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Maiden Entry of Kinnar Akhara grabs the Spotlight at Ujjain Kumbh

The transgender community is fighting against discrimination for ages and they seek acceptance and recognition and want to be part of the society

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Lakshmi Tripathi, the mahamandaleshwar, or great leader of the Kinnar Akhara. Image Source: Scroll.in[ Punit Reddy]
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  • The Simhastha or Kumbh Mela at Ujjain saw a gathering of thousands of devotees lined up to seek the blessings of the transgender community, Kinnar Akhara
  • Kinnar can be understood as Kin-nar which means what-men and is the closest Sanskrit word for transgender
  • While some of the existing 13 Akharas are struggling to find devotees, the newly formed Kinnar Akhara has received an overwhelming response with thousands of people 

With over 100 million participants, the Kumbh Mela festival in India is the world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims. By washing themselves in the sacred rivers, the Hindu pilgrims and sadhus believe to be cleansed of all their sin and liberated from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The Simhastha or Kumbh Mela at Ujjain saw a gathering of thousands of devotees lined up to seek the blessings of the transgender community, Kinnar Akhara.

The Kumbh Mela is held once every three years at Haridwar, Prayag, Nashik and Ujjain. The venue is decided based on planetary movements and it is believed that the event marks the time when the river waters gain the power of amrita(the nectar of immortality) churned by devas (celestial forces) and asuras (subterranean forces) from the ocean of milk. The waters are believed to have the power to rid of all the sins acquired in one’s life so that he can start his life once again.

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The holy men, popularly known as Naga Babas are the first to bathe in these waters. The Babas or mendicants belong to one of 13 akharas, or ascetic orders. The scroll.in report says that the term naga probably originated from the word nanga, or naked, for they are digambaras – which means sky-clad, a metaphor for naked. The shahi-snan, or the royal bath of the babas, is the highlight of the Kumbh Mela. The bodies of the Naga Babas are usually smeared with ash, which is believed to contain a spiritual power born of celibacy. The ash mingles with the water, thereby lending to it this power. Only after these holy men have bathed do devotees jump into the water, cited the Scroll.in report.

A transgender from the Kinnar Akhara at Ujjain Kumbh. Image source: Punit Reddy

Kinnar can be understood as Kin-nar which means what-men and is the closest Sanskrit word for transgender. An akhara is a place of practice with facilities for boarding, lodging and training either used by Indian martial artists or a monastery for religious renunciates. The akhara members, the babas, are aligned to various schools of Hinduism such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism. There are Sikh akharas too. The akharas are either astradharis (those who bear weapons) or shastradharis (those who bear scriptures), says the Scroll.in report.

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According to the Scroll.in report, while some of the existing 13 Akharas are struggling to find devotees, the newly formed Kinnar Akhara has received an overwhelming response with thousands of people falling at the feet of the transgenders led by Lakshmi Tripathi, who was declared the mahamandaleshwar of this spiritual gymnasium. As they were seen as a subversive group, rather than a traditional one, they were denied the right to take part in shahi snan. So, they took out their own procession, the Peshwai, with horses and camels, and even took a bath on their own terms.

“We thought we won’t be accepted here because we are generally discriminated against, but people not only welcomed us, they showered money and devotion on us,” Pavitra, who belongs to the Kinnar Akhara, told The Indian Express.

The transgender community has been fighting against discrimination since ages. They seek acceptance and recognition and want to be part of the society. The public support at the Kumbh Mela has not only made them happy but has also sparked a hope of complete assimilation into the society.

-This article is compiled by a staff-writer at NewsGram.

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  • Vrushali Mahajan

    How double faced can we be? On one side we seek blessings from them and on the other we do not consider them as a part of our society!

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You’re Not Two-Spirit Unless You Are Familiar With Your Traditions

Two-spirit is a pan-Indian term

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L to R: Vicki Quintero (White Mountain Apache), Timothy
L to R: Vicki Quintero (White Mountain Apache), Timothy "Twix" Ward, San Carlos Apache, and Vanessa Kristina (Salt River Pima), who all identify as two-spirited. VOA

Growing up, Timothy “Twix” Ward, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona, thought he was “normal.” But his family recognized there was something “special” about him.

“It wasn’t until I got older that I knew who I was, that I was different from everyone else,” he said. Ward identifies not as a man or a woman, but both — and neither: Twix Ward is a Two-Spirit.

The term was first devised in Winnipeg, Canada, during a 1990 inter-tribal conference of Native American/First Nations gays and lesbians. Derived from the Ojibwe language, the term was deliberately chosen to serve as a “pan-Indian” term encompassing indigenous people who don’t fit into any normative gender role.

“Two-spirited people are not LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered or Gender Queer], although some two-spirited people are LGBTQ,” said Ward, narrowing the definition. “You’re not two-spirit unless you are familiar with your cultural identity and your traditions.”

Shown is Timothy "Twix" Ward, San Carlos Apache two spirit, who specializes in the traditional craft of basket weaving.
Shown is Timothy “Twix” Ward, San Carlos Apache two spirit, who specializes in the traditional craft of basket weaving. VOA

Ward lives year-round in a traditional Apache house. He participates in traditional ceremonies. He is also a basket weaver and seamstress, specializing in basketry and making dresses for young Navajo women’s coming-of-age ceremonies.

“I try to teach the girls what the dress is for, the meaning behind it in their ceremony,” Ward said.

But not everyone in the community accepts him, and he admits to loneliness.

“I still carry the traditional [two-spirit] face markings, the traditional attire,” he said. “Some people that claim to be traditional are upset with me because they think I’m acting like I know more than them.”

A ca. 1886 photograph of We'wha (Zuni, N.M.), a famous lhamana (“like a woman"), the traditional Zuni gender role now described as two spirit. Courtesy: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration - 523798
A ca. 1886 photograph of We’wha (Zuni, N.M.), a famous lhamana (“like a woman”), the traditional Zuni gender role now described as two spirit. Courtesy: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration – 523798. VOA

This year, the tribal council blocked him from using their facilities to hold a second annual “Miss Apache Diva” beauty contest.

Balancing the male and female

Thirteen hundred miles away in South Dakota, Kellie Bingen also identifies as a two-spirit bisexual. Born on the Lower Brule Reservation, she now lives in Sioux Falls, which makes her an “urban Indian,” serving on the board of the Sioux Falls Two Spirit and Allies group.

“Two-spirits are people who can balance both their male and their female sides,” she said. “I’ve been a ‘tomboy’ my whole life. Dad taught us girls to do anything that a man can do, so we learned how to install sheetrock and to roof, and to fix our own cars.”

But she said she still has a “girlie” side. “I can wear heels and a dress, put makeup on, and go out and be pretty.”

Like Ward, Bingen believes only Natives who are in touch with their traditions can claim two-spirit identity — and the term should never be co-opted by non-Natives.

New York City musician and activist Tony Enos offers a slightly different interpretation.

“Two-spirit is a pan-Indian term for Native people who identify as gender queer, gender non-conforming, gender fluid,” he said.

Born to a biracial family and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he identifies as two-spirit based on paternal Cherokee ancestry.

This October 2017 photo shows Tony Enos during protests to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline held near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota
This October 2017 photo shows Tony Enos during protests to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline held near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, VOA

“Before colonization, we were balance-keepers. We were the only ones that could move between the men’s and women’s camps. There was a special role for these gender queer, gender fluid, gender non-conforming tribal individuals who had this special medicine, this blessing to be able to see life through male and female eyes.”

And that’s what the two-spirit movement is all about, he said — reclaiming the special role two-spirits held in pre-colonial tribal societies.

But is that even possible?

Decolonizing the ‘berdache’

"Employments of the Hermaphrodites," an engraving published by Theodor de Bry (1591), after a watercolor by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, in what is today Florida. In some tribal cultures, two spirits cared for the sick and buried the dead.
“Employments of the Hermaphrodites,” an engraving published by Theodor de Bry (1591), after a watercolor by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, in what is today Florida. In some tribal cultures, two spirits cared for the sick and buried the dead. VOA

Much of what is known about historic two-spirits comes from accounts written by Western missionaries, adventurers and ethnographers, who referred to anyone who deviated gender norms by the derogatory term “berdache,” derived from the Arabic for slaves or kept boys.

Tribes had their own terms for third (if men) and forth (if women) genders — “like a girl,” “manly-hearted woman,“ “both man and woman,” “fake,” “supernatural” or “instructed by the moon.”

In some tribes, two-spirits were considered sacred and were honored as healers, seers, name-givers, or in the case of the Yokuts and Mono of California, gravediggers, as they were believed to be guided by the dead.

“But not all tribes honored them,” said Wesley K. Thomas, a Navajo anthropologist, professor and graduate dean of the Navajo Technical University School of Graduate Studies and Research. He believes two-spirits tended to be honored only in matrilineal tribes like the Navajo, where descendancy is traced from the mother’s line.

In other tribes, they were merely tolerated.

“There were even some patrilineal tribal societies who committed infanticide of such children [early on] or later in life,” he said.

George Catlin (1796-1872), Dance to the Berdache. Drawn while on the Great Plains, among the Sac and Fox Indians, the sketch depicts a ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person.
George Catlin (1796-1872), Dance to the Berdache. Drawn while on the Great Plains, among the Sac and Fox Indians, the sketch depicts a ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person.
VOA

Whatever their status, the subjugation and Christianization of Indians by Europeans ensured that two-spirits were stamped out.

“As the country is gradually being filled with the Missions, these detestable people will be eradicated and that this most abominable of vices will be exterminated,” wrote Spanish missionary to California Francisco Palou in 1777.

By the mid-20th century, gay Native Americans, facing homophobia and ostracism within their own communities, began to flock to urban centers for safe haven.

“But there, they found themselves marginalized by non-Native LGBTQ communities,” said Thomas. Hence the need to name themselves.

Thomas isn’t critical of the two-spirit movement, which in his words “gives them a sense of belonging, of identity, self-affirmation.”

That said, Thomas doesn’t believe they will ever recover any honor given to them in the past.

San Francisco, California's two spirit contingent marches at the San Francisco Pride parade, June 2014.
San Francisco, California’s two spirit contingent marches at the San Francisco Pride parade, June 2014.
VOA

Also read: LGBT activists in London call for decriminalisation of homosexuality

“It’s not possible,” he said. “We have been distanced too much from our traditional ways and cultures.” (VOA)