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The Third Gender: A look into “Hijras of India”

Written by Akshara Goel

Associate Editor, Law & Order

Source: Youth ki Awaaz

Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.

Gee Imman Semmelar is an Indian trans man who has shed light on the Indian trans-community of India through his fervent writing. He wrote on the structural exclusions, the institutional violence, the individual assaults on dignity, selfhood, and the struggle for self-determination of trans-people, and the meaning of solidarity in the trans community. Trans people are the least politically organized community due to their lack of resources and the struggle against the caste, class, gender, race, and heterosexist patriarchy. The exclusion of the trans community in society is so intense that they are content with simply being alive (Semmalar, 2014).

The Queer community of India is diverse. Hijras— half a million of the Indian population— have held secretive space for the past 4000 years of Indian History, but they are now on the verge of being forgotten due to the extreme ostracization they face in Indian society.

They hold a contradictory and unique position in India, as they practice their subculture to which they have to adhere. Traditionally, “hijras hold semi-sacred status and are hired to sing, dance, and bless newly married couples or newborns at household parties. They used to earn their living based on the cultural belief that hijras can bless one’s house with prosperity and fertility.” The foundation lays into Hindu mythology where Hijras are idolized but with the coming of British colonizers, their status was demonized. Although presently, in India they are respected as demi goddesses, they are banished by the “majority normal (binary) gender” since they assume that they are victims of bad karma. The exclusion and discrimination they face are quite acute— from police harassments to refusal to examinations and treatment by doctors — which have impacted their employment prospects in society and their everyday lives. This has compelled them to resort to begging or sex work where they face exploitation but unfortunately succumb to their vulnerability since there is a lack of an alternative livelihood (Khaleeli, 2014; MacDonald, 2017; Gettleman, 2018; Goel, 2019). Presently, in India, the word “Hijra” has a negative- connotation. They are dehumanized because their idiosyncratic habits are considered deviating from the norm assigned to the binary individual by the established heteronormative society. Hijras are perceived as the living testimony of biological aberration by the ‘normal’ gender community (MacDonald, 2017). The identity of the Hijras is unlike trans people, who have the freedom to self-identify themselves as trans and live in the loose knitted community wherein there isn’t any adherence to such internal social systems. Hence, Hijras identifies themselves as ‘neither man nor woman’ nor ‘containing elements of both’ or ‘not-man’. In broad terms, Hijras are an individual who is assigned man on birth or are intersex (not all), transgendered women, an impotent man who may or may not undergo the ‘nirvana/liberation' [1] and modifications such as breast implants to go with their social and ritual identity. They dress up in typical women's clothing, have feminine actions and adopt feminine names (Nanda, 1986; Goel, 2019). This reflects the gender fluidity of the Hijra community.

Hijras are an institutionalized community of India that has organized itself into ‘Gharanas.’ Since historical times, these ‘Gharanas’ have been their support system and a place where they have been accepted as the Hijras left their homes to save themselves from domestic and public violence. ‘Gharanas’ provide mutual care through the practice of the guru-chela (mother-daughter) relationship where the young individual hijra is under the shadow of their respective guru (Semmalar, 2014). The community has a defined group structure that has replaced their original family. Living under their guru has become their culture. The Guru must provide their 'Chelas' with safety, shelter, and basic necessities in exchange for money and in some cases recognition. The money collected is saved for future investment such as in need of the fund for a sex change or in event planning or travel (MacDonald, 2017). Despite the funds, hijras aren't well-off enough to undergo safe sex reassignment surgery. The castration practice that occurs under the faith healer who isn’t a medical practitioner has caused some of the hijras post-operative complications and they eventually die. Though some private clinics in Delhi do the surgery when hijras want to seek medical care they are often rejected because the medical ward is bifurcated into binary gender that is either male or female (Goel, 2019).

The explanation this article has entailed for the identity of Hijras is that it is an amalgamation of biological, gendered and sexual identities strengthened by the religion and constrained into a closed social structure (‘gharanas’ as mentioned above). The reason for the tight-knit structure is to differentiate themselves from other transgender and get accepted as Hijra or third gender. The hopeful hijra individual has to go through the lengthy adoption process as per the hijra customs or rituals to get adopted into the community that takes months to years.

In the process of becoming Hijra, it's preferred that the aspiring individual goes for Nirvana to renounce sex and spiritually and physically transform themselves through Tapasya (Austerity). Thus, the emasculation operation symbolizes the rebirth into a representative of God. Nirvana is a culturally defined proof that they don’t experience sexual desire or release like men (Sepie, 2015). The emasculation is carried under the devotion of Bahuchara Mata – one of the mother goddesses worshipped all over India and also the central character of Hijra Culture. Hijras' affiliation with Bahuchara Mata is the source for them to acquire a special place in Indian society, the traditional belief of power to curse or bestow blessings on male infants (Nanda, 1986).

This article discusses the Indian mythological exploration to discern Hijras identification process from where their present status of worship and blessings emerged. Through the historical research method, it aims to explore and comprehend the dichotomous positioning of Hijras in Indian society wherein they are marginalized.

Hindu mythology had made constant references to transgender. It questions the notions of womanhood and manhood. There are stories of men who became women, women who became men or creatures who are neither this nor that but a little bit of both (Pattnaik, 2014).

Ramayana, the Hindu epic is the most commonly told story among the Hijras which they use to justify and perceive themselves as ‘Hijra.’ The story of Ramayana goes like this:

When Lord Rama went to exile his kingdom, people started following him from Ayodhya to the forest, Rama made a statement that all men and women should go away but there was no command for the people who were neither men nor women. Consequently, these people stayed behind at the edge of the forest for 14years until he returned. When he returned, he was impressed by their loyalty. This gave them a special place in Hindu mythology that eventually became an essential evidence of identity for the Hijras. (Gettleman, 2018).

The worship of Hijras in today's scenario is related to their generativity or creation through asceticism. It is performed through the practice of sexual abstinence and ascetic practices which results in the power of Tapas or Tapasya. It is well- demonstrated in the mythological story of Lord Shiva’s self-castration through his extreme form of Tapasya. Shiva had the same aspiration as lord Brahma for the creation. However, the latter had already accomplished the process of creation. This made Shiva feel that his linga or genitalia was useless and thereby, he threw his castrated genitalia on earth. His act resulted in the fertility into the cult of Linga worship which expresses the contradictory theme of creative asceticism. His asceticism into a creation made him Ardhanarisvara - a representation of both man and women in one body. Like Bahuchara Mata, Shiva is also worshipped by Hijras in his God/dress form since hijras physically impersonate Shiva who is self-castrated and is in permanent union with the goddess. Consequently, emasculation or Nirvana undertaken by the Hijra transform their liability into a source of creative power which enables them to confer blessings onto the fertility of others. That’s why emasculation or nirvana is their Dharma which is the chief source of their uniqueness (Nanda, 1986; Sepie, 2015).

Hijras’ other reason to worship Shiva is their identification with Arjuna [2] who just like Shiva is Ardhanarisvara as elaborated in Mahabharata [3]. He is represented as vertically half divided into a male and female figure. Arjuna is described as “eunuch-transvestite” and “hermaphrodite” who adopted the attribute of female in its attire and behaviour also engaged in birth and weddings thereby he legitimized the ritual contexts perform by the hijras (Nanda, 1986; Sepie, 2015).

In the case of Bahuchara Mata, Hijras share a special connection with her since they are impotent men who underwent emasculation. Hijra’s deification and worship of Bahuchara Mata wherein the latter demands of emasculation elucidate the relation between the emasculation and goddesses. This relation brings the devotee into closer identification with the female object of devotion.

Henceforth, Hijras derive their importance currently through Hindu mythology reference and consequently holding the place of blessings and worship that is practiced till today among the Indian community.

Accordingly, intersexuality, impotence, emasculation, and transvestism are all variously part of a Hijra's role. It jointly represents hijra’s inability to reproduce and lack or renunciation of desire. In Hindu mythology, the power of ascetics is emphasised that is the source for the Hijras power. Hijras have recognized this connection and therefore called themselves samyasinins (hermit). They have voluntarily chosen the holy life of beggar and wanderer. This vocation requires renunciation of sexual desires and material possession, duties, the life of householder and family man which they do by abandoning their family, not to have sexual desires as a man does, live on material poverty or the charity of others (Nanda, 1986).

Hijras have refused to stay invisible in Indian society. If the person refuses to pay Hijras for their blessings, hijras expose themselves by lifting their skirt to show what lies underneath.

They do it to turn the tables on discrimination and use the public fascination and discomfort to claim power in a situation through their sexuality where they are disempowered.

It has made them the most vocal manifestation of queerness. They clap in the crowds with the demand to be seen where they are ignored by the mainstream, by their own family or reduced to a joke in the entertainment sector.

They have challenged the boundaries of gender as well as religion wherein they worship Sufi Pir alongside Hindu goddess (Pattnaik, 2014; Goel, 2019). They have understood their “other-worldliness” brings respect from the Indian society and if don’t live up to the ideals of other worldlines being it will damage their respect (Nanda, 1986). Hijras defy their classification in a non-Indian system of representation since they associate their identity as fluid in the sense that they don’t categorize themselves into a eunuch, homosexuals, transvestites, or transgendered communities.

Shahira Shamin, a Bangladeshi Photographer explained in BBC Culture that the term Hijra is “no exact match in the modern western taxonomy of gender”.

She further elucidated that in literature hijras are mislabelled as hermaphrodites, eunuchs, transgender or transsexual women. Though they can fall under the umbrella term transgender, the hijras rather prefer the third gender since they don't want to limit themselves into a particular categorisation represented by the western terminology. They carry their definition for which they want to get recognition (Macdonald, 2017).

Consequently, it reflects that in Indian thoughts, myths and practices there is no particular compartments of gender that pose a challenge to ‘Western’ understanding that emphasis on the polarisation of sex and gender into a binary system of organization by eradicating third or multiple gender roles (Sepie, 2015).

Sharmin advances that the “Hijras are the beautiful integration of femininity and machismo. Their willingness to help and be contributing members of society despite the revolting hate, negligence and discrimination is truly inspiring. How they manage to live a fruitful life in an extremist conservative society … is an important lesson that we all can benefit from” (Macdonald, 2017).

[1] The process of castration where all their genitalia is removed.

[2] Arjuna is the male protagonist of the Indian Epic Mahabharata.

[3] Mahabharata is one of the two epic poems of Ancient India written by Vyasa. It’s an important source of Information on the development of Hinduism between 400 400 BCE and 200 CE and is regarded by Hindus as both a text about dharma (Hindu moral law) and a history (itihasa, literally “that’s what happened”) (Doniger, 2020).


1. Gettleman, J. (2018, February 17). The Peculiar Position Of India’S Third Gender. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/17/style/india-third-gender-hijras-transgender.html

2. Goel, I. (2019, September 26). India’S Third Gender Rises Again. [online] SAPIENS. Available at: https://www.sapiens.org/body/hijra-india-third-gender/

3. Khaleeli, H. (2014, April 16). Hijra: India's Third Gender Claims Its Place In Law. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/apr/16/india-third-gender-claims-place-in-law

4. Macdonald, F. (2017, July 20). The Semi-Sacred ‘Third Gender’ Of South Asia. [online] Bbc.com. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20170720-the-semi-sacred-third-gender-of-south-asia

5. Nanda, S., 1986 (2010, October 2018). The Hijras of India:. Journal of Homosexuality, [online] 11(3-4), pp.35-54. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J082v11n03_03

6. Pattnaik, D. (2014). Shikhandi And Other Queer Tales They Don't Tell You. 1st ed. New Delhi: Zubaan and Penguin Books, pp.12, 105-108.

7. Doniger, W. (2020). Mahabharata | Definition, Story, History, & Facts. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mahabharata

8. Semmalar, G. (2015, February 15). Unpacking Solidarities of the Oppressed: Notes on Trans Struggles in India. WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly, [online] 42(3-4), pp.286-291. Available at: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/572255

9. Sepie, A. (2015, May). Gender Twists: Mythology and Goddess in Hijira Identity. Research gate, [online] pp.1-11. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276205190_Gender_Twists_Mythology_and_Goddess_in_Hijira_Identity

10. BBC News. (2018, November 20). Transgender In India: 'This Is How We Survive'. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/av/business-46031653/transgender-women-in-india-this-is-how-we-survive


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