The Curse of the Hijra

Hijra, India

The first time I saw two hijras in a hotel lobby fighting with the receptionist, I was very confused. Loud and obnoxious, aggressive and lewd, these women did not behave like any other Indian women I had seen. Why? Because, as it turns out, they were not women – at least not in a traditional sense.

In the West, for a lack of a better term, hijras would be called transgender or transsexuals. But their reality is much more complex than that. Exactly what or who they are is a matter of opinion. Transvestites, eunuchs, hermaphrodites, prostitutes, the third sex, performers or witches. We’ve heard it all.

Dressed in traditional saris, wearing make-up and jewellery, we’ve encountered hijras on many occasions. In small villages or large cities, on trains or in hotels, hijras go around casting curses on men and then demanding money to change the curse to good luck. And they can be quite convincing. Often you can hear them before you see them. Loud finger snapping followed by a popping hand gesture announces their arrival before they shove their rupee-demanding hands in people’s faces. And they don’t take no for an answer. Indian men usually pay up quickly afraid of bad luck not to mention obscene gestures and profane language hurled at them. Once they cough up the cash they get a blessing and are safe from the curses – until the next hijra comes along.

It’s definitely amusing watching Indians squirm and pull out rupee notes to get rid of the hijras. Not being overly superstitious, Tony and I usually just smile and then ignore them. Not so for this photo. I actually followed the hijra through the train and caught up with her in the kitchen where she was counting her money. I wasn’t going to take any chances and payed 10 rupees before I asked to take her picture. She straightened her sari and agreed with a smile. Then she put her hand on my head and mumbled what I hoped was a blessing.

But there are more profitable ways to make money than hassling people on the trains. Hijras are known to crash weddings and miraculously appear at birth celebrations of male babies demanding lots of money. The parents and newly weds are eager to pay for good fortune. I mean, what other options do they have? It’s either cash or curse.

Although most hijras are able to eke out a living and some can rake in the bucks working the high-end wedding circuit, their social status is not much better than that of the Untouchables. Outcast intersexual beings, hijras are regularly forced into prostitution and are often subject to police brutality.

But don’t mistake them for lowly prideless beings. One exceptional hijra we encountered moved through our train loudly popping her hands cursing the men. When she came to Tony and me, she skipped over us, neither cursing us nor demanding money. Hearing the surrounding Indians debate why we had been skipped, she announced that foreigners are constantly being subjected to an unending line of Indians demanding handouts. With tremendous pride, she stated that she had spared us to show us that there is more to India than beggars!

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Topics: Art and Ritual, India, People | 9 Comments »

9 Responses to “The Curse of the Hijra”

  • avatar Urmila
    March 7th, 2012 at 3:11 am

    Dear Thomas,

    Thanks for the interesting reda, I really appreciate your attempt to bring into light India’s ‘third gender’.

    Being a community development journalistI have spent years doing research on this special community and have found, that this small community of roughly 7, 50,000 Indians are actually dying of poverty, no livelihood programs and mass targeted by discrimination. They do not earn as well as you thought or assumed. They have turned aggressive because only that seems to work now.

    Infact the traditional mode of earning by taking money from families at birth and weddings is waning down rapidly and this community has been forced to sex work.With prostitution has arrived HIV and AIDS in this closed community. With discrimination so sizeable these victims are unable to access ART Drugs for treatment of HIV and are stuck in a situation, where only education and awareness will rescue them!!

    They were born as XXY-47 males genetically, a single extra “X” chromosome could ransack the life of an individual this way!!!!

    I pray India wakes up to our third generation ad I hope we can offer them more than just a 10 rupee note the next time!!

    Urmila Chanam
    Worked for United Nations Organization &
    a journalist for World Pulse, Portland US.

  • avatar Thomas
    March 7th, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Hi Urmila,

    Thank you for your comment. We learned about hijras while traveling through India for 15 months. As you pointed out, many of these women are in very difficult situations, and talking about it in the media can definitely help raise awareness. Keep up the good work. India needs more humanitarians like you.


  • avatar Aman
    June 27th, 2013 at 8:04 am

    hi thomas read ur blog about “curse of hijra”really appreciate it but still there is a confusion in my mind did their curse really happens ,i mean what should we do ,we should pay them the amount they are asking.

  • avatar Thomas
    June 29th, 2013 at 6:53 am

    Of course, as a foreigner I would like to sweep in and say “stop that nonsense and don’t let those hijras blackmail you into paying them.” But I realize, we also have many superstitions in our countries and do strange things to ward off bad luck. For example I don’t walk under ladders, I don’t fly on Friday the 13th and I hate when a black cat crosses my path. Every now and then I challenge my luck, but “knock on wood” nothing bad has happened yet.

    I guess, you have to follow your gut feeling. For me personally, if there’s money involved, superstition goes out the window.

  • avatar An
    July 24th, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    What were the other debates on why a hijra skipped you and friend after cursing another man?

  • avatar Tony
    July 28th, 2013 at 7:02 am

    I think the Indians just thought he skipped us because we were foreigners. But clearly, the hijra wanted to make a major statement by skipping us. It was actually a fascinating and enlightening experience.

  • avatar Carl
    October 28th, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    We shifted to our new house hijras came and´╗┐ asked for rupees 21000.My mom gave them rs1000 and one of them cursed and said this house will fall into pieces there will be cancer and miserable things.Now it has been 2 months and my father is very ill tomorrow he will get tested for blood cancer as he is showing blood cancer symptoms.

    I m very depressed please help me.Can any hijra take back the curse is it possible?Please help me friends

  • avatar arijit
    April 25th, 2014 at 11:54 am

    This is all bulls**t. If they really had ‘powers’ to curse, shouldn’t the governments employ them to get rid of pesky opposition / enemies of the state? And if they do have such ‘powers’ would they still be poor and in such a deplorable state? No. In fact, I have been harassed by them, and even assaulted once when I refused to pay. It pis**s me off that people are superstitious, but it is more about safety many a times instead of luck.

  • avatar preity
    September 15th, 2014 at 1:32 am

    Realy the curse will affect us?

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