The strange, sad world of India’s eunuchs

A fire in New Delhi on Sunday killed 13 eunuchs who were participating in a ceremony held every five years. India has a population of 700,000 eunuchs, but outside of disasters like this one, you rarely hear about them. By REBECCA DAVIS.

There were around 5,000 people at the event, held at a fairground in the Nandnagary neighbourhood in east Delhi. The five-yearly meet-up runs for 20 days, with Sunday being the opening day. All the participants were “hijras”, who identify neither as male or female, but as members of a third gender. The group is composed of transvestites, transsexuals, intersex individuals, and castrated men. Hirjas have existed on the Indian subcontinent since ancient times, and tend to live in all-hirja communities. This is as a result of their social marginalisation: the word “hirja” itself is sometimes used as an insult. They eke out meagre incomes from ceremonies, begging and sex work, and are frequently the target of vicious attacks.

Because hirjas are believed to possess the power to curse people, it is considered prudent to give them money when requested. Within the academic field of sociolinguistics, the hirjas are legendary for their command of extraordinarily inventive insults.

As is so often the case, much of the current stigmatising of hirjas can be traced to colonial times. Under British rule in India they were labelled as a “criminal tribe”. In recent years, campaigns have been run to attempt to raise their social status. It is a sign of how under siege the community considers themselves to be, however, that the hirjas gathered after Sunday’s fire reportedly lashed out at journalists who had come to cover the tragedy. The Associated Press reported one hirja as saying “They’re all here just to mock us and make a joke out of us”. DM

Read more:

  • 13 eunuchs killed in fire in India, in TIME.



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