For the first time, Indian transgender gurus bless followers at mass Hindu pilgrimage
PRAYAGRAJ, INDIA— Every 12 years, small tents dot more than 3,600 acres with red, yellow, blue, green and orange tarpaulin, transforming the small Northern Indian city of Prayagraj, also called Allahabad, into the mass Hindu pilgrimage known as the Kumbh mela.
From Jan. 15 to Mar. 4, the Indian government estimates more than 150 million pilgrims will participate at various locations, more than the population of Russia.
It’s one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, and this year’s Kumbh seems no different. But as Hindu ascetics gather at the meeting point of three holy rivers to dip in the sacred water, a churn is discernable.
Outside one of the rural, makeshift camps, a life-size photo of a transgender god-woman in her festive attire greets visitors. Inside, devotees huddle around the cramped tents—dens of faith where over 200 transgender sadhus gather and will bless followers until the end of the Kumbh in early March.
For the first time in the history of the centuries-old Kumbh festival of Prayagraj, transgender monastics have set up their own akhara or monastery for religious renunciates, including some from Christian and Muslim backgrounds. For some, the movement for transgender inclusion is more about building awareness and societal acceptance in sacred spaces than in any particular religion or sect of Hinduism.
“This akhara is our personal victory,” said Rosy Francis, a Christian transgender activist at the Kinnar Akhara. “For long we’ve suffered in silence, but now we want to cut loose from moralistic and patriarchal mores.”
Buoyed by a landmark ruling from India’s Supreme Court in 2014, which obligated the government to legally recognize transgenders as the official third gender, the monastics want to carve out their niche in the ascetics’ hierarchy.
“Transgenders were hailed as demi-gods in ancient Hindu texts,” said Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, chief spiritual guardian of Kinnar Akhara. Her towering image dominates the monastery’s facade. “Our spiritual congregation is a message to all religious orders that we want to reclaim our space in the sacred realm.”
Tripathi, who represented Asia Pacific in the United Nations as the first transgender in 2008, set up her monastery four years back to advocate for the rights of India’s sexual minorities.
But the akhara at Kumbh heralds a new chapter in the history of India’s LGBTQ movement. With it, transgenders, long derided by society, have finally reclaimed lost ground in the monastic realm.
“Laxmi wanted to restore the dignity of trans people who were believed to have had divine qualities in the ancient Hindu texts,” Ranjita Sinha, a trans activist from Kolkata, said.
In ancient Indian scriptures, there are references to transgenders serving as musicians in the celestial palace of the Vedic deity Indra. They were also seen as warders of trouble or danger. Then modern Indian society, partly under Western Christian influences and partly woven around fixed gender roles, rejected them and forced many to the margins. Most transgenders have turned to begging, extortion or sex work for survival.
But by turning to sex work, transgenders were rejected again by mainstream Hindus, which accused them of carrying a non-celibate taint.
Kamal Mai, a chief priest at the akhara, says despite the pushback from orthodox clerics, transgenders are leading the way for a more inclusive society.
“Orthodox priests want to marginalize us, but devotees know how immersed we are in the tenets of Hinduism,” Mai said. “We want an all-embracing society.”
Julien Bory, a denturist from Canada, believes recognition of transgender gurus in eastern societies may spark the same trend in North American culture.
“The idea of a transgender guru hasn’t really developed in the west,” he said. “But if the Kinnar Akhara gains more recognition in India, it will draw devotees from other parts of the world. This could spawn transgender akharas in North America.”
Despite liberal voices supporting transgender rights in the religious realm, influential sections of orthodox seers are livid.
The Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad, a council of saints and ascetics that works for the preservation of Hindu culture, has openly denounced the Kinnar Akhara.
Naren Giri, the president of the akhara council, makes it clear that traditionalists don’t see the transgender camp as a pilgrimage site.
“This is their social set-up, and nothing more,” Giri said. “Hindu shastras have never accepted transgenders, so how can we accommodate them in sanctified spaces?”
While the 13 traditional akharas at Kumbh aligned to various schools of Hinduism such as Saivism and Vaishnavism have received monetary donations from the council, the transgender monastery has got no financial or logistical support.
Anurag Shukla, a Prayagraj-based social worker, said the district administration and Kumbh organizers were bent on undermining the significance of the transgender monastery.
“They wanted transgender ascetics to merge with a traditional akhara instead of having an independent congregation,” he said.
So, for three years, Shukla along with other social workers, cobbled support for the transgender community through door-to-door publicity, word-of-mouth, government petitions and social media. They also lobbied for funds from private donors.
Their efforts bore fruit last October when a two-acre campsite was doled out by the state government to the transgender ascetics. The akhara governing board is holding its ground and refuses to grant formal recognition to the monastics.
Changing gender politics at akharas
It is believed that an eighth century philosopher Adi Shankaracharya founded seven akharas to consolidate Hinduism.
These sects followed a complex hierarchical structure in which sadhus with matted hair indulged in acts of self-mutilation, held religious discourses, and smoked narcotic hemp.
For centuries these spiritual congregations remained the bastion of males until an all-women’s akhara was registered in 2013, only to be sidelined later. When transgender ascetics made a case for their own akhara, they were seen as particularly dissident by traditional seers.
But when thousands thronged Allahabad’s streets to seek the blessings of transgender seers during their religious procession this month, some traditionalists warmed up to their recognition.
In a historic turn, Shaiva seers from Juna, the oldest akhara, agreed to join the transgender monastics in ceremonial bathing—a key aspect of Kumbh where Hindus take the holy dip to wash away their sins.
“Transgenders have always been part of India’s rich religious tradition,” Mahant Hari Giri, the general secretary of the Juna Akhara, said. “Excluding them isn’t an option anymore.”
Galvanized by the legitimacy they’ve recently gained, transgenders believe families will become more accepting of them.
Bhawani Ma, a Muslim chief priest at the Kinnar Akhara, believes the integration of the third gender in social and religious parlances will also boost their work and housing opportunities.
“This mainstreaming will help our community gain more respect in society and lessen discrimination,” she said.
Tripathi, the firebrand seer who spearheaded the churn in the traditional akhara system, holds her own amid this frenzy. She’s prepared for a long-term battle.
“A shift in people’s consciousness will not happen in one day, just as Rome was not built in one day,” she said. “We need to keep building on our new-found religious legitimacy.”