THE KILLOUGH CHRONICLES

by James Killough

Part Two of Killough’s musings on the sacred eunuchs of India.  Cross your legs!

Please read Part One first.

Let me backpedal even further down memory lane to the very first time I first became interested in eunuchism; even though, like most men who have no transgender aspirations, I had an instinctive aversion to it and wanted at the very least to cross my legs when I thought about losing my genitals, or even better don a pair of titanium underpants to protect myself.  That first time coincided with my decision to abandon acting and become a filmmaker at the age of eighteen.

I had an older gay mentor at the time, as many young Gheys do, a sort of nonsexual guru who instructed me in the Ways of Ghey—by ‘older,’ I mean he was twenty-four.  He was a classic of his kind: bitchy, funny, great taste, somewhat aristocratic, edgy, Italian.  He worked for a while as an assistant to a famous gay journalist for the Village Voice, and one day he threw me a book he’d stolen from his boss’s library called Memoirs of a Castrato by Henry Lyon Young.  (He threw things at me a lot, which is probably why we’re no longer in touch.)

“This should be your first film,” he said.  “It’s divine.”  Gheys said that word a lot back then.

The novel was a fictionalization of several famous castrati singers of the eighteenth century, most notably Farinelli, the Michael Jackson of his day, called Dulcinelli in the book.  In terms of prose, Young’s writing wasn’t divine in the least, pretty shitty as I remember, but I wasn’t yet aware of Anne Rice’s A Cry to Heaven on the same subject, which I’ve never read but I hear is pretty good for an historical novel, and captures the essences of that strange period in European history, when deliberately, forcibly castrated orphans were worshipped as the pinnacle of singing.

For someone like me, who came of age listening to glam rock deep under Bowie’s hypnotic spell, the subject of castrati was fascinating in terms of their celebrity and antics as the rock stars of their time.  Plus, from a production design standpoint nothing films quite so deliriously as the eighteenth century, that hundred-year-long masquerade ball of men in tall wigs and buckled shoes, women with even grander topiaries on their heads and pavilions of silk for dresses, and both sexes went around in full white pancake makeup with black beauty marks on their cheeks.  Truly divine, truly rock and roll.

Knowing what I know now about the filmmaking process, Castrato was a completely unrealistic project for a first-time director, way too expensive and risky in terms of audience; movies are not where you ought to seek to be fully self-expressed.  Eventually, a Franco-Italian co-production starring Stefano Dionisi, Farinelli, based on the real singer, was made and released in 1994.  It wasn’t very good, too melodramatic, but by then I’d moved on to other ideas and didn’t care that my long-time pet project had been made.

It was a good ten years after my flirtation with making Castrato, and around four after my first encounter with Indian hijras that I found myself in New York lying in bed next to the boy who had seduced me up on the streets in Mumbai.  I got to the portion of Edward Rice’s biography of Sir Richard Burton when he talks about Burton’s own fascination and study of eunuchs.  And my interest was renewed, this time to write my own book, a fictionalized tale set in India about some version of me as the hero, of course, and his misadventures with hijras and other uniquely Indian oddities.

This was the early nineties, just before the dawn of the Internet as we know it, and way before the ascendance of Lord Google the Omniscient.  Back then we did research the old-fashioned way: in a library.  So off I trotted to the NY Public Library on 42nd Street to find out what I could about those curious creatures I’d met India, who had so embarrassed me the afternoon I met my boyfriend.

I was lucky to find a book that had been published a just few years before, Neither Man nor Woman: the Hijras of India by Serena Nanda, which was eminently readable and set me straight on a number of facts about street eunuchs.  The roving bands that I had met were in fact organized quite rigidly, based on the traditional Indian guru/disciple relationship, very like the ‘houses’ portrayed in the documentary about voguing Paris is Burning.  The house mother, or guru-mata, takes in a disciple upon payment of a fee, often paid by the disciple’s sponsor and repaid via future earnings.  The disciple then begins an apprenticeship with his hijra group, by playing instruments to accompany the senior dancers and performers, and begging on the streets on the designated day of the week.  This process can take years, during which the disciple has plenty of time to decide if he wants to go through with the full transgender process, a far cry from the pervasive myth in India that hijras kidnap boys and castrate them against their will.

Indeed, hijras are another example of one of the more admirable aspects of Indian society: every possible iteration of human nature, every avatar we can be, has a functional place in the culture.  Schizophrenic?  Off to the saddhus you go to grow dreads and become a holy man, and have as many psychotic breaks as your heart desires.  Feel you weren’t meant to have a cock and balls?  Go earn your living with the hijras, blessing children, performing outside weddings or hooking.  And quite a good living it is from an Indian point of view.  There are a lot of male children born in India, a lot of weddings, a lot of blessings to bestow.

As Nanda explained in the book, when the disciple feels he’s ready to become a full eunuch, he is taken into seclusion to meditate and pray to the deity sacred to hijras, Bahuchara-mata.

The story of Bahuchara is she was the daughter of a charan—a semi-divine being—whose caravan was attacked while she was traveling.  Rather than be raped, she cut off her breasts and cursed the bandits with impotency, which could only be lifted once they dressed like women and worshipped her as a deity.  All Hindu deities have an animal as a vehicle, and Bahuchara sits astride a rooster.  I’m sure this has some symbolic significance of the female dominion over the male, even though the linguistic pun with ‘cock’ isn’t the same in Indic languages as it is in English, as far as I know.

When the disciple is ready, his genitalia—the full package, not just the testicles like the European castrati—are bound tightly with string at the base, like a cock ring. With the guru-mata present, the disciple prays and chants while staring at the image of Bahuchara, and when he sees the goddess smile, he knows her blessing is bestowed.  He nods and his genitalia are removed entirely with one slice of a sharp knife.  There is no cauterization, no anesthesia.  The disciple must experience what the goddess herself felt when she self-mutilated.  As the blood flows out like menses, his masculinity drains away. The goddess enters him and he becomes a she.  Finally.

Despite the gruesome, risky procedure, this process of sacrificing oneself to become one’s true self is probably the greatest act of bravery I can think of.

I had to abandon my eunuch book project to do paid work, and I was also unsure I was a novelist to begin with.  My next projects in India were the script for Pamela Rooks’ Miss Beatty Children and a travelogue art book I produced, Bharat Tasvir, photographed by Marcus Leatherdale.  We journeyed around India in a shuddering, diesel-fueled van for three months photographing my friends and colleagues, and the various cultural curiosities I’d encountered over the years.

For me this had to include a trip to the Bahuchara Temple, but at that point nobody, not even hijra authority Serena Nanda, was quite sure where it was.  Nanda maintained it was a hijra secret.  Again, Lord Google, whose vehicle is the computer, had yet to be born; if I type in a query now, pages of information come up about the temple.  But back then I was once more forced to do things the old-fashioned way: I had to ask.

While I was writing Children in Delhi and prepping our odyssey, I went to a number of weddings, another haunt of the hijras.  Every time saw a band of them camped outside a wedding shamiana tent I would run over, much to the horror of other guests, squat by one of the senior hijras and ask her, Bahuchara-mata ki mandir kahan hain?  “Where is Bahuchara-mata’s temple?”

Bahuchara Mandir

Most excitingly, I was given a different answer every time.  I loved the puzzle, the idea of a wild goose chase.  Burton would have loved the mystery, too, I was sure of it.  It was in south India, the hijras would tell me.  Nahin!  It’s in Uttar Pradesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Somehow, finally, I got the truth: It was in the town of Becharaji in Gujarat, a hundred and ten kilometers west of Ahmedabad.

I opened this series rather dramatically with the statement that I crossed the Great Rann of Kutch to find this exotic temple sacred to these most outré of human beings, but in fact Becharaji is only located on the periphery of that vast desert, which sits partly between Gujarat and the Sindh province of Pakistan.  I fibbed in order to sound more like my hero, Sir Richard Burton, but in fact the trek was nothing like his glamorous expeditions in search of the source of the Nile.

Rather than crossing the Mountains of the Moon with a tribe of Masai warriors like Burton, our dilapidated once-turquoise van bumped along single-lane monsoon-devastated roads, avoiding potholes when we could, but generally hitting every one of them along the way.  It must have taken us four hours to get there, and what a sad sight it was when we arrived.  I note from recent images that a fresh coat of paint has been applied since I was there, brightly hued banners strung across the domes, but at the time I’d never seen a grayer, dustier Hindu temple, which was much like any other I’d been to.

Hijras making offerings during Bahuchara's festival.

There were hijras, however, but not many of them.  The others make the pilgrimage once a year for Bahuchara’s festival, when things brighten up a bit, but we’d missed that by months.  Just as Burton had observed about eunuchs, they were all elderly, but I’m not sure that it’s hijras in particular who become increasingly pious as they reach the end of life so much as it is Indians in general.  Marcus photographed a few of them, but they were decidedly sullen and un-colorful, and the fact he was shooting in black and white didn’t help.

The worst was where we had to spend the night.  The entire team, driver included, had to sleep in a single huge “bed” in a dharamsala, a traditional pilgrim’s hostel.  The sheets, such as they were, were ancient and yellow with grime.  The dank walls were like something out of a David Lynch nightmare.  But it was the voracious bedbugs I remember most.  The whole experience was the worst I have ever been through in all my time in India, and that’s saying a lot.

Steven Cooper shows his tatt.

It’s good to know that the once-shunned hijras are now being encouraged to undergo proper gender-reassignment surgery, and that there are NGO support groups to help them.  And in 2007, a British transgender from Tooting in Southwest London, Steven “Pamela” Cooper, was declared an incarnation of Bahuchara-mata, which seems to have added some glamour to the dusty town of Bacharaji itself, where he lives with around eighty hidjras.  Formerly unemployed, Pamela now makes a decent living doling out fertility blessings, even though he hasn’t undergone the full operation, much to the understandable wrath of the real eunuchs living at the temple.  Still, he describes himself as “both male and female,” and as I’m sure the goddess herself would agree, that’s simply divine.