By Kripa Krishnan May. 28, 2016
In a sea of saffron, it’s the yellows, pinks, and purples that stand out. At the holy Kumbh, where religion is a spectacle, the transgender sadhvis of the Kinnar Akhara play along.
When millions converge on the banks of a river to pray for divine intervention, the cosmos tends to plot fated meetings, the kind that could not happen anywhere else. And so it did, as the swarm started dissolving into the night after witnessing the maha aarti.
As we pushed our way through the crowds, a strapping young man accosted us. He started the conversation with the offer of a leg massage and immediately saw alarm in my eyes. Then in an attempt to allay my fears, he leaned in and let me in on a secret. “Didi, main kinnar hoon.”
There was nothing about his appearance that cued feminine, but here he was shyly stepping out of the closet and telling me that he was a transgender, while the world milled around us.
“Aap Kinnar Akhare pe aao,” he invited me, still whispering.
A Kinnar Akhara? While walking through the tented settlement on the banks of River Kshipra, which houses thousands of sadhus, we had never once seen or heard of these transgender godmen.
I had gleaned so far that akharas were units of the secret monastic order, which governed an Indian ascetic’s life. After the initiation ceremony, the sadhus claimed allegiance to the chosen deity and rituals of the establishment. This membership was for life and each of the 13 akharas, which participated in the Kumbh Mela, claimed history that spanned back to Lord Shiva and his trishul-wielding minions. Who then were these upstarts of the fourteenth kind claiming a place in the divine pecking order?
The young man promised to find us again tomorrow at the same spot and walked away. But how would we trace our steps back here? We had simply gone where the crowds led us, because at the Kumbh, the more you resist the churn of bodies, the more painful your journey becomes. And soon, we were once again led astray by the crowds, with questions and no obvious answers.
The sadhvi would often be handed over a coin, which she would touch to her chest and then return, sometimes with an eye-roll.
But as it turned out, the Kinnar Akhara was easier to find at the Kumbh, than seeking nirvana. For one, the daylight revealed the face of transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi looming large on billboards across town, put up by an eager local businessman who had added the descriptor “Laxmiputra” to his name.
Last I had heard of Laxmi, she was holding down a day job in Mumbai and living with her mother. But the billboards here pronounced her the Maha Mandaleshwar, or divine leader of the Kinnar Akhara. Here she smiled benevolently at the millions passing by – glamorous, imposing, all flowing mane and proud sneer. In a landscape populated by hoardings bearing the face of godmen, hers was the biggest.
The Kinnar Akhara was some 15 kilometres away from the main site of the Kumbh Mela. It barely fell within the confines of Ujjain, and you had to cross the town’s toll naka to reach a dust bowl off the highway. No pious river to wash away one’s sins, but still the raucous crowds had made their way here. The tent city, spread over a few acres, was a colourful sight. While the rest of Ujjain was seemingly painted saffron, here yellows, pinks, and purples reigned supreme. A DJ played Bollywood numbers masquerading as bhajans and a large image of Lord Shiva as Ardhanarishvara, his avatar which combines the masculine with the feminine, watched over the proceedings.
Two transgender women were the centre of attention here. Some hundred-odd people had queued up for darshan; others simply stood around, gawking, camera phones help up to capture the curious sight.
The sadhvi who was holding court was dressed in satin robes of saffron, head covered in a shiny turban and a face full of carefully applied make-up. Kohled eyes and an overdrawn carmine mouth fought for attention on her face, which looked on at the world with seeming disdain. Her companion was an equally striking woman, but in “civilian” attire of a salwar kameez and covered in jewellery. They lounged on a sofa, languorous in the heat, while men, women, and children touched their feet and asked for blessings. Often she would be handed a coin, which she would touch to their chest and then return, sometimes with an eye-roll. The popular belief that getting a coin blessed by a hijra would lead to untold riches was at play here, and everyone wanted a piece of good luck.
At the Kinnar Akhara, a DJ played Bollywood numbers masquerading as bhajans and an large image of Lord Shiva as Ardhanarishvara watched over the proceedings.
Behind the main tent was a collection of smaller ones, where the sadhvis lived. Some of them look like they were headed for a wedding; others were immaculately maquillaged and dressed in flowing robes. They gathered in groups, giggling and posing for pictures with their companions, an endless procession of urbane-looking young men.
Laxmi lived in a big tent pitched at the very entrance of this surreal world. A press card passed onto the palm of a burly bodyguard promised a meeting with the Maha Mandaleshwar. But we would have to wait.
I killed time listening to a woman called Maa Bhavani hold court. A peroxide blonde from Delhi, covered with tattoos including a large rose blooming on her bosom, she was holding forth on how the kinnars are the true saints of the world: “We are treated like animals and yet we forgive the world for all its cruelties. We have seen the world at its worst behaviour; we know its darkest secrets.”
Kinnars knew all the darkest secrets of the world, maintained Bhavani Maa.
The oratory was convincing and the small crowd at her feet was listening with rapt attention. How long has she been a sadhu, I asked. She pointed to the saffron chola she was wearing and said, “Main sadhu nahi. Main toh sirf hijra hoon. Yeh roop bhakton ki demand par liya hai.”
My confused expression prodded her to explain that all the transgender community wanted to do was participate in the Kumbh Mela. However, the other akharas deemed it unacceptable for transgenders to seek purification in the same waters as them. So, they decided to create an order of their own and thousands of transgender women gathered here to join the cause.
The confusion finally lifted. These were no sadhus. They had simply donned the robes for acceptance.
“But what about faith?” I asked.
“Hum namaaz bhi padhte hain, bhajan bhi karte hain, aashirwad bhi dete hain. Aur log aate rehte hai,” she shrugged.
The duplicity did not seem to bother the poseurs or their followers. But there were some who were dismissive. Outside, a bunch of young men stood at the periphery of the cordoned off area, pointing and laughing at the two women who were handing out aashirwad. “Dekh hijre kya kar rahen hai.”
In a world that still believed that transgenders would contaminate the waters of the holy Kumbh, Laxmi and her people didn’t have a choice but to play by the rules and wear the robes. I didn’t wait to meet Laxmi. I guessed what she would say: Religion is anyway nothing but a spectacle. So if you can’t beat them, why not join the show?
And I kind of agree.
Kripa Krishnan is a Delhi girl living in Mumbai, she is a hunter-gatherer of information and has spent the past decade justifying her love of both Germaine Greer and misogynistic rap.