Eunuchs of the Subcontinent

Eunuchs have a history that spans back thousands of years. It is well known that eunuchs played an important role during the Mughal era in the Indian Subcontinent. They had access to royal palaces where they were employed as guards to the harems, administrators, teachers, treasurers, and loyal servants.

One eunuch of great importance, mentioned in "The Imperial Treasuries," the A'in-i Akbari, 1590, was called I'timad Khan, a title bestowed on him for his trustworthiness. His real name was Phul Malik. He was a commander of one thousand. I'timad Khan took part in the conquest of Bengal, and in 1576, he was appointed governor of Bhakkar. (Jaffrey, p. 37)

Eunuchs seem to have their roots in both, the Hindu period, as well as the Islamic period in the history of the Indian subcontinent. Louise Brown wrote.

Ambiguous sexuality has an acknowledged tradition in Hinduism: deities in Hindu mythology have male and female essences, some transforming from one gender to another. The idealized hijra is an ascetic linked with a goddess, and with fertility, and has a recognized power to bless or to damn. (Brown, p. 49)

Regarding the Islamic history of eunuchs, Brown wrote:

Islam considers homosexuality to be an abomination, but the Muslim world has a history of third genders and eunuchs playing important roles in society and in the courts of Muslim rulers. A few eunuchs were born with ambiguous genitals, but the vast majority were castrated either as children or young men. They were valuable as loyal guards, teachers, and administrators, or as slaves who could be used for sexual recreation by adult men. (Brown, p. 49)

Eunuchs were also sold as slaves. Marco Polo wrote in The Travels of Marco Polo, 1271-91:

Let us now pass on to talk of another province, whose name is Bengal. This also lies towards the south on the confines of India. In the year 1290, when I, Marco Polo, was at the court of the Great Khan, it had not yet been conquered; but the Khan's armies were already there and engaged in the conquest. This province has a king and language of its own. The people are grossly idolatrous. The province contains many eunuchs and supplies them to the nobles and lords of the surrounding territories...The Indians come here and buy the eunuchs...who are very plentiful here because any prisoners that are taken are immediately castrated and afterwards sold as slaves. So merchants buy many eunuchs in this province and also many slave girls and then export them for sale in many other countries. (Jaffrey, p.25)

During the time of Emperor Jahangir, it was a custom to castrate young boys, in order to sell them to the province governors, in exchange for money. Emperor Jahangir wrote in Tazak-i- Jahangiri, 1607 - 27:

In Hindustan, especially in the province of Sylhet, which is a part of Bengal, some inhabitants emasculate their sons and hand them over to the province governor in lieu of payment in nature for their taxes. This custom has spread to other provinces. Every year, innocent children are thus mutilated for life and rendered incapable to procreate. This practice has become common. I have proclaimed an edict so that, from today on, this abominable practice be abolished and the trade of young eunuchs cease. Islam Khan and the other governors of Bengal have received very strict orders to severely punish those persons guilty of such crimes. I hope that by the grace of God, this custom will cease completely and that no one will dare undertake such an odious and unprofitable practice. (Jaffrey, p. 47)

Apparently, eunuchs were in high demand, especially among the Muslim aristocracy in India, as well as in other countries. An Englishwoman named Mrs. Hassan 'Ali Meer, wrote in Observations on the Mussulmans of India, in 1832:

The eunuchs are very much in demand with the aristocracy. They are generally very loyal and very attached to the interests of their employers. They are the favorite confidantes of their masters and mistresses and rarely abuse their confidence. They are admitted at all hours of the day and night in the zenanas, and often become rich, thanks to the generosity of their masters. Many eunuchs at Oudh have acquired an elevated social position and have had many honours and distinctions bestowed upon them. (Jaffrey, p. 189)

In the olden days, eunuchs enjoyed a high station in society, very unlike the eunuchs of today, who are shunned by society. Eunuchs used to be respected as loyal guards, teachers of liberal and military arts, warriors, treasurers, and faithful servants.

A young Venetian man named Niccolo Manucci wrote in Storia do Mogor; or Mogul India, in 1653-1708:

Among the principal eunuchs, there is always one set above the rest who directs and looks after everything that goes on in the mahal. The man holding this office is largely esteemed by the king. He has a large allowance, has charge of the treasury, is master of the short, it is he who has charge of all expenditures...The nazir generally has under him other eunuchs, young and old, of which some have access to the mahal, either to carry bulletins or other messages, as the service of the person employing them requires. There are others who are posted at the doors to see who comes in and out of the mahal. They search everything with great care to stop the entry of bhang, wine, ophiom, nutmegs (noix muscades), or other drugs which could intoxicate, for all the women in the mahals love much such beverages. Nor do they permit the entry into the place of radishes, cucumbers, or similar vegetables that I cannot name. When any women come to pay a visit or otherwise, if they are not known they are searched, no respect being paid either to the position or rank of the person. What forces the eunuchs to such strict measures is the continual fear in which they exist that some young man in disguise might enter in female dress. When masons or carpenters, or other workmen are wanted to carry out any job, their names are registered at each gate they pass through; the descriptive marks on their faces and so forth, are taken down. A paper showing all this is delivered to other eunuchs, who are required to conduct them out in the same way, and to take care that they are the same persons with same personal marks.

When the princes...have reached the age of five, they are taught to read and write the paternal tongue, which is the Turtan, or the ancient speech of the Turks. After this they are made over to learned men and courteous eunuchs, who bring them up with great strictness, and teach them the liberal and military arts...Usually to amuse them they have acted before them many comedies or their teachers conduct before them legal argumentations, actions of law, or some imbroglio, after which judgments are pronounced. They show them combats and fights...The whole with a view to their having, should they every obtain rank, some knowledge of the world's business. (Jaffrey, p. 83-84)

An instance has been recorded in history of when a woman of the harem was caught with a eunuch. Louise Brown wrote:

When the British envoy Sir Thomas Roe met the great Mughal Jahangir in 1616, he mentioned in his diary that a woman of the harem had been caught with a eunuch, one of the castrated males who were allowed access to the emperor's women. The eunuch was cut to ribbons and the unfaithful woman was buried in earth up to her armpits and left in the sun, moaning about the pain in her head until, eventually, she died. (Brown, p. 31)

Francois Bernier wrote in Travels in the Mogul Empire, 1656-68, about the lovers of the emperors Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb's daughters, and the malice of the eunuchs. Zia Jaffrey quoted Bernier:

The daughter of emperor Shah Jahan, wrote Bernier, "although confined to the seraglio, and guarded like other women, received the visits of a young man of no exalted consequence, but of agreeable person...Shah Jahan was apprised of her guilt, and resolved to enter her apartments at an unusual and unexpected hour. The intimation of his approach was too sudden to allow her the choice of more than one place of concealment. The affrighted gallant sought refuge in the capacious cauldron used for the bath. The king's countenance denoted neither surprise nor displeasure; he discoursed with his daughter on ordinary topics, but finished the conversation by observing that the state of her skin indicated a neglect of her customary ablutions, and that it was proper she should bathe. He then commanded the eunuchs to light a fire under the cauldron, and did not retire until they gave him to understand that the wretched victim was no more."

A generation later, the lovers of Aurangzeb's daughter met a similar fate: "Rauchenara Begum, after having for several days enjoyed the company of one of these young men, whom she kept hidden, committed him to the care of her female attendants, who promised to conduct their charge out of the seraglio under cover of night. But whether they were detected, or only dreaded a discovery, or whatever else the reason, the women fled, and left the terrified youth to wander alone about the gardens. Here he was found and taken before Aurangzeb; who, when he had interrogated him very closely, without being able to draw any other confession of guilt from him other than that he had scaled the walls, decided that he should be compelled to leave the seraglio in the same manner. But the eunuchs, it is probable, exceeded their master's instructions, for they threw the culprit from the top of the wall to the bottom...Aurangzeb determined, however, to inflict a severe and exemplary punishment upon the eunuchs; because it was essential, not only to the honour of his house, but even to his personal safety, that the entrance into the seraglio should be vigilantly guarded." Wrote Bernier of Aurangzeb, "It be the general opinion that he cannot long escape the power and the malice of the eunuchs." (Jaffrey, p. 97-98)

Niccolo Manucci, the young Venetian man (mentioned earlier) traveled to India in the late 1600s, and joined the forces fighting against the son of emperor Shah Jahan. Eventually those forces lost to Aurangzeb, and Manucci had no interest in working for the new emperor, who had murdered his brothers and imprisoned his father; but in order to travel freely, he often had to consult the court of Aurangzeb. He most often came across the eunuch I'tibar Khan (also mentioned earlier) whom he loathed, and his contempt for the eunuch caused him to include in his three-volume travelogue a brief history of the eunuchs of India at the time. (Jaffrey, p. 65)

Zia Jaffrey quoted Manucci describing I'tibar Khan's meeting with his parents and some qualities of the eunuchs of that time:

"It is easy," wrote Manucci, "to understand the nature of this eunuch from what he did to his parents. They came from the country of Bengal as far as Agrah, having heard that their son was governor of the fortress. They anticipated the receipt of something to help them in their old age and poverty. On reaching the gate, they stayed there several days, the door-keepers not consenting to permit their entrance, until they swore they were the parents of the governor. Thereupon came a door-keeper at the time of full audience (I was there myself), and reported to the eunuch that an old man and an old woman had been at the door for several days. As they have been refused entrance, the old people swore they were the parents of his excellency.

"For a little while I'tibar Khan sat silent, like one to whom something has happened that he does not like, then said under his breath, 'Are the wretches still alive?' He ordered them to be brought into the audience-hall. On their appearing, he inquired angrily who they were, what their names were, where they came from, what was their village. To all this they replied in such a manner that by this time I'tibar Khan could have no doubt that they were his parents. Recognizing that most certainly they were such, he said publicly to them: 'How have ye the temerity to come into my presence after you have consumed the price of my body, and having been the cause, by emasculating me, of depriving me of the greatest pleasures attainable in this world? Of what use are riches to me, having no sons to whom I could leave them? Since you were so cruel as to sell your own blood, let not my auditors think it strange if I betray anger against you.'

"He therefore ordered each to receive fifty stripes. Through the courage that inspired me, I took my parable and told him the story of Joseph and his rise to the greatest place in Egypt, and how God made use of the cruelty of his brothers to raise the patriarch to the highest dignity. Then I made the application to his case, so that, quieting down, he forgave them and ordered one hundred rupees to be given them, enjoining them never to appear again, for if they did, he would without fail take their lives.

"Let not the reader be astonished at the eunuch ordering into his presence his miserable, poverty-stricken parents, for it is against our nature to have arrived at high rank and yet not be annoyed at having to disclose the misery from which we started and allowing it to be found out that our progenitors were of lowly origin; but it is notorious that all eunuchs, grandees as they may be, have no other than poor and miserable progenitors, who out of absolute hunger have sold their sons. Nor do they themselves hold it out as otherwise, deriving hence occasion to vaunt themselves of their own high abilities and great deeds, through which they have risen to such rank.

"It was very revolting, the strange manner by which this eunuch treated his own parents, and angered thereby I resolved to leave Agrah. This eunuch was such a close-fisted fellow that it soon came to his selling the dung of his elephants and horses, thereby he made ten thousand rupees. With this money he bought an elephant, which one day escaping broke one of its legs, and the populace, who in Hindustan are very free of speech, began to shout as a joke that it was no wonder the elephant broke its leg, for it was an elephant made of dung. In spite of all this avarice, he built for a memorial during his government an outer wall...round the whole of Agrah Fort, which cost him a great deal of money, it being good work and decorative.

"Before setting out, since I'tibar Khan has given me occasion to speak of the race of eunuchs, I give here a short account of that sort of brute. It may be that everyone doesn't know what is meant by a eunuch, and may imagine they are like the eunuchs of Europe who are employed as singers...If they are rich they do not fail to have in their houses chosen women, with whom they have converse. If they cannot do this, owing to deficient income, they go in search of them in all directions, seeing that no doors are shut to them, nor do women hide from them.

"Among the other qualities of this sort of animal, one is their extreme covetousness in collecting gold, silver, diamonds, and pearls, and they are immeasurably avaricious. They are afraid to spend money even when it is necessary; fond of receiving, niggard in giving. Still, they are anxious to appear well dressed, and when they are astride a fine horse, they are as elated as if they were the greatest men in the world. Well may they hold themselves in such estimation, for they are the favourites of princesses, who are very liberal to them, in order to win them, and from time to time get permission to enjoy that of which I cannot speak. They are useful for the introduction secretly of men into the harem, and through them a husband's favour may be obtained. For the houses of the great are ordinarily under the direction of these persons.

"Another of their qualities is to be friendly to women and inimical to men, which may be from envy, knowing what they have been deprived of. The tongue and had of these baboons act together, being most licentious in examining everything, both goods and women, coming into the palace; they are foul in speech and fond of silly stories. Among all the Mohamedans they are ordinarily the strictest observers of the faith, although I knew some who did not fail to drink their little drop, and were fond of wine. These men are the spies for everything that goes on in secret, whereby they are always listening among the kings, princes, queens, and princesses. Fida'e Khan, aware of the character of these monsters, did not allow such to be employed in his house...he was indifferent to the fact that this sort of people are kept in the houses of princes and great men." (Jaffrey, p. 65-68)

The eunuchs were mostly Muslim converts. They had a sort of an association, a gathering - and they had a household system, and had been provided with land. Since they had their own palaces, their own association, and a society - just as brothel houses attract unprotected or helpless girls - they used to attract such helpless boys. They used to kidnap handsome young boys and made them impotent. (Jaffrey, p. 131-32)

Zia Jaffrey quoted Sir Richard Burton:

In 1845, when an Englishman, Sir Charles Napier, conquered and annexed a part of India which was known as the Sindh now mostly in Pakistan, he was disturbed to learn that his troops were being corrupted by brothels of an unusual nature. Wrote Sir Richard Burton: "It was reported to him that Karachi, a townlet of some two thousand souls and distant not more than a mile from camp, supported no less than three lupanars or bordels, in which not women but boys and eunuchs, the former demanding nearly double the price, lay for hire. Being the only British officer who could speak Sindi, I was asked indirectly to make enquiries and to report upon the subject; and I undertook the task on express condition that my report should not be forwarded to the Bombay Government, from whom supporters of the Conqueror's policy could expect favour, mercy or justice. Accompanied by a Munshi, Mirza Mohammed Hosayn of Shiraz, and habited as a merchant, Mizrah Abdullah the Bushiri passed many an evening in the townlet, visited all the porneia and obtained the fullest details, which were duly despatched to Government House. But the 'Devil's Brother' [Napier] presently quitted Sind leaving in his office my unfortunate official: this found its way with sundry other reports to Bombay and produced the expected result. A friend in the Secretariat informed me that my summary dismissal from the service had been formally proposed by one of Sir Charles Napier's successors, whose decease compels me parcere sepulto. But this excess of outraged modesty was not allowed."

Napier apparently destroyed the brothels "by putting down the infamous beasts who, dressed as women, plied their trade in the Meers time openly." (Jaffrey, p. 197-98)

According to the scholar Lawrence W. Preston, the presence of man-made eunuchs in India horrified the East India Company. The eunuchs claimed that they had a right to beg, and in some cases, a right to land or cash grants that had been held in perpetuity, given to them by Indian kings. The British, having assumed the rule of state from the Indian kings, did not wish to appear to be supporting the institution of eunuchs. (Jaffrey, p. 213)

The eunuchs were attracting young boys, engaging them in homosexual offences, so the British framed a law against these eunuchs, in that dressing as females and exhibiting themselves on the open streets and inciting the people became an offence. (Jaffrey, p. 133)

Zia Jaffrey quoted the Act about eunuchs from A Collection of the Acts, Passed by the Governor General of India in Council in the Year 1871:

In 1871, the British government in India passed a law against the hijras, which extended to all of its local governments, excluding the princely states. "Act No. XXVII...for the Registration of Criminal Tribes and Eunuchs," thus states:

24. The Local Government shall cause the following registers to be made and kept up by such officer as, from time to time, it appoints in this behalf:-

  • a register of the names and residences of all eunuchs residing in any town or place to which the Local Government specially extends this Part of this Act, who are reasonably suspected of kidnapping or castrating children, or of committing offences under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, or of abetting the commission of any of the said offences; and
  • a register of the property of such of the said eunuchs as, under the provisions herinafter contained, are required to furnish information as to their property.
The term 'eunuch' shall, for the purposes of this Act, be deemed to include all persons of the male sex who admit themselves, or on medical inspection clearly appear, to be impotent.

25. Any person deeming himself aggrieved by any entry made or proposed to be made in such register, either when the register is first made or subsequently, may complain to the said officer, who shall enter such person's name, or erase it, or retain it as he sees fit.

Every order for erasure of such person's name shall state the grounds on which such person's name is erased.

The Commissioner shall have power to review any order passed by such officer on such complaint, either on appeal by the complainant or otherwise.

26. Any eunuch so registered who appears, dressed or ornamented like a woman, in a public street or place, or in any other place with the intention of being seen from a public street or place,

or who dances or plays music, or takes part in any public exhibition, in a public street or place or for hire in a private house,

may be arrested without warrant, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

27. Any eunuch so registered who has in his charges, or keeps in the house in which he resides, or under his control, any boy who has not completed the age of sixteen years, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

28. The Magistrate may direct that any such boy shall be returned to his parents or guardians, if they can be discovered. If they cannot be discovered, the Magistrate may make such arrangements as he thinks necessary for the maintenance and education of such boy, and may direct that the whole or any part of a fine inflicted under section twenty-seven may be employed in defraying the cost of such arrangements.

The Local Government may direct out of what local or municipal fund so much of the cost of such arrangements as is not met by the fine imposed, shall be defrayed.

29. No eunuch so registered shall be capable
  • of being or acting as guardian to any minor,
  • of making a gift,
  • of making a will, or
  • of adopting a son
30. Any officer authorized by the Local Government in this behalf may, from time to time, require and eunuch so registered to furnish information as to all property, whether movable or immovable, or of to which he is possessed or entitled, or which is held in trust for him.

Any such eunuch intentionally omitting to furnish such information, or furnishing, as true, information on the subject which he knows, or has reason to believe, to be false, shall be deemed to have committed an offence under section one hundred and seventy-six or one hundred and seventy-seven of the Indian Penal Code, as the case may be.

31. The Local Government may, with the previous sanction of the Governor General in Council, make rules for the making and keeping up and charge of registers made under this Part of the Act. (Jaffrey, p. 231-33)

Thousands of eunuchs still live in India and Pakistan. The word 'hijra' is an umbrella term used in Pakistan to refer to hermaphrodites, transvestites, and transsexuals. Men are still castrated and dress up like women. Hijras still attend weddings and dance at houses where a baby is born. Male prostitution has long flourished in the cities of the sub-continent, and today about 10 percent of the dancing girls of Heera mandi are khusras. (Brown, p. 49)


  1. Brown, Louise. The Dancing Girls of Lahore. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.
  2. Jaffrey, Zia. The Invisibles, A Tale of the Eunuchs of India. Channel Islands, Great Britain: The Guernsey Press Co Ltd, 1996.