The Dance of the Hijra
On August 24th, 1608, the British landed on Indian soil with the intention to trade. Over the course of 250 years, the British began integrating themselves into Indian politics and stealing more power, until eventually, in 1858, the trading company that was sent to India in 1608 was replaced with the Imperial British Crown. Among the tax hikes and decimation of the Indian economy, Britain also imposed laws that stripped away the very soul of India, replacing its values with that of Imperial Britain's.
(Caption: It didn’t quite work)
One such law was the “Indian Penal Code”. This law was implemented to mold India into the image of imperial Britain, a goal that the empire would attempt to replicate amongst all groups it colonized. British rule sought to protect their good hearted, pure and pious soldiers from the temptations of the mysterious and immoral “orients” whom they were oppressing. Indian Penal Code 377 made sexual behavior “against the order of nature” illegal. This code was very open to interpretation, but it was used to punish people who would be called gay and/or transgender by today’s western standards, but were referred to as the Hijra, Eunuchs, and many variations on such titles.
“Eunuchs”, whose name had a more specific connotation than commonly held today, and the Hijra were accepted parts of the culture and played important roles in governance and in many ceremonies. However, a hundred years of colonization changed things. As the older generations pass away the familiarity and attachment to some elements of practiced culture dies with them. New generations born under colonial rule and inundated daily with British “values”, lead to changes in the very soul of the nation. The question is, can it go back? Can India return to its roots of acceptance?
To answer that, we’ll have to return to the roots, to hear the story of how the Hijra came to be and what they meant in Indian culture. This will increase our understanding of why they could exist while being gay was still outlawed. But be warned, this won’t be a sanitized story. The idea of Transness that has formed in India over the centuries is very different from the one that has formed in western culture. While it may be uncomfortable to admit, India, like any other nation or culture colonized or otherwise is not perfect. It was not a bastion of purity that was tainted and destroyed solely by the horrors of colonization. Grinding down India’s story into something palatable for a western audience is in of itself a colonial impulse. Just because a cultural element or practice makes one uncomfortable or challenges what one thinks doesn’t mean that culture should not be represented factually or that we should avoid discussing them authentically.
So, without further ado, I ask you to open your mind and throw out your western views of transness as we journey back into India’s past, into the story of a Bandit, a Woman, and a Rooster.
-The Bandit, The Woman and The Rooster-
Bahuchara Mata is a figure in Hindu mythology that is often associated with gender nonconformity. Bahuchara Mata is a Hindu goddess of fertility and chastity, she rides upon a giant rooster that is a symbol of innocence, and she is the patroness of the Hijra. . One day, when the Goddess was traveling in a caravan with her sisters, she was assailed by a dastardly bandit, and the encounter led to her and her sister’s breasts being cut off. The bandit was cursed with impotence for his actions and would only recover from the symptoms of the curse years later by living his life as a woman.
While messy, this story showcases the embracing of bodily transformation that Bahuchara Mata presents, sets the precedent for modern gender-affirming procedures for the Hijra and showcases the non-violent tendencies of Bahuchara Mata that are still held by some Hijra.
This story, however, does not present the Hijra in the best of light. Why were they ever honored if they only existed as punishments, doled out by wronged gods? Well, that’s because there was another story about the Hijra, one about the wronged Prince Rama and the loyal Hijra who stuck by his side.
(Caption: Prince Rama and the Hijra)
Prince Rama was the Prince of Ayodhya, and was exiled from his city despite being well loved by his people. Upon reaching the gates of the city, he realized that his entire kingdom had followed him, so, he turned back and said “Men and Women, please wipe your tears and go away.”. And with that, most of the crowd left, except for a few, the Hijra, who did not quite fit into man or woman. The Hijra would wait for 14 years in the woods for their lord’s return, and when he did return, they were gifted a special place in Hindu history and mythology.
The Hijra are usually people who are assigned male at birth, who take on traditionally feminine clothes and traditions. They are often referred to as women, however, they also take on special roles in Hindu Indian society, being gifted the ability to bless and curse. They often dance to bless births and weddings, and were honored and respected members of courts, similar to Eunuchs. However, times have changed, and so has the place of the Hijra.
-The Dance of the Hijra-
The dance of the Hijra today is on the street, where they twirl and dance to the rhythm of their own bodies in the hopes that someone will throw them some cash out of pity. Some Hijra use their castration as a selling point, or value added to their unacknowledged humanity to get more money. Castrations that doctors refuse to perform must be obtained in dingy alleys in excruciating group procedures that take 40 days or more to recover from, for those that recover at all. The dance of the Hijra is in dimly lit trucks on stopped Indian streets and by train tracks where their lack of acceptance and options forces them into sex work and harms way. The dance of the Hijra belongs in hospital rooms welcoming new life and weddings to the sounds of love and hope. But, they are no longer invited to the celebratory moments that once met them with honor and respect. Time and bigotry has replaced that honor and respect with scorn and disgust.
In modern times, Hijra are often recruited into pyramid-like organizations where they are called “Chelas” and are managed by women called “Gurus”. These “Gurus” are elderly women who often provide shelter to many Hijra a long as they are bringing in money through prostitution or begging. These Gurus report to their Gurus, who take most of the money the Hijra earn and distribute what little is left down to the Gurus below them, who finally give the money to the Chelas. There is no upward mobility in this business. The Hijra benefit only from the Guru’s self-serving protection of their workers. Without this protection there would probably be a lot more dead Hijra.
(Caption: A Guru. Source: The New York Times)
The Hijra once revered, honored, even included in the legends of a people are now pushed to the margins of society. They are hated, forced into prostitution and begging, they are murdered in hate crimes and die without dignity in back-alley castrations. To answer the question that was posed at the start of this article: No, India will not get its “soul” back, but that’s because it never had one.
The narrative that India was once incredibly accepting of trans people has always been a liberal lie. Think about it, the Hijra have no place for trans men, not even in myths. India still has a massive racism issue, with people who have skin too dark being called “Untouchables”, their skin making them sub-human in the eyes of India’s caste system.
India is messy and flawed and not all of its issues were caused by colonizers. It has bigoted policies and it treats its trans population poorly as an independent nation no longer under the rule of anyone. Britain’s policies, brutality and the remnants of it presence played a role in that, but there were already flaws in how India treated trans people before and it benefits no one to overlook that.
Yet In 2021, in spite of pre-existing prejudice, the colonizers legacy of intolerance or even modern day failures to acknowledge them as human, a transgender man opened up a salon in India. An employee of that man would later tell The Guardian Newspaper; “I feel loved and appreciated here, I no longer have to act or hide behind a different identity just to do my job. It’s so liberating. And that’s how society should be too…”
Despite everything they’ve been through and all they go through, the Hijra still dance.
They don’t grovel and beg,