Thursday, May 20, 2010

Guest Post: The unique community system followed by transwomen in Tamil Nadu, Southern India

Today's guest post comes from Susan Deborah of Meanderings and Reflections. Thank you so much for being here at our blog, Susan!

The unique community system followed by transwomen in Tamil Nadu, Southern India

The transgenders in India most of the times live as a community which has a family set-up. One transgender adopts the other and becomes the mother. A sum of Rs. 5. 50/- is paid to the jamath to adopt him. The word ‘jamath’ comes from the Urdu word which means ‘community.’ The transgender community follow certain systems of the Muslim community as years ago they imbibed the customs and patterns of the ruling Muslims in the Mogul period. The older transgender who adopts another is called the guru, which in Hindi translates as teacher. The adopted children are known as chelas which is translated as disciples. Once an individual is adopted by a transgender there is a certain obligation on the part of the ‘child’ towards her ‘mother’ or guru. Part of the earnings through dance performances or any other means like begging goes to the mother. Apart from monetary aspects there are other things that also operate in the ‘mother-child’ relationship. The mother is responsible for taking care of the welfare of the child, taking on the role of a biological mother whenever required. In a way, the guru or the ‘mother’ performs the ‘mother-role’ by arranging money for the sex-change operation and taking care of the post-operative needs of the child. The mother also advises the ‘child’ on the vile ways of the world and against forming any deep bonds with their ‘husbands’ who is referred to as the panthi in the transgender community.

Despite the fact that many ‘children’ do not stay permanently with their ‘mothers,’ they will always be known as the children of X transgender in X village or place. The children migrate to bigger cities in search of better economic prospects or they like to discover new places instead of remaining in a small village. Even though they live in a different pace, they visit their guru once in six months often bringing presents and money.

If you are interested in knowing more about the kinship, family, customs and traditions of transwomen in India, these two books contain a vault of research and information.

Books (Non-Fiction):

1. Reddy, Gayathri. With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India. New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2006.

This book by Gayathri Reddy talks about transwomen (known as hijras in Hindi and Urdu) in Hyderabad, a city in Southern India. A group of hijras living near the railway station are extensively researched by Gayathri Reddy, an anthropologist from University of Illinois, California. A detailed description of the community life of the hijras is provided by the writer.

2. Nanda, Serena. Neither Man nor Woman. 2nd Ed. Canada: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999.

This book by Serena Nanda, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is also quite similar to Reddy’s book but it talks about hijras from different parts of north India. An anthropological monograph, this book is an easy read which depicts the religion, rituals, biology and stories of hijras in India.


K. P. Jayasankar and Anjali Monteiro: Our Family, a 56-minute Tamil (with English subtitles) documantary elucidates what it means to free oneself of the social construct of being male and explores life beyond a hetero-normative family.

Santhosh Sivan: Navarasa (Nine emotions) is a 2005 film. For more details you can visit:

Susan Deborah: Pandiammal’s Illam (Pandiammal’s home) is a 29-minute 2010 documentary made by the researcher during the course of her research in T. Kallupatti, a village in Southern India. If interested you can email the writer for copies. The documentary is the partial story of two transwomen Pandiammal and Mahalakshmi who talk about their life and times as a transwoman.

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