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A Right to Exist: Eunuchs and the State in Nineteenth-Century India

  • Laurence W. Preston (a1)


A Common but curious sight of the Indian bazaar is the hijḍā, the ‘eunuch’ of Indian English. Obviously transvestites, the hijḍās beg from merchants who quickly, under threat of obscene abuse, respond to the silent demands of such detested individuals. On occasion, especially festival days, they press their claims with boisterous and ribald singing and dancing. Popular Indian opinion would label the hijḍās as nothing more than male prostitutes. Yet at the same time, and hinting at a more complex social function, they are expected if unwanted visitors at wedding parties and birth celebrations where they demand their share of the general largesse. Seen solely as one element in the fabric of contemporary society, the life of a hijḍā is surely ‘an alternative social role … which cater[s] not only for the temperamental misfits but also for disavowed yet persistent needs of the community as a whole’. However, such characterizations are made without much investigation of the ‘alternative social role’. The vast Indian underworld—the low caste and outcaste; the beggars, touts, petty criminals, and prostitutes; and also the hijḍā—has been much neglected as a subject of serious scholarship.



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Much of the research for this paper was conducted in Pune and Bombay in 1979–80 under the terms of a junior fellowship from the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute.

1 Indian words are here transliterated from Marathi. Phonetically hijḍā is close to ‘hizra’, which is the orthography used in Hindi.

2 Recorded on ‘Lower Caste Religious Music from India,’ Lyrichord Stereo, LLST 7234. I owe this reference to A. Shuman.

3 Carstairs, G. Morris, The Twice-Born (London: The Hogarth Press, 1957), p. 62.

4 Lynton, Harriet Ronken and Rajan, Mohini, The Days of the Beloved (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 190206.

5 Generally, I am here concerned with the Maratha kings of Satara who, after 1719, gradually conceded real political power to their hereditary prime ministers, the Peśvās of Pune. In 1817–18 the British essentially overthrew the Peśvās and re-established a limited sovereignty of the Maratha kings in a truncated Satara kingdom. The standard historical works are: Sardesai, Govind Sakharam, New History of the Marathas, 3 vols (Bombay: Phoenix Publications, 19461948); Kumar, Ravinder, Western India in the Nineteenth Century (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968).

6 Oriental Memoirs, 2 vols (London: Richard Bentley, 1834), I, 359.

7 Warden, John, ‘On the Customs of Gosawees or Gosaeens,’ Appendix B to [Arthur Steele], Summary of the Law and Custom of Hindoo Castes within the Dekhun Provinces subject to the Presidency of Bombay (Bombay: Government of Bombay, 1827), p. 67.

8 Crooke, W., The Tribes and Castes of the North-Western Provinces and Oudh (Calcutta: Government of India, 1896), ii, 495; Thurston, Edgar, Castes and Tribes of Southern India (Madras: Government of Madras, 1909), III, 292. Thurston apparently interviewed what he calls a ‘natural eunuch’.

9 Bombay Archives (hereafter BA): Revenue Department (hereafter RD) 1863; 42/313, pp. 135–41, H. E. Goldsmid, Assistant Collector to Mills, R., Collector of Pune, 7 June 1836.

10 Russell, R. V., The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India (London: Macmillan, 1916), III, 206–7. Khasua is presumably Arabic khāsī, which properly refers to created eunuchs, in particular those having only the testicles removed, see The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new edn (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960– ), IV, 1087–93.

11 Pune Archives (herafter PA): XIV; 8/94, fols 13–17, R. D. Luard, Subcollector to Mills, R., Collector of Pune, 14 Nov. 1836. Much of the material in this file is duplicated in PA: XIII; 75/1040.

12 Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, IX, 2, ‘Gujarat Population: Musalmans and Parsis’ (Bombay: Government of Bombay, 1899), pp. 21–2. Also for Gujarat see Davidson, D. C., ‘Amputation of the Penis,’ The Lancet (16 Feb. 1884), 293. For similar accounts from south India, see Shortt, John, ‘Kojahs of Southern India,’ Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 2 (1873), 403–4.

13 Gazetteer, IX, 2, 21.

14 Luard, to Mills, , 14 Nov. 1836.

16 Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, IX, 1, ‘Gujarat Population: Hindus’ (Bombay: Government of Bombay, 1901), pp. 506–8.

17 Luard, to Mills, , 14 Nov. 1836.

19 Gazetteer, IX, 1, 506–7.

20 Luard, to Mills, , 14 Nov. 1836.

21 For example, Sa(n)kvār (‘delicate’), Mainā (‘Myna bird’), Kondan (a jewel setting?); it seems that each group of hijḍās had certain common names that were inherited by new initiates. The British recorded names that, if I correctly interpret the rather eccentric transliterations, are also found in eighteenth-century Marathi documents. This feature, which causes many difficulties in identifying individuals, presumably reflects a succession of master and disciple.

22 Goldsmid, to Mills, , 7 June 1836.

23 Gazetteer, IX 1, 506–7.

24 Luard, to Mills, , 14 Nov. 1836; ms. has Ushtboja, astabhuja (?), ‘eight-armed’.

25 Generally, see O'Flaherty, Wendy D., Women, Androgynes and other Mythical Beasts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). For the village tradition, see, for example, Enthoven, R. E., Folklore of the Konkan (1915; rpt Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1976), p. 63 concerning the goddess Yalammā who was popularly believed to have the power of changing males into females.

26 Goldsmid, to Mills, , 7 June 1836.

27 For a modern account see Freeman, James M., Untouchable, An Indian Life History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979), pp. 294315.

28 Such was the fate of Sir Richard Burton when his report on the homosexual brothels of Karachi reached Bombay, see Brodie, Fawn M., The Devil Drives, A Life of Sir Richard Burton (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1967), p. 66.

29 Luard, to Mills, , 14 Nov. 1836.

30 Goldsmid, to Mills, , 7 June 1836.

32 Ibid. pp. 141–5.

33 PA: XIV; 8/94, fols 3–5, 10, R. Mills, Collector of Pune to Williamson, W., Revenue Commissioner, 1 Aug. 1836, Williamson, to Government, , 20 Aug. 1836.

34 Luard, to Mills, , 14 Nov. 1836.

35 PA: XIV; 8/94, fols 11–12, Mills, to Williamson, , 28 Nov. 1836.

36 PA: XIV; 8/94, fols 17–18, Webb, R. T., Registrar of Sadar Faujdārī Adālat to Government, a May 1837.

38 Goldsmid, to Mills, , 7 June 1836.

40 Mills, to Williamson, , 1 Aug. 1836.

41 Goldsmid, to Mills, , 7 June 1836.

42 Mills, to Williamson, , 1 Aug. 1836.

43 Goldsmid, to Mills, , 7 June 1836.

44 PA: Śāhū daphtar, no. 11,571. For the catalogue of this collection see Diksīt, M. G. and Khobrekar, V. G. (eds), Śāhū daptarātīl kāgad patrāmcī varnanātmak sūcī [descriptive index of documents in the Śāhū archive], 2 vols (Bombay: Government of Maharashtra, 19691970). Although these records did not come into British possession until after the annexation of Satara in 1848, copies of Śāhū's deliberations, his sanads and accompanying orders, would have been found in the Peśvās' archives. The latter form the original core of the Pune Archives acquired after the conquest of Pune in 1817–18.

45 PA: XIV; 8/94, fols 1–2, Petition of Rājubhāī and Bāpū to Government (Persian Department translation), 26 May 1853. It seems this sanad was issued by Śāhājirājā, last ruler of Satara 1839–48.

46 Molesworth, J. T., A Dictionary, Marāṭhi and English (1857; rpt Pune: Shubhada-Saraswat, 1975), pp. 646, 657.

47 Petition of 26 May 1853.

48 PA: XIV; 8/94, fol. 2, Ogilvy, V., Commissioner of Satara to Government, 28 July 1853

49 PA: XIV; 8/94, fol. 3, Resolution of 26 Aug. 1853.

50 PA: XIV; 9/132, fol. 1, Rose, J. N., Collector of Satara to Government, 28 Nov. 1854.

51 Wilson, H. H., A Glossary of Judicial and Revenue Terms … relating to the Administration of the Government of British India (London: Wm. H. Allen, 1855), p. 208

52 For correspondence see BA: RD 1844; 74/837.

53 PA: Śāhū daphtar no. 3126, re the succession of Rādhī hijḍā to Ānsī hijḍā. The Collector of Pune saw a copy of this document (a tākīdpatra, ‘letter of injunction’) sent to the hereditary district officers.

54 BA: RD 1844; 74/837, pp. 203–4, D. Blane, Revenue Commissioner Southern Division to Spooner, R., Collector of Pune, 13 May 1844.

55 BA: RD 1844; 74/837, p. 209, Revenue letter to Court of Directors (paras 101–5), 22 Mar. 1845.

56 BA: RD 1852; 117/1621, pp. 117–19, Petition of Sagunī hijḍā to Government (English petition), 18 Feb. 1852.

58 BA: RD 1852; 117/1621, pp. 122–3, Resolution, n.d. (1852?).

59 Act XI of 1852, B.II.2. For the Inam Commission see Alfred Thomas Etheridge, ‘Narrative of the Bombay Inam Commission and Supplementary Settlements,’ Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government, 132 ns (Bombay: Government of Bombay, 1874).

60 Rose to Government, 28 Nov. 1854.

61 PA: XIV; 9/132, fols 4–6, Collector of Satara to Inam Commissioner, 4 Mar. 1857.

62 PA: XIV; 9/132, fol. 1, Manson, C. J., Inam Commissioner Northern Division to Rose, 20 Dec. 1854.

63 PA: XIII; 55/740, fol. 24, Rose to Cowper, T. A., Inam Commissioner, 15 Feb. 1855 (no. 107).

64 PA: XIV; 9/132, fols 16–17, Cowper, to Government, 21 Feb. 1855.

65 PA: XIV; 9/132, fol. 2, Rose to Manson, C. J., Commissioner of Satara, 15 Feb. 1855 (no. 125).

66 PA: XIV; 9/132, fols 11, 13, Manson to Government, 26 Nov. 1855; Resolution of Government, 22 Dec. 1855.

67 Luard, to Mills, , 14 Nov. 1836.

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