LGBTQ+ Themes in South Asian Literature: Shikhandini to Shikhandi

by SAHF Team

This is the story of Shikhandi – the Female-Male-Transgender Prince (son of King Drupada), who plays a pivotal role in the Mahābhāratam. Shikandi was the cause of Bhishma’s (a relative of both the Kauravas and the Pandavas) death due to Shikandi’s birth as a female and a certain vow that Bhishma had taken.

To defeat Bhishma, King Drupada (of the Pānchala Kingdom) desired a son from Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva promised him that a daughter will be born to him, who will later turn into a man. A daughter – Shikhandini – was born to him, yet Drupada raised her as a male child. She was openly declared to be a boy since birth – only her parents were aware of her true gender as a female. They paid close attention to her and ensured that she received the same privileges and education as a boy. Shikhandini, herself, felt that she was ‘Male’, but experienced a dissonance in her sex. (This can be an allusion to the gender dysphoria that many transgenders face due to a difference between their sex and gender.) Shikhandini was taught the scriptures, the arts, and she received warfare and weaponry training from the sage Drona.

Eventually, as Shikhandini finished puberty, her parents were anticipating her sex-change as predicted by Lord Shiva. She was becoming more aware of her sex and dissonance with her gender. Her anxious parents wanted to reaffirm her ‘maleness’ to fulfil the prophecy of Shiva. In their dilemma, they decided to marry her to another princess – the daughter of King Hiranyavarmana – in a ‘sham’ lesbian wedding. The princess soon discovered, along with consultation with her nurses, that Shikhandini was not a man, but a woman. A wrathful Hiranyavarmana, for this deceptive ‘same-sex marriage’ trick played by Drupada, decided to attack Drupada. He was intent on slaying both Drupada and Shikhandini for this trickery! A fearful Drupada consulted his queen in sorrow with the aim of protecting his daughter. He was also in dilemma of a war that could destroy his kingdom. Both husband and wife were deeply saddened and confused of what to do. Shikhandini reflected and felt that this situation arose due to her. She decided to leave the kingdom to put an end to her life and so entered the forests. (This entire scene is reminiscent of how many parents, in today’s society, marry off their gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender child with the hope of their sexuality disappearing with marriage. Like in many of these cases, the sexuality/gender is discovered, and the family is shamed by the other family. The son/daughter then also feels depressed and suicidal.)

Shikhandini found a mansion in which she decided to give up food and water. A male Yaksha (nature spirit) named ‘Sthunakarna’ appeared with the intention of granting a boon. After Shikhandini recounted her struggles and urged him to save her family from destruction, Sthunakarna decided to exchange his manhood (including genitalia) with Shikhandini’s womanhood. Shikhandini became the strong male warrior Shikhandi, and the Yaksha became a female. There was one condition though: This exchange would only last one day, after which Shikhandini would become a woman again. As this was suffice to prove her ‘masculinity’ to her ‘wife’, Shikhandi returned home, and his father Drupada was overjoyed. Through the use of his female servants, the King Hiranyavarmana, realized that Shikhandi was indeed a male and then rebuked his daughter for suspecting otherwise.
Shikhandi was finally comfortable with both his gender and sex, and he lived happily with his wife. Meanwhile, the King of Yakshas – Kubera – had cursed Sthunakarna to remain as a woman until the death of Shikhandi. Why? Because out of shyness, Sthunakarna did not greet Kubera, which had angered him. So when Shikhandi came to return his male gender, Sthunakarna explained the situation. Shikhandi was overjoyed that he could be a man for as long as he lived! Thereafter, under Drona, Shikhandi learnt all the arts of warfare and became a Mahāratha (warrior capable of fighting 72,000 soldiers!).

So how did Shikhandi lead to Bhisma’s demise? Well Bhishma explained that as Shikhandi is ‘strīpūrvam’ – born as a woman, and later converted to a man – and the rebirth of Princess Ambā, he will not fight him even if he approaches him to fight in war. Bhishma had made a vow that he will never fight one who, ‘is a woman, had been a woman, has a feminine name, or resembles a woman’. This laid the foundations of Bhishma’s future fall due to Shikhandi’s birth as a female.

This story covers the themes of:

  1. Gender dysphoria between sex and gender.
  2. Dilemma of parents in revealing sexual/gender identity and steps taken by the individual to protect themselves and their family.
  3. Concept of sex-change to align one’s sex with one’s gender.



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