'When will we discuss the third gender in our classrooms?'

Published February 23, 2015
Rudrani Chettri. —Photo by author
Rudrani Chettri. —Photo by author

I was chasing a deadline for an assignment which required for me to pitch a topic for a print story to my professor. Each missed deadline meant a -1 mark.

To my relief and amazement, four hours of useless scrolling on the internet finally resulted in story waiting to be told! This, I came across on The Delhi Walla (a favorite website among my class fellows for stories in and around Delhi).

It was about a monument in Mehrauli, South Delhi called Hijron ka Khanqah or a spiritual retreat for eunuchs, something that I had not heard of before.

What most piqued my interest was the fact that it housed the graves of the eunuchs of the 15th century. The very next day, I decided to go and check the place out for myself.

Fifty or so white-washed graves filled a tranquil courtyard — a testament of the grandeur of the eunuchs of the Mughal era. I took my time exploring each one.

Hijron Ka Khanqah. —creative commons
Hijron Ka Khanqah. —creative commons

On my way back home, I couldn’t help but wonder:

If such was the kind of stateliness attached with their image in the Mughal period, what had washed away their dignity over time?

Over the next few days in the daily scheme of things, I forgot all about Hijron ka Khanqah.

Until the day my friend, Rudrani Chettri posted pictures of her transgender friend who was brutally struck by a mob on Facebook.

All the questions I had about this gender minority came flooding back. This time I decided I needed to address them. Kiran (24), a eunuch, who appears to always be delighted and comfortable in her own skin, was happy to help.

Your perception is your reality

Kiran works with the Naz Foundation, an NGO that filed a public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court in September 2001 challenging Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which penalised what it calls ‘unnatural sex’.

Eight years later, in July 2009, the Delhi High Court pronounced Section 377 to exclude ‘consensual’ sex between adults. This proved to be an important step that gave recognition to the LGBT community in India.

Raising her dark eyebrows ever so slightly, Kiran said, “Recognition is one thing and amalgamation into ‘normal’ or ‘mainstream’ society is quite another.”

Her kohl-lined eyes exhibited a quiet confidence.

When eunuchs call for alms on city streets, dance at weddings or outside the house of a new born child, it fails to strike us that their ancestors were once held in high esteem and honour.

They played an important role in the harem – the well-guarded women quarters. The ones who proved to be of exceptional loyalty and efficiency were also rewarded with high positions of state.

“Some historians claim that these jobs were so coveted that parents often actually castrated their sons in order to attain secure employment for their children,” says Kiran.

History is witness to the fact that they had an indispensable presence and importance in the Mughal era.

I wanted to know more about the historical aspects of this issue and hence called up Dr. Shadab Bano, a professor at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University who has written a paper on ‘Eunuchs in Mughal: Royal and Aristocratic Establishment’.

In her paper, she writes,

“The painting depicting scenes of the early years of Akbar’s reign show male forms with mace in their hands, within the zenana (women exclusive) area.

“The figures are stout, dark-skinned without beards, which in all likelihood were those representing eunuchs; these have been a distinct type compared to figures of other male attendants made in the Mughal paintings.”

It was noted that their slave status and physical form came in way of gaining wider social respectability at that time as well. But, their reasons of gradually becoming a social outcast still remained blurred.

Some historians claim that pertaining to close proximity between women and eunuchs; they were gradually withdrawn from the interiors of the harem of Akbar’s court.

To know more I next went to Dr Sunita Zaidi, a professor at the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia.

She explains, “It seems to me that the only reason for this loss of respect is the decline of the Mughal Empire.

“With the passage of time, when women started coming out of their harems, the position of the eunuchs declined simultaneously. They became commoners and lost their jobs.”

Also read: Dancing with shackles

Interestingly, eunuchs used to teach the code of conduct to princesses. Some, like F. Bernier who was a French traveler, were not impressed by eunuchs training the royal princess.

Still not convinced about finding exactly what it was that led to such a drastic change in the perception towards eunuchs, I started searching for some sources online.

I came across ‘Malika's Indian Transgender Blog’. In her blog, Malika, a transgender herself, writes that before the British rule, eunuchs lived fairly secure lives working as domestic ‘girls’. The coming of the British to India saw the downfall of the eunuch community.

According to Malika, the British largely viewed them as freaks to be shunned.

Many traditional eunuchs’ social roles were eliminated by homophobic British colonials, unable to visualise the deeper meaning of the eunuch traditions.

Many Indians themselves then came to view eunuchs as ‘perverted’ street people, by buying into the ‘modern’ British colonial attitudes towards this gender minority.

“So, this was the reason of their downfall!” I exclaimed to myself.

Also read: The changing world of eunuchs, call girls and pickpockets

Interviews and timelines from my research began to create links between the past and present of it. However, this also made me realise that the future for this gender would remain bleak.

A quest for dignity

To get a better sense of what lay ahead, I had a word with Rudrani Chettri (35), a Delhi University literature graduate, about the existing treatment of eunuchs.

Upon talking to her I was pleasantly surprised. She, a ‘chela’ (follower) of Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, the president of Asia Pacific Transgender Network, refuses to give up on this issue.

Currently working with Mitr Trust, a Delhi based NGO founded in 2005 to tackle the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, especially among transgenders and eunuchs; she believes that strong ‘action’ needs to be taken to address the stigmatisation of eunuchs.

“There is no solution except mainstreaming everything.

“Whenever I go to a hospital, the doctor is confused too as no medical syllabus teaches them how to treat hijras and what their problems are.

“I am working towards and waiting for a day when a teacher will speak about the third gender in Biology class. And, why not?” she said.

Perhaps that is how everyone will begin to treat transgenders as natural as male or female, and perhaps, that is the only way to do it.

“Sometimes when you are cleaning the floor and something is left behind you put it under a carpet.

“Don’t hide us under the carpet, we’re not dirt!” she asserts, as she narrates an incident about her female friend who gave birth to a baby.

When Rudrani called to ask if it was a boy or a girl. Her friend replied,

“The baby hasn’t yet decided!”




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