Hijra - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs.

The power of the hijras as a sexually ambiguous category can only be understood in the religious context of Hinduism. In Hindu mythology, ritual, and art, the power of the combined man/woman, or androgyne, is a frequent and significant theme. Bahuchara Mata, the main object of hijra veneration, is specifically associated with transvestism and transgenderism. All hijra households contain a shrine to the goddess that is used in daily prayer. Hijras also identify with Shiva, a central, sexually ambivalent figure in Hinduism, who combines in himself, as do the hijras, both eroticism and asceticism. One of the most popular forms of Shiva is Ardhanarisvara, or half-man/half-woman, which represents Shiva united with his shakti (female creative power). The hijras identify with this form of Shiva and often worship at Shiva temples. The religious meaning of the hijra role is expressed in stories linking hijras with the major figures of the Hindu Great Tradition, such as Arjuna (who lives for a year as a eunuch in the epic, the Mahabharata ), Shiva, Buhuchara Mata (the mother goddess), and Krishna, all of whom are associated with sexual ambivalence.


The central ceremony of hijra life—and the one that defines them as a group—is the emasculation operation in which all or part of the male genitals are removed. This operation is viewed as a rebirth; the new hijra created by it is called a nirvan. For the hijras, emasculation completes the transformation from impotent male to potent hijra. Emasculation links the hijras to both Shiva and the mother goddess and sanctions their performances at births and Weddings, in which they are regarded as vehicles of the goddess's creative power. Bahuchara has a special connection with the hijras as emasculated, impotent men. Hijras believe that any impotent man who resists a call from the goddess to emasculate himself will be born impotent for seven future births. Emasculation increases the identification of the hijras with their goddess, and it is in her name that the operation is ritually performed. A hijra, called a "midwife," performs the operation after receiving sanction from the goddess. The ritual of the surgery and many of the postoperative restrictions involving special diet and seclusion imitate those of a woman who has just given birth. At the end of the forty-day isolation period, the nirvan is dressed as a bride, is taken in procession to a body of water and subsequently to a ritual involving fertility symbolism relating to marriage and childbirth, becomes a hijra, and is then invested with the power of the goddess. In the hijra emasculation ritual, we have a culmination of the paradoxes and contradictions characteristic of Hinduism: impotent, emasculated man, transformed by female generative power into creative ascetics, becomes able to bless others with fertility and fortune.

Art and Performance.

Hijras are performers at points in the life cycle related to reproduction, and thus much of their expressive culture employs fertility symbolism. Hijra performances are burlesques of female behavior. Much of the comedy of their performances derives from the incongruities between their behavior and that of ordinary women, restrained by norms of propriety. Hijras use coarse speech and gestures and make sexual innuendos, teasing the male children present and also making fun of various family members and family relationships. There are some songs and comedic routines that are a traditional part of hijra performances, most notably one in which a hijra acts as a pregnant woman commenting on the difficulties at each state of the pregnancy. In all the performances blessing the newborn male, the hijras inspect the infant's genitals. It is believed that any child born a hermaphrodite will be claimed by the hijras for their own. In addition to traditional elements hijra performances also include popular songs and dances from current favorite films.

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