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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 April, 2003, 00:10 GMT 01:10 UK
Indian eunuchs' day in the sun

By Charles Haviland
BBC correspondent in southern India

Eunuchs from all over India gathered in a small village this week to re-enact a story from the Hindu scriptures in which they pretend to marry a warrior-god.

Two eunuchs - or hijras as they are known here - sat side by side at a table in a café. They dipped long, red-varnished fingernails into the hearty south Indian lunch - rice, lentils and vegetables - and ate, and gossiped.

One slim, the other stout - they were dressed like twin sisters, in immaculate brown and white saris. Delicate gold chains were arranged over their hair.

India's eunuchs are gradually asserting their rights

Another hijra, perhaps 35, sat down next to me to introduce herself. "I'm Jayalakshmi," she said, smiling broadly, "and that's my mummy".

She pointed to an older, slightly vexed-looking hijra.

Hijras often live in close communities and set up their own "family" networks of motherhood, daughterhood and sisterhood. All identify themselves as female.

For these days leading up to the first full moon of the Tamil New Year, the hijras had colonised the sleepy town of Villupuram, darting in and out of shops and along the balconies of the guest houses.

Some lodges won't let them stay - my receptionist suspiciously asked whether I was expecting any other friends. But generally between the townspeople and these seasonal guests, good humour and banter prevailed.

Celebration of a legend

An hour's bumpy drive away, past water-starved fields of sugar cane, lies the little village of Koovagam, the hijras' Mecca, with its temple to the deity warrior, Aravan.

According to Hindu scripture, Aravan had to be sacrificed by his people, the Pandavas, to win a war. He asked to get married and enjoy sexual bliss on his last night alive.

Most of these people's lives is a story of alienation from family and society

To fulfil this wish, Lord Krishna briefly took on female form - then became a "widow" the next day.

At the Koovagam festival, not only thousands of visiting hijras but many ordinary young men from the neighbourhood, too, act out this role of bride. For once, the hijras are out of their ghetto, performing an age-old ritual. And they revel in it.

Soon, in Koovagam's temple portico, we visitors were surrounded by circles of dancing hijras, clapping seductively as they sang in deep, mellow voices about the wedding night ahead of them.

Inside, the atmosphere was apocalyptic - a place of excited shouting, bells clanging, the air thick with the sweet smells of burning camphor and jasmine, priests smashing open the coconuts offered up to the deity.

In the inner sanctum, the crowds jostled for an audience with the god; in front, the priest was tying the sacred marital thread around the necks of hijras, their moment of marriage to Aravan.

Then, out they stepped, posing proudly for the cameras.

Pride and pity

Radha, from the holy Hindu town of Kanchipuram, told me she loves this festival simply because here, for once, she can get married.

Now aged 37, she ran away from her family at 12. You can, as the villagers do, see people like her merely as figures of fun. She looks a bit like a pantomime dame.

She'd never pass off as a woman - close your eyes, and her gravelly voice uttering the percussive Tamil tongue could be that of a Madras rickshaw-driver.

You can pity them - Radha has spent 25 years in a ghetto in a hostile town, and what do she and her friends do? We go to the shops and ask for money, she says; other than the sex trade there'd be few jobs open to them.

But Radha and her friends just want you, for once, to relate to them as human beings: she seemed surprised but quietly pleased that a journalist should want to speak to her.

Surprised, because most of these people's lives is a story of alienation from family and society.

Mutual mistrust

Despite some lingering beliefs that hijras bring good luck at weddings or after a birth, there's widespread fear and hatred of them.

That breeds an aggressive, vulgar streak in the hijras, and perpetuates a kind of vicious circle of mistrust.

The ceremony does seem to reflect the sadness of many hijras

But increasingly, hijras are defying the stereotype. Famila, aged 24 and from Bangalore, had her operation five years ago, after years of isolation.

With her fine features, I honestly think most people surrounding her thought she was simply a woman.

She came second in the festival's "Miss Koovagam" beauty contest. In perfect English, she told me that although she's a feminist and doesn't believe in beauty pageants, she'll use it as a platform to talk about hijras' rights.

Famila already works as a rights lobbyist and says more and more hijras are taking on these leadership roles. In central India some have been entering local politics and becoming mayors.

But on the last day at Koovagam, the morning after the wedding revelry, the ceremony does seem to reflect the sadness of many hijras.

The image of the warrior is paraded around and then destroyed. And the hijras snap their sacred marriage threads and don the white clothes of widows.

There begins the weeping and wailing, the mourning for what is no longer. And there ends, for another year, the brief escape from reality, the hijras' day in the sun.

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