Life of Eunuchs – Hijras in Medieval Indian History

New International Reliable Research Journal – NIRRJ

Kanuku Ramesh
Lecturer, Department of History
Sai Bharathi PG College
Contact: 09700405055
In the culture of the Indian sub-continent a eunuch (hijra) is usually considered a member of “the third sex” — neither man nor woman. Most are physically male or intersexes, but some are female. Hijrasusually refer to themselves as female at the language level, and usually dress as women.
A third gender has existed in the sub-continent from the earliest records, and was clearly acknowledged in Vedic culture, throughout the history of India. There are many stories about the origin of the Yellamma cult. The most widely popular one was that Renuka, who was a Brahmin by birth, was married to sage Jamadagni, and they had five sons. Daily Renuka used to make a pot with her own hands due to the power of her chastity and bring water in that pot from the river Malaprabha for the sage’s worship and rituals. One day she sees a group of youth engaged themselves in water sports and due to that she loses her chastity. She returns home empty handed and Jamadagni realizes what had happened. He ordered his sons one by one to punish their mother but four of them refused on one pretext or the other. The sage cursed them to become eunuchs.
The custom of employing eunuchs to guard the female quarters was adopted from the Byzantine and other non-Muslim courts.[1]Hindu rulers also had large number of eunuchs in their Palace. They felt it as a necessary for a king to have eunuchs to guard their wives. The eunuchs also acted as messengers between the inmates of the harem and the outer world. Slave eunuchs moved between the external and internal life of the household. They acted as guards, servants and often as business agents for high-born women immured in the harem. Mughul noble men also employed slave-eunuchs as personal confidants and attendants. These favoured slave-eunuchs held the utmost confidence of their masters.[2]Minor household posts were given to them and they served as attendants to sultan in his private chambers. Occasionally a very capable eunuch impressed the monarch with his intelligence or efficiency and even rose to a position of power. Ex. Malik Sarvar, Malik Qaranfal and Malik Kafur. During medieval period the eunuchs were known for their loyalty and efficiency. Eunuchs not only guarded the royal women but they also enjoyed power as military generals, Governors, wazirs, wakils and in so many other important positions.
Abbe Carre, a French missionary, feels that eunuchs in the harem are just like sheep dogs. They guard the women who were meant for king’s pleasure.[3]Brokers buy beautiful girls from Georgia and other countries. They buy the girls who were destined for sale and who had seen hardly anything outside world. When a new woman was brought from foreign land, these eunuchs who don’t have anything like man terrify them. The more hideous eunuchs were the more they were sought after by the buyers. The reason being they offer no temptation to the women who they guard. One more reason is just to give a notion that the king alone is a normal male in that place and remaining all the people are like the eunuchs who are guarding the harem.[4]
As the Prophet had prohibited human castration, the Muslims imported eunuchs from the neighboring countries.[5]In India throughout the medieval period Bengal was main source for eunuchs.
Jandhars were sultan’s bodyguards. Another body of fully armed soldiers was called Silahdars waited on the sultan when he gave public audience or rode out. The female quarters were guarded by eunuchs.[6]
During Shams-ud-din Iltutmishperiod, Rehan, a eunuch of Hindu, was powerful enough to lead an intriguing group against Balban and get him banned from the court (1253). Malik Dinar was the in charge of harem during Ala-ud-din khilji`s time. He was very loyal to Ala-ud-din khilji.
Malik Kafur (1296 – 1316), was a eunuch slave who became a general in the army of Alauddin Khilji, ruler of the Delhi sultanate from 1296 to 1316 A.D. He was originally seized by Alauddin’s army after the army conquered the city of Khambhat (cambay). Alauddin Khilji fell in love with the effeminate beauty of Malik Kafur, castrated and converted him to Islam. Kafur was also called Hazar-Dinari, “Thousand Dinar Kafur”, because Ala-ud-din Khilji paid 1000 dinars for his possession. The sultan had homosexual relation with Kafur.[7]
Kafur rose quickly in the army. He was made malik naib, the senior commander of the army. In 1294 he led the sultan’s army against the capital city of the Yadava kingdom, Devagiri. He led further invasions southward into the Kakatiya dynasty and eventually into the Pandyan Kingdom in far southern India, winning immense riches for the sultanate and sacking many Hindu temples.[8]Kafur’s invasion of Pandyan kingdom was the farthest south that any Muslim invasion would ever reach in India. According to Medieval historian Jiauddin Barani, Kafur came back to Delhi with 241 tonnes of gold, 20,000 horses and 612 elephants laden with the looted treasure.
Malik Sarvar, the ruler of Jaunpur during Sultan Mohammad (Son of Feroz Tughluq) was also a eunuch. He started his career as a slave of Sultan Mohammad and he rose steadily to become wazir in A.D.1389 with the title Khvaja Jahan. Sultan Mohammad, the last Tughluq ruler conferred on him the title of Malik-ush-Sharq (Chief of the east) and appointed him Governor of the eastern provinces of the empire. Malik Sarvar was made the Governor of east with a task to restore the Delhi sultans` authority in the east. In the east Delhi sultans` authority was questioned by the Hindu rulers. Malik Sarvar reached Jaunpur in 1394 A.D. and suppressed the rebels at Etawa, Koil and Kanauj. He then recovered from the rebels Awadh, Kanauj, Sandila, Dalmau, Bahraich and Bihar and repaired the forts which they had destroyed. Malik Sarvar established his hold over vast territory comprising Awadh, and the gangetic valley from Koil in the west to Bihar in the east. Malik Sarvar acted as an independent king.[9]During the invasion of Timur in 1398 A.D. he did not send any help to Delhi. Malik Sarvar was succeeded by his adopted son Malik Qaranful, who was also a eunuch. Malik Qaranful assumed the title Sultan Mubarak Shah, issued coins and had Qutba read in his name.[10]
Manucci`s friend Nazir Daulat, principal eunuch, (Khwaja Saras) of the harem and in charge of treasury.[11] Manucci gives an account of the manner how princes and princesses bleed at in seasons and the account also had details that eunuchs not only attended the princes but also acted as the in charge of treasury. Ordinarily the princes and princesses have themselves bled twice in the month of March and the interval between the two bleedings does not exceed 24 hours. In the month of September the same procedure is repeated. During the operation done by Manucci to the princes and princesses eunuchs were present there as attendants. The principal eunuch accompanies the princes and the surgeon, while some under-eunuchs act as attendants. Principal eunuch orders another eunuch to pay the surgeon. Even eunuchs are in charge of treasury. Mrs.Gayathri Reddy in her book “With respect to sex: negotiating hijra identity in south Indian” also mentioned that eunuchs were in-charge of treasury.[12]
The Mughul house hold was also a world of domestic slavery. Numerous male, female and eunuch slaves were maintained by them. Their status and tasks varied from the most mundane to those requiring skill, tact and intelligence. During Mughul period also Bengal was very famous for slave marketing.[13]
Sayyid Khan s/o Yakub Beg who served under Humayun, Akbar and Jahangir in various positions has great passion for eunuchs.  He had 1200 eunuchs in his possession. May be due to the strength of eunuchs, he never tasted defeat in any of the battles he fought. Tough military training was given to eunuchs. And in those days eunuchs were known for utmost loyalty. Iktiyar Khan who was a eunuch was a Sayyid Khan`s Vakil and Aitibar Khan, another eunuch was his fawjdar. Hilal, he was also a eunuch, he joined in Jahangir`s service after Sayyid Khan`s death. Hilal built Hilalabad, six kos N.W. from Agra, near Rankatta. From this it is apparent that eunuchs assumed high positions and they were seen with respect during medieval period. After the accession of Jahangir, Sayyid was offered the Governorship of Punjab on the condition that he should prevent his eunuchs from committing oppressions.[14]
Mamluk sulthans, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire patronized eunuchs. Several historians noted that eunuchs in Indian were often accorded respect in Delhi Sultanate and Mughul courts, holding positions of eminence especially under the Khiljis of Delhi Sultanate in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and under the Mughuls from the seventeenth century to nineteenth century. Although many eunuchs were initially brought as slaves into the houses of muslim nobility on in principalities such as Awadh and Hyderabad they were accorded respect and trusted with sensitive positions, including guarding the harem or inner female places with in the palace and in charge of treasury.[15]Akbar`s janana had 5000 ladies, each of whom had separate apartments and were attended by female guards and eunuchs.
In his autobiography Jahangir wrote about the practice of making young children as eunuchs and sending them to the Governor in place of revenue. In Bengal, especially in Sylhet some make their own sons as eunuchs and they either sell them or give them to the Governor in lieu of Tax,[16]&[17]This is the main reason Alexander Rogers, the translator of Tujuk-e-Jahangiri, opined that Sayyid got his 1200 eunuchs from Bengal, which was a famous place for eunuchs in those days. This custom was adopted by other parts and every year some children were ruined and cut off from procreation. This practice had become common. Moved by the inhumane practice, Jahangir ordered for the ban of the abominable custom.
Islam Khan, the Governor of subah of Bengal, was ordered that he should give capital punishment to the people who commit to such inhumane practice. Jahangir repeatedly gave orders banning the castration of young children, buying and selling of eunuchs.[18]Afzal Khan sent some of these evil doers to the court from the subah of Berar. They were punished with life imprisonment by   Jahangir. However, offering of eunuchs to the emperor was continued. It was the Governors of Bengal who sent slaves as gifts to the court of the emperor. On one of the death anniversary of Akbar, Jahangir was presented with 28 elephants, 40 horses and 50 eunuchs. On several other occasions also Jahangir was offered eunuchs along with other gifts.[19]
Jahangir felt that Nur Jahan was wise enough to conduct the business of State, and left the administrative affairs to her. From behind the curtains of harem, she looked after the administrative affairs with the help of trusted male officers and eunuchs in her service.
During Shahjahan`s time the eunuchs were so rich that the eunuchs of harem wanted to have a magnificent tomb for each of them. The eunuchs earned so much money and wanted to leave for Mecca with costly presents. As Shahjahan did not wish the money to leave Indian he seldom granted them permission, consequently not knowing what to do with their wealth, they expended the greater part of it on tombs.[20] Eunuchs constructed magnificent monuments during Shah Jahan period.
During Aurangazeb`s time 2000 soldiers were there under a eunuch`s command. The eunuch was in-charge of the security of both Tajmahal and Tasimacan.[21]
The walled garden of Delhi was built by Roz Afzun Nazir (1748), a well-known eunuch (Khwaja Sara) in the service of Emperor Muhammad Shah.
Younger slaves of both the sexes were available for discreet sexual services to their masters and mistresses. Not frequently, despite official and public disapproval, some masters had sexual relations with their slave eunuchs too.[22]
Not only Akbar but so many other emperors and regional kings also maintained huge harem. King of Bijapur had 1,400 women in his seraglio. The eastern princes show their power and grandeur by their seraglios, where they have women brought from every foreign kingdom.[23]tells that the Mughul emperor`s harem contained 2000 women of different races.
Ghiyas-ud-din, Sultan of Malwa, is said to have had as many as 15,000 women in his harem. The Spanish priest, Navarette, who visited Golconda in 1670 was told that its king had 900 concubines in his harem. Methwold, some fifty years earlier, put the number as at least 1000.[24]
Eunuch got constructed many magnificient monuments. Near the eastern gate way of Humayun`s tomb complex an enclosure called Mandi, was constructed by Mir Banu Agha, chief eunuch of Jahangir. Hijron-Ka-Khanqah is a monument of the fifteenth century (Lodi period), located in Mehrauli in New Delhi, India, maintained well by the Hijras of Turkman Gate in Old Delhi. The literal meaning of Hijron-ka-Khanqah is a “Sufi spiritual retreat for eunuchs”. At Hijron-Ka-Khanqah there is a large patio where white colored tombs are seen. Of the many tombs there, the main tomb held in reverence is said to be of a Hijra called Miyan Saheb.
Two kilometers from the Golconda Fort stands the imposing Qutub Shahi Tombs, surrounded by the landscaped garden. This is the site where six kings of Qutub Shahi Dynasty, including Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah King, the founder of modern Hyderabad. The tombs were built in domed shape, topped on the square-shaped base which, in turn, surrounded by pointed arches. Each of them is graced by the intricate carved stonework, and represents a unique style of a mixture of Persian, Pathan and Hindu architecture. The dome of each king is differentiated from their other members of royal family with the golden spires fitted over the tombs. Apart from the rulers, the royal physicians, religious leaders, and the favorite eunuchs of the royal household were also buried here.
The gender of eunuchs may be enigmatic but the eunuchs were not inferior to any normal person during the medieval period. They were trusted for their loyalty, guarded the harem and treasury, conquered territories for their masters and patronized arts.

[1]        Qureshi, Ishtihaq Hussain, The Administration of Sultanate of Delhi, p.66.
[2]        Richards F. John, The Mughul India, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p.62.
[3]        Fawcett, Lady, The Travels of the Abbe Carre in India and the near east (1672-74), p.254.
[4]        Ibid.
[5]        Qureshi, Op.cit., p.66.
[6]        Ibid., p.63. And Barani, Ziauddin, Tarikh-e-Ferozshahi, p.375.
[7]        Vanita, Ruth and Kidwai, Saleem, Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, Palgrave, 2001, p.132.
[8]        Ayalon,David, Studies in Islamic History and Civilization,  BRILL,1986, p.271.
[9]        Majumdar R.C.,(ed)., History and Culture of the Indian People – The Delhi Sultanate, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, p.187.
[10]       Ibid., p.187.
[11]       Storio Do Mogor or Mughul India 1653-1708 by Nicolo Manucci translated by William Irwine, Vol. IV, London, 1908, pp. 224-25.
[12]       Reddy, Gayathri, With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p.8.
[13]       Richards F. John, Op.cit., p.62.
[14]       Allami Abul Fazl, Ain-e-Akbari, Translated by Blochman, Published by Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal-Calcutta, 1939, pp.351-52.
[15]       Metha, Arun, History of Medieval Indiaby ADB Pub., Jaipur.
[16]       Rogers and Beveridge, The Tujuk-e-Jahangiri, p.151.
[17]       Richards F. John, Op.cit., p.62.
[18]       Ibid., p.62.
[19]       Rogers, Alexander, Op.cit., pp.195, 201.
[20]       Grooke, William (Ed) Book-I, Ball V. (Trsltd) Jean Baptise Tavernier, Travels in India, p.89.
[21]       Ibid., p.89.
[22]       Richards F. John, Op.cit., p.62.
[23]       Storio Do Mogor, Op.cit., Vol.II, p.330.
[24]       Moreland, William Harrison, Relations of Golconda in the Early Seventeenth Century, p.10.

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