The modern world is still taking baby steps towards righting the wrongs inflicted on transgender folks.
On the other hand, transgenders in ancient India seemed to have a non-marginalised position. Ancient Indian texts of around 1500 BC used “tritiya-prakriti” (third nature) for people not belonging to traditionally male or female roles or a mixture of both. While transgender as category wasn’t promoted, they were adjusted in social life without much discrimination.
Indian linguist Patanjali claimed around 200 BC that 3 grammatical genders in Sanskrit language are derived from three natural genders.
In Indian mythology, ‘Ardhanarishvara’ has been worshipped since ancient times. It is the composite avatar (form) of Shiva and Parvati.
Another such example is the son of Arjun, Aravan from Mahabharata. According to certain legends, Aravan was unmarried at the time of the great battle. He promised to sacrifice himself for the victory in war on the condition of experiencing marriage at least once. Consequently, Sri Krishna took the form of a woman Mohini and married him.
In Tamil Nadu, Hijra people call themselves ‘Aravanis’ or devotees of Aravan.
Human Rights Watch uses the term Hijra “for people assigned male at birth who develop a feminine gender identity”
In Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, writer Amara Das Wilhelm claimed that "early Vedic teachings stressed responsible family life and asceticism but also tolerated different types of sexualities and transgenders within general society"
During Mughal reign, eunuchs were known as Khawaja Sira. Discrimination was minimal and several eunuchs were appointed in important positions of armed forces as well as court advisors.
All that changed with the arrival of the British
British rulers of India associated transgender people with “filth, disease, contagion and contamination”
They introduced Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 1864, which criminalized “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”
While the section was brought to penalize homosexuality, it was also used to target Transgender and any groups the British considered “deviant”
In 1871, Britishers implemented the Criminal Tribes Act that considered people of certain groups to have inborn criminal tendencies. They included Transgender people in it.
Britishers even imprisoned eunuchs for wearing ornaments traditionally associated with females. Many analysts claim that stigma and hatred of Transgender people developed in India during British rule.
In the next part we will look at the steps being taken in Modern India to address the injustice meted out to transgenders in post-Victorian India.