In the 15th century, during the Mughal era, hijras were appointed as protectors of queens and kings. They were advisors in Mughal courts. They were looked upon as having special godly powers, or baraka, which means “blessing” in Urdu and in Arabic, and their blessings were sought during auspicious occasions such as marriages or the birth of a baby. Hijras even rode fine horses and wore dazzling attire, fit for royals. They lived in palatial homes and had servants attending to them. Much before that, hijras have been spoken about in Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

An avatar of Lord Shiva, Ardhanari, in which Shiva merges with his wife, Parvati, is a deity that the hijras worship. Even Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi merge to form one deity known as Vaikuntha-Kamalaja or Lakshmi-Narayan. Krishna, too, had taken the form of a woman known as Mohini, to marry Aravan, the son of the mighty Pandava warrior, Arjun.

Hijras were highly respected in Hindu mythology and held prominent positions in Mughal courts. However, when the British came to India, they ostracised the hijras from being a part of the mainstream “binary” society – where individuals are registered as female or male at birth –because hijras cannot be classified as strictly females or strictly males.

Most hijras are either born as males or as intersex children, meaning those who are born with physical attributes that are different from conventional females and males. Hijras grow up and live as females in the way they feel, think, behave, and dress.

While this was a normal way of life for the hijras, the British neither understood them nor accepted them. The British stigmatised the hijra community as one that clearly did not belong to the larger society. They created a special act (Criminal Tribes Act of 1871) under which hijras could be imprisoned without any reason and be charged for criminal offences they were not guilty of. Anything they said was held against them. For the very first time, the hijras were forced to go underground and live separately in hiding.

This unfair treatment by the British sparked the need for a language only they could understand. A language that could protect them from imprisonment, abuse, and violent treatment.

This secret language of the hijras is known as Hijra Farsi among the Muslim hijras of the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) and Gupti language or Ulti Bhasha among the Hindu hijras. This language is only known to the hijras who speak it.

Historically, there have been secret languages spoken by the trans communities in the Western world, but they are now extinct because those communities have seen more acceptance and they do not feel the need to communicate in codes anymore. Hijra Farsi or the Gupti language is not a new language; it has been spoken since the 15th century, during the Mughal period. There is no known connection between Hijra Farsi and Arabic languages. Hijra Farsi was developed during the Mughal era, when Persian was spoken, hence it came to be known as Hijra Farsi. Hijras learn this language only after they are christened as being a part of the mainstream hijra community. When new hijras enter the community, they learn the code language from the guru or leader, and they become chelas or followers. They not only speak a different language, but their way of talking is also different.

They mimic their gurus and the other senior members of the guru-chela community and learn the language through listening and through practise. The language remains a secret language because speakers are few and the sources from which they learn the language stay within the community itself. But it’s knowing this secret language that makes one a true hijra and gives them an identity of their own. But how does speaking a different language help their community?

Hijras feel that using a different language is a natural progression of exploring and expressing their identities. Since they are an underprivileged minority and a marginalised community where groups of individuals are treated as insignificant or non-existent, they are often suppressed and subjected to ill treatment and social taboos. They use their language in public places so that no one can understand them or judge them for who they are.

Over time, the community has realised that it’s their language that has united them and given them the sense of belonging to one another when everyone else has treated them as social outcasts – many of them have been abandoned by their families only because they are unlike them. This code language constantly evolves by itself and lends itself as a powerful tool that keeps their lives secret from those who want to cause them harm.

It is a tool that is used to show solidarity towards their entire community.

There are enough research papers and sufficient evidence to prove that Hijra Farsi and Gupti languages are indeed complete languages and not just a bunch of secret words layered upon an existing language to form one. They have a unique vocabulary and follow a particular grammar and syntax, replete with all the elements of a language – nouns, verbs, adjectives, parts of a speech and so on. They even have their own words for numbers, mainly for various denominations of currency! For instance, dasola is ten, adhi vadvi is fifty, vadvi is hundred, panj vadvi is five hundred and so on.

Hijra Farsi has more than 10,000 words, including some borrowed words from other languages such as Hindi and Urdu. These borrowed words depend on where the hijras are located geographically. For instance, in Mumbai, they may borrow from Hindi, Marathi and Urdu, and, in Karachi, they may borrow from Urdu and Pashto. It doesn’t have any written script or dialects.

Even today, the hijra community is underprivileged and extremely poor, chiefly because they are not considered as a part of mainstream society and are not allowed to enjoy the same privileges. They struggle for basic human rights such as healthcare, housing, employment, and education, which is why many of them turn to begging to make ends meet. They are abused as a community and, at times, they have to deal with violence too. All of this has threatened their survival.

But Hijra Farsi is that sliver of hope for this community. An increasing number of hijras are learning this language that ties them together, protects and empowers them. It is amazing how a language can bring with it a sense of identity, security, and pride; something a banished community can call their own and only their own – the hijra’s very own survival tool, secret weapon, and perhaps a bandage to heal their many wounds.

Taatung Tatung and Other Amazing Stories of India’s Diverse Languages

Excerpted with permission from Taatung Tatung and Other Amazing Stories of India’s Diverse Languages, Vaishali Shroff, Puffin.