How a new akhara of transgendered people stole the spotlight at the Ujjain Kumbh

Image credit:  Punit Reddy

Image credit: Punit Reddy

Published on 29th June, 2016, on scroll.in

While transgendered people are getting shot in Pakistan, a rather different sentiment was on display at the month-long Simhashta Kumbh, which ended in Ujjain on May 21. Thousands of devotees lined up at the newly formed Kinnar Akhara to seek the blessings of the transgender community.

Kinnar or Kin-nar literally means what-men and is the closest Sanskrit word for transgenders. In ancient Hindu scriptures, such as the Puranas, there are references to kinnars serving as musicians in the celestial palace of Indra, king of the Devas and ruler of the sky.

In modern Indian society, however, they have largely been ostracised and discriminated against. It was the desire to restore the dignity of the transgender community that led the Kinnar Akhara to participate in the massive gathering.

The response to the akhara in the Ujjain Kumbh has been overwhelming. For instance, while in developed countries like the US, people have been debating transgender toilets, the Indian government provided toilets to kinnars in the Kumbh Mela without a fuss.

This reminds one of the complexities of the Indian society, which often defies assumptions, especially in matters queer. For instance, though India criminalises the sexual activity of homosexuals and the transgender community, under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the Supreme Court recognised them as the third gender in a landmark ruling in 2014. And while conservative sections of Hinduism frown upon everything to do with the LGBT community, the popularity of the Kinnar Akhara at Simhastha tells us that common folk do not necessarily ascribe to this.

The Kumbh Mela is held once every three years at four locations in India – Haridwar, Prayag, Nashik and Ujjain – which means each location hosts it roughly once in 12 years. The venue is decided based on planetary movements. 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 one of all previous karma, good or bad, so that one can start life afresh with a clean karmic slate.

The first to bathe in these waters are babas, or mendicants, belonging to one of 13 akharas, or ascetic orders. These holy men are popularly known as Naga Babas. The term probably originates 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 event. 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.

An akhara means a traditional Indian gymnasium associated with wrestling. It also means a place for exercising the mind, as there is no clear division between body and mind in Hindu philosophy. 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).

It is believed that Adi Shankaracharya established these akharas over 1,000 years ago to defend Hinduism. They are not part of mainstream society and therefore follow different rules, which includes smoking narcotic hemp, matting their hair and even acts of self-mutilation. Many served as warriors in the armies of Hindu kings, but were disarmed by the British who saw them as mercenaries, a view hotly contested by those who revere them.

The oldest akhara is called the Juna Akhara. Others include Niranjani Akhara and Mahanirvani Akhara. The larger akharas are further divided into subgroups.

Each akhara follows a complex hierarchal structure, with a mahant, or leader, above whom there is the mandaleshwar (leader of a group) and then the mahamandaleshwar (great leader of a group). The pithadish is the leader of a sect or seat. The leaders of various akharas meet during the Kumbh Mela and discuss matters of religion and spirituality or resolve organisational disputes.

Breaking the mould

For years, the akharas were only the bastion of men. In the 2013 Prayag Kumbh Mela, an all-women’s akhara was registered, called the Shri Sarveshwar Mahadeo Vaikumthdham Muktidwar Akhara Pari or Pari Akhara. However, in the Nashik Kumbh the next year, women were denied a place on the dais and refused a separate time slot for the shahi snan. In 2016, at the Ujjain Kumbh mela, they seemed to have been completely sidelined.

Gender politics, therefore, play a key role, even in the spiritual realm.

But then you have the Kinnar Akhara, which received an overwhelming response in its maiden year. Thousands of people fell at the feet of the transgenders led by Lakshmi Tripathi, who was declared the mahamandaleshwar of this spiritual gymnasium. They were also denied the right to participate in shahi snan as they were seen as a subversive group, rather than a traditional one. So, the kinnars took out their own procession, the Peshwai, with horses and camels, and took a bath on their own terms, cheered on by local folk and exasperating many holy men, who felt the spotlight had been taken away from them.

What makes the transgender akhara particularly subversive in the context of the Kumbh Mela is the perception that may not be celibate – as many of them are forced into sex work. The kinnars argue that poverty has driven several members of the transgender community to prostitution, especially those who are thrown out by their families.

However, there is also a divine aspect attributed to them – evidenced by the line of devotees outside their akhara. Outside the realm of the festival too, kinnars are believed to have the power to ward off the evil eye. This is why they are often invited to sing and dance to celebrate the birth of a child, or a wedding, and are rewarded handsomely.

At the Ujjain Kumbh, in exchange for barkat, or blessings, provided in the form of a one-rupee coin on which kinnars would spit, each devotee would gave them Rs. 10/- as donation for the upkeep and functioning of the newly formed akhara. Though saliva is held as unclean in Hinduism, when it comes from one considered beloved, or holy, it becomes auspicious. One can dismiss this as superstition, or respect it as an act of faith, but the fact is that the Ujjain Kumbh was one of the rare occasions that the transgender community received so much respect and love.

Of course, when money and power come into the equation, so too does politics, and therefore, rumours are rife that trouble is brewing between the hijras and the kinnars in the aftermath of the Kumbh.

The transgender community of India is not a homogeneous group. Apart from hijras and kinnars, there are other groups such as the jogathis (mendicants dedicated to Yellamma) in Karnataka, the aravanis (who identify themselves as wives of the deity Aravan, also known as Khoothandavar) of Tamil Nadu and mangalmukhis (she of auspicious face) from Gujarat, to name a few. Unlike the other groups, hijras embrace Islam, which is a key requirement in the community for reasons unclear – historical precedence, possibly.

However, other religions are also accepted to varying degrees, such as worship of Bahuchara-mata, the Goddess who rides a rooster. Hijras are also divided into gharanas or households, with a hierarchical structure similar to that of akharas – including a leader, known variously as guru or nayak depending on status, who demands complete loyalty. They also have a distinct language, based on Persian.

The kinnars hope that their akhara will rise in popularity and power with time, giving dignity to a marginalised community. They derive their strength not so much from the Indian government, or from self-styled Hindu godmen, but from common citizens who visit these holy gatherings, convinced in the cleansing power of time and a river.