Hijras in South Asia: The Divine, The Disenfranchised

British rule recast the third gender community as pariahs. Modern South Asian laws have yet to undo the damage.

Hijra article feature
Hijra near Kolkata on March 21, 2015 to offer their prayers (NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Mehr Singh


June 27, 2023


10 min

The Shiva Purana tells the story of a fierce battle between the devas, or celestial beings, and asuras, or demons. The devas, moments from surrendering, ask Lord Shiva for help. Following a loud clap of thunder, Shiva appeared as Ardhanari, an entity symbolizing the union of the universe’s masculine and feminine elements. The right half is Shiva’s male form, with matted hair and serpents around his neck; the left half is the divine mother, Parvati, with flowing locks and a bosom adorned with jewels. The Ardhanari swiftly helped the devas vanquish the asuras. 

Indian scripture and literature are rife with lore about the fluidity of gender. And under Mughal rule, hijras helmed governments, accompanied Rajput princesses, and controlled the flow of information. 

Today, one can see India’s over 10 million, Pakistan’s 250,000, and Bangladesh’s over 12,000 hijras at temples, weddings, childbirths, and business inaugurations. At stop lights, dressed in ornate saris, their faces caked with makeup, they make their way between cars, knocking on windows for alms. 

But this is a far cry from the status hijras used to hold in the subcontinent for millennia. Centuries of British rule stripped the community of its rights, which some South Asian countries are slowly bringing back. But despite progressive policies aimed at uplifting them, many hijras continue to live on the sidelines.

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