India's Kumbh Mela festival features 1st ever transgender congregation

At the Kumbh Mela festival, the transgender community believes it is reclaiming the lost place in Hinduism for India's "third gender," known as the hijras, worshipped as demi-gods for thousands of years.

Supreme Court recognized 'third gender' in 2014

(Photo: Murali Krishnan)

Millions of people come and go each day during the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival held four times over the course of every 12 years, rotating among four sites where pilgrims come to wash away their sins in the waters of sacred rivers.

This year's mela, or fair, which began in January, is being held at Prayagraj, at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Saraswati rivers.

For the first time in its history, the festival has cleared the way for a transgender group of sadhus (saints) to participate. The camp of the newly formed Kinnar Akhada draws thousands of visitors, many hoping for a glimpse of — and maybe blessings from — its leader, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi (above, below), a former reality TV star and classical dancer.

(Photo: Murali Krishnan)

"I was fighting for dignity. I was fighting for my entire community to be considered as human beings. Isn't it?" says Tripathi. "This was my dream and this has come so true."

Manisha Jogi, below right, is a trans woman from the eastern state of Orissa. "The message which goes out is that before [people] were not respecting us ... teasing and abusing us. But now, as we join the Kinnar Akhada, people are respecting us and giving the respect equal to a mother," she says. 

(Photo: Murali Krishnan)

Hindu mythology and scripture is full of references to transgender people. Some Hindu gods and goddesses are also believed to be transgender. At the Kumbh Mela festival, the community believes it is reclaiming the lost place in Hinduism for India's "third gender," known as hijras, who were worshipped as demi-gods for thousands of years before they were ostracized under Britain's rule. 

(Photo: Murali Krishnan)

The 2011 census (India's most recent) was the first to count transgender people, finding a total of 487,803. Advocates estimate the number to be much higher, especially since the count took place before the 2014 landmark ruling from India's Supreme Court recognizing transgender as a third gender and granting trans people constitutional protections. 

(Photo: Murali Krishnan)

Pavrita, below, says the camp is a milestone in the fight for her transgender rights. "I know the condition of transgenders across the country. But somewhere down the line I feel the LGBT community can breathe easy now. Otherwise, we would be constantly worrying about how to live and what people think about us. Even our parents are accepting and are sorry for treating us badly." 

(Photo: Murali Krishnan)

The Kumbh Mela is expected to attract more than 100 million pilgrims by the time it's over. While the transgender community has made a splash at this festival, the wider question remains whether India at large will fully recognize their social identity. The Kumbh Mela ends March 4.

Story and photos: Murali Krishnan for CBC News