Hubli-Dharwad, North Karnataka: When plagued with epileptic fits at the age of 18, Devi’s family took her to the local doctor but to no avail. Fortunetellers told her mother that since “amma (the goddess) was troubling her”, it would be better for her to wear the saree. While unable to accept this initially, Devi’s mother gave in to this strange solution when she saw no other way out. “When I took ill, they told me that once I started serving Yellamma, my health will improve,” said Devi. And miraculously enough, it cured her. It’s another thing that Devi showed feminine characteristics from the age of seven and wanted to become a woman by the time she was 18.
This is the story of how a young boy (or man) becomes a jogappa, or a transgender woman, in the Hubli-Dharwad region of North Karnataka. Described as a divine possession by the Goddess Yellamma, the transition is initiated by a host of “incurable” physical ailments like fits, rashes, foul odour or even a dreadlock (seen as a strong sign of possession). When neither medicine nor the local witch doctor offers any relief, families here are directed towards the Yellamma temple in a nearby place called Saundatti for answers.
In fact, thousands will flock to Saundatti temple starting from November 30 until the December 29 during the Margasira month of the Hindu Kannada calendar for the Yellamma jatre. This jatre, which literally translates to festival, is an annual celebration for jogappas in Karnataka that’s much akin to the Koothandavar temple festival in Koovagam for Aravanis (a community of transgender women) in Tamil Nadu. For most journalists who cover the festival year on year, jogappas are either just a footnote in their feature stories, often inaccurately described as ‘hijras’ or ‘eunuchs’, or money shots for shutterbugs. At the height of the festivities, jogappas blend in with other transgender communities like hijras (a popular community of transgender women) even through they don’t fit into the stereotypes of boisterous attitudes or jezebel behaviour.
Rajratna, a community-based health worker and a kothi (‘effeminate’ man), calls it mere superstition. “The priests and fortunetellers observe the character of the boys very closely. If they can see that he’s ‘heterosexual’ then they’ll blame it on black magic. But if they see feminine characteristics in the boy, then they push him towards adopting the saree and muthu (a white and red beaded necklace, similar to the mangalsutra that married Hindu women wear)”. But whether the divinity is real or a hoax is less important to the purpose that such superstition serves for gender non-conforming men in the region. Women, on the other hand, are not allowed any such anomaly to transgress gender roles.
Feminist anthropologist Lucinda Ramberg similarly describes how daughters from Dalit families are given up to the goddess. She writes, “When devdasis describes how they came to be tied be tied to Yellamma they often detail being afflicted by terrible skin ailments, fever, persistent and inexplicable illness worsened by medical treatments, deaths in the family, loss of livestock, failure of crops, serious quarrelling within the family, and stubborn poverty. This is the trouble (kaadaata) of Yellamma, her play (aata) and it is often described as a divine possession.”
While hijras may be the face of the transgender community in mainstream Indian society, they don’t command the kind of respect that jogappas enjoy in North Karnataka. Rafiq, who ran away from home and joined a hijra household in the vicinity when she was seven, said that she has received more respect after being touched by the goddess. The story of her transition to a jogappa goes back to a train journey she took to Munirabad in the Koppal district of Karnataka, where upon seeing the temple of Hulligemma from her berth, a fear enveloped her and she subsequently fell sick. She said she went to the doctors but no one could cure her. “After the goddess came upon me, people started seeing me with a more positive gaze,” she adds. Thereafter, her family, who used to hit her for behaving like a girl while she lived with them, developed a different attitude. As Rafiq puts it, “If there’s money, family accepts. If there isn’t, then you live a lonely life”.
A 2015 report titled ‘Jogappa – Gender, identity and the politics of exclusion’ conducted by a Bangalore-based non profit, Aneka, explains why. “Devotees (or ‘jogis’) honour the Goddess by supplicating earthly avatars, offering them money, food, grain, clothing and so on”. Seen as a conduit to the goddess, jogappas make a living every Tuesday and Friday by begging in temples and neighbourhoods for alms and gifts from devotees and temple tourists. It is no surprise that families have a clear economic incentive in accepting a goddess in their midst for the reverence she brings and the gifts that come with it.
For a transgender community in India, there are two distinct advantages of being a jogappa. One, as per tradition, Yellamma chooses a devotee. The fact that becoming a jogappa is not seen as a matter of choice (unlike for hijras) is an important one. Two, they are all of a sudden perceived with a halo of divinity and in possession of supernatural powers of healing and fortune telling. This elevated status in society means they don’t need to leave their homes to self-express and often don’t break away from their families to join a new familial structure. But then, a change like this in the family is never smooth sailing.
Bhimmava’s parents passed away early, leaving her with a younger brother and an infant sister. She had adopted the muthu at an age she herself can’t recall. Her brother would often get drunk and abuse her. He wanted to occupy Bhimmava’s house that she had built by labouring in the zamindar’s (landlord) house in her village in Dharwad. Heavily inebriated, one night he barged through her door, breaking everything inside the house and knocking over the Yellamma shrine (that Jogappas are usually seen carrying on their heads when they go out begging) in a fit of anger.
His body went into paralysis after this incident. His mother-in-law, a Jogatthi (cisgender female devotees who operate in the patriarchal set up) told the brother that by kicking the shrine that belonged to a Jogappa, he had insulted the goddess. “His only cure was to ask for forgiveness from the goddess but he refused to do so. After that, he mysteriously went to the fields one day and consumed poison,” Bhimmava told me.
Jogappas’ divinity is a privilege, but it comes at a price. The practice of nirvana (castration), which is common among hijras, is explicitly forbidden for them. While devdasis also marry the goddess to live a life of servitude to any of the three Hindu goddesses – Yellamma, Hulligemma or Matangi – the young Dalit girls are not expected to live as sexual ascetics as jogappas are.
Why the chastity belt is meant exclusively for jogappas goes into the folklore of Renuka, the wife of an ascetic sage, Jamadagni. One day, she failed to bring home water from the pond. Aroused by young Gandharva men, the power of her chastity failed to hold the wet clay together to collect water. Jamadagni ordered his sons to behead her, then later revived her on a boon granted to Parashuram, the only son who displayed unquestioning loyalty to his father. The other two sons, who refused to behead their mother, were cursed to lose their masculinity because of their ‘cowardice’. She became Yellamma and the cursed sons, jogappas.
Much the way Yellamma’s chastity held the wet clay, jogappas’ divine powers are bound to a chaste penis. Castration, therefore, is forbidden, as it would be the ultimate sacrilege of their devotion to her. Durgamma is the only jogappa in Hubli who went against the grain in her own community and paid a hefty penalty of Rs 20,000 and ten grams of gold to a jogappa leader in her community (whose role isn’t the same as a hijra guru or the priest at Saundatti temple).
How does a rigid tradition allow her to buy her divinity back? Rajratna explains that the hijra culture is growing and dominating over the jogappa culture simply because they earn more. “They’ve relaxed some of their conservative restrictions about castration since they also realised that a livelihood dependent on the jogappa culture is becoming less feasible in the modern times,” he said. The fine taken for castration is equally divided between the jogappa and the hijra community.
Naturally, there’s a heavy penalty for jogappas found to be engaging in sex work, forcing them to keep their affairs clandestine. Aneka’s report said, “That they are posited as sexually inactive makes it more challenging to reach out to them and offer them HIV preventive services”. The report also found that a large majority of them do not use condoms or get tested regularly. Moreover, Rajratna added, “Being traditional healers themselves, they tend to leave other health issues to natural remedies or prayer”.
While she didn’t admit to engaging in sex work, Durgamma hesitantly told us about a boyfriend who had left her a few years ago. “If people found out that I’m promiscuous or have sexual relations with men, my name will be tainted in the village”. Much like society around her, it’s important for jogappas like Durgamma to keep up appearances to be able to live with her family in a residential village.
While jogappas live in a subaltern culture that allows for gender transgression, they are endangered by livelihood options that are becoming increasingly limited. Jogappas are barred from begging in shops or public places. If jogappas get divinity, hijras get their turf. Jogappas can’t earn commercially from begging and have fewer opportunities. The Aneka report notes, “the belief in the divine powers of jogappas has begun to gradually erode. Without their connection to the goddess, jogappas would no longer be able to earn through puja and joga”.
Since her nirvana, Durgamma has chosen to identify as a jogatthi, not a hijra or a jogappa. Even though she paid the price for her divinity, her desire to get laser hair removal done on her body hair is in preparation for commercial sex work, the only guarantor of her sustenance.
As big towns like Hubli-Dharwad transform into smart cities, homogenous faith-based communities which support the jogappa culture will soon disappear. With changing demographics and jogappas appropriating the hijra culture, their divinity could soon fade away into folklore.