An isolated and shunned community of castrated men, transvestites and transsexuals mourned Monday for 15 comrades killed when a fire blazed through a makeshift tent where they had gathered to honor deceased friends.
The fire Sunday night sent the thousands of gathered eunuchs into a panic as people struggled to escape the burning tent, witnesses and police said. In addition to those killed, at least 36 others were injured, most of them elderly.
The term eunuch, or hijra, is used in India to describe a community of people who identify themselves as neither male nor female but as members of a third gender. They traditionally survive by begging, dancing at weddings or blessing newborn babies and are frequently subjected to discrimination.
While the community of 700,000 is often mocked, eunuchs' prayers and good wishes _ and curses if they are angered _ are considered powerful by most Indians.
Most eunuchs are shunned by their birth families and live together in communal houses led by a guru or master.
Thousands of eunuchs from around India came to an east Delhi fairground over the weekend for an occasional gathering of the community.
"We were just here to pray for our dead members and the well being of all the children in India and everywhere else," said Sita, who like many eunuchs uses just one name.
"It's one of the few times when we can all meet each other."
The gathering included both Hindus and Muslims and prayers and rituals from both religious groups were part of the ceremony, Sita said.
The tent was packed Sunday and the fire caused people to flee in a frenzy, said Babli, another eunuch.
"The older hijras got hurt in the running and panic," Babli 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 outside searched for news of their friends and consoled each other.
The members of India's eunuch community are so used to be ignored or reviled that they lashed out journalists gathered at the site of the tragedy.
"They're all here just to mock us and make a joke out of us," Babli said, before being dragged away by friends and chastised for speaking to a reporter. "Even the fire brigade took an hour to reach here. By that time so many of our friends were dead."
Fire officials said they reached the scene as soon as they could.
Officials were investigating the cause of the fire, believed to be an electrical short.