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Hijra (India)

In the culture of the Indian subcontinent a hijra is a physically male or intersex person who is considered a member of “the third sex.” Hijras trace their historical roots to Hinduism where they mirrored androgynous deities, as well as to the royal courts of Islamic rulers.

Other names for Hijras

In the Punjab and much of northern India they are known as khusra or khoti or chakka, while in Tamil Nadu they are called aruvani. All of these names are now considered preferable to the English term, “eunuch”. Hijra usually refer to themselves as female.

Different kinds of hijras

Hijras include people born with a male body, but with a non-male or female gender identity; transgender, transsexual or androgynous people; individuals born with ambiguous genitalia (intersex or hermaphrodites); and individuals who have had castration or genital reassignment surgery performed on them. Hijras say that the genital-severing happens with consent; people who do not like hijras say that the same sometimes happens forcibly.

Hijras and religion

In Hindu contexts, hijras belong to a special caste and are special devotees of the mother goddess Bahuchara Mata. Within Muslim contexts, the hijra third gender is believed to be the result of Allah’s will. All hijras, whether Hindu or Muslim, have been affected by Islamic practices. For example, they bury their dead instead of the normal cremating.

Becoming a hijra

Becoming a hijra is a process of socialisation into a “hijra family” through a relationship characterised as chela “student” to guru “teacher”, leading to a gradual assumption of femininity. Stereotypically each guru lives with at least five chelas; her chelas assume her surname and are considered part of her lineage. Chelas are expected to give their income to their guru, who manages the household. Hijra families are close knit communities, which often have their own houses.

The culmination of this process is a religious ritual that includes castration, an operation currently illegal in India and referred to by hijras as a nirvan, or rebirth. Although not all hijras do so, it is expected that a hijra’s penis and testes will be removed. It is unknown what percentage of hijras are true eunuchs. In modern times, hijras may undergo sex reassignment surgery, but such cases are rare.

Making a living

Few employment opportunities are available to hijras, who must often resort to begging or prostitution (as Hindu temple prostitutes in premodern times). The men who engage in sexual relations with hijras are not considered gay in the Western sense, just as hijras are not gay but instead members of the third gender. In fact, some Hijras find husbands.

They also perform traditional religious ceremonies at marriages and the birth of male babies. Hijra attendance at birth and wedding ceremonies are usually uninvited, involving music, singing, and sexually suggestive dancing. These are intended to bring good luck and fertility. As per societal norms, the host pays the hijras a fee. It is believed in India that the new born baby will be blessed if exposed to the Hijra’s manhood. In recent times, foreign negative attitudes have affected the Hijra’s cultural status. Some now view them with contempt and bribe hijras to shorten their ceremonies. No matter what attitude individuals have toward hijras, most people respect the tradition that hijras have supernatural powers attributed to their castration that, if offended, bring bad luck.

In Islamic societies, they were associated with the ruling class and hired as court eunuchs.


The ancient Kama Sutra mentions the performance of oral sex on male parishioners at Hindu temples by hijras.

During British colonialism, negative attitudes towards hijras were imported from Europe. The British passed laws outlawing their practices. Homosexual depictions in many Hindu temples were effaced. After independence, anti-hijra laws were repealed, but a law outlawing castration, a central part of the hijra community, was left intact, though rarely enforced.

Hijras as servants for the muslim nobility were not unusual until the 1950s.

Many modern Hijras, faced with health concerns and discrimination, have become politically active. For example, they have formed HIV/AIDS awareness groups to combat health problems within their communities. Other Hijras have been elected to high political positions.

Koothandavar festival

Every April, an annual Koothandavar temple festival is celebrated in the village Koovagam in the Ulundurpet taluk in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu, where the temple for the hijras is located. The hijras marry the Lord Vishnu/Krishna and then the next day, mourn his death through ritualistic dances and by breaking their bangles. An annual beauty peageant is also held. Hijras from different places travel to this festival, and a personal subjective experience of the hijras in this festival is shown in the fascinating documentary India’s Ladyboys, by BBC Three.


Commonly the Hijra-rights groups support gay rights issues in the Indian subcontinent, but this is a newly-emerging situation.

In November of 2000, Asha Devi – a hijra – was elected mayor of Gorakhpur, a post reserved for a woman. The city had a population of approximately 500,000 as of 1991. She was unseated when a court decreed that she was a man [1], but was later reinstated.

The term “hijra” in this context is to be distinguished from an Arabic word of the same transliteration. The last consonant in the South Asian term is not pronounced like the English “r” or the Arabic ra or Ray. The Arabic word means “migration”. See Hijra (Islam).

See also

External links


  • Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India by Serena Nanda. Wadsworth Publishing, 1998. (ISBN 0-53450-903-7)
  • Lovemaps, p. 106, by John Money. Irvington Publishers, Inc., 1988. (ISBN 0-87975-456-7)