Travelers visiting the country should know to be respectful, especially in terminology.
In a previous article, we took a close look at the kathoey— Thailand’s famous “ladyboys”—and their culture. While there are many countries that are at least somewhat accepting of transgender people and LGBTQ culture as a whole, there are many others that maintain more conservative attitudes. Even in the United States, the push for LGBTQ rights and recognition has only gained serious traction in the last decade. But there are few communities whose stories are as interesting—or as revealing—as India’s hijra community. For most of India’s several millennia long history, hijra people were not only accepted but revered, sometimes even being worshipped as bringers of luck and fertility. But with the colonization of the Indian Subcontinent by the British in the 18th and 19th century, Western mores were imposed on the country. Hijra became ostracized and feared by the masses, and unfortunately today most hijra live on the edges of mainstream society.
Like Thailand’s Kathoey, hijra people are typically transgender, though intersex people, eunuchs, and gay men who are thrown out of their families are also welcomed into the fold. Hijra culture is deeply steeped in the Hindu religion. Historically they were seen as agents of the goddess Bahuchara Mata, a goddess of both chastity and fertility. Like a mother she would watch over her worshippers, blessing them with health and fortune. But she would curse those who offended her with impotence.
In order to be forgiven, one would need to castrate himself and dress in women’s clothing, thereby shedding his masculinity. It was widely believed that hijra could bless and curse others in much the same way. As a result they were treated with reverence and respect, and even managed to maintain their standing after Islam reached India. It was not until the British took over India that hijra became ostracized. The British saw them as depraved, and even today many fear hijra people for their perceived supernatural abilities.
Hijra typically live in secretive communities made up of those who have been cast out of their families and live in poverty. They are tight knit families, led by a guru—an elder who supports and teaches her spiritual children. On paper, Hijra people make their living from the rituals they perform to bless newborns; many also gain money from almsgiving. What they make goes to the guru, who uses the money to support the family. Each family has its own territory, and it is deeply frowned upon for one group to infringe on another’s turf.
Part of the reason that these groups of hijra are so adamant on maintaining their own territory is because of the myriad difficulties they face. As previously stated, many hijra are forced to join new families due to being cast out of their old ones. But that is just one of many issues facing the hijra community. Due to widespread discrimination large numbers of them are forced into prostitution. Physical violence against hijra people is common, even by law enforcement. HIV also runs rampant among the community, and doctors are often loath to treat hijra people due to the country’s widely held stigma. Even the ritual castration that many potential hijra go through in order to join the community is fraught with peril, with many dying of infection or botched castrations.
Hijra people tend to live in the northern half of India, particularly in larger cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. Travelers visiting the country should know to be respectful, especially in terminology. While frequently used by academics and outsiders (and it is for this reason this article uses the term) the word “hijra” is often considered a slur; they themselves prefer the term “kinnar.” There is no set place where hijra culture is celebrated, as there are with Kathoey culture in Thailand. However, the Bahuchar Mata Temple in Becharaji, Gujarat is considered the central hub of hijra society. Should you encounter a hijra person, do not be afraid to give what you can; every little bit helps.
If one thing becomes apparent when learning about LGBTQ communities worldwide, it is that LGBTQ people are not anomalies, nor is the rising tide of support for their cause a fad. Throughout human history they have lived just as any other group of people, and they have had a rich cultural lineage and history all their own. Above all else the lives and struggles of these communities are a testament to who they are, as well as the diversity of the seven billion others we share our world with. When traveling, don’t forget to lend these people your ear— after all, learning is the first step to understanding.