The Indian Third Gender: Then and Now



By Meghna

Now identified as the “third gender”, the transgenders have always been an oppressed and ostracized community in modern India.


The recent supreme court verdict has finally enabled them to take shots at the same opportunities provided to the non-transgender people. It has become an official step towards empowering them. But the third sex, according to the mythologies, enjoyed a better position.

The Mahabharata, which is considered to be a “historic epic”, tells us the story of Shikhandi, the older sibling of Draupadi. During the ninth and tenth days of the 18 day long war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, Krishna took the help of Shikhandi to defeat Bhisma, who was considered invincible as he had the power of deciding the time of his death. Shikhandi was born a girl and was raised as a boy by his father. His gender identity, thus being more inclined towards the masculine. It is said that the sages prophesied that her body will transform into that of a man later in life.

The reaction given by the Pandavas when Krishna told them about his plans of including Shikhandi in his attack on Bhisma, is almost similar to the reaction our society now gives, whenever the question of inclusion of transgenders in the same areas of work as the non-transgenders today.

“Shikhandi embodies all queer people – from gays to lesbians to Hijras to transgendered people to hermaphrodites to bisexuals. Like their stories, his story remains invisible. But the great author, Vyasa, located this story between the ninth night and the tenth day, right in the middle of the war, between the start and the finish. This was surely not accidental. It was a strategic pointer to things that belong neither here nor there. This is how the ancients gave voice to the non-heterosexual discourse,” says the author Devdutt Pattanaik, in his article ‘On Krishna’s chariot stands Shikhandi’.

In the medieval era, eunuchs and transgenders enjoyed a respected and accepted place in the society. They made the most trusted handmaidens and advisors to the queens and their presence in the society was not something that was sneered at.

It is believed that when Rama was exiled for 14 years, many men and women followed him into the forests. He, however, asked the men and women to go back to their respective lives. After the men and women had left, the eunuchs were left, and they refused to go back. Happy with their devotion, Rama blessed them with the power to confer blessings on during auspicious occasions such as childbirth, inauguration etc. The practice is still followed as many houses where babies are born are visited by eunuchs who sing, and dance and shower their blessings in exchange of money.

The Indian mythology also describes the androgynous deity, who is a composite form of Shiva and Parvati, called “Ardhanareeshwar”. This form is identified as a union of the powers and quite literally the bodies of Shiva and Parvati.

There are more instances in Mahabharata, other than the episode of Shikhandi. It is believed that Arjuna, after being cursed by the nymph Urvashi spent a year of his life as Brihanala who  taught music and dance to the princess Uttara.

Then there is also the episode of Aravan, the son of Arjuna and Chitrangada who was willingly sacrificed by Krishna in order to turn the tide in the favour of Pandavas and make them win the war. His last wish was to die a married man after fulfilling his lust. As no woman was ready to be married to a man who was fated to die very soon, Krishna took the form of Mohini and married him.


In Tamil Nadu, every year, this incident is celebrated as a festival called “Koothandavar”, where transgenders from the entire subcontinent assemble, participate in a ceremony where everyone is married to Aravan and then lament like Mohini did when on the 18th day of the festival, as Aravan died on the 18th day of Mahabharata and Mohini mourned him like a widow mourns her husband.

Even though India is easily dubbed as among the most conservative and religious countries in the world, the cultural and religious history of India tells a different tale altogether.The ancient Hindu society was, in fact, more accepting of the transgenders and also recognized the cases of people born into the bodies they didn’t identify with.

The laws incriminating the “queer” practices of LGBT, the much-despised section 377, was a creation of British Colonial rule. In fact, the discriminatory attitude towards the third gender which our society practices even now, is because of the influence of the societal norms laid down by the British Raj.

Thus, we should strive to be truer representatives of the “real” culture that India was- accepting, and not conservative as the British Raj made us.