Laxmi Narayan Tripathi expertly applies eyeliner while discussing religious matters with Hindu holy men and attending to an endless stream of visitors eager to touch her feet and receive her blessing.
Among India's best-known transgender activists, a Bollywood reality TV star, and a former Asia Pacific representative to the United Nations, Ms. Tripathi is capitalizing on the ruling Hindu nationalist party's emphasis on the nation's Hindu heritage to claim a place for transgender people among its religious elite, stirring both admiration and controversy.
Her newly formed Kinnar akhara, or monastic order, has set up camp at the weekslong Kumbh Mela festival, a series of ritual bathings that rotates among four Indian sites every three years and draws tens of millions of Hindu pilgrims.
The Kinnar camp on the edge of the festival grounds is adorned with images of Ardhanari, a half-male, half-female composite of the Hindu god Shiva and his consort Parvati, that religious scholars date to the 1st century.
Although hijras – the term Indians use to describe eunuchs, androgynous and transgender people – were an integral part of the ancient Hindu society described in the religion's Vedas scriptures, they have been marginalized in modern India, forced out of their family homes as children, and often sold into sex trafficking.
Hindu families have continued ancient practices of paying hijras to dance at births and marriages, considering their presence auspicious, while simultaneously denying them access to these same rites.
One of the most orthodox orders, the Juna akhara, invited Kinnar to take part in the Kumbh's first royal bath – a saint-led procession into the river – on Jan. 15. Since then, Tripathi has been pushing for recognition by the umbrella group that sets rules for the akharas.
Tripathi, born a Brahmin, the highest Hindu caste according to the Vedas, said she was inspired to form the akhara after a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that found transgender citizens were a "third gender" due all rights and protections accorded by India's Constitution.
"I was not at all religious. But after the court verdict, I had a space already in my religion, so why should I see another religion than the one which I was born? What was mine had to be mine. We decided to reclaim it," she said.
Unlike other akharas, which are only open to Hindu men, Kinnar, founded in 2015, is open to all genders and religions. On the Kumbh's first bathing day, Tripathi led a train of 21 tractor chariots from their tent camp to the bathing ghats at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and mythical Saraswati rivers, with devotees following on foot, as observers showered them with flower petals.
One notable absence: naga sadhus, the ash-smeared Hindu ascetics – the onetime-armed defenders of the faith – naked except for prayer beads and garlands of marigolds who lead the akharas' procession on royal bathing days.
"We have stripped enough in our lives, let us just have fun," Tripathi said.
They fully clothed bathed in the presence of Juna members.
"For them to bathe with one of the oldest and most orthodox of the monastic orders, I consider that quite revolutionary," said Ashok Row Kavi, chairman of the LGBTQ advocacy group Humsafar Trust.
Mr. Kavi said, though, that Tripathi had "put herself between a rock [and] a hard place" by challenging the akharas' all-male order on the one hand and, on the other, by siding with Hindu nationalists in their call for a temple to the Hindu god King Ram to be built on the site of a 16th-century mosque that Hindu hard-liners destroyed in 1992. Many hijras are Muslim.
The temple campaign is part of a broader effort by members and sympathizers of India's ruling Bharita Janata Party – led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – to establish Hinduism as the center of Indian heritage, downplaying the multiculturalism that resulted from India's place on the old Silk Road and the hundreds of years of rule by Muslim Mughal kings and the British empire.
Kinnars celebrated their inclusion at Kumbh as a victory, but greater acceptance by Hinduism's most powerful leaders – in the religious and political spheres – remains to be seen.
Mahant Suresh Das, the head of Digambar akhara, one of the largest monastic orders, said a statute limits the number of orders to 13.
"Moreover, they are hijra," he said. "They are neither man nor woman. The nature has punished them for the misdeeds of their previous lives. We are pure who follow [ancient Hindu religion]. The Kinnars are impure."
The Kinnars traveled to Prayagraj, recently renamed by the Hindu nationalist-led Uttar Pradesh state government from the Mughal-era Allahabad, in October 2017, when 60 transgender people were ordained as monks.
Kinnar saint Pushpa Maa said being ordained gave new meaning to her life, "which was otherwise reduced to seeking alms by dancing in marriage or during birth of a child," she said, adding, "I used to beg in trains or main crossings of the city. [Tripathi] helped us to erase that image. We are no longer a hijra but part of an organization which is fighting for our religious rights."
This post was reported by The Associated Press. Biswajeet Banerjee contributed from Lucknow, India.