To function effectively and to keep anarchy at bay, every human clan is divided along lines of a community. The hijras are no different. Most of them stay in a jamat (Urdu word meaning ‘getting together of elders’) and work both as an economic and social unit.
The head of the jamat is called the guru or the teacher. She instructs the chelas (disciples) on a day to day basis, exploits work from them, manages their activities and financial transactions. Spiritually, she is seen as a mother and protector of the hijras who, in most cases, have severed off all family ties. Hence to survive, it becomes necessary to organize themselves into a family-like clan.
It is also the duty of the guru to train a particularly able chela to be her successor. In cases she hasn’t trained one and suddenly expires, the panch i.e. the leaders of the seven hijragharanas (households) get together and select her successor. Suppose a hijra guru dies before choosing a successor, the leaders of seven hijra gharanas (households) get together and select one. The name given to the leaders who do the selection is ‘Panch’.
The hijras have to earn outside the hijra house as beggars, performers and prostitutes and are expected to work within the jamat as well. Balancing both worlds may be onerous and non-lucrative as the hijras are supposed to give between 50-100% of their earnings to theguru in return for food, clothing, shelter and protection. In spite of the above demerits, the hijras prefer to live in a jamat because of the solidarity and safeguard that it offers.
The initiation of a chela into the jamat of a particular guru involves a ceremony. The aspiringchela is made to sit on the floor in the presence of hijra gurus of seven households. One of them claims her as her own by putting a small amount of money into a plate containing betel leaves. After the chela affirms that she accedes to be the disciple of that particular guru, thereeth (or re-christening ceremony) is held. The chela is called upon to shed his male forename, surname and gotra (lineage) and take on a new feminine name. Following this, thechela is supposed to pay a substantial fee to the guru who has absorbed her into his jamat. Subsequently, the hijra leaders explain crucial dos and don’ts to the new initiate. She is taught how to dress and behave within the confines of her new family. There are several rules to be followed within the hijra subculture. For instance, the chela is never supposed to address a guru by name, wear her clothes or talk to her in a defiant tone of voice. There are also other rules appertaining to this particular subculture. The free loose end of a hijra’s saree should be kept in control, for its touching anyone is considered inauspicious. There are rules germane how a hijra should serve water to the visitors; she isn’t supposed to hold the tumbler bearing the water at the brim or at the middle, instead she is to fold her palms in a simulation of aNamaste (the traditional Indian greeting) and balance the tumbler on top of it.
The hijra house is one of the most secular sub-divisions of India. Hijras of different castes, communities, race, religion and so on live amicably under one roof. After initiation into the hijra cult, she forgets her original religion; ‘the hijra’ is the only jati (or caste) she now knows. This manner of sorority is rare in India that is fraught with riots and communal tensions.
The hijras regard their guru as their mother and usually try and live harmoniously within herjamat. However, where human beings exist, frictions are sometimes inevitable. In cases of extreme conflict, when a hijra desires to change her guru, she may be taken by another on the basis of whether the prospective guru appraises her to be a good worker or not. In such cases, the new guru pays a sum that is double the amount of what the hijra paid to the originalguru at the time of initiation. It is a debt that holds against the chela; she is supposed to return the amount to the guru has invested in her once she has started earning enough for her.
Living in an organized group is preferred by the hijras for many reasons. It is a safety mesh to fall back against in case of illness and old age. In Indian society where a formal burial is seen as paramount irrespective of race and religion, being a part of a jamat ensures that a departed hijra is given a decent burial. Contrary to the common (somewhat distasteful) myth that the corpse of the departed hijra is thrashed with slippers prior to cremation, she is given a decent burial depending on the religion she is born into. Therefore a Hindu hijra is cremated, while a Muslim hijra is buried. When the funeral procession is taken out into the streets, all the hijras dress in male clothes: a strategy devised to prevent the general public from getting to know that the deceased is a hijra. This is probably the only time in their lives that hijras divest themselves of preferred feminine garments and, instead, don male clothes.