NEW DELHI (AP) — It was to be a rare moment of camaraderie and celebration for India's marginalized eunuchs. Thousands had traveled to New Delhi to participate in a ceremony to honor deceased friends and to pray for the health of all children.
Then a fire erupted in a huge makeshift tent Sunday night. Panic broke out and 15 eunuchs were killed and 36 others were injured, fire officials said.
The fire was likely caused by an electrical short, fire officials and witnesses said.
Acrid smoke hung in the air Monday and small groups of eunuchs were allowed to enter the cordoned-off area to salvage what was left of their belongings. Hundreds of others gathered outside to gather news of their friends and console each other.
The term eunuch, or hijra, is used in India to describe transvestites, transsexuals and others who identify themselves as neither male nor female but as a member of a third gender. Some have had their male genitalia removed. They traditionally survive by begging, dancing at weddings or blessing newborn babies and are frequently subjected to discrimination.
While the community is often mocked, their prayers and good wishes are considered powerful by most Indians.
India's eunuch population is estimated at about 700,000.
Most eunuchs are shunned by their birth families and live together in communal houses led by a guru or master.
The tent was packed Sunday and the fire caused people to run in panic, said Babli, who like many eunuchs uses just one name.
"The older hijras got hurt in the running and panic," Babli said.
Officials are investigating the cause of the fire.