The history of the hijras’ hidden language in honour of International Mother Language Day
An excerpt from Vaishali Shroff’s book “Taatung Tatung and Other Remarkable Tales of India’s Many Languages.”
During the Mughal dynasty in the 15th century, hijras were chosen to serve as the monarchs’ guardians. In the Mughal courts, they served as counsellors. They were revered as possessing unique divine abilities, or baraka, which is the Arabic and Urdu word for “benediction,” and people prayed to them for their blessings on momentous occasions like weddings and childbirth.
Even better, hijras rode magnificent horses and wore opulent clothing befitting the royals. They had staff looking after them and lived in opulent homes. Hijras were discussed far earlier in Hindu epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
The hijras worship a form of Lord Shiva called Ardhanari, in which he unites with his bride, Parvati. Even Lord Vishnu and Lady Lakshmi combine to create the god Lakshmi-Narayan, also known as Vaikuntha-Kamalaja. In order to marry Aravan, the son of the renowned Pandava warrior Arjun, Krishna had also assumed the form of a woman known as Mohini.
In Hindu mythology, hijras were highly revered and had important positions in Mughal courts. Because hijras cannot be categorised as strictly females or strictly males, the British isolated the hijras from being a part of the mainstream “binary” society when they arrived in India. In this society, people are recorded as either female or male at birth.
The majority of hijras are either born masculine or intersex, or with physical characteristics that are distinct from those of typical females and males. The way that hijras feel, think, act, and dress as they mature and live is that of females.
For the hijras, this was a typical way of life, but the Brits did not comprehend or accept them. The hijra community was stigmatised by the British as being obviously outside of society. They established a unique law (the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871) that allowed hijras to be detained without cause and accused of crimes they were not responsible for. Any remarks they made would be used against them. The hijras were compelled to live separately and in secrecy for the first time.
The demand for a language that could only be understood by the British was inspired by their harsh treatment of them. A language that might shield them from detention, mistreatment, and brutal treatment.
The Muslim hijras of the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) use a secret language known as Hijra Farsi, while the Hindu hijras speak Gupti language or Ulti Bhasha. The hijras who speak it are the only ones who are familiar with it.
In the past, transgender communities in the West have spoken secret languages, but these languages are now dead because those populations have gained more acceptance and no longer feel the need to communicate in codes. The Gupti language, also known as Hijra Farsi, has been used since the Mughal era in the 15th century. There is no recognised relationship between Arabic and Hijra Farsi. Since Persian was spoken during the Mughal era when Hijra Farsi was formed, the name Hijra Farsi has stuck.
Hijras only learn this language after being baptised as members of the hijra community at large. As new hijras join the group, the guru or leader teaches them the code language and they become chelas, or followers. They don’t just speak a different language; they also have a unique speaking style.
They learn the language through practise and imitation of their gurus and the other senior members of the guru-chela group. Few people speak the language, and those who do learn it from sources that are local to the community still speak it in secret. But becoming a true hijra and acquiring one’s own identity depends on mastering this secret language. How, though, does knowing a new language benefit the local area?
The use of a new language, in the opinion of Hijras, is a logical step towards identifying and expressing one’s self. They frequently experience suppression, bad treatment, and social taboos since they belong to a marginalised community that is a disadvantaged minority and where some groups of people are viewed as inconsequential or nonexistent. In order for no one to comprehend them or judge them for who they are, they speak in public using their language.
As everyone else has considered them as social outcasts—many of them having been abandoned by their family only because they are different from them—the community has come to realise that it is their language that has brought them together and given them a sense of belonging. Their lives are kept secret from those who wish to harm them thanks to the powerful weapon of this code language, which is continually evolving on its own.
It is a means of expressing solidarity with their entire neighbourhood.
There are enough academic studies and pieces of evidence to demonstrate that the Gupti and Hijra Farsi languages are whole languages, not just a collection of obscure terms put on top of another language to create one. They have all the components of a language—nouns, verbs, adjectives, parts of speech, etc.—as well as a distinctive lexicon and particular grammar and syntax. They also have unique phrases for numbers, mostly for different coin denominations! As an illustration, dasola is 10, adhi vadvi is 50, vadvi is 100, panj vadvi is 500, and so on.
More than 10,000 terms in Hijra Farsi are derived from various languages, including Hindi and Urdu. Depending on where the hijras are geographically located, this borrowed terminology may vary. For instance, they may borrow from Hindi, Marathi, and Urdu in Mumbai, and from Pashto and Urdu in Karachi. It lacks dialects and a written script.
The hijra community continues to be oppressed and severely destitute, mostly because they are not accepted as members of society at large and are not given access to the same benefits. Since they struggle to obtain fundamental human rights like healthcare, housing, job, and education, many of them resort to begging in order to survive. They experience violence occasionally, as well as maltreatment as a group. All of this has put their survival in danger.
But, Hijra Farsi is this community’s glimmer of hope. The language that unites, safeguards, and empowers hijras is being learned by an increasing number of people. It is astonishing how a language can give a group that has been exiled a feeling of identity, stability, and pride; something they can claim as their own and only their own. The hijra’s very own language is also perhaps a salve for their many wounds.