September 14, 2018

Hyperbole and Horror: Hijras and the British Imperial State in India


Gurmah, Khunsa, or Hijra, reputed hermaphrodite, Eastern Bengal. © British Library Board (Photo 124 (38))


Deeply-ingrained prejudice in the service of the state.


By Dr. Onni Gust / 01.06.2014
Lecturer in History
University of Nottingham


Nineteenth-century British travel writers and colonial officials rarely passed on the opportunity to prefix some derogatory hyperbole to the word ‘eunuch.’  Frequently they offered extensive defamation, referring to eunuchs as “the vilest and most polluted beings” and commenting on the “revolting” practices that they imagined, but could rarely prove, eunuchs carried out.  Mrs Postan, who published Cutch, Or Random Sketches in 1838, was no different.  Her access to the wives of Prince Rao Deshalji II, the Rao of Cutch was demarcated by the presence of two guards, “the most hideous eunuchs, who sit cross-legged in a sort of basket chair place on each side of the portal.”

The ‘eunuchs’ to which Mrs Postan referred are often also called hijra, a name that defines them as a traditional community of people usually assigned male at birth who may or may not undergo castration and live as women or as a third gender. The hijra are distinct from the more modern, Western understanding of transsexual women.  Their identities and status, changeable across time, have a considerably longer heritage, which is grounded in religious practice and spiritual belief.  Hijras often live as part of a hierarchical kinship structure and today frequently earn money through sex work or begging, threatening the families of newly-weds with the curse of infertility if they don’t pay up.  As Mrs Postan discovered, prior to British dominance in India, hijras were often employed as guardians of the “virtue” of the harem, held ritualistic status as bestowers of fertility and owned land and occasionally high status in Mughal India.  For the British, however, they represented all that was debased about Indian society and, in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, the hijras were classified as a criminal tribe, inherently immoral and corrupt.

Nineteenth-century British imperial imaginaries took great delight in expressing the terror of, and a morbid fascination with, hijra bodies.  Government reports speculate on the details of their rites and practices and the specificities of their castration.   Scandalized by the indecency of the very existence of a third gender, colonial discourse performs shock and horror, a pathos that leaks out of otherwise dry, bureaucratic reports.  Representing the hijras allowed the British to indulge in, and yet simultaneously deny, the sexual titillation aroused by the fantasy of bodies marked deviant.

Today, in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, hijras have gained legal recognition and the right to vote.  Yet one of the most recently celebrated forms of hijra inclusion in South Asian nation states still relies on the horror that hijras inspire in society at large.  In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, hijras have been seen as particularly suited to be tax collectors, where their presence is enough to shame and embarrass people into paying up.  Heralded as more ‘respectable’ than sex work or begging, this route may be more lucrative but to what extent is it just another avatar of deeply-ingrained prejudice in the service of the state?

Further Reading

Mrs Postan, Cutch, Or Random Sketches of Western India (London, 1838).

Aniruddha Dutta, “Epistemologies of Collusion: Hijras, Kothis and the Historical (Dis)continuity of Gender/Sexual Identities in Eastern India,” Gender and History, 24, 3 (2012), 825-849.

Laurence Preston, “A Right to Exist: Eunuchs and the State in Nineteenth Century India,” Modern Asian Studies, 21, 2 (1987), 371-387.

Gayatri Reddy, With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India (Chicago, 2005).


Originally published by NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.

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