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India's Third Gender - Transgender Women in Hindu Culture

Sami Siva | India

For a 20-year-old transgender woman Tamil, making a living depends on sex work. Social stigma and marginalization all but bars her from traditional employment and left her no choice but to resort to sex work and occasional performances at village festivities and funerals. 

The existence of transgender women in India is not new. Ancient Hindu scriptures portray the role transgender woman played in the society; in Mahabharata, the great Hindu epic that serves as philosophical foundation of current Indian society, Krishna transforms into a woman in order to fulfill the last wish of prince Aravan, who sacrifices himself in the epic battle kurukshetra. In today's India, their role has been restricted mostly to providing blessings during weddings and childbirth, begging in public spaces and performing commercial sex work.

Despite the governments official recognition of the 'third gender', over one million transgender woman in India today face discrimination and continue to live on the fringes of society. Pulitzer Center grantees photojournalist Sami Siva and writer Michael Hayden offer a glimpse into their daily lives.

Sami Siva - Photojournalist on the project

Michael Edison Hayden - Reporter on the project

Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting - Funder of the project

While India’s transgender women have a documented history dating back to the Kama Sutra, they continue to live on the fringes of society. HIV/AIDS has plagued the transgender population for decades, yet these women are sometimes denied hospital care and treatment. In the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that acknowledges the existence of India’s third gender, Pulitzer Center grantees photojournalist Sami Siva and writer Michael Hayden traveled to Koovagam, one of the world’s largest transgender festivals, to profile some of India’s transgender women, and offer an intimate glimpse into their lives. Koovagam is a Hindu religious festival that finds its basis in a story from the Mahabharata in which Krishna transforms into a woman one night to marry Aravan, before the latter is sacrificed to an early death. The festival is more than just a cathartic ritual: It is also one of South India’s largest hubs for prostitution. Without any available avenues to find legitimate employment, sex work is often the only recourse transgender woman have to make money, putting them at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Sami Siva



Sami Siva, a Canadian photographer of Indian origin, has covered post-conflict, geopolitical and social-issue stories in Canada, the U.S., Eastern Europe, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and India.

He has received grants three times from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. His work has been published in The New York Times, TIME, The Globe and Mail, Report on Business Magazine, The National, Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), among others. His recent work has included a long-term photography project concerning India’s internal struggles in the context of ethnic identity and nationhood in addition to a global journalism fellowship at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto and is covering geopolitical instability in Eastern/Central Europe and Russian foreign policy. He is based in Prague.

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