Friday, 31 May 2013

Back Story | The Hijras of Ajmer

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

"My name is Maria...No, it's Anoushka".

The Urs anniversary of the revered Sufi saint Moin'Uddin Chisti attracts thousands of devotees and pilgrims from the four corners of South Asia, including Pakistan and Bangladesh...and whilst most are of the Muslim faith, there are significant numbers of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and members of other religious traditions who visit the shrine during this fascinating event.

As with most religious festivals in India (and everywhere), the pilgrims to the Urs in Ajmer rub shoulders with a healthy share of charlatans, scam artists, beggars, pickpockets and other shady characters.

However, amongst the most interesting visitors attending the latter part of the event are the hijras. The hijras are India's transgendered who have a recorded history of more than 4,000 years, and are now a recognized political force in the country, assiduously courted by politicians come election time. It's an elusive subculture, involving cross-dressing and often-castrated figures.

On the penultimate night of the Urs, after experiencing the rather shocking experience of being robbed on my iPhone (and having it returned a few moments after I manhandled the presumed thief), I was in for another surprise. Walking within the confines of the shrine, Shuchi Kapoor connected with a group of these hijras who had wandered in to presumably take the sights. In fact, the hijras were the sights, as they were gawked at, stared at, photographed with cellphones, by masses of male pilgrims...some with lust in their eyes, others with bewilderment and the rest with amusement.

After a few moments of pleasantries, we were invited to their hotel room overlooking the main street leading to the shrine. A bare room, with no beds that I could see...dangling fluorescent lights, and wide open windows allowing the hijras to smile and wave to the throngs of people walking below. It reminded me of Fat Tuesday in New Orleans when young (and usually drunk) women bare their breasts and throw beads at spectators from balconies.

Spending about an hour amongst the hijras in such an ambiance wasn't particularly conducive to an intelligent dialogue, especially when I asked one of the hijras for her name, and she wasn't too sure what it was for that evening.  When another asked me if I found her interesting, I managed to evade the trap by replying that I was interested in everything.

What is interesting though is that the hijras were occupying the same 'hotels' lining the main street that the nautch (dancing) girls originally lived in during the times of the festival in the past centuries.