Pavitra Nimbhorakar says that in all her 43 years, she had never received the kind of love and respect she did earlier this year during the 49 days of Ardh Kumbh Mela – India’s biggest spiritual festival and the largest gathering of human beings on the planet.
Held once every three years, Kumbh Mela moves between four Indian cities—Haridwar, Nashik, Ujjain, and Prayagraj (Allahabad)—all near the confluence of three rivers (Ganges, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati) It is at this confluence where, according to religious texts, the essence of immortality was spilled from an urn during a fight between gods and demons. An estimated 250 million devotees who attend the Kumbh believe that immersing themselves in the Ganges during the spiritual festival can cleanse them of their sins and negative influences.
As one of the leaders at the Kinnar Akhada, a Hindu ascetic order formed in 2015 by transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, Nimbhorakar looked after the administrative duties and ensured the comfort of the order’s roughly 2,500 members—mostly transgender women—during the Kumbh.
At the same time, she spent hours giving speeches about the place that kinnars (transgender persons) hold in the Hindu religion. “We are referred to as demi-gods in the Hindu religious texts and have been granted the power to bless by Lord Ram,” she spoke, as legions of visitors in the akhada’s assembly tent intently listened.
On each of the 49 days of the festival, held this year between January and February, between 20,000 to 30,000 visitors thronged the Kinnar Akhara. Having seen her on YouTube, TV or in newspapers, visitors from various parts of the country came with a desire to meet her, and addressed her as Mataji (mother) or Maharajji (guru). At times, they shared their family problems with her, hoping for her to find them a solution; on other occasions, they just wanted to place their hand on hers or hug her to get a feel of the energy of the saint they consider her to be.
This is in glaring contrast to what Nimbhorakar’s life has been prior to this. From being teased for her femininity to being beaten up by her brothers for her orientation and abused publicly, she has come a long way to being where she is. “I certainly must have done something good in my past life to have seen this day,” she chokes up.
Akhadas are historically a male bastion, with no akhadas led by cisgender women and just a few women ascetic members in some groups. However, the transgender religious order was accepted into the Juna Akhada, the oldest and largest of the 13 sects that set up camp at every Kumbh to pray and offer religious lectures and blessing to their visitors. Being part of the Juna Akhada gave its transgender members the right to take the royal holy dip (shahi snan) on auspicious days at the confluence of the rivers at Prayagraj, before the millions of other visitors entered the waters.
While the Kinnar Akhada participated in the 2016 Kumbh in Ujjain, its members were refused the right to take part in the royal holy dip by the All India Akhara Parishad, the religious organization that oversees the management of shahi snans. All they got was a plot of land to camp themselves for the period. At Prayagraj, however, they availed the same facilities as the other orders, such as tents with private bathrooms and free water and electricity.
India’s half a million transgender population—38,325 of whom were eligible to cast their vote for the first time in the 2019 general elections with their transgender identity—had no place in society until the Indian Supreme Court formally recognized them as the third gender in April 2014. And yet, the fight against social stigma, discrimination, self-identification and harrassment continues. The revised Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill of 2016, currently languishing in the parliament, denies any affirmative action for transpersons in eduation, healthcare, and employment. It criminalizes both begging and sex work— forms of livelihood that many transpersons depend on for survival. A 2018 National Human Rights Commission of India report estimates that 92 percent of transgender Indians beg or do sex work due to the inability to participate in any other economic activity. Less than half have access to education, 62 percent suffer abuse and harassment and almost everyone has faced social rejection multiple times.
Hindu pilgrims on the banks of the Ganges River prepare for a day at the Kumbh.
Activist and Kinnar Akhada founder Tripathi says religion is a good way to integrate transgender people into society.
But she faced dissent from the LGBTQ community when, on behalf of the Kinnar Akhada, she supported the demand for a law to build a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, at the purported site of Lord Ram’s birthplace, where Hindu fundamentalists demolished a mosque standing on the site in 1992. The mosque destruction lead to nationwide sectarian riots that killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. Last November, transpersons drafted a statement that condemned Tripathi’s political aspirations and her support of construction of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya as “an implicit call to communal hatred.”
K Rashi Badalia Kumar, a citizen journalist from Prayagraj who covered this Kumbh, says that religion is definitely bringing transpersons respect. “People are seeing transpersons as spiritual leaders as opposed to people dancing on the streets, begging for money,” she says.
“Religion is a regressive source, but it is also the only support for the very weak,” says Ashok Row Kavi, Chairperson of Humsafar Trust, the oldest Indian organization fighting for LGBT rights, and editor of Bombay Dost, India’s first registered LGBT magazine. “It’s laudable if someone has been able use it to de-stigmatize and integrate transpersons into the society.”