Identification. Hijras are a social group, part religious cult and part caste, who live mainly in north India. They are culturally defined either as "neither men nor women" or as men who become women by adopting women's dress and behavior. Hijras are devotees of Buhuchara Mata, a version of the Indian mother goddess. Through their identification with the goddess, ratified by an emasculation ritual, hijras are believed to be vehicles of the goddess's power. Although culturally defined as celibate, hijras do engage in widespread prostitution in which their sexual-erotic role is as women with men. Their traditional way of earning a living is by collecting alms, receiving payments for blessing newborn males, and serving at the temple of their goddess. Hijras are generally called eunuchs, and sexual impotence is central to the definition of a hijra and a major criterion for initiation into the group.
Location. Most hijras live in the cities of north India, where they have more opportunities to engage in their traditional occupations. Hijras are also found in rural areas in the north, as well as cities in south India where they work mainly as prostitutes.
Demography. The census of India does not list hijras separately; they are usually counted as men, but upon request they may be counted as women. It is thus impossible to say with certainty how many hijras there are in India. Large cities like Bombay or Delhi may have 5,000 hijras living in twenty or thirty localities; the national estimate may be as high as 50,000.
Linguistic Affiliation. Hijras speak the language of the regions of India in which they were born and lived before joining the community. There is no separate hijra language, although there is a feminized intonation and use of slang that characterizes their talk. Hijras come from all over India and those from south India who move to the north learn Hindi as well as the regional languages.
History and Cultural Relations
The history and cultural relations of the hijras are rooted both in ancient Hinduism, where eunuchs are mentioned in a variety of texts, including the epic Mahabharata, and in Islam, where eunuchs served in the harems of the Mogul rulers. The ritual participation of hijras in life-cycle ceremonies has a clearly Hindu origin, though they may perform for Muslims as well. Many aspects of hijra social organization are taken from Islam, and many of the most important hijra leaders have been and are Muslim. However, hijras differ from traditional Muslim eunuchs, who did not dress as women and were sexually inactive. Nor were Muslim court eunuchs endowed with the powers to bless and to curse that hijras derive from their ambiguous sexuality and connection with the mother goddess. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Hindu and Muslim hijras did not live together, but in contemporary India they often do. Another historical connection of the hijras appears to be with the Magna Mata cults in ancient Greece, whose devotees also dressed in women's clothing and sometimes castrated themselves.
Like every caste in India, hijras are primarily associated with a few traditional occupations, foremost among them being ritualized performances at childbirth and marriage. The hijras' performance consists of dancing and singing, accompanied by a two-sided drum, and the blessing of the child or the married couple in the name of the mother goddess. In return for these blessings the hijras receive badhai, traditional gifts in cash and goods, always including some sweets, cloth, and grains. Hijras also beg in the streets for alms from passersby and from shops; these activities are regulated on a daily rotational basis by the elders of the hijra community. Although prostitution is considered deviant within the hijra community, as it is in India generally, many hijras earn a living from it. Prostitution is carried out within a hijra household, under the supervision of a house manager or "madam," who will collect part or all of the prostitute's earnings in return for shelter, food, a small allowance, and protection from the police and rowdy customers. Although many young hijra prostitutes feel that they are exploited by their "madams," few live or work on their own. Because of their historical role as performers, hijras sometimes dance in nonritual roles, such as at stag parties, for college functions, or in films. A small number of hijras also serve the goddess Bahuchara at her major temple in Gujarat, blessing visitors to the temple and telling them the stories of the goddess in exchange for a few coins. Hijras can also be found as household servants and cooks, and in some cities in India they run public bathhouses. Hijras complain that in contemporary India their opportunity to earn a living by the respectable means of performing at marriages and births has declined, due to smaller families, less elaborate life-cycle ceremonies, and a general decline in the respect for traditional ritual specialists. Hijras have effectively maintained economic predominance, if not total monopoly, over their ritual role. Defined by the larger society as emasculated men, they have clearly seen that it is in their interest to preserve this definition of their role. They do this by making loud and public gestures to denounce the "frauds" and "fakes" who imitate them. They thus reinforce in the public mind their own sole right to their traditional occupations. When hijras find other female impersonators attempting to perform where it is their right to do so, they chase them away, using physical force if necessary. Hijra claims to exclusive entitlement to perform at life-cycle rituals, to collect alms in certain territories, and even to own land communally receive historical support in the edicts of some Indian states that officially granted them these rights.
Hijras have also been successful in controlling their audiences in their own economic interest. Hijras identify with renouncers (sannyasis ) and, like them, hijras have abandoned their family and caste identities in order to join their religious community. Like sannyasis, then, hijras transcend networks of social obligation. They occupy the lowest end of the Indian social hierarchy and, having no ordinary social position to maintain within that hierarchy, hijras are freed from the restraints of ordinary behavior. They know that their shamelessness makes ordinary people reluctant to provoke them or to resist their demands for money and hence they trade on the fear and anxiety people have about them to coerce compliance. A culturally widespread belief in India is that hijras have the power to curse people with sterility and bad fortune, most dramatically by lifting their skirts and exposing their mutilated genitals. The fear and anxiety this belief provokes are sufficient to compel most people to give in to their demands or at least to negotiate with them.
Kinship and Social Organization
Kinship and Descent. The major principle of social organization among the hijras is the relation between gurus (teachers) and their chelas (disciples). This relationship is modeled both on the Hindu joint family and on the relationship of spiritual leader and disciple in Hinduism. The guru or senior person in the relationship is alternately conceived of as a father, a mother, or a husband, while the chela is regarded as a dependent. The guru, like an elder in a family, is expected to take care of the chela's material needs and the chela is expected to show respect and obedience to the guru and give the guru "her" earnings. Through the relationship of guru and chela, the chelas of a guru are like sisters. Every hijra joins the community under the sponsorship of a guru, who is ideally her guru for life. Hijras express the view that a hijra could no more live without a guru than an ordinary person could live without a mother. Gurus also provide the umbrella under which hijras earn a living, as economic territories among hijras all come under the control of a particular guru and are off-limits to the chelas of any other guru without explicit permission. Changing gurus, which involves a small ritual and an escalating fee, is possible, though frowned upon. In addition to the guru-chela relationship, there are other fictive kinship relations of which the guru is the center: a guru's "sisters" are called aunt, and guru's guru is called "grandmother" (mother's mother). A guru passes down her wealth and possessions to one or more of her chelas, usually the senior chela. Gurus and chelas belong to the same "house," a nonlocalized symbolic descent group similar to a clan. The hijra community is divided into approximately seven of these named houses (with some variation according to region). The heads of these houses within a particular city or geographical region form a council of elders, or jamat. This group makes important decisions for the community, is present at the initiation of new members, and resolves whatever disputes arise within the community. Hijra houses are not ranked and there are no meaningful cultural or social distinctions among them, but each house has its own origin story and certain rules of behavior special to itself. When a hijra dies, it is the members of her house who arrange the funeral. In addition to the regional groupings of hijras there is also a loose national organization, which mainly meets on the anniversary of the death of an important hijra guru.
Domestic Unit. The most relevant group in daily life is the hijra household. These are communally organized, and usually contain five to fifteen people, under the direction of a guru or house manager. Hijra households are structured around a core of relatively permanent members, plus visitors or short-term guests, often hijras from another city, who stay for variable periods of time. Every hijra in the household must contribute to its economic well-being by working and in return is given the basic necessities of life and perhaps a few luxuries. Older hijras who are no longer able or do not wish to work outside the house do domestic chores. Members of a household may have different gurus and belong to different houses.
Social Control. The hijra community has developed effective mechanisms of social control over its members, mainly through the near monopoly hijra elders have over the opportunities for work. When a hijra joins the community, she pays a "fee" which gives her the right to earn a living in the particular territory "owned" by her guru. Any hijra who is thrown out of the community by her guru forfeits her right to work as part of the group. Since all hijra performances are arranged by a guru, a hijra without a guru will not be invited to perform, nor can she beg for alms in any place already assigned to another hijra group. A hijra suspended from the community may attempt to form her own work group, but this is difficult as it requires finding an area not claimed by another hijra group. Hijras use both verbal and physical abuse to protect their territories and suspension severely inhibits one's ability to earn. Normally, suspension is the result only of severe misbehavior, such as attacking one's guru. For lesser offenses hijras may be warned, fined, or have their hair cut by the jamat. The most important norm in a hijra household is honesty with respect to property. With so much geographic mobility among hijras it is necessary that individuals be trustworthy. Quarreling and dishonesty are disruptive to a household and ultimately to its economic success. Furthermore, as ritual performers, hijras sometimes enter the houses of their audiences; therefore, maintaining a reputation for honesty is necessary for their profession. Because the hijra household is both an economic and a domestic group, pressures to conform are great. Serious conflicts are inhibited by the geographical mobility permitted within the community. Any hijra who cannot get along in one household can move to another for a while; a person who gets a reputation for quarrelsomeness, however, will be unwelcome at any hijra house. The national network of hijras can work as a blacklist as well as an outlet for diffusing the disruptive effects of conflict.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The power of the hijras as a sexually ambiguous category can only be understood in the religious context of Hinduism. In Hindu mythology, ritual, and art, the power of the combined man/woman, or androgyne, is a frequent and significant theme. Bahuchara Mata, the main object of hijra veneration, is specifically associated with transvestism and transgenderism. All hijra households contain a shrine to the goddess that is used in daily prayer. Hijras also identify with Shiva, a central, sexually ambivalent figure in Hinduism, who combines in himself, as do the hijras, both eroticism and asceticism. One of the most popular forms of Shiva is Ardhanarisvara, or half-man/half-woman, which represents Shiva united with his shakti (female creative power). The hijras identify with this form of Shiva and often worship at Shiva temples. The religious meaning of the hijra role is expressed in stories linking hijras with the major figures of the Hindu Great Tradition, such as Arjuna (who lives for a year as a eunuch in the epic, the Mahabharata ), Shiva, Buhuchara Mata (the mother goddess), and Krishna, all of whom are associated with sexual ambivalence.
Ceremonies. The central ceremony of hijra life—and the one that defines them as a group—is the emasculation operation in which all or part of the male genitals are removed. This operation is viewed as a rebirth; the new hijra created by it is called a nirvan. For the hijras, emasculation completes the transformation from impotent male to potent hijra. Emasculation links the hijras to both Shiva and the mother goddess and sanctions their performances at births and Weddings, in which they are regarded as vehicles of the goddess's creative power. Bahuchara has a special connection with the hijras as emasculated, impotent men. Hijras believe that any impotent man who resists a call from the goddess to emasculate himself will be born impotent for seven future births. Emasculation increases the identification of the hijras with their goddess, and it is in her name that the operation is ritually performed. A hijra, called a "midwife," performs the operation after receiving sanction from the goddess. The ritual of the surgery and many of the postoperative restrictions involving special diet and seclusion imitate those of a woman who has just given birth. At the end of the forty-day isolation period, the nirvan is dressed as a bride, is taken in procession to a body of water and subsequently to a ritual involving fertility symbolism relating to marriage and childbirth, becomes a hijra, and is then invested with the power of the goddess. In the hijra emasculation ritual, we have a culmination of the paradoxes and contradictions characteristic of Hinduism: impotent, emasculated man, transformed by female generative power into creative ascetics, becomes able to bless others with fertility and fortune.
Art and Performance. Hijras are performers at points in the life cycle related to reproduction, and thus much of their expressive culture employs fertility symbolism. Hijra performances are burlesques of female behavior. Much of the comedy of their performances derives from the incongruities between their behavior and that of ordinary women, restrained by norms of propriety. Hijras use coarse speech and gestures and make sexual innuendos, teasing the male children present and also making fun of various family members and family relationships. There are some songs and comedic routines that are a traditional part of hijra performances, most notably one in which a hijra acts as a pregnant woman commenting on the difficulties at each state of the pregnancy. In all the performances blessing the newborn male, the hijras inspect the infant's genitals. It is believed that any child born a hermaphrodite will be claimed by the hijras for their own. In addition to traditional elements hijra performances also include popular songs and dances from current favorite films.
Bradford, Nicholas J. (1983). "Transgenderism and the Cult of Yellamma: Heat, Sex, and Sickness in South Indian Ritual." Journal of Anthropological Research 39:307-322.
Freeman, James M. (1979). "Transvestites and Prostitutes, 1969-72." In Untouchable: An Indian Life History. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Nanda, Serena (1990). Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishers.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1980). Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
"Hijra." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hijra
"Hijra." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hijra
The Muslim calendar dates its years (H = hijrīya; AH = After the Hijra, or Anno Hegirae in W. usage) from the beginning of the lunar year in which the hijra took place.
"Hijra." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/hijra
"Hijra." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/hijra