The Hijras are an institutionalized third gender in India. They live mainly in Northern India, with the major Hijra temple located in Gujarat, near Ahmedabad (Nanda 1990:xxii). Hijras are biological men who renounce sexuality and dress and act like women. Some Hijras are born hermaphrodites, or with ambiguous genitalia (Nanda 1990:5), but most Hijras are impotent or infertile men who undergo a sacrificial emasculation procedure called the nirvan operation, which involves the removal of male genitalia (Reddy 2005:56). This ritual emasculation is said to give them the power to bestow fertility to newlyweds and prosperity to newborn children (Reddy 2005:2). The traditional work of a Hijra is to perform at the birth of a child, at weddings, and at temple festivals; a group of Hijras will dance, sing, and bestow blessings in an exaggerated parody of female behavior, for which they receive payment (Nanda 1990:3, Reddy 2005:84).
Hijras practice a pluralistic form of religion: identity formation is related to Hinduism, but many Hijras also identify as Muslim (Reddy 2005:99). Hijras, being neither male nor female, are able to blur gender boundaries within Muslim traditions (Reddy 2005:102). They will sometimes embark on the Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Karbala or Mecca or Medina, but unlike Muslim women, they do not need to be accompanied by a male relative (Reddy 2005:103). Muslim Hijras will wear a burqa when not performing (Reddy 2005:104), but are also permitted to wear male clothing upon returning from their pilgrimage (Reddy 2005:105). [see Reddy, 2005 for more information on Muslim Hijras]
Hindu Hijras trace their origins back to the time of the Ramayana (Reddy 2005:9). A common myth that Hijras tell regarding their history is that when Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, was exiled from Ayodhya, the entire city followed him to the edge of town to say goodbye. Everyone was in tears when they reached the banks of a river, and Rama asked all the men and women to stop crying for him and to go back to their homes. The Hijras, who are not men and not women, waited for fourteen years on the banks of the river. Upon his return, Rama was so moved by their extreme devotion that he gave them a blessing: he told them they would be kings in the kali yuga (Reddy 2003:189). [A yuga refers to a cosmic period in Hindu Cosmology (Reddy 2003:189)] . It is interesting to note that we are currently in the kali yuga, and that Hijras are entering the political sphere in India (Reddy 2003:164) as somewhat ideal candidates for leadership due to their celibacy and lack of kinship ties (Reddy 2003:182).
Within the Hindu pantheon, Hijras identify primarily with the god Siva (particularly in his ardhanarisvara state, when he is portrayed as half man, half woman), Arjuna, a hero from the Mahabharata epic and incarnation of Visnu, and the goddess Bahuchara Mata (Nanda 2003:195, Reddy 2005:81). In one Hindu creation myth, Siva was appointed to create the world but he took so long that the job was given to another god, Brahma (the Creator). When Siva was finally ready to begin creating the world, he saw that it was already done, and was so angry that he broke off his phallus and threw it into the earth (Nanda 2003:195). Hijras, like Siva, bury their severed penises in the ground, which they believe gives them the power of creation (Reddy 2005:97). By giving up individual fertility, they acquire universal creative power (Reddy 2005:97). Another clear identification for the Hijras is with Arjuna from the Mahabharata epic (Nanda 2003:195, Reddy 2005:81). During the epic Arjuna spends a year in the court of king Virata disguised as a eunuch named Brhannala, dressing like a woman and teaching dance to the women of the court (Nanda 2003:195, Reddy 2005:81). However, worship of Bahuchara Mata (a version of the mother goddess particularly associated with transgendierism and transvestism) is the most important for Hijras. Each Hijra household has a shrine to her and it is in her name that Hijras bestow their blessings of fertility and prosperity (Nanda 1990:24). [See Nanda, 1990, for myths attesting to Bahuchara’s special connection to Hijras]
Hijras engage in two kinds of occupations: badhai work, (singing and dancing at marriages and births) which is seen as a respectful occupation, and kandra work (sex work), a practice which is criticized by senior Hijras but is still the main source of income for roughly half the Hijra population (Reddy2005:15,80). Some Hijras will even take on regular clients as ‘husbands’ (Reddy 2003:165). Reddy suggests that due to their association with sex work and their ambiguous gender identification, Hijras are generally viewed as outside of the social order (Reddy 2003:166). They are seen as besarm (without shame), and people are often afraid to interact with them (Reddy 2003:166). Hijras have the power to bless but they also have the power to curse; if they are not adequately compensated for their services they will threaten to expose their mutilated genitals, a sight which is believed to cause impotence (Nanda 1990:7). For this reason Hijras are socially marginalized, but they are also feared (Nanda 1990:8). Badhai refers to the payments Hijras receive for their services, usually in the form of flour, cane sugar, sweets, cloth, saris or money (Nanda 1990:3). At the birth of male children Hijras will dance, entertain, and bless the child with fertility, prosperity, and long life. They will also examine the genitals of baby boys; if they are ambiguous they will sometimes try to claim the child as one of their own (Nanda 1990:2-5). Hijras will also perform at marriages; the social class of the bride and groom determines how elaborate the performance will be. They will bless the newlywed couple with fertility in the name of the mother goddess (Nanda 1990:5).
In the Hindu tradition chastity and renunciation of sexual activity gives one tapas (inner heat) which is associated with creation (Reddy 2005:96). For men in particular, abstinence or semen-retention is seen as a way to generate tapas (Reddy 2003:175). A Hijra is seen as a kind of sannyasin (renouncer) who has transformed their sexual impotence into procreative power (Nanda 2003: 195). Hijra men are said to receive a call from the Goddess Bahuchara Mata to serve her: those who deny her risk seven cycles of impotent rebirths (Nanda 2003:195). The nirvan operation is a form of rebirth in many ways; and the post-operation rituals mirror post-childbirth rituals (Nanda 2003:195). Only after the nirvan operation are Hijras truly believed to be able to channel the power of Bahuchara Mata (Nanda 2003:195). Although the operation is currently illegal in India, it is still practiced. The operation is a way of gaining respect within Hijra communities (Reddy 2005:93). Sex work is seen as contradictory to the ascetic ideal of sexual renunciation (Nanda 1990:12). The view among Hijras is that the ‘real’ Hijras are the ones who renounce sexuality completely and undergo the nirvan operation as proof of their legitimacy (Reddy 2003:175).
The gender neutrality of the Hijras has captured the imaginations of gender studies scholars worldwide (Reddy 2003:164). They are also beginning to enter the political sphere. They have become increasingly visible worldwide. Many Hijras see this as a fulfillment of Rama’s diving prophecy, and believe this to be the beginning of a new era. [I have included some links to current events articles regarding Hijras and politics, see below]
Nanda, Serena (1990) Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company
Nanda, Serena (1985) “The Hijras of India: Cultural and Individual Dimensions of an Institutionalized Third Gender Role” in Richard Parker and Peter Aggleton eds. Culture, Society, and Sexuality: A Reader, p 237-250. New York: Routledge
Nanda, Serena (2003) “Hijra and Sadhin: Neither Man nor Woman in India” in Constructing Sexualities: Readings in Sexuality, Gender and Culture. Suzanna LaFont (ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. pp. 192-201
Reddy, Gayatri (2005) With Respect to sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India. London: University of Chicago Press
Reddy Gayatri (2003)”Men Who Would Be Kings: Celibacy, Emasculation and the Re-Production of Hijras in Contemporary Indian Politics” in Social Research, vol 70 (1), p p163-200
Lal, Vinay (1999) “Not This, Not That: The Hijras of India and the Cultural Politics of Sexuality” in Social Text, No. 61, p119-140: Duke University Press.
Cohen, Lawrence (1995) “The Pleasures of Castration: The Postoperative Status of Hijras,
Jankhas, and Academics” in Paul R. Abrahamson and Steven D. Pinkerton eds. Sexual Nature/Sexual Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Reddy Gayatri (2006) “Bonds of Love: The Desire for Companionate Marriages Among Hijras of India” in Hirsch, J and H. Wardlow eds. Modern Love: Companionate Marriage and the Politics of Love, University of Michigan Press
Related Research Topics
Photos of Hijras
Written by Molly Matheson (April 2013), who is solely responsible for its content.