She was 13 when her identity as an intersex person, or kinnar, was revealed to her family and friends and life was never the same again for chirpy Bhavani.
Ostracised, she dropped out of school. Her parents, too, thought of her as an embarrassment. A year on, the teenager walked out, never to return to her family. Her journey took her to another religion, and thereon to Mecca. Years later, the SC’s recognition of the third gender became a turning point in her life.
Bhavani today stands tall as perhaps the only Hindu monk to be a Haji. A devotee of Kali since childhood, before she embraced Islam, Bhavani’s life came full circle at the Kumbh Mela this year. In 2015, Bhavani became Bhavani Nath, a founder member of the Kinnar Akhara.
Bhavani embraced Islam before re-converting to Hinduism
Next battle: Separate toilet for the third gender
But it was not easy. The Akhil Bhartiya Akhara Parishad refused to give it the stature of a separate 14th akhara. The resistance kept this group of flamboyant eunuch sanyasins from participating in the shahi snan, or taking out a ceremonial ride.
But slowly the Kinnar Akhara won respect, and by 2017, Bhavani was her akhara’s mahamandaleshwar for north India. Ahead of the Kumbh this year, the formidable and foremost of all akharas, the Junas, took the Kinnar akhara under its wing, the latter merging into it and walking proud for the shahi snan earlier this month. “It is not easy to cope with an identity crisis. I became a stranger to many around me for no fault of mine,” said Bhavani, just 14 when she ran away from home.
Stability arrived when she came in contact with a kinnar guru, Haji Noori, in 2007. A new chapter ensued with her renaming. To the world, she was Shabnam who sang songs at the doors of Delhi’s elite. Soon, with her soaring influence, she says her rivals sought opportunities to attack her.
On her plans, Bhavani says her group wants a separate toilet for the third gender. “We have issues going to normal loos. Why can’t policy-makers have a different enclosure for us? This is our next battle,” she says.