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‘Nachchi’: A beacon of Sri Lanka’s indigenous Gender Identity

By: Isuru Parakrama

June 02, Colombo (LNW): As we celebrate PRIDE month commencing from June, in remembrance of the revolutionary Stonewall Riots in the United States in the 60s that opened eyes wide to many people of the rights of people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions and sex characteristics (SOGIESC), let us take a moment to pay tribute to ‘Nachchi’, a gender identity perceived to be the sole indigenous non-heteronormative queer identity found in Sri Lanka.

In the vibrant tapestry of Sri Lanka’s diverse cultural landscape, queer identities are often being overlooked, due to various reasons. These reasons could either be politically motived or otherwise, developing a cloaking effect over their existence and plunging them into the non-recognition we, as a society, experience today.  

Nestled within the LGBTQIA+ community of Sri Lanka is a unique and indigenous gender identity known as the ‘Nachchi’ community. Originated from the hindu term ‘nautch‘ which roughly deciphered as ‘the dancer’, Nachchi is believed to be a community resided in Sri Lanka in the late 19th century, for the delivery of classic dancing performances for cultural events.

The Nachchi community, according to some activists, first resided in Bilinwatta, Kotahena area, and later spread island-wide. Their contributions to the cultural events of Sri Lanka are still recognised, however minimal, in areas such as Moratuwa, Murawatta, Hettiyawatta, Dehiwala, Kadirana, Negombo, and Kandana.

Some activists argue that the Nachchi identity, scientifically analysed, is a congruity which stands in between an effeminate gay man and a transgender woman, whilst others speak for their uniqueness breaking the ‘binary norm’ of being a man or a woman to be recognised as a ‘third gender,’ similar to that of Hijra people living in India.

However, there is no substantial evidence to suggest that being Nachchi is an exemplification for being homosexual. 

Gender transformation has historically been prevalent within ancient Asian culture, where a blurred line between biological sex (or assigned sex at birth) and cultural gender identities often persists. In Sri Lanka, individuals identifying as Nachchi have deep-rooted connections with a Hindu goddess of fertility, with folklore suggesting that they willingly forego their own fertility to bestow blessings upon others. 

However, any evidence suggesting a direct link between the identity of Hijra, who attain a semi-sacred status allowing them to bestow blessings upon newlyweds and newborns, and Nachchi remains elusive.

Notwithstanding the division of opinions within the queer community about their origin, the Nachchi community is unanimously agreed upon as a testament to the resilience and diversity of gender expressions in the Sri Lankan society.

The Nachchi community is revered for its distinct identity, encompassing individuals who identify outside the conventional ‘gender binary’. Whilst the concept of gender diversity has long been embedded in Sri Lankan culture, the Nachchi community emerges as a manifestation of this ancient tradition.

The Nachchi community, according to activists, had happened to have traditions of their own, one in which a Nachchi person is welcomed to their community via the holding of a ceremony called the ‘Dehi Mangalyaya‘. The Dehi Mangalyaya ceremony is perceived to be a tradition similar to how the Sri Lankan society holds ceremonies when a girl has her first period of menstruation, commonly known as ‘Big Girl’ parties.

Apart from serving as a cultural link to the Sri Lankan society, Nachchi people are known for their contributions to wedding ceremonies as dancers, hair and make-up dressers and cooks, perahera as dancers, funeral events as cooks, and Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebration as cooks and traditional drum (Rabana) players. Nachchis play a pivotal role in Sri Lankan ‘Jogi‘ and ‘Baila‘ dancing mostly evident in public events.

The relationship between Nachchi and dancing is quite unique, that according to activists they had happened to have their own dancing style called ‘Item Paha‘ (The Five Items). These items include the playing of the roles of five types of women in society in events welcoming the community. They are:

  • Westen Gaani’ (a western woman),
  • Manamaali‘ (a Sri Lankan bride),
  • Wedakaara Gaani‘ (a woman servant),
  • Thenmangu‘ (a Tamil woman), and
  • Thasi‘, or ‘Nalangana‘ (woman dancer for pleasure).

Nevertheless, the Nachchi community is also recognised within the sex-worker community, due to which they are often being labelled as sex workers, subject to discrimination, harassment, and persecution by queerphobic individuals, but quite notably, by the law enforcement officers.

Due to the widespread scientific discoveries of non-binary gender identities, young people of diverse gender identities and expressions in Sri Lanka today hardly recognise themselves as Nachchi. With scientific classifications categorising the Nachchi identity under the transgender umbrella for academic purposes, the Nachchi community continues to remain cloaked, only to be recognised by the activists and long-standing associates and allies of this colourful community.

In Sri Lankan cinema, it is believed that people of Nachchi identities contributed to short dancing and comedic roles, serving as extras in the face of camera. Movies such as ‘Cherio Captain,’ ‘Vala In London,’ and ‘Paaradise‘ are believed to have featured actual Nachchi people.

At the heart of Nachchi identity lies a profound sense of belonging and authenticity. Members of this community navigate their gender journey with courage and conviction, embracing their true selves in a society often bound by rigid gender norms. 

Through their lived experiences, they challenge prevailing stereotypes and pave the way for greater acceptance and understanding.

Despite their cultural significance, the Nachchi community continues to face challenges and discrimination in their everyday lives. Stigmatisation and marginalisation remain persistent barriers, hindering their access to fundamental rights and opportunities. 

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the Nachchi community’s rights and visibility within Sri Lankan society. Advocacy efforts and grassroots initiatives have sought to amplify their voices and address systemic injustices. 

Through education and advocacy, strides are being made towards fostering a more inclusive and equitable society for all.

Priest, Woman and Mother: Broadening the Horizons through Transgender/nachchi Identities in Sri Lanka“; Kaushalya Ariyarathne; Centre for the Study of Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Colombo

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