Hijron ki khanqaah

The history, culture and architecture across India portrays tolerance, irrespective of gender and religion.

The word eunuch is derived from the Greek word eune  (bed) and ekhein (to keep). Ironically, those labelled, as “bed keepers” were themselves destined to be deprived of a normal sexual life. Eunuchs are historically males who are castrated (without their consent) so that they can perform a specific social function. This function normally ranges from guarding the harem, be of service to the rulers and noblemen, work in administrative capacity and even become treble singers.

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Except for the last, the reason why eunuchs were preferred for the services than someone else was that they did not threaten the women of the harem, and since they had no chance of marriage or of having children, it was presumed that they would have less reason to be corrupt. Some of them assumed great positions of authority but most of them lived on the fringes of the society. The Mughals gave them the title of Khwajasara.

Since they were the link between the harem (ladies quarters) and the rest of the palace, they played roles of great importance in every ancient and medieval kingdom. They were also a participant and source of court intrigue.

In modern day India, eunuchs are relegated to the fringes and eke out a living by singing and dancing at childbirth and sometimes weddings. Many are seen begging at traffic signals and generally threatening to invoke a curse if they do not get alms. There has been only one Shabnam Mausi who won the Lok sabha elections from Madhya Pradesh’s Shahdol District after they got voting rights in 1994.

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The khanqaah (a spiritual retreat) in the picture above, for eunuchs or hijras as they are called in India, is located in the busy streets of Mehrauli village near Jahaz Mahal. An interesting aspect of its architecture is its low doorway, designed so that everyone who enters it does so with a bowed head.

In most tales, Sufi saints have been known for their inclusiveness, humanity and healing touch. It is said that Sufi saint Hazrat Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki considered one of the eunuchs in his time known as Miyan sahib, his sister. He fondly called her Aapa. This place was given to the eunuchs by the saint. The prominent green grave is where she is buried.

Though officially this place belongs to the eunuchs at Turkman Gate, Old Delhi, they come only on festivals to offer tribute and celebrate and hold langars (distribute free food).  Hijras in India are traditionally associated with festivities and it is assumed that no prayer for children goes unanswered here.


dil kaa gila falak kii shikaayat yahaan nahiin
vo mehrbaan nahiin to koi mehrbaan nahiin

 No laments of the heart, no complaints work here
If He doesnot shower mercy on you, no one else will

Considering the decay in most of the medieval buildings across the country this mihrab tells the tale of the loving care this khanqaah gets.

The history, culture and architecture across India portrays tolerance, irrespective of gender and religion. The need of the hour is to reinstill for all citizens, including those of the LGBT community in India, the same respect and space that was enjoyed in the past.

Photos: Rana Safvi