Historical Aspects of Trans Lives in India

Session Report
Narayani Bhatnagar

On the occasion of the #Pride Month, ‘Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India’ was an initiative organized by The Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, a Five-Day Immersive Online Certificate Training Course from the 19th of June to the 23rd of June, 2023.

On the first day our first speaker, Maya Awasthy, Co-founder of Transgender Welfare Equity and Empowerment Trust (TWEET) Foundation, commenced the discussion by delivering a presentation on the Historical Aspects of Trans Lives in India. 

While presenting the historical context for transgender people, she addressed the air surrounding the origins and identity of transgender people, to understand their goal and desire for gender equality.

The Notion of “Transgender Person Identification”

She highlighted the concept of “transgender person identification”. As our thoughts conjure up images of people begging on the street, railway, train, or bus stop. Whereas, the expression “transgender” is an umbrella term that incorporates several subcategories. Ms Awasthy discussed the NALSA Judgement of 2020, which recognizes an individual’s personal choice of gender selection and confirmation. They might identify as masculine, female, or transgender.

In their recognition and manifestation as transgender, the transgender community has organized themselves along religious lines. Those who identify as “Hijra”, follow the norms and practices of the Hijra culture. As a result, the myth of people being coerced into Hijra culture is shattered. The phrases “Hijra” and Kinnar convey the same thing, and the Supreme Court added a third gender in 2014, under the NALSA Judgement.

Through the lens of religion, the designations “Jogati” and “Jogappa” originate in the south of Maharashtra and the north of Karnataka, respectively. They carry out beggary while carrying the idols of the Gods that they profess, practise, and propagate on their heads. Whatever they receive is used to sustain their livelihoods. 

The NALSA Judgement of 2014, has provided definitions for the following mentioned designations.

Ms. Awasthy took us back to the Mahabharata, or the Great War, as it is known in Indian mythology. She explained how the idea of the Hijra community blessing newborns and their families arose from the uncertainty surrounding the duration of the war when countless lives were lost. 

The Historical Background of Transgender Persons:

India possesses a rich reservoir of culture, religion and mythology. Drawing her roots back to the Mahabharata.

Shikhandi was born to King Drupada in the Kingdom of Panchal. They were born as a girl but was raised as a boy. All the versions of the Mahabharata state that Shikandini was the reincarnation of Amba.

In Ancient Indian mythology, there were many terms such as Tritya Prakrit, Napunsaka, and Kliba, as a reference to transgenders. Jain texts provide detailed reference to transgenders and the concept of ‘psychological sex”. Ram Katha states that transgender persons waited for the return of Lord Ram at the banks of the Sarayu river, for fourteen years.

Ms Awasthy raised how mythology also emphasised the importance of transgender people being considered, trustworthy, strong, and loyal. They were entitled to open areas and sections of the population. They also had a vital role in Mughal Empire politics, for instance they were responsible for guarding the Mughal Harem. 

There are mythological references to transgenders identities across texts. There are Ardhanarishvara and Brihannala. 

Ardhanarishvara is depicted as half-male and half-female, equally split down the middle. It represents the synthesis of the masculine and feminine energies of the universe. Ardhanarishvara is a symbol of Shiva’s omnipresent nature.

Brihannala was the name assumed by Arjuna in the Mahabharata. Arjuna spent one year of his exile as Brihannala at King Virata’s Matsya kingdom. Grace and elegance are synonymous with her name till date.

During the British period, Hijras accepted the protections and benefits provided by some Indian states through the Hijra community. The British Colonial Administration vigorously sought to criminalize the Hijra Community and deny them civil rights. Hijras were considered to be separate castes or tribes in different parts of India by the Colonial Administration.

She stated that the Hijra community’s movement was restricted throughout the Company period, and they were met with discriminatory treatment under the Tribals Act of 1851.

Ms Awasthy concluded her presentation by sharing how transgenders are celebrated in India. Every year, a temple festival of hijras from all over the country gathers in the village of Koovagam in the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu. As a result, transgenders or hijras are often referred to as Aravani. Bahuchara Mata is a Hindu deity. She is regarded as the patroness of the Hijra community. Her principal temple is at Becharaji, Mehsana district, Gujarat, India.

Read more session reports from Day 1 of Beyond Binaries: Understanding Sexual Identities and Queer Rights Issues in India:

Body Normativity and Sexuality

Northeast India: An abode of “Double minorities”

Situational Analysis and Needs Assessment of Lesbians, Bisexuals Women and Transmasculine Community in India

Narayani, is a research intern at IMPRI.



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