Ground Report | New Delhi: History of LGBTQIA+ community; The existence of the LGBTQIA+ community in India, opposition to them, and their acceptance- all have a long history. Religious beliefs, laws and common social practices of each era moulded the societal perception towards the queer community. Historical literature shows that at different points in time, queer people and homosexuality were prominently visible in Indian society.
From the legend of Mohini to Mughal chronicles, there is a rich history of the LGBTQIA+ community in India. This shows, contrary to popular belief, that with the decriminalisation of homosexuality by scrapping Section 377 of the IPC, the country has undone the effects of western colonialism rather than moving towards “westernization” of our culture.
History of LGBTQIA+ community; Mythology: Gods and ancient rulers
Several religious stories depict gender fluidity, transgender people and homosexual relationships and intercourse.
Mohini: The legend of Mohini begins with the episode of Samudra Manthan, or the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons. When the nectar of immortality that is retrieved from this falls in the hands of the demons, the gods turn to Lord Vishnu for help. He takes on the form of an extremely beautiful woman, Mohini, distracts the demons and takes the nectar from them. This is often seen as an instance of gender fluidity. The Bhagvata Purana’s narration of this story (as seen in Vanita Ruth’s Same-Sex Love in India) mentions Shiva’s deep attraction towards Mohini.
Bhagiratha: King Bhagiratha’s story, in context of depiction of homosexuality, is in fact the story of his two mothers- the unnamed wives of King Dilipa. According to the Krittivasa Ramayana, the most popular Bengali version of the Ramayana, King Dilipa died without an heir. The gods sent Lord Shiva to help. He told Dilipa’s queens that one of them would be blessed with a child if they have intercourse with each other. The queens followed Shiva’s directions and thus, conceived the child that is known to have brought river Ganges down to the earth from heaven. The story is a prominent accout of lesbian relationship and sex.
Shikhandini: This is probably the most well-known case of sex-change in an ancient Indian text. The legend is significant for the motif of rebirth in the context of sex-change. It goes like this: Princess Amba wanted revenge on Bhishma for putting her in a precarious position and causing her great humiliation. She prayed to Lord Shiva for the boon of manhood so that she could kill Bhishma.
He told her she’d obtain manhood in her next life and would remember the events of this birth. Amba is then reborn as King Drupada’s daughter- Shikhandini. She’s raised as a son and even gets married to a woman. Following certain events, she goes to the forest and there, exchanges her sex with a Yaksha (nature-spirit) to become a man, Shikhandi. Shikhandi goes on the battlefield to kill Bhishma, who knows his identity as a (born-)woman and thus refuses to attack.
Queerdom during Sultanate and Mughal era
A lot of information concerning homosexual love during the later medieval period is available to us. This is largely due to the body of literature created by court historians, travellers, poets etc. However, these records are almost all about men.
Alauddin and Qutubuddin Khalji: Ziauddin Barani, renowned medieval historian, talks about Sultan Alauddin Khalji’s deep love for his eunuch slave, Malik Kafur. In his last years, Khalji entrusted government and responsibility of servants to Kafur. Alauddinn’s successor Qutubuddin became the next ruler and under his reign, Barani says, “slaves and boys” reappeared in city life. The emperor was also in love with a boy called Hasan, to whom he gave high honors and the title of Khusro Khan. Barani wrote that Qutubuddin loved Khusro Khan more than Alauddin loved Malik Kafur. He mentioned that Khan publicly offered his body to the Sultan.
Babur: Extracts from Babur’s poetry and his autobiography “Tuzuk-i Baburi” reveal that he had been madly in love with a boy called Baburi from the camp-bazaar. He talked of his bashfulness and wrote couplets about his lovesickness.
Siraj Aurangabadi: He was a Sufi poet who wrote in Persian and Urdu. His poem “Bustan-i Khayal” narrates his anguish due to his lover leaving him. He tells the story of his beautiful, yet faithless beloved- a Hindu boy- to the son of a Sardar.
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Dargah Quli Khan: He chronicles the life in Delhi in his journal, later published under the title of “Muraqqa I Delhi“. He wrote about Delhi becoming a city filled with seekers of carnal pleasures. There is a mention of crowds of beautiful pubescent men who attract other men on the streets. He also highlights how several of these beautiful men, whether performers or eunuchs, were often favoured by aristocrats and even monarchs.
The British era and intensified homophobia
It’s clear that, despite laws against homosexuality encoded in religious texts like Manusmriti and Quran, the practice was a part of the Indian society. While Hindu legends show even some Gods and famous kings as queer, chronicles from the Sultanate and Mughal age reveal that at some point, the LGBTQIA+ community (especially the men among them) had wide public visibility and acceptability amongst famous rulers and Sufi saints. This Indian heritage is still seen in literature and in carvings of temples such as the Khajuraho temple.
But with the increasing political power and influence of the British, came their belief system and their rules which made homosexuality illegal. These views were imposed on the locals without regard for how sexual activity was perceived in the then Indian culture. Thus, the homophobic Section 377 was in fact a British-era imposition, not a rule made while keeping the Indian social norm in mind.
With the growing political and administrative power of the British, their viewpoint on the queer community became the dominant societal viewpoint. It was reinforced by the British Raj’s laws and punishments, and passed down from generation to generation for 200 years. This, of course, became a significant development in the history of LGBTQIA+ community in India.
The scrapping of the law is probably as significant a development and will improve the perception about the community in India.