Untouchables: The Hijras of India

AT a time when the number of individuals in the West who readily identify with sexual classifications such as ‘homosexual,’ ‘lesbian,’ ‘bisexual,’ ‘hermaphrodite,’ ‘transsexual,’ ‘transgender’ and a constantly-evolving litany of more recent categories is rapidly increasing, almost to the point of becoming a fad, there exists in modern-day India a specific Hindu caste to which such people have long been consigned.

India’s caste system is several thousand years old, emerging at a time when the Ancient Aryan (ārya) invaders swept down into South Asia from the Hindu Kush Mountains around 1,880 BCE onwards and brought with them the prized Sanskrit language which, to this day, is still considered highly sacred by those devotees who have inherited the great religious and philosophical systems of Buddhism and Hinduism.

The caste system that was imported by these Indo-European newcomers is a complex hierarchy which is quite unlike the modern-day class structure that prevails in Western Europe. Its more traditional counterpart, however, enjoys far less fluidity in the sense that it does not allow for the emergence of a nouveau riche and is not centred around contemporary notions of material wealth or the stiff mannerisms of the bourgeoisie, be they inherited or acquired, but is deeply based on Traditional principles. Tradition in this sense, of course, being determined by forms of arcane knowledge – both spiritual and aesthetic – that are more collectively known as the perennial philosophy (philosophia perennis) and therefore related to a primordial chain of initiation, timeless symbolism and metaphysical outlook that are each bound together by a transcendent unity.

The word caste is derived from the word ‘casta,’ which was first used in India by Portuguese travellers in the fifteenth century and relates specifically to India itself. Caste is based on the Hindu idea that men possess differing qualities (and inequalities) that have resulted from their actions in previous existences. It is also a spiritual condition which is, necessarily, both unchangeable and unalterable within one’s own lifetime. It is not, on the other hand, a result of a belief in reincarnation, something which developed much later on.

Much of what we know about caste is derived from the Vedic hymns, which divide society into categories or estates. The actual word used is varna, meaning ‘colours’, and society was divided into four separate classifications: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaisyas (merchants) and Sudras (menial artisans, labourers and servants). There are also strict rules concerning relations between different castes, something that is based on ritual purity and the fact that nobody who is engaged in ‘polluting’ work should come into contact with those who are more ‘pure’. As a result, the lowest castes are referred to as the ‘Untouchables’ and are kept in line by caste-leaders. Needless to say, liberal reformers have tried to impose their modern values on Indian society and frequently interfere with the religious beliefs of its adherents, but this has been resisted. Indeed, whilst capitalists seek to exploit the labour market by attacking what they see as social immobility and thus a barrier to the maximisation of profit, left-wing egalitarians have tried to foment the narrow principles of the class war. In the twenty-first century, therefore, the distinct social units of caste often devolve into political pressure groups.

One of the sub-castes within the spectrum of the ‘Untouchables’ includes the hijras, a group of eunuchs and hermaphrodites. In modern terminology, the hijras – which have no relation to the Islamic notion of hijra (emigration) – are often described as ‘transsexual’ or ‘transgender’ and their ranks consist of men who dress in female apparel. This may seem like a distinctly Western phenomenon, but it is based around the fact that in South India the goddess Renuka is believed to have the power to change one’s sex. Male devotees in female clothing, known as Jogappa, sing and dance at birth ceremonies and weddings. Meanwhile, in line with their indeterminable appearance, a large number of hijras have renounced sexuality altogether. This does not prevent some people from asking whether the hijras, despite inhabiting a special caste of their own, represent what is essentially a debased remnant of traditional Indian society. To find the answer, however, we need to consult the ancient sources.

Compiled between 400 BCE and 200 CE, Vātsyāyana’s famous treatise on sexual behaviour, the Kama Sutra, alludes to a third sex (tritiya prakriti) that is either pseudo-female “with breasts” or more openly male with “moustaches and body hair”. Furthermore, they

give themselves a female appearance and imitate their behaviour, they arrange their hair in female fashion and imitate their way of talking, their prattle, amusements, their dragging gait and manner of being, their flirting, sweetness, futility, their lack of courage, hesitation, silliness, their lack of intelligence and endurance, their fears of drafs [sic] and heat, their shyness and modesty.[1]

The Kama Sutra also tells us that the chief function of those who imitate women is to perform oral sex and “make themselves accessible to libidinous men” for the purposes of orgasm. The more ‘masculine’ hijras, on the other hand, earn their living through other means:

They too practise oral coition, but their sexual desires are dissimulated. Since they look masculine, a man does not immediately reach his goal with them. They practise the profession of masseur, and officially earn their living by massaging limbs. [2]

Bizarrely, perhaps, during this procedure the hijras intentionally massage the upper thigh to cause an erection and yet do not proceed past the testes. The penis may even be handled, and at this point the masseur simply laughs at the fact that his attention has provoked such a reaction. Whether or not the actions of the hijras go on to involve oral sex is up to the client. The Kama Sutra even provides several pages on the manner in which ‘buccal coition’ can take place.

The Traditionalist philosopher, Julius Evola (1898-1974), discusses the nature of homosexuality at some length in his 1969 work The Metaphysics of Sex and concludes that it is as old as time itself and played a very prominent role among the Ancient Greeks. However, whilst he does not mention the hijras directly he does accept that the soul of a woman can appear in the body of a man and that in modern societies the notion of egalitarianism leads to a cultivation of sexual hedonism on account of environmental factors. This does not, of course, explain the existence of the hijras and Evola deals solely with homosexuality and bisexuality as they appear in degenerate Western countries or in their more ‘masculine’-based forms in both Turkey and Japan.

Meanwhile, within Tantra there is a tradition of ritual transgression that allows its practitioners to shatter taboos. This involves immense preparation in readiness for a gradual departure from man’s natural state of pasu-bhava (animal disposition) and towards a purifying quest for penance, meditation, sensory control and the cleansing of the self. To achieve this, it is necessary to partake of the five rituals of madya (wine), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (parched grain) and maithuna (sex). It is the sexual dimension, in particular, which controversially seeks to break the rigours of social conformity by allowing the Tantrika to perform acts that are ordinarily regarded as profane. This is not interpreted as an excuse for hedonistic excess, mark you, but as a milestone on the road to the ultimate transcendence of the human condition.

Returning to the hijras, rather than represent a taboo in the Tantric sense – which, essentially, must involve two individuals of the opposite sex – they are relegated to a position that is completely outside the boundaries of Indian society. They are tolerated, at least to a certain extent, but only because they are seen to have no place within the ancient caste order. Whenever a hijra is born, the child is taken from the parents and becomes part of a wider (non-)caste that goes beyond familial ties. Alternatively, when a hijra dies the community rejoices in accordance with the belief that a troubled soul is now at peace.

It is a sad existence, perhaps, but the sense of belonging and commonality felt by the hijra among his/her own kind denotes a Traditional understanding which, in the modern world, is wholly absent. Whilst the Indian ‘transgender’ finds his place within (or rather without) society – however lowly it may seem – in the more confused societies of the West people themselves are expected to make drastic changes in order to accommodate the hijras who appear among them. Nonetheless, true compassion rests upon the realisation that without hierarchy and structure human societies are prone to collapse. The hijras, like all others, deserve sympathy and respect: but not at our own expense.


  1. Daniélou, Alain; The Complete Kama Sutra (Park Street Press, 1994), p.184.
  2. Ibid.

Further reading:

Agrawal, Anuja; “Gendered Bodies: The Case of the ‘Third Gender’ in India” in Contributions to Indian Sociology 31 (1997).
Ahmed, Mona & Dayanita Singh; Myself Mona Ahmed (Scalo Publishers, 2001).
Bakshi, Sandeep; “A Comparative Analysis of Hijras and Drag Queens: The Subversive Possibilities and Limits of Parading Effeminacy and Negotiating Masculinity” in Stephen Hunt (Ed.), Religions of the East (Ashgate, 2010).
Bishop, Clifford: Sex and Spirit: Ecstasy, Ritual and Taboo (Duncan Baird, 2000).
Bradford, Nicholas J.; “Transgenderism and the Cult of Yellamma: Heat, Sex, and Sickness in South Indian Ritual” in Journal of Anthropological Research 39 (1983).
Connor, Randy P.; Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit (Continuum, 1997).
Daniélou, Alain (Trans.); The Complete Kama Sutra (Park Street Press, 1994).
Daniélou, Alain; Shiva and the Primordial Tradition: From the Tantras to the Science of Dreams (Inner Traditions, 2007).
Dynes, Wayne R.; Asian Homosexuality (Garland Publishing, 1992).
Evola, Julius; The Metaphysics of Sex (Inner Traditions, 1983).
Evola, Julius; Revolt Against the Modern World (Inner Traditions, 1995).
Freeman, James M.; “Transvestites and Prostitutes, 1969-72” in Untouchable: An Indian Life History (Stanford University Press, 1979).
Gannon, Shane Patrick; “Translating the Hijra: The Symbolic Reconstruction of the British Empire in India,” PhD Thesis (University of Alberta, 2009).
Hall, Kira Anne; Hijra/Hijrin: Language and Gender Identity (University of California, 1995).
Islam, Mohammed Rabiul; Social Life of Hijras: A Study from Khulna City of Bangladesh (Lap Lambert Academic Publishing, 2012).
Jaffrey, Zia; The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India (Vintage, 1998).
Jami, Humaira; “Condition and Status of Hijras (Transgender, Transvestites etc.) in Pakistan” in National Institute of Psychology (Quaid-i-Azam University, 2005).
Kugle, Scott A.; Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality & Sacred Power in Islam (University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
Malloy, Ruth Lor; Hijras: Who We Are (Think Asia, 1997).
Mok, Jefferson & Linning, Stephanie; “Hidden World of the Hijras: Inside India’s 4,000 Year-old Transgender Community Where Religious Respect Doesn’t Protect Them from Modern-day Discrimination” in Daily Mail, June 30th, 2015.
Morin, Moc; “India’s ‘Third Gender’ Is Marginalized and Sanctified” in Vice, June 29th, 2015.
Nanda, Serena; Neither Man Nor Woman: The Hijras of India (Wadsworth Publishing, 1998).
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger; Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts (University of Chicago Press, 1980).
Pamment, Claire; “Hijraism Jostling for a Third Space in Pakistani Politics” in The Drama Review 54 (2010).
Patel, Geeta; “Home, Homo, Hybrid: Translating Gender” in A Companion to Postcolonial Studies (Blackwell, 2000).
Reddy, Gayatri; “‘Men Who Would Be Kings: Celibacy, Emasculation and the Re-Production of Hijras in Contemporary Indian Politics” in Social Research 70 (2003).
Reddy, Gayatri; With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Reuters (Delhi); “India to Review Ruling on Law Banning Gay Sex” in the Guardian, Tuesday 2nd February, 2016.
Revathi, A.; The Truth about Me: A Hijra Life Story (Penguin India, 2010).
Sedgwick, Mark; Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2004).
Sharma, Satish Kumar; Hijras: The Labelled Deviants (Gian Publishing House, 1989).
Sinha, Indra; Tantra: The Search for Ecstasy (Hamlyn, 1993).
Talwar, Rajesh; Third Sex And Human Rights (Gyan Publishing House, 1999).
Urban, Hugh B.; “The Remnants of Desire: Sacrificial Violence and Sexual Transgression in the Cult of the Kāpālikas and in the Writings of Georges Bataille” in Religion 25 (1995).
Urban, Hugh B.; The Economics of Ecstasy: Tantra, Secrecy and Power in Colonial Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2001).
Usmani, Basim; “Pakistan to Register ‘Third Sex’ Hijras” in the Guardian, July 18th, 2009.
Walker, Benjamin; Tantrism: Its Secret Principles and Practices (The Aquarian Press, 1982).
Watts, Alan; Nature, Man & Woman (Abacus, 1976).
Young, Serinity; Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative (Routledge, 2004).

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