India's rich and diverse cultural tapestry has been woven with threads of LGBTQ heritage for centuries. Though often marginalized and hidden from mainstream narratives, the LGBTQ community has left indelible imprints on India's history, art, religion, and society. By shedding light on these stories, we can honor the legacy of LGBTQ individuals and their contributions to the country's vibrant heritage. The roots of LGBTQ heritage in India can be traced back to ancient times. The Kamasutra, an ancient Indian text, acknowledges and celebrates same-sex love alongside heterosexual relationships. Temple carvings in Khajuraho and Konark depict same-sex relationships, highlighting the acceptance and diversity of gender and sexuality in early Indian societies.
Indian history is replete with examples of LGBTQ individuals who defied societal norms. One notable figure is Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, the first openly gay prince in India. His advocacy has raised awareness about LGBTQ rights and established the Lakshya Trust, which supports marginalized LGBTQ communities. Another significant historical figure is Hijra, a traditional transgender community in India. Throughout history, they have played prominent roles in politics, arts, and cultural performances. Historically speaking, however, one must note how certain figures in mythology and India's history and were also assumed to be part of the community. From the infamous Malik Kafur theory to the idea of Shikandini in Mahabharatha. The LGBTQ concept is not a new concept to Indian society.
Image 1 : Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, the first openly gay prince in India.
Indian literature and art bear witness to LGBTQ representation and experiences. The Tamil Sangam literature, dating back to 300 BCE, portrays same-sex love in poems and songs. One such poem is from the Kuruntokai collection, specifically from the verse known as "Akam 102." It portrays the love between two women and their desire to be united:
"In the gardens where the white-lotus flowers bloom,
amongst the bamboo thickets filled with bees,
with my lover, her coral smile dazzling,
I lay like a pearl within a shell,
her arms like creepers entwined around me,
we became one, not two."
This poem, often interpreted as a representation of same-sex love, beautifully expresses the deep emotional connection and desire for union between two women.
The Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir and Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore expressed queer themes in their works. Rabindranath Tagore, the renowned poet, writer, and Nobel laureate, is celebrated for his vast literary contributions. While he did not explicitly write queer poems, some of his works explore themes of love, longing, and desire that can be interpreted in a queer context. Tagore's poetry often transcends societal norms and embraces the depth and complexity of human emotions. Here are a few poems by Tagore that have been interpreted through a queer lens:
"Ami Tomar Preme":
This poem, which translates to "In Your Love, I Am," expresses a profound sense of surrender and devotion to a beloved. It goes beyond traditional notions of gender and reflects a deep connection and yearning that can resonate with queer experiences.
"Eki Labonye Purno Pran":
Also known as "In This Solitary Shore," this poem reflects on the union of souls and the intensity of love. It speaks to the longing for connection and a desire to break free from societal expectations, encompassing a universal longing for love that is not confined by gender or sexual orientation.
Image 2 : Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore
Image 3 : The Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir
Rituparno Ghosh, the acclaimed Indian filmmaker, was known for his exploration of LGBTQ identities and relationships in his movies. He delved into the complexities of sexuality, gender, and societal expectations, offering nuanced portrayals of LGBTQ characters. One notable example of Ghosh's work that explores LGBTQ themes is the film "Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish."
"Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish" (2012):
This film tells the story of a choreographer named Rudra, played by Rituparno Ghosh himself, who is struggling with his gender identity and desires to be seen as a woman named Chitrangada. The film addresses Rudra's internal struggle, his yearning for acceptance, and his journey toward self-discovery and self-acceptance. It examines societal expectations and the challenges faced by individuals who do not conform to traditional gender norms. Movies like these are what make Rituparno Ghosh’s work a canon for the Indian LGBTQ movement in India.
Was the movement only of the elite? Or were there any marginalized sections of society that also contributed heavily to the rich Pride Heritage? India has had many such small-scale communities that emerged in the country throughout time. These communities were considered the pariahs of society but built a place and family for themselves that was inclusive and self-sustaining. A few such communities are the Jogappa’s and the Hijras.
Jogappas, primarily found in the southern Indian states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, is a community of transgender women who are dedicated to the worship of the goddess Yellamma. Considered to be "married" to the deity, Jogappas lead a spiritual life, performing rituals, singing devotional songs, and participating in religious processions. Their presence can often be seen during festivals, where they serve as intermediaries between devotees and the divine. Beyond their spiritual roles, Jogappas face unique challenges and discrimination due to societal stigmas surrounding gender nonconformity. However, they have also been instrumental in advocating for the rights of transgender individuals and working toward social acceptance and inclusivity. Jogappas' resilience and cultural contributions remind us of the rich diversity of gender identities in India's social fabric.
Image 4 : Singers from the Jogappa community at a concert
Hijras, an ancient and distinct community in South Asia, transcend traditional gender binaries. Often assigned male at birth, Hijras have a long history of cultural significance, dating back to ancient Indian texts. They embody a fluid gender identity, encompassing elements of femininity, masculinity, and non-binary expressions. Hijras have their own language, rituals, and customs, creating a unique cultural tapestry that binds them together. Historically, Hijras have played significant roles in society, serving as performers, entertainers, and custodians of blessings. They have been a part of rituals during childbirth and marriage ceremonies, believed to bring good luck and fertility.
Image 5 : Hijra and transgender rights advocate Laxmi Narayan Tripathi
The LGBTQ heritage in Indian history is a testament to the resilience and contributions of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. From ancient texts to modern-day activism, India's LGBTQ community has defied stereotypes, challenged norms, and left an indelible mark on the nation's cultural fabric. Recognizing and celebrating this heritage not only honors the LGBTQ community but also promotes inclusivity, tolerance, and equality for all. As India continues to progress, embracing its LGBTQ heritage will pave the way for a more vibrant and accepting future for all its citizens.
Lähdesmäki, T., & Vlase, I. (2023). Mapping the research on gender, LGBTQI minorities and heritage across social sciences and humanities. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 1-16. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13527258.2023.2220298
Ruez, D. (2021). ‘We’re in Asia’: Worlding LGBTQI+ activism otherwise in Sydney. Urban Studies, 58(7), 1414-1430. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0042098020966448
Dutta, S., Khan, S., & Lorway, R. (2019). Following the divine: an ethnographic study of structural violence among transgender jogappas in South India. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 21(11), 1240-1256. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13691058.2018.1555718
Ghosh, G. (2018). Choosing not to be a Man Representations of Hijras in Contemporary Indian Culture. https://shodhgangotri.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/123456789/5936/1/143_synopsis.pdf
Khubchandani, K. (2016). LGBT activism in South Asia. The Wiley Blackwell encyclopedia of gender and sexuality studies, 1-5.