to treat each hijra in the community, writes Reddy, “as a daughter, showing her affection and coming to her aid in times of difficulty.”
These communities exist on the very edges of society. They are often shunned by their families and at the mercy of authorities. Chaya-de performs traditional work which includes giving mystic blessings to people they pass on the street or at the temple, for fertility or simply good luck. Those who believe in a hijra’s special spiritual powers connect it to their impotence, particularly when it comes to conferring fertility on those who struggle to conceive. The religious background to beliefs around hijras is complex, writes Hossain, with “a narrative tradition that creatively mingles Hindusim and Islam.”
Most hijras live in cities, where there are more opportunities for work. But here at this rural temple, Chaya-de has a steady stream of people seeking her blessing. By 10:30am the next morning, she will be back in her spot to receive them.
Hijras' impotence has an important bearing on their ability to gift others with fertility. Ordinarily, this impotence would be stigmatised in normative Indian communities. Instead, writes Reddy, it is the source of “ritual power and sacred legitimacy.” The Hindu Mother Goddess works alongside Muslim saints to turn it into a generative power that they can bestow on those around them.
Intersex people, impotent men, and transgender women are encouraged to see themselves as called on by the Goddess to become hijra. If they ignore that call, they are believed to pay the hefty price of impotence in the next seven lives they have on earth.
Shoba Bimla Kinnar, a hijra living in Ahmedabad, grew up intersex. At 13, after years of teasing, she left her parents and siblings forever, and moved in with a local community of hijras. "People saw me as 'less than,'" she says, explaining what made her leave. "I just thought to myself: I won't have any respect in society, I won't have respect in the world. It was better that I just stepped away from that."
Now in her sixties, she lives in the same house with seven other hijras, set up on the side of the dusty road. The other people she lives with are out working, walking the streets of Ahmedabad to beg, or dancing, singing and blessing the childless. Still, there are signs of sorority living: a half-dozen pairs of underwear, white and beige, drying on hooks on the bathroom wall.
"In the old days, people in the neighborhood called us daily to sing and dance," Shoba says. "To weddings, functions, things like that. We'd be accompanied by a really big band and roam the whole neighborhood. These days, we're barely summoned."
Back then, devotees would give hijras lavish gifts of saris and rings, hoping that their dreams (a new house, a baby) would in turn come true. These days, their work is more varied—general odd jobs, cleaning houses, taking care of the elderly. Shoba is quick to explain that she has never "misbehaved," but prostitution is not a wholly uncommon alternative, though it’s seldom talked about. In cities, it's far more common to see hijras on the arms of men than around temples.
While in more rural areas people still have a lot of faith in the ability of hijras to work miracles, more secular, urban Hindus seem less concerned about inviting them to weddings or other functions. The vast majority of hijras still lack many basic rights—they can't own property, vote, marry, or hold passports—but a tiny, though very visible, number are beginning to appear in the public eye as models, actresses or presenters.
It's a catch-22: On the one hand, some South Asians are coming to see hijras as people in their own right, rather than a special group to be revered and feared. On the other, this seems to reduce their ability to make a living in the traditional ways. The international community may view their legal recognition as a progressive advance, writes Hossain, but things on the ground continue to be challenging. A designated, separate category in some ways serves to other them further. Indeed, says Shoba, they're no less stigmatised or derided than they ever were.
Meantime, she does as much work as she can—people in the neighbourhood often get in touch with her specifically, calling on her to bless them with fertility and good luck. But Shoba is ageing, and it's hard to keep up with their demands. She maintains her faith regardless, happy to bless those she can in the hopes of giving them what they usually desire most: a child. In turn, Shoba hopes good luck will come back to her.
"The way I see it," she says, "if you don't get something in this life, God will give it to you eventually in the next."
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