In the month of April every year, on the night of the full moon, a spectacular and unforgettable event takes place in a small village called Koovagam. It is 200 kms south of Chennai in India. Bands of eunuchs from all over India congregate here, as this is exclusively their festival. They are dressed in their best brocades and silks, with heavy make-up and sparkling jewellery. Hordes of tourists, spectators and photographers jostle and push as they try to capture on camera, the various moods of these laughing, gossiping, clapping people.
The sleepy village comes alive and bustles with noise and activity typical of a South Indian wedding. The bridgegroom is a divinity called Lord Aravan, and for one night, his multiple brides are the ‘he-she’ oddities who flock here for the ceremony. They come in long sinuous queues, each holding a tray with a coconut and a length of plaited flowers. Over the coconut lies a turmeric thread which will bind them in matrimony to Lord Aravan. The temple priest impersonates the god, and with chanting of mantras and circumambulating a sacred fire, he ties the yellow thread – the thali around their necks.
After the wedding ceremony, there is much fun and frolic. Dancing and loud music go on till the wee hours, with drunken men teasing and propositioning the eunuchs. In spite of heavy police security, things sometimes get out of hand, and many of the eunuchs are molested, raped and jeered at.
The next morning, the idol of Lord Aravan is carried through the village, and symbolically killed by breaking it into pieces. A loud and eerie wailing rends the air, as his brides bemoan their widowhood. Symbols of marriage such as green glass bangles and the yellow thali are broken and discarded to show their changed status. They don widow’s weeds of white, and cry for a while. After a dip in the temple tank, the eunuchs are back to business, and the spectators head for home.
Almost every event in India is linked to some ancient legend, and has its origin in religion. The Epics tell us that during the great Mahabharata war when the Pandavas appeared to be losing the battle, it was decided to sacrifice one able bodied warrior, to turn the tide in their favour. There were only three great warriors – Krishna, Arjuna and Aravan. The former two were indispensable. So Aravan had to be sacrificed. His last wish was to be married before he died. But the prospect of immediate widowhood deterred all the eligible girls. So Krishna took on the form of a beautiful maiden called Mohini, and the marriage was solemnized. As Aravan was aware that Mohini was a man, the marriage was not consummated. Instead, they talked till morning. The eunuchs have made this their own festival.
Commonly called Hijras in India, the rituals vary from region to region. They have their own folklore, myths, superstitions and customs. Religious, social and political organizations also differ regionally. They worship a Mother Goddess, who is named differently too.
Their temples have no idol. But in the western wall is a niche in which is placed a mould that looks like a vulva. They call it the Yantra (implement). Along with it are placed replicas of a fowl or a peacock, which are the vehicles of the Mother Goddess.
The popular patron Goddess of the eunuch is called Bahuchara. Once when taken prisoner by a man called Thakurdas, the young girl Bahuchara cut off her breasts and offered them to her captor, to prevent him from violating her virginity. She was later deified and worshipped. She is depicted riding a rooster, with a trident in her hand.
The story goes that there was once a tribal king called Champaner who had no sons. Bahuchara blessed him with a son. But the boy dreamt that the Goddess had asked him to cut off his genitals and dress like a woman. He did it, and was inducted into her service.
Centuries ago, China and Asia Minor were the two regions where men were traditionally castrated. At a Middle Eastern ceremony to celebrate the re-birth of Spring, young boys were castrated and dedicated to Cybele the Goddess of Fertility.
Many fanatical Christian sects emasculated themselves as an act of asceticism. Constantinople was known as the “Eunuchs’ Paradise.” There were a number of patriarchs who had themselves castrated, so that they could dedicate their lives to the service of the church.
In China, the custom began 2000 years ago. Young boys and men forced by poverty presented themselves at the palace gates for castration, before being employed in the Emperor’s service. They became guardians of the Emperor’s Inner Court, and were responsible for the protection of his harem. All other males, officials, military guards or even relatives were expected to leave the palace grounds at night, except for these eunuchs. Many of them wielded tremendous influence as confidantes and messengers of the Emperor. They also became very rich. But in 1911 when the Empire collapsed, and a cultural revolution swept the land, castration of men became a crime.
In Persia and Africa too, principal offices were held by eunuchs. The eunuch Eutropias of Rome exercised so much power over Arcadius the Emperor that he aspired to the high office of Consul. But the Roman public refused to let a eunuch represent them in another country.
The etymological meaning of eunuch is “Bed Chamber Guard.” Eunuchs were popular as body guards and chamberlains in Royal palaces, to protect wives, concubines and
young princesses. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire brought an end to the castrating of males in the West.
In India, Hijras are very visible in most of the big cities in the country, especially Mumbai. There are about 2 million in all. They may be Hindus or Muslims, and congregate in communes called Akhadas. Begging through harassment, extortion and intimidation has become a way of life. They gate crash into wedding celebrations, dance to bawdy songs, and demand hefty fees from the families. Failing to pay up invites abuses, curses and even flashing of genitalia. It is believed that they have demonic powers and their curses always come true Men who see their genitals are said to become impotent.
Similarly, they barge into homes where a child has just been born, and with the child held in one arm, they dance and sing and shower blessings when the fee is adequate. Their blessings are believed to transfer power or shakthi if the child is a girl. If it is a boy, the hijra holding the baby is said to absorb any homosexual tendencies the child may develop in his later years. If a child is born with ambiguous sex, some parents give him away for future membership in the clan.
Most hijras are into prostitution which brings in a pretty income. People give them money out of fear. The North Indian hijras are more aggressive than their counterparts in the South. They embarrass men by running their hands over men’s bodies and flirting with them. The AIDS Control Societies in different states try to teach them about HIV/ AIDS and the need for safe sex. Many now negotiate with customers for the use of condoms. In recent years, NGOs and AIDS Control Societies have contributed to making the Koovagam festival a social and cultural extravaganza. Festivities are spread over two days. The eunuchs use this event as a platform to voice their grievances. They demand that they be classified as women, and allowed to share equal rights and opportunities with other women. They claim that being neither man nor woman, they cannot get a ration card or a passport, and have even been denied voting rights. They are also being harassed by police men, and feel nervous to go out at night.
The NGOs use this time to spread awareness of HIV/AIDS through literature, film shows and personal counselling.
Many of the younger hijras wear trendy clothes, make up and jewellery. So a fashion show is part of the festivities when “Miss Koovagam” is chosen from a line of coy, overdressed contestants. It is an unforgettable sight. Some are young and good looking and can easily pass off as women.
The income generated is pooled, and all expenses of the commune are shared. What is left is divided equally among them. From their style of jewellery and apparel, they do need a full purse.
The communes have a definite hierarchical structure, with a headman or Nayak in command. Admission into the communes is only with the sanction of the Nayak. Between the headman and the new entrant, a mother-daughter relationship is established. The novice has the name of the Nayak as well as his own, tattooed on his arm.
There are two types of eunuchs – the hermaphrodites who believe that if they are not emasculated, they may be born impotent in future re-births. But it is believed that in India, 30% of eunuchs are normal men who have submitted to mutilation. There is another sizeable group of children who are kidnapped for the purpose of homosexuality.
When an impotent man wishes to enter a commune, he must make a formal request to the Nayak. Then a fellow eunuch breathes into his ears, pierces his ear lobes and gives him female clothes to wear. The entrant must take an oath that he will never steal or act as a pimp. He is given a lump of sugar candy to crunch.
During the probationary period he is under strict surveillance. To prove his impotence he is locked in with a prostitute for four nights.
The ritual emasculation is done on an auspicious day. Under Section 320 of the Indian Penal Code, causing grievous hurt to another is punishable. The Gaekwads of Baroda were the first to bring in legislation against such a demoralizing practice. However, self mutilation is not punishable and provides a convenient escape route if caught.
Emasculation is supposed to bring superhuman powers to the individual, and increase his threshold for pain. Mutilation can be of two kinds. Partial – when the penis is retained and the testes and scrotum are removed, or the penis is removed, and the testes and scrotum retained. Complete – is when all external genitalia are hacked off.
Even the auspicious day for mutilation must be selected with care. There are two ways in which this can be done. In one, the entire community of hijras worships Goddess Bahuchara. Then one of the eunuchs breaks a coconut. If the kernel inside is fresh, the time for mutilation is right. Otherwise the operation must be postponed.
In the second method, the novice stands in front of the picture of the Goddess. Between them is a copper pot in which a trident is made to stand. If it remains erect without toppling over, the time is right. Otherwise, the ritual is postponed.
The novice is smeared with scented oil and bathed with perfumed water. Attar, the perfume made from rose petals is usually used. Then he is draped in a beautiful sari, and strings of flowers are woven into his hair. Singing and dancing to the beat of drums and tambourines goes on in the next room.
Four eunuchs lift the novice and place him on a heap of ashes. They firmly restrain him on this seat. A senior eunuch lifts the novice’s sari. In his hand is a bamboo stick split vertically half way. This is applied to the base of the genitalia to act as a tourniquet. Now the singing and dancing reaches a crescendo. A visiting hijra from a neighbouring commune wields a barber’s shaving knife, and with one swift stroke, severs the penis, testicles and scrotum. The blood curdling screams of the poor man are drowned in the general commotion of dance and song.
The bleeding hole is plugged with a compress soaked in hot oil. In some parts of the country, barbers are used for the job of emasculation, because of their skill in using a razor. Now a sweet dish is served to the members of the community.
In China, hot chilli sauce was used as a local anaesthetic. The man sat on a granite blocks, and the operator severed the genitalia with one scoop of a curved knife.
Somewhere under the akhada (commune) five mini graves are dug. The severed genitalia are buried there. The novice is given ten days of bed rest in a supine position. Opium is administered as an analgesic. The wound is washed daily by a herbal concoction made out of Bor (zizyphus jujube) and Habul bark (Acacia Arabica) and clean dressings applied. On the sixth day he is given a bath called the chatee.
The purification ceremony takes place on the fortieth day and is similar to the purification ritual after childbirth. Now he is permitted to draw water from the well. He is also christened with a female name. Once again, a sweet prepared from broken wheat, jaggery (molasses) and ghee (clarified butter) is distributed to the members of the commune. They rejoice that another poor soul has joined the sisterhood.
Though in other countries, the making of eunuchs out of normal men is banned, the eunuch population in India is very visible. This is because of the religious links that give it a semblance of legitimacy. They are worshippers of the Mother Goddess. Village women who have only sons get their noses pierced, and make them wear nose rings, so that the Goddess will mistake them for girls, and leave them alone. Boys are also dressed in girls’ clothing and made to wear necklaces of cowrie shells. The shells resemble the vulva, and are supposed to have magical qualities. Boys are also given female names, so that they may not attract the attention of the Goddess.
It is sad to see hordes of able bodied men roaming the streets and begging shamelessly, or clapping their cupped hands in one’s face, frightening women and teasing men to the extent of flashing their mutilated genitalia. When angry or ignored, they resort to foul and abusive language.
The revolting clap called tali or tapaki or faraka is supposed to mimic the sexual act, and clapping is the subconscious expression of an inner urge.
It is inexcusable that sturdy men with normal intelligence are permitted to indulge in a useless lifestyle in the name of religion. For those who truly wish to be rehabilitated, the combined efforts of an endocrinologist and a speech therapist can change the “eunucoid voice” to match the person’s gender identity, in rhythm, pitch and intonation. And a psychiatrist can change the mindset of a person so that he accepts his identity. The marvels of Microsurgery make it possible for a person to have functional genitalia. There are 2 million eunuchs in India alone. What a colossal waste of manpower!
The Sisterhood of Men may be a good tourist attraction, but it certainly does not justify exhibitionism.
THE SISTERHOOD OF MEN.