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A History of Queer Traditions (#6)

In the column I wrote on gender and history, I tried (in a limited capacity) to dispel the common misconception that encourages us to believe homosexuality is a Western import. This argument has been used by hardline Hindutva groups to oppose legal, social and cultural acceptance of the queer community. In reality however, queer traditions did exist in pre-colonial India. This column will attempt to corroborate this argument. The best way to substantiate this theory will be with the help of examples.

Homosexuality finds mention in early Hindu scriptures. The Kamasutra draws the readers’ attention to ‘swarinis’ (lesbians) and ‘klibas’ (gay men). The former were allowed to marry and bear children. The story of the love affair between Vishnu as ‘Mohini’ and Shiva comments on traditions of gender fluidity. This idea is also acknowledged in stories of both humans and yakshas. In the Krittivasa Ramayana, King Bhagiratha was born to two queens who, on the advice of Lord Shiva decided to procreate after the death of their husband. The most famous instance of such traditions has been the story of Shikhandi. Named Amba in his last birth, Shikhandi was born a woman but raised as man who entered the battlefield of Kurukshetra and slaughtered Bhishma. Additionally, three genders are used in Sanskrit grammar. They are masculine, feminine and a neutral gender. Lord Shiva too is commonly envisioned as Ardhanareshwar (half-man and half-woman). Similarly, according to Hindu beliefs Bahuchara Mata is the patron of the trans community.

Historians have found evidence of queerness in architecture as well. Khajuraho temple was built in the 12th century in present-day Madhya Pradesh. The temple is famous for its depiction for overtly homosexual imagery. The temple shows clearly evidence of sexual relationships between people of the same sex while also showcasing fluidity of genders.

Did orthodoxy become the norm with the rise of Islamic kingdoms in India? While LGBTQIA+ traditions were viewed with some disapproval, people were often not ostracised for their choices. Bhakti and Sufi saints often feminized themselves to worship their chosen deities. Nawabs in Awadhi courts dressed up as women to mark certain holy days. Many historians also suggest that homosexuality found a place in the courts of the Delhi Sultans and the Mughals. Alauddin Khilgi’s son Mubarak for example, is believed to have been in a relationship with a man. Babur expressed openly in Baburnama, his love for a boy named Baburi. Several tales have also surfaced of Sufi saints finding themselves in love with Hindu men. Sufi saints by the names of Sarmad Kashani and Shah Hussain acknowledge openly their love for a man. In fact, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal (his lover) were buried together in Lahore. Accounts of a Dutch traveler named Johan Stavorinus criticizes vehemently practices of homosexuality in Mughal Bengal. These examples are in no way exhaustive. Poets like Rangin continued to write about homosexual relationships until the 18th century. However, much changed after the British took hold of the country.

It is important to realise that contemporary opposition to queerness is yet another example of a ‘colonial hangover’. Conscious ignorance on the part of ‘informed’ believers of various religions results in systemic discrimination and violence against an entire social group. Hence, in rediscovering queer traditions, we contribute to easing (if only partially) the lives of the LGBTQIA+ community.


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