Eunuchs were frequently employed in Imperial Indian palaces as servants for female royalty, and often attained high-status positions in Indian society. Eunuchs in Imperial palaces were organized in a hierarchy, often with a senior or chief eunuch ("Khwaja Saras") directing junior eunuchs below him. Eunuchs were highly valued for their strength, ability to provide protection for ladies' palaces and trustworthiness, allowing eunuchs to live amongst women with fewer worries. This enabled eunuchs to serve as messengers, watchmen, attendants and guards for palaces. Often, eunuchs also doubled as part of the King's court of advisers.
As a result of the number of high-status job openings available for eunuchs, poor families often converted one of their sons into a eunuch and had him work in the imperial palaces to create a steady source of revenue for the family and ensure a comfortable lifestyle for the son. This practice of castration was banned throughout the Empire in 1668 by Aurangzeb, but continued covertly.
Hijra, a Hindi term traditionally translated into English as eunuch. They usually dress in saris (traditional Indian garb worn by women) and wear heavy make-up. They typically live in the margins of society, face discriminationand earn their living in various ways, e.g., by coming uninvited at weddings, births, new shop openings and other major family events and singing until they are paid or given gifts to go away.The ceremony is supposed to bring good luck and fertility, while the curse of an unappeased hijra is feared by many. Other sources of income for the hijra are begging and prostitution. The begging is accompanied by singing and dancing and the hijras usually get the money easily. Some Indian provincial officials have used the assistance of hijras to collect taxes in the same fashion; they knock on the doors of shopkeepers, while dancing and singing, and embarrass them into paying.
Recently, hijras have started to found organizations to improve their social condition and fight discrimination. There has even been a wave of hijra entering politics and being elected to high political positions. In the epic Mahabaratha of India, Arjuna, one of the 5 heroes who is originally a handsome man, warrior and great archer becomes Brihannala, a eunuch when they spend their last year of exile in the kingdom of Virata. Brihannala/Arjuna lived among the palace women as a teacher of song and dance.
India is the only country where the tradition of eunuchs is prevalent today. There are about 1 million of them, though their role in life has changed drastically from that of royal servants, confidantes and friends. Eunuchs, or hijras as they are called here, have become something to be feared. Nobody wants to be accosted by one of them - be nudged with their elbows, stroked on the cheek, taunted, cursed and flashed.
It's by taking advantage of this discomfort and embarrassment at their existence, that hijras in 21st Century India are making their living. Begging isn't their only source of income. It's an age-old custom in the country to have hijras bless childbirths, weddings, housewarmings and other auspicious occasions. The eunuchs are believed to possess occult powers, and their blessings - and curses - are both considered potent.
The community has a complex network system, which informs them of every happy event in the neighbourhood. No sooner has a baby been born in the family that a tinkle of ankle-bells heralds the arrival of the hijras. They sing and dance and create a commotion outside the house until the mother has allowed them to look at the baby. Once they have blessed the child they demand exorbitant sums of money in lieu of their good wishes. The inspection also carries an ulterior motive. On rare occasions when the baby is born a eunuch, the hijras insist that the baby is given to them. Often, the families will comply to avoid humiliation in society, and the group will take the child away to their ghettoes to raise him as he should be: as one of their own.
What happens in these ghettoes is a mystery few know about. Most people, in fact, have no notion about how hijras come to be. Some believe they are simply born that way - males without the male genitalia - while others will tell you that they are really men who were forcibly castrated in their youth. Both views are true, though natural eunuchs are a very rare occurrence and castration isn't always by force. An `operation' as hijras call it, is cause for huge celebrations in the community. It is performed out of doors, and feasts, song and dance are rituals that attend the event, which is orchestrated by the head of the community known as Gurus.
The houses they lived in were typical Bombay chawls - ancient three to four-storeyed structures with a long, common verandah running down the front of each floor. Hijras were everywhere, leaning over the banisters, walking down the narrow street, chatting, laughing, and combing each other's hair. The appearance of our taxi caused no stir, and encouraged by this, my friend stopped the car and walked a small distance to chat up a hijra.
A couple of hijras walked up to the taxi in which I was sitting and I watched their progress with mounting fear. The presence of a female in their ghetto must anger these people, and I wondered if they would react violently to this intrusion.
"Look, look your man is chatting up another woman," laughed the taller of the two, gesturing with her hand at my friend who was by then deep in conversation with the hijra he had chosen. She urged me to get out of the cab, and informed me she was Sita and her friend was called Aarti. The `woman' my `husband' liked, she said, was Lata. Not only did they have female names, they also spoke of each other as women. The couple invited me into their house, and it was with much trepidation that I began to climb up the dark, dingy staircase with my friend and his woman in tow.
As we made our way along the second-floor verandah, hijras who were lounging about reached forward to shake my hand. I was amazed to note that I caused more of a flutter among them than my male friend. Used to women who ran away at the sight of them, it appeared I was a novelty in these parts and everybody wanted to get closer and touch me.
The feeling that life has shortchanged them often prompts their perverse and obscene behavior in public. "What more do we have to lose?" says Sita. "We are anyway treated worse than an untouchable. If we overdo the kind of behavior that is expected of us, we can twist people's arms and make them pay for our sustenance. It's the least society can do for us."
The freedom this deviant existence affords within the community, however, is not without some restrictions. Their society is strictly hierarchical and a eunuch's life is governed by regulations laid down by his immediate superior. Hijras all over the country are divided into seven `houses'. Each house has a Nayak at its head, below whom come several Gurus. The Gurus in turn rule over the community members and regulate their day-to-day life. While the houses of north India have very rigid systems, the ones in the south are said to be more relaxed in the way the members dress and behave.
The high point of every eunuch's life is the annual festival at Koovagam, a small village 200 miles south of Madras. On Chitrai Purnima, the new year of the Tamil lunar calendar, the sleepy little village becomes a hive of activity as hijras from all over the country converge for a 'ceremony of marriage and subsequent widowhood'.
The scene is adopted from the Mahabharata, one of India's two great epics. During the battle of Kurukshetra, the Pandavas brothers had to sacrifice one warrior to gain a tactical edge over their warring cousins. Their war council selected Aravanan, one of epic hero Arjuna's sons. The boy agreed to die for the holy cause of defeating the wicked Kaurava cousins, but he expressed a wish to marry first. Aravanan's last wish posed a huge problem, for who would knowingly let their daughter marry a man who would die in battle the very next day? To solve the issue, Lord Krishna assumed the form of Mohini, a beautiful woman, and married Aravanan.
The man-woman context appealed to the eunuch community, and for over 500 years, Aravanan has been deified and made central to the eunuch psyche. The hijras see themselves as Mohini, and on the festival day the priest at Aravanan's temple marries them off to the diety. The next day, the priest cuts the mangalsutra, the marriage chain, and the hijras all become widows. After the marriage celebrations and mournings of widowhood are over, the time comes for hijras to mingle and find new mates. A number of competitions take place then, notable among which is the annual beauty contest. In gaudily embroidered saris, elaborate hair styles, make-up and jewellery, the hijras parade down the aisle, showing off their stuff to thunderous applause from the crowds.
In recent years, events such as the hijra beauty contest have begun to receive a lot of public attention, and a group of eunuchs even had the opportunity to model in a professional fashion show, which was well-attended by India's fashion circle and the media. This attempt at bringing them to the forefront of public consciousness was a huge success and the eunuchs who took part couldn't get over the fact that they were sharing the stage with Miss Indias and the country's leading models.
Not quite so much in the media glare, however, are a number of social bodies such as the Hijra Kalyan Sabha and the Dai Welfare Society which are working alongside these eunuchs to give them a proper place in society. "We too want to go to restaurants, visit cinema halls and parks," says Revathi, a hijra activist who was in Calcutta recently at a social meet. "We also want to educate ourselves and improve our prospects. We want to enjoy the privileges of being an Indian, and I believe that in time we will achieve our dream. Hijras have already won elections and entered the field of politics. Movies are being made about us, and people are trying to understand our predicament. In the world's largest democracy...maybe there's hope for us yet."