Eunuchs in India - Highlights
• There are an estimated one million eunuchs in India today
• "Nirvana" ceremony features male genitals chopped off by quacks in cold blood without anesthesia
• Eunuchs in India have their origin rooted in the Ramayana where Rama is supposed have bestowed them with "special powers" to confer blessings on people and on Aravan who married Lord Krishna disguised as Mohini
• Most of the Eunuchs in India have their male organs castrated in very primitive fashion
• Sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) which can be done more cosmetically has never picked up with these people as there are some myths associated with the procedure
• All the eunuchs interviewed said they dreaded the policemen because of the harassment
• Eunuchs usually indulge in begging or prostitution
• Eunuchs are a high-risk group for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases
AdvertisementEunuchs—Children of a Lesser God
Eunuchs or castrated males, or "women trapped in male bodies" as they prefer to identify themselves, constantly defy definitions of accepted male and female appearance and behavior. Congenital defect in male genetalia, quirky hormones, confused adolescent behavior aggravated by an unkind society or even a combination of all these, sealed their fate—a eunuch is neither he nor she. They are seen as total misfits in a society that understands and accepts only two genders—the male and the female.
Eunuch tradition in India
Gaudily made up faces with layers rouge, lipstick and kajal, bedecked in colorful saris in an exaggerated, most often grotesque display of womanhood, eunuchs stand out by their loud behavior in public places. They dance, sing in raucous male voices doing a typical clap with palms meeting crossways, harassing shopkeepers and the general public for money and if refused, shout curses and lift their clothes and flash castrated genital areas right in people's horrified faces. There are an estimated one million eunuchs in India today. The aggressive behavior is more prevalent in North India—in market places, in trains and buses and in auspicious occasions like childbirth, marriage and house-warming, following an age-old custom that believes eunuchs have occult powers that make their blessings and curses potent.
The Changing Face of Eunuchs: Medindia Interviews...
Medindia reporters mingled with over a hundred eunuchs—hijras from North India and aravanis from the South who had converged at a daylong NGO seminar, organized to streamline the ragged existence of this much- maligned group struggling to find a space in society. The interviews revealed some heart-wrenching tales of confusion, betrayal and loss of identify as well as startling facts about the ghastly "Nirvana" ceremony where male genitals are chopped off by quacks in cold blood without anesthesia.
The Eunuch Puzzle: Why? How?
How they happen to be eunuchs is a mystery to most people. Fact is, some are born that way—males, without or with partial male genitals. Others opt for castration in their youth because of overwhelming feminine feelings. All the 87 members of the transgender community quizzed on the origin of their status had one or the other of the following sordid experiences.
Cross-dressing and a singularly feminine body language due to adolescent behavioral confusion, subject certain boys to ridicule and scorn among peers and unsympathetic elders. In the absence of counseling, such boys are beaten into submission by misguided parents and elders to force them to behave like boys. Jeeva a 35-year-old transgender said she ran away from home when she was a 16-year- old boy because her parents arranged her marriage with a 14-year-old girl hoping it would help her regain her male consciousness.
Local bullies convince the young lads they are women and sodomize them regularly. Unable to bear this medley of confusion and torture at home, school and the society, the boys run away to nearby metros in search of fellowship or simply someone to understand their traumatic existence. They are spotted by eunuch communities that are ostracized by society but are close-knit and have a remarkable network. The newcomer is fed well, taught to beg, fiercely guarded and "prepared" for the Nirvana ceremony or the castration process that will change him to become the adopted daughter of the group. Sakthi Devi who was earlier named Sekhar is a eunuch with a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering (DME) and works with an NGO encouraging fellow eunuchs to give up begging and prostitution and lead a dignified life. She described with absolute nonchalance the chilling details of the horrifying event that changed her gender.
Nirvana or Castration
It is the crudest of primitive practices still very much in vogue in India. Four years after being with the eunuch group Sekhar expressed his desire to become a woman. He was kept in isolation for some days, fed well along with a liberal supply of arrack (cheap alcohol) that kept him dazed and intoxicated (earlier it was a diet of milk and opium). On an auspicious day, the Gurubai or Thayamma, the group leader and other aravanis took him to a dark, clandestine place and tied him to a sort of pillar. A rope was tied tightly round his testicles to prevent excessive bleeding. As the eunuchs made a loud cacophony of sounds to drown Sekhar's screams, the Gurubai severed Sekhar's penis and testicles with a sharp knife sans anesthesia.
The wound was left to bleed for a few hours, which meant that manhood drained, and womanhood set in. A wooden plug was pushed into the hole leaving an opening for the passage of urine. Hot oil was poured over the area and herbs such as omum (thyme), garlic and turmeric paste were rubbed on the wound so it would heal faster.
Mallika, 38, a flower-seller now and formerly a commercial sex worker (CSW) was taken by a eunuch group to a quack in Dindigul to be castrated. She said, when she was a boy, her "thing" never grew after the tenth year or so and she ran away from the house because her parents couldn't figure it out and beat her to "behave like a boy." According to her CSW friends, in some Hijra communities in North India, after castration the boy is made to sit on a grinding stone and pushed down until he bleeds from the anus. The initiation process is considered complete only then and the blood taken to mean the first menstruation. Soon after, the eunuch becomes a full member of the community, is clothed and fed in a loving environment to bolster a sense of security and well-being.
Mallika confided that the clandestine castration and the subsequent sex work have taken a toll on her health. She cannot stand erect for long, her knees buckle often, she has excruciating back pain and urinary incontinence.She also said that with prostitution becoming a lucrative business, pimps, criminal gangs and sometimes, even eunuch groups befriend very young, homeless, poor boys, have them castrated by quacks abounding in areas like Dindigul, Pazhavarsolai, and Cuddapah in South India and in Mumbai, Bihar and other places in the North and sold as sex slaves to brothels.
Gender Identity Disorder
In medical parlance transsexualism is treated as "gender identity disorder." After the initial counseling, doctors usually resort to a sexual reassignment surgery (SRS), which involves hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and surgical reconstruction and sometimes includes electrolysis and speech therapy. Surgical reconstruction may include the removal of male sex organs and the construction of female ones. Until recently, government hospitals and qualified private practitioners did not usually perform SRS and so, many hijras went to quacks, ignoring serious health risks. S.Noorie 42, formerly S.Noor Mohammed, said her people do not go to hospitals even now, because the doctors counsel them against an operation and even when an SRS is performed in hospitals, it left the urine passage open, exposed and was "uncomfortable", "protruding" and "ugly."
According to the eunuchs in India their origin is rooted in the Ramayana where Rama is supposed have bestowed them with "special powers" to confer blessings on people. The Aravanis also consider Aravan in the Mahabharata their progenitor. Aravan, the warrior son of Arjuna was to be sacrificed to goddess Kali for the Pandava's success in war and desired to be married before he died. Lord Krishna assumed the form of the beautiful Mohini and became Aravan's bride for a night. At the annual Koovagam festival in a small village in TamilNadu, transsexuals from all over India re-enact with great fanfare, Mohini's marriage to Aravan and her subsequent widowhood.
The hierarchy of prostitution has eunuchs at the lowest end. They provide sexual services for men who cannot afford real women and also cater to men who like transsexuals. They have no bargaining power to demand safe sexual practices from their customers. They are violently handled by both their customers and the police. The recent fights in Madhya Pradesh between real eunuchs and fake eunuchs, who cross dress to beg on the streets, resulted in the murder of a eunuch named Rambai by three fake eunuchs in Jabalpur in broad daylight.
All the eunuchs interviewed said they dreaded the policemen most of all because the police hounded them, picked them off the streets and forced them into inhuman sexual acts while in police lock-up. Under the pretext of determining their sexual identity, police strip the eunuchs and probe their private parts with sticks. Some eunuchs said the policemen raped them if they did not pay a bribe to be released from detention.
Eunuchs are a high-risk group for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases (STD). Government and NGO groups are now encouraging the group to come out of their "closed community" and benefit from health intervention. Health awareness camps as well as skill-development schemes to promote self-employment for the eunuchs are organized in order to help them streamline their lives.
Young boys suffering from a sexual identity crisis and physical deformities long for their family's affection and support. The need of the hour is counseling for such boys and their parents to stop the confused boys from fleeing their homes and joining the prevalent eunuch tradition in India.
Deriving their name from the Greek "keeper of the bed," the eunuchs of the past rose to great positions of power in the world of diplomacy, sometimes even as trusted confidantes of kings and harem guards, owing to the fact they could not interfere with a dynasty's lineage. Eunuchs today are a much-maligned shrinking group, engaged in an existential struggle for rights in a society that doesn't even have a legal framework to deal with them.
The members of the transgender community that Medindia met are determined to change their unhealthy lifestyle and lewd behavior and work towards joining the mainstream of society.
However, eunuchs are a constant reminder that society has to evolve a system to deal sympathetically with those outside the loop of what it considers "normally acceptable."