Last updated on April 23, 2018
IT IS LITTLE KNOWN THAT ISLAM GIVES THE THIRD GENDER THEIR OWN NICHE IN HISTORY, AND THAT ENUCHES FREQUENT TWO MAJOR SHRINES TO THEIR PATRON MOINUDDIN CHISTI IN DELHI, BESIDES PRAYING IN MOSQUES AS MEN
Faith is important for eunuchs. All their lives, while they face rejection by society, they find acceptance in Islam. They rise above their circumstances by boasting of references to them in religious texts. The Gharib Nawaz gave validation to their identity. “Lord Ram said that our community will rule in the kali-yug,” a hijra named Sanam tells me.
A hijra named Anamika tells me, sipping tea outside a dargah. “If you look closely, you’ll see that most of us are Muslims. But we would have been jobless had there not been Hindus; they give us badhai. Muslims don’t have any such traditions. However, it is Islam that gives us the most respect. That’s why you’ll notice many of our kind converting to Islam,” she says.
Sophia, who is unable to recall what religion she was born into, tells me that Islam has given her the most relief and support. “We respect any and every religion, and pray equally to all of them. But Islam occupies a prominent space in my life, and I identify as a Muslim.” In the long years of hardships, struggle and loneliness, many have found the comfort of home in Islam. In return, they make sure to contribute much of what they earn to the development of these dargahs.
When I first visited the Nizamuddin Dargah on a Thursday evening, I saw a hijra puffing a cigarette in a CD shop outside, while this qawwali played in the background:
Tera karam nahi to qayamat hai zindagi,
Tera karam ho jab to salamat hai zindagi.”
(Without your generosity, my life is doomed
With your generosity, my life is safe.)
Sung by qawwals all across the world, these words from an infamous Sufi composition dedicated to ‘Gharib Nawaz‘ Moinuddin Chishti, mirror the thoughts of not just the two majority genders one might find at a dargah, but the third’s as well.
Dressed in white, adding a charming contrast to the dull walls, she looked as comfortable as one does after coming home from a long day of work.
The trans-women community, or Mukhannathun, has been commonly mentioned in the holy books of Islam. In the translations of the Hadith found on the internet, Prophet Muhammad openly accepts them as a creation of the Almighty. Although all mentions of the mukhannathuns have a sympathetic undertone, pitying them for their “natural deformity”, Islam has hijras in the nooks and corners of its history.
Known in the Mughal courts as ‘Khwaja-sarahs’, hijras were given positions of power and responsibility. Apart from counseling the princes and princesses, they were trusted with guarding the harems. They had much to contribute to the political working of the empire. “This treatment and elevation in the Mughal courts provided a great incentive for non-Muslim transgenders to accept Islam,” Washburn University professor Liaquat Ali Khan writes.
Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is a highly regarded figure for the hijra community. Also known as ‘Gharib Nawaz’ (benefactor of the poor), he introduced the Chishti order of Sufism in the Indian subcontinent when he settled here in the 12th century. Tales are told by all men, women, and hijras of a trans-woman, today known as ‘mai’, going to his monastery in Ajmer and asking for a child. “She asked for a child, but she didn’t ask for that child to remain alive. Neither of them survived the pregnancy. It was Allah’s will,” a hijra named Alia tells me. And so this is where the hijra community’s fondness for Islam is visibly strengthened, for doing what was, and still is, unimaginable for them. Moinuddin Chishti’s shrine is frequently visited by many hijras.
The two major shrines of Chishti saints at Delhi, Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya’s shrine in West Delhi and Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki’s shrine at Mehrauli, also experience the weekly arrival of many trans-women.
Their Guru teaches them all there is to know about Islamic traditions for a hijra. “She is old now, so she cannot visit here often. But she took us in and told us everything Islam has to offer and all the customs we have to follow,” a hijra named Sophia tells me.
Strict gender roles, much like in every other religion, have been specified in the Holy Book of Islam. Locals at the shrine say that both male and female religious responsibilities are partially adapted by these hijras, and some are unique to them. They pray with the men and are free to enter the main area of the shrine, where women aren’t.
One highlight of this mixture of gender roles can be seen in them wearing their dupattas in a turban-like manner when they enter the main shrine. Since women are not allowed to enter in the main area, they cannot merely cover their head as a regular woman would. Neither do they wear the caps Muslim men are supposed to. However, when they pray with the men, they do wear a male attire, I am told.
Another important piece of trans-women history is the Hijron ka Khanqah at Mehrauli, Delhi. The edifice was originally built in the Lodi period to serve as a spiritual retreat for the people of hijra community. It has a total of 49 hijra graves from the same period, including that of Miyan Saheb, the hijra this khanqah was originally gifted to by Sufi Saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. What is interesting to note, according to the caretaker who gives his name as Pal, is that despite being a historical monument, it is not owned by the Archeological Survey of India, but by a hijra named Panna Haji.
The place, however, does not receive a lot of visitors now. The only two people seen here are the caretakers, who work without any remuneration. “I don’t have much to do here anyway since nobody really visits. Mai fulfills every wish of mine, that’s why I like to serve her,” Pal tells me. Unoccupied rooms and faded walls dominate the scenery. The mai’s grave is located in the north-western corner, while the praying area in the west contains arches with Islamic writings etched on them. The air screams emptiness, while the walls have cracked plaster, yet retaining the aura of calmness they are supposed to.
A room has been specifically dedicated to their Guru, the owner. A golden coloured bed sheet glistens in direct sunlight, while the oil stains from the diya can be seen slowly blending into the wall. The walls of the room are full of old paintings, which the caretaker says have been brought by hijras from their travels to faraway places.
How do they reconcile worship of Allah with their allegiance to the Sufi saint who gave validation to their identity more than the Almighty. ”Allah is the highest of them all. That’s where all of us have to go eventually,” Alia and Sanam tell me, as they get up to offer their final prayers before heading out. “Gharib Nawaz is the medium. Our ultimate aim has always been to reach the doors of paradise, near Allah. Can you climb a rooftop without a ladder?” Sophia asks me, unwrapping the turban-shaped dupatta from her head and wearing it on both her shoulders as she gets ready to leave.