The Demigods of India

Sara Hylton

2017 - Ongoing


Simran’s bright red sari blew through the wind as she walked along the Mumbai shoreline, asking locals and tourists for rupees in exchange for a blessing. Many looked at her, almost alien-like, with a mix of fear, disdain, and fascination. Simran is part of India’s hijra community, which includes transgender and intersex people. It is believed by many Indians that hijras have the capacity to bless or curse, and hijras profit from this grey zone. They make a living by crashing weddings and birth ceremonies, begging, and sometimes through prostitution.

Indian culture has long recognized the fluidity of gender, with a number of demigods in Hindu scripture described as being a third gender. Yet, homesexuality remains taboo in India, and hijras are often forced to live underground, being ostracized by their family and friends. Because of this, India’s hijra community maintains a hierarchical, somewhat secretive subculture.

As a photographer focused on gender issues and underrepresented voices, I have held a long curiosity and fascination of hijras. When I moved to the city of Mumbai in September 2017, I began making portraits and spending time with a community near my home. They lived behind the train station in a settlement as a family; packed in small, immaculately organized rooms, one stacked on top of another. I would drop in often, drink tea, and just observe. They opened up a beautiful, unique, and fascinating world to me. Through authentic and natural portraiture and imagery, my aim is to bring the stories of this often misunderstood community to viewers in a humane and intimate way.

On September 6th, 2018, India banned its colonial era law, Section 377, which criminalized homosexuality. With the support of PHmuseum, I would like to continue my work in India. I have identified several communities across three states (in both North and South India) to create a nuanced documentation of the hijra community as they transition into a society where they may live authentically as themselves, legally. With many hijras living in isolated and conservative locations, distrustful of mainstream society, it is crucial to hear their stories and understand how they can be better protected and respected.

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  • Radhika’s “daughters” as she affectionately calls them pose for a portrait near their shared settlement outside of Mahim train station in Mumbai, India. The hijra community in Mumbai is predominantly hierarchical, where more experienced and mature hijras act as guardians and superiors to younger hijras.

  • Radhika, 30, originally from Andhra Pradesh has been living in Mumbai for eight years, making a living by performing “blessings” and begging on trains with other hijras from her community. Radhika lives and works with other hijras from Andhra Pradesh, as they speak the same language and are often under the guidance of the same guru.

  • Honey, 22, originally from Hyderabad, is pictured outside of the room where she has been staying for one year near Bandra train station in Mumbai, India.

  • Lata, 61 holds a picture of her guru in her home in the area of Koliwada in Mumbai, India. Lata is now a guru herself and has two live-in disciples, younger hijras who look to her for guidance and survival.

  • Mita, 23, applies makeup and gets ready to go out on the trains to give blessings to passengers. In Hinduism, Hijra’s were once revered as demi-gods, and while society has somewhat rejected them as outcasts, there is a superstition around hijras, and many Indians will give small amounts of money for good luck.

  • Hijras laugh while waiting for the train at Bandra Station. Many hijras live and work around train stations in Mumbai mainly because of the potential for income that comes from begging in high traffic areas.

  • Rajni, 20 and Puja, 23 from Orissa pose for a portrait while waiting for the train at Bandra station.

  • Sapna, 23, poses for a portrait outside of her Guru’s room in a decrepit settlement next to Bandra station in Mumbai, India. Like the community she lives with, Sapna originally comes from Andhra Pradesh and moved to Mumbai for a better life. She completed her “gender” surgery on year back. “My inside tells me I’m a woman, so now I feel happy.” She is now saving up to have breast implants from sex work and offering blessings.

  • Radhika, 30, shows her arm tattoo dedicated to her boyfriend, Vasantho. Under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial era law, homosexuality is criminalized in India, yet Radhika and other hijras continue to have relationships with men and often refer to their boyfriends as “husbands.”

  • Rithika, 23 and Ammu, 21 from Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, are pictured outside of the room where they stay with their Guru around GTB Nagar Station. They have adopted each other as sisters. “When I was in 2nd standard I realized I was not a man, I wanted to be a lady and realized my femininity…I came [to Mumbai] because I was afraid my family would emotionally torture me and prevent me from my destiny of being a transgender” said Rithika. “If we walk on the road or on the street, people watch us like an alien, as something differently created. That has to be changed, we have to be seen as an equal” said Ammu.

  • Simran, 30 walks through the Banstand area of Bandra in Mumbai, India. Each day Simran visits this area and asks tourists and locals for money. She must give a portion of all the money she makes to her guru.