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In all practical probabilities, eunuchs, natural born men with deformed or absent genitalia, or even castrated males, have existed as long as humans have. But the first documented mention is in the ninth century before Christ. The term itself is a derived word from Greek, meaning 'keeper of bed'. This was because in ancient Greece, eunuchs, or castrated males had the popular job of guarding harems.
In Asia, the practice in China, at the end of Ming dynasty, was at its peak. At that point there were almost 70,000 eunuchs living in the grand palace itself. They were in great demand as guards and for other worker positions in the palace premises, because they were men, but harmless. There numbers fell sharply thereafter, as the royals started dying off and by the 1960s, there were only 26 real eunuchs living in Beijing...of those who had served the royal family.
In India, Gods, demons and earthlings, eunuchs have been everywhere since times mythological. They were the form that Gods took for various devious means, they were cursed forms that humans were given, and they were supposed to have the power of the gods on their tongue. The epic of Lord Rama, Ramayana, talks of a legend - when Lord Rama was sent to exile, all the men and women from his country, Ayodhya, accompanied him to the forest. He stopped them all, urging the men and women to go back home. After 14 years when he came back, he saw some people still living at that spot. They were, neither men, nor women, so did not go home but waited for their king to come back. He blessed them and gave them the power of the word...that comes true once spoken! Indians still believe they have that power; such is the strength of mythology. That is the reason why there are about a million eunuchs in India, some natural, some others castrated (in a most horrendous manner), and they make a living out of their deformity.
But one often wonders, how does the tribe grow? There are a very large number of castrated males in the eunuch population, and then there are the children born with deformed genitalia. However, natural deformities are sometimes followed up by crude surgery to make the incomplete man a complete eunuch. In any case, once a child is born, the complex network of communication that the eunuch community in the Indian society enjoys makes sure they are present to take their pound of flesh. This also gives them an opportunity (traditionally), to check out the child's gender. If there is any problem, and the parents are still not ready to part with it, they do not push. But by the time the child is about twelve years old, they close in on the kill, and a deformed child is usually made to join their ranks.
The process of castration has been described as many journalists as a horrendous one, with crude scalpels and un-sterilized other instruments, but surprisingly, the mortality rate is very low.
The boy is kept in isolation for a few days and fed on opium and milk to induce a sort of anesthesia. Then, on a previously ordained day, his external genitalia are cut off with a knife and the bad blood is allowed to flow for a period of time. There are some more horrifying practices attached to make the eunuch a 'complete' one, the kind that does not merit description here. It will be sufficient to say that the process is painful enough to kill the faint of heart. However, at the end of it, they emerge as complete eunuchs, now ready to take their place among their tribe and earn a living - begging, cursing or peddling their body.
Yes, these are, in the current Indian scenario, the only means of livelihood for eunuchs. Most of them operate in the lowest rung of the society. They are beggars, though glorified because they use threats instead of cajoling. They also operate as prostitutes, but for preferences after women and boys.
In the Indian society, the eunuchs have a very important place during any social function. Weddings, and births merit special attention because these are the times when Indians normally look for blessings, and can do without curses. Groups of eunuchs reach the venue of the marriage or the home of a new mother and dance, sing, perform, asking to be paid. If one refuses to be paid, they threaten with curses, or the ultimate weapon, flash their deformed genitals. No one wants these kinds of things to happen, so most people just pay up. Eunuchs are supposed to take away bad luck, which is why they are encouraged to dance around a new house or around the bride and the groom in a marriage. People believe, even in grudgingly, that this takes away all the evil effects, and pay these eunuchs handsomely for this.
The eunuch community in India, however, is not without its regulations. The eunuch society is strictly hierarchical and divided into seven houses, each headed by a Nayak, with several Gurus under him. It is these gurus who regulate their daily life, control and run the community settlement, provide sustenance and also their social behavior. Which brings us to their biggest festival, which is covered by most people watchers across the world. The New Year of Tamil lunar calendar (the original Hindu calendar), Chitrai Purnima, sees a huge congregation of eunuchs from around the country, celebrating a myth from the Mahabharat. This is the story of marriage and widowhood in the same breath, at Koovagam, a sleepy little village 200 kms south of Chennai (old Madras). The myth talks about the story of a warrior who was selected to die during the war, but he had one wish, he wanted to marry before he died. The Pandavas could find no one to agree to marry the boy who was to die the next day, so Lord Krishna himself became a beautiful woman, Mohini, and agreed to marry him. True to the tale, the warrior died the next day and Mohini became a widow.
The story has appealed to eunuchs down the ages. Even today they celebrate the Arayanan festival at the temple, where the priest ties the nuptial thread (a mangalsutra that symbolizes marriage in South India), marrying them to the deity. The next day the marriage chain is cut and all the eunuchs become widows. There is a mourning period, and then they start looking for another mate.
In this social system, the process of castration or deforming to become a part of the eunuch tribe is sometimes the only release for a woman trapped in a man's body. There are any numbers of people who have preferred castration to a life of ambiguity. It may be the deep-rooted psyche that forces them to project themselves as eunuchs rather than an incomplete man or woman.