The Hijras of India

In Social on October 20, 2012 at 10:20 am

The hijras of India are unlike any you might see in any other part of the world.  You might have occasionally come across men dressed as women, wearing garishly bright makeup. They immediately attract attention to themselves for all the wrong reasons and most often win ridicule.

We are really not sure if eunuch, transvestite, gay or transgender is actually the right term for a hijra as their social mores are very unique and are almost above classification by western terms.  One can attempt to know them by their social mores rather than by classification by taxonomy, so here goes:

Who is a hijra?  

Is there no western classification to this transgender from India?  Because of a lack of proper english definition, most research points to hijras associated with a matriarchal, hierarchical clan that encompasses LGBT orientations.  Some relevant points here to help you understand who a hijra really is:

1. There are more than a million hijras in India, the largest presence in any country!

2. Hijras live in clans or all-male hijra communities.  The hierarchical head of such a community is called a guru.  The followers are chelas.  The gurus and chelas live in harmony.

3. In larger cities, like Delhi and Mumbai, hijra communities could coalesce based on language and caste but they are mostly secular in their views on everything.

Indian movies have portrayed hijras effectively in wedding celebrations and blessing of the new born
A popular Tamil movie Paruthiveeran, picturised Aravanis in a kick-ass song sequence. The Hindi movie Kunwara Baap, had hijras welcoming and blessing a new born baby. This timeless and evergreen classic to this day is an all-time favorite of the hijras.

4. Their sharp clapping conveys their presence and orientation quickly to the normal folks. The clap I demonstrate in the audio is simply limp and incorrect.

The hijra’s clap is a distinct horizontal flat palms striking against and perpendicular to each other, with fingers spread, as opposed to the common applause-style, vertical palm & closed fingers strike. I believe this is an extension to their physiological identity. It communicates ‘I am, who I am’.  There is a sense of instant identification of the community they belong to.

Sociologists actually think there are subtle variations in the ‘taal’ of the hijra’s clap that, apart from controlling the attention of ‘normals’ like us, are also used for internal codified messages.

Modern hijras maybe dropping this unique aural identifier to possibly naturalize themselves into the rest of society.  Apart from it being somewhat aurally arresting, the visual beauty of the henna design on their hands gets a resounding slap and abruptly snaps it out of it’s intended accent on their femininity.  This could well be the reason why an activist, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi discourages the continuing use of the hijra clap, as it has come to only signify begging and extortion.  

5. According to Indian surveys, less than 10% of the hijras are castratedhijrabw

6. Castration is a hijra’s ultimate form of liberation.  Either through a legal gender reassignment by a qualified doctor or an illegal unhygienic, and painful excision by another designated hijra spiritual head.  The latter, can often lead to death, but is considered a pure form of nirwaan. Those who have undergone and survived the barbaric excision are accorded greater respect in the hijra community.  Thankfully, contrary to popular myth, only 10% are actually castrated.  Woefully, the deaths due to illegal excisions are not registered.

7. It is believed that because of their unique gender liminality, they have the power to express boon or bane to the recipient.  Often called to celebrate weddings and births of newborns.

8. In a successful employment and empowerment scheme, they accompanied Indian tax collectors in the year 2005 and had a revenue share of 4% of the collections attributable to their skills.  A euphemism for exhortation, if you ask me, both by the hijras and the tax collectors!

9. Unlike their western counterparts, they are neither men nor women and do not attempt to pass as one.  I have a problem with this concept, as they do pick a dominant gender role, when they seek partnership.

10. The Aravanis of Tamil Nadu have also stated that they do not like to be labeled as ‘hijras’ but as transgendered females.  This is cause for some confusion.  Was it due to social stigma associated by the term?

11. Most often, hijras are born male but aspire to be women and yearn for a man’s love.

12. Most of the hijras are poor and are discriminated against.  They are not gainfully employed and will resort to beg or extort for money and are given to sex work.

13. Because of the lack of jobs many hijras are forced to prostitution and have higher rates of prevalence of HIV within their communities.**

14. NGO’s employ hijra activists to ensure that their fundamental human rights are not violated.  Illegal police custodies and lock-ups of hijras are quickly dealt with by the NGOs.  One such promising NGO that has done stellar work with the hijra communities is SANGAMA in Bangalore.



Sangama was set up in 1999 and is funded by the Bill Gates Foundation and the Fund for Global Human Rights among others.  As well as organising protests and rallies, groups like Sangama have been instrumental in establishing community networks with monthly meetings and safe spaces such as drop-in centres for all sexual minority groups.  Two thirds of their spending goes towards fighting against the spread of HIV infection through awareness programmes and condom distribution.  According to Sangama, approximately 18-20 per cent of hijras are HIV positive. “Four years ago,” Rex says, “there were three to four AIDS deaths every month [in Bangalore], now there are three to four deaths every year.”


  1. ‘Men against Rape’ march in Bangalore
  2. Joy and pain as transgender Indians ‘wed’ Hindu god
  3. Men in Sarees: Mumbai’s New Lavani Dancers – Sonia Faleiro, The New Yorker
  4. Parveen Bhanu, Congress party worker and a transgender, Bellary City Corporation
  5. The Most Visible of India’s Invisible Class
  6. Duke University – The Hijras of India
  7. TEDxMumbai – Lakshmi Tripathi
  8. NYTimes – Koovagam, India’s Largest Transgender Festival, Opens
  9. Serving the goddess – William Dalrymple on the Devadasis of India
  10. Neither Man nor Woman, The Hijras of India – Serena Nanda


The New Delhi Gang-Rape and Other Gender Issues
chemcast indianfilms hijra
Wanton Soup for the Indian Rapist Do Indian films promote sexual harrasment? Chemical Castration


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