Unlike transgender communities in many Western countries, hijras in India are a gender identity organised around both Hinduism and Islam, and as a result, they have historically been respected for their religious affiliations and sought out for blessings. Now, however, they face many of the same prejudices afflicting sexual minorities across the world.
Hijras consider the Temple of Bahuchara Mata in Becharuaji, a town in western India, to be the sacred centre of their cultural heritage. Bachuchara Mata is a Hindu goddess whose followers are known to self-emasculate in a ritual that lasts 40 days and ends with their transformation into hijra. The vast majority of hijras are males who undergo the transformation though female to male transformations also occur. At the temple, hijras gather and offer blessings in return for donations. Those who are not generous toward hijra can expect a rude and sometimes bawdy reception.
A view of the Bacharaji Temple in Gujarat. Hijras consider the goddess Bahuchara Mata and her temple important parts of their origin myth.
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Young women at Bacharaji Temple approach a group of hijras relaxing in the shade.
Hijras pose for portraits at the Bacharaji Temple.
Several hijras watch intently as some young women walk past them.
Hijras pose for portraits. Hijras are also sometimes known for being unpredictable and bawdy. The last photo gives a glimpse of that mix.
In 2014, the Supreme Court of India ruled in favor of a "third gender," recognizing members of the hijra community, which can include eunuchs, intersex, and transgender persons. But while legal personhood will grant hijras some political and economic rights, discrimination and ignorance still threaten their livelihoods. Hijras struggle to find jobs or find secure residences. As a result, many hijra live in communes, like this one in Barasat, a suburb of Kolkata, where a younger hijra will seek out a guru for social support and to learn the arts and rituals associated with being hijra.
Today, hijra belong to communities in which spiritual meanings are preserved, and individuals who assume the identity of hijra scratch out a living through begging, menial jobs, and, in some cases, sex work. In communes like the one shown, hijra live together and preserve a novice-mentor dynamic. Young hijras follow a disciplined routine and learn activities like traditional song and dance in order to perform at ceremonies to earn income. Hijras have also become an important face in the push for equal protection laws that would reduce the stigma and discrimination against sexual minorities.
A hallway within a hijra commune building. Over the years, the hijras saved enough to purchase the building so eviction is not a risk in this case.
A view of the commune's courtyard where hijras carry out daily activities like cooking, laundry, and dancing lessons.
A group photo of some of the hijras living in the commune. Names: (from left to right, starting in back row) Meghna, Kajal, Sathi, Bansi, Maya (considers Sathi to be her "mother" or guru), Madhuja (in white, bottom-right) faced discrimination and joined the commune collective four years ago but still resides with her family, who struggle with Madhuja's identity.
Madhuja explaining to filmmakers the origins of hijras.
A bed in the hallway of the commune.
A bedroom door with padlock in the commune.
Inside a hijra's bedroom in front of the mirror.
Cooking utensils stored in a hijra's bedroom.
A young hijra and her mentor pose for a photo.
The young hijra gives an unprompted dancing demonstration.
An older hijra poses for a portrait.
A hijra shows off a classic pose.
Hijras demonstrating their best poses.
Upcoming: A 15-minute documentary on NBC.com by the team of Evan Burgos, Alpha Newberry, and Gayatri Kaul with assistance from Krutika Pathi and myself will focus in on the story of Madhuja, one of the hijra featured in these photos, as she struggles to find her identity. The video will be published on Tuesday, June 24, 2015.