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Beggars On the Move: Hijra Journeys in the Eighteenth-century Deccan

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Duration: 0:16:42 | Added: 21 Dec 2021
Part of the International conference on Maharashtra in September 2021 - Mario da Penha, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA

In the eighteenth century, hijras in the western Deccan saw themselves primarily as bhikaris or beggars – constituents in a network of initiation-based monastic orders that sought alms and survived on charity. This form of mendicancy – which also counted gosavis and fakirs among its ranks – was a ritualized vocation that emphasized a life of uprooted-ness through the act of wandering. Itinerant beggars like the hijras often benefited from the chivalrous sanctuary and monetary largesse of successive Maratha regimes, receiving from them inams of land and vatans to collect prescribed, mandatory levies as alms.

This paper draws upon Marathi archival legal and revenue records in the Modi script to map the lives of peripatetic hijra households in the pre-colonial period. It traces the overlapping physical and metaphysical journeys that monastic mendicants embarked on and the differing contexts around them. Hijras and their collaborators, the mundas, traveled between their vastis or residences and ritual centers such as the samadhi of Dnyaneshwar at Alandi or the temple of Bhavani at Tuljapur. Their lineages also performed cyclical annual movements to collect dues from designated patrimonies under their care, granted or guaranteed by state officials.

Further, as people displaced from the mundane life of samsar, but who had not yet extinguished the ‘self’ through the radical act of samadhi, hijras circulated as ritual mediators between the two. Like other monastic mendicants, they connected devotees in the countryside to mausolea such as dargahs and samadhis by transferring benedictions from the latter to the former for a government-regulated fee. These ritual transactions allowed hijras the subsistence required to withdraw from the world of samsar and live monastically.

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