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The Third Sex in Indian Dance Tradition

The Dilemma of the Hijras:
Despised but Auspicious

Hijras in Wikipedia:

In the culture of South Asia, hijras (or chhakka in Kannada, khusra in Punjabi and kojja in Telugu) are physiological males who have feminine gender identity, women's clothing and other feminine gender roles. . . In South Asia, many hijras live in well-defined, organized, all-hijra communities, led by a guru. These communities have sustained themselves over generations by "adopting" young boys who are rejected by, or flee their family of origin. Many work as sex workers for survival. . . Since the late 20th century, some hijra activists and Western non-government organizations (NGOs) have been lobbying for official recognition of the hijra as a kind of "third sex" or "third gender," as neither man nor woman.

Chay magazine's 2008 article on The Hijras of India:

In India, hijras are viewed as an institutionalized third sex that has always existed. . . Although hijras are mainly associated with Hinduism, they are also accepted within Islam. During Mughal times, kwaja saras, or eunuchs, guarded the ladies of the harem. In her fieldwork among the hijras of Hyderabad, Zia Jaffrey discovered that during the era when Hyderabad was a princely state, hijras were employed as servants in the homes of the nobility. In fact, there was even a case in which two of the Nizam's (ruler's) sons stabbed each other over the love of a beautiful hijra named Rahman. The Nizam also patronized the hijras by giving them land near the royal palace. Another evidence of the connection of hijras with Mughal courts is the fact that two of the most prestigious families among the hijras are called the Badshahwallas and Wazirwallas, which translates as the king's men and the minister's men, respectively. . . Although their role as performers forms the core of their self-definition and the basis of their positive, collective self-image, many hijras also earn their living as homosexual prostitutes, which is essential to the economic maintenance of the community. However, because this behaviour contradicts the idea that hijras are ritual performers who have renounced sexual desire and activity, many Indians do not acknowledge publicly that hijras can be homosexual prostitutes.


  • A group of hijras help the hero court a lady in the 1977 movie Amar Akbar Anthony.
  • Tamanna, a 1997 movie about the life of Tikku, a hijra, who adopts an abandoned baby.
  • Darmiyaan tells Tikku's story from childhood.
  • Bride and Prejudice includes a dance-and-music extravaganza in the local market where the bride-to-be and her friends are shopping. Several dancers, dressed as women but obviously male, appear at 3:37 of the Marriage into Town segment, where they dance, sing and tease the bride ("Who can tell you more about Yin and Yang") to the amusement of her friends and the villagers.
  • The extraordinary Queen Harish, the "One & Only Whirling, Dancing Desert Drag Queen," appeared on India's Got Talent and won over the judges and the audience in Season One and came back and did it again in Season Two. Queen Harish does not call himself a hijra; he is included here to show just how good the dancing can be. Interestingly enough, the older female judge, Kiron Kher, is the same one who played the actress mother of a hijra in the movie Darmiyaan (above).

William Dalrymple, in his travelogue City of Djinns:

Like most things in Delhi, the curious position of the eunuchs in Indian society can be explained by the head-on collision of two very different traditions, one Muslim, one Hindu. . . Hijras (eunuchs) are referred to in the very earliest of Hindu texts, the Vedas. Here castration was seen as a degrading punishment meted out only to the very lowest in society. By the time of the Mahabharata, one thousand years later, the position of eunuchs had improved very little. To be a eunuch was a curse. . . No one was allowed to accept alms from them, no one was allowed to consume food prepared by them, they were excluded from all sacrifices. As a solitary concession, non-Brahmins were permitted to watch them dance.
The position of eunuchs in Islam was always very different. . .Eunuchs were always common in Muslim society and because of their sterility were considered free of the taint of sexuality. They were thus especially suited to guard sacred relics and great sanctuaries... Dedicated courtiers, undistracted by families, they soon rose to powerful positions, first in Mameluk Egypt, then in Ottoman Turkey, but most prominently of all in Mughal India. . . As officials and as singers, dancers and conjurors they were still prominent figures in Safdar Jung's Delhi.
When the Nughal court was disbanded, Muslim Hijras were exposed for the first time to the other, Hindu, tradition of eunuchry. In typical Delhi fashion the two traditions merged, and the hijras became subject to a very Indian compromise.
To give birth to a hermaphrodite is still considered by simple Indians to be one of the most terrible curses that can befall a woman. At the same time the blessing of a hijra is considered to be unusually potent . . . In the streets the hijras are jeered at, sometimes even pelted with rubbish. Yet at a poor family's most crucial and public celebrations, at a marriage or at the birth of a male child, the absence of a hijra would almost invalidate the whole ceremony. The eunuchs themselves have aided the merging of the two traditions. They no longer guard harems; instead, as in the Mahabharata, they dance for a living. They no longer dress like men as they did in the Mughal court; instead they deck themselves in jewelry and cosmetics and wear saris. Nevertheless, they retain many of the characteristics of their courtly forebears. . .
The vast majority of eunuchs, and almost all those I met, were born physically male. In Europe they would probably describe themselves as transsexuals and have a full sex change. But in India the technology for this does not exist. The only choice is between a brutal - and extremely dangerous - village castration, or, for those who can afford it, a course in hormone pills followed by an anaesthetized operation. . .
Vimla, the most feminine-looking of the [Delhi hijras] did not have the money for an operation and voluntarily underwent a village castration. 'I was sure that I did not have a place in either male or female worlds,' she told me. 'I knew it would be very painful and dangerous, but I got cut so that no one would taunt me anymore. After I was cut all my male blood flowed away and with it went my manhood. Before I was neither one thing nor the other. Now I am a hijra. I am not man or woman. I am from a different sex. '
There is even a Central School of Dance for the hijras. Here Prem Hijra, a bad-tempered old eunuch with a bun and beady black eyes, offers courses in dancing... and singing... to new recruits. 'She is very strict,' Vimla once told me. 'But they say that in her youth she was the best dancer in North India.' "
Author: Maura Enright
©2012 by Maura Enright
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