Once pampered and indulged as the traditional guardians of princely harems and now scorned as deformed parasites of society, India's estimated 50,000 eunuchs are at a crossroads of survival in their shadowy half-world of superstition and extortion.

Doomed by sexual deformity to remain childless, the eunuchs are scouring the vast Indian subcontinent for fellow males born without genitals to keep the cult alive. They say family planning and a growing hostility in an increasingly modern society are threatening their existence, and that the little security they enjoy as a result of their tight-knit tribal structure is eroding.

"We are considered untouchable. Rather that I was born an animal than neither a man nor a woman," lamented Gulzar, 32, a heavily made-up, stylishly dressed eunuch whose name in Hindi means "blossoming garden" and who affects femininity.

Although in the days of princely harems, eunuchs often were inducted into their elite vocation by ritual castration, that practice has largely ended and the cult has gradually become, in effect, a loose fraternity of males who share the deformity of being born without genitals.

As the guardians of the ancient harems gradually died off--after being handsomely compensated by their masters with gifts of land and money--Indian males born without genitals began gravitating toward one another and forming loose tribes, the eunuchs here said.

Usually impoverished and without skills, they turned first to begging, then to "entertaining" at weddings and births for fees, replenishing their numbers by constantly being on the lookout for eunuchs born to parents seeking to shed a family stigma.

Interviewed with other members of his eunuch "family" in a dingy two-room house behind Turkman Gate in teeming Old Delhi, Gulzar offered an unusual glimpse into the secretive and often hostile cult.

He admitted that bands of garishly dressed eunuchs, tipped by a network of spying household servants, appear at weddings and births to ply their trade of superstition, although he bristled at the notion that it amounts to extortion.

Appearing uninvited at wedding parties, the eunuchs routinely make a nuisance of themselves by dancing to loud drums and tambourines and threatening to invoke curses on the first-born child unless paid an "entertainment" fee of whatever the traffic will bear.

Usually the payment is 101 rupees, about $10. Once paid off, the eunuchs depart, leaving their blessings on the bride and groom and their future progeny, while making a note to reappear nine months later.

The same cacophonous ritual is enacted at birth parties, except that the eunuchs usually demand to examine newborn males in the hope that they may find one without genitals. The fee exacted at the birth of a normal male usually is 101 rupees, while a baby girl fetches 10.

India--particularly the impoverished rural areas where 85 percent of the nearly 800 million people live--is rife with superstitions handed down through generations. The consequences can be tragic.

Even human sacrifices, usually of children, to appease evil spirits sometimes occur. In Kamasin, a remote village in Uttar Pradesh, a man who had acquired a reputation for being able to cut a snake in two and join it together again decapitated his 6-year-old son in the mistaken belief that he could restore the child and therefore please mystical forces.

A 15-year-old Gujarati girl who fell ill was referred by her father to a witch doctor, who forced her to eat chunks of burning coal to exorcise an evil spirit. The girl nearly died.

In Ambitghar, a dusty Maharashtra village, an epizootic killing the cattle was blamed on some villagers suspected of being witches. Their feet, foreheads and tongues were burned with red-hot irons by a local faith healer.

Families suspected of harboring evil spirits have been burned at the stake, although some such cases have been traced to caste tensions, local rivalries or greed for power.

But India's eunuchs are motivated more by profit, and they are frank about it. Gita, dressed in a bright red sari and adorned with bangles and a jeweled nose pin, said most of the 40 or 50 eunuchs in his neighborhood of Old Delhi earn about $100 per month, although police authorities put the figure at up to $4,000 for some large groups that tour the countryside.

"We have to dance to survive. What else can we do?," Gita asked.

Gulzar, who said he was given to a tribe of eunuchs by his parents when they discovered he was sexless, said the cult now only rarely gets such babies. He said the last one he can remember was four years ago when a district magistrate turned over a 4-year-old son who had been born without genitals.

"Family planning is hurting us. There are fewer childbirths," he said.

Although the eunuchs bitterly denied reports that normal young males have been forcibly inducted into the cult to maintain its numbers, the India Today magazine last September published a well-documented case of a 15-year-old who was kidnaped in the state of Gujarat, castrated by four eunuchs and forced into their bizarre trade for four months. Five persons, including an old woman said to have performed the operation, were charged with attempted murder.

The victim, Mohammed Hanif Vora, told police the eunuchs turned a cassette player to full volume to drown out his screams and kept him confined for two months. He then joined the tribe in harassing shopkeepers in the bazaar and extorting funds at weddings.

Gulzar dismissed the case as "rumors." He said eunuchs create disturbances at birth parties because "people hide babies without genitals to keep them away from us. They're getting hard to find. Our community is getting smaller."

Gulzar said that eunuchs, both Hindu and Moslem, are deeply religious, and the Hindu cultists worship Bahucharma, an incarnation of the goddess Durga, whose name in Sanskrit means "the goddess with too much skin." He said eunuchs regularly give money to poor families when a child is born, and often perform their ritualistic dances without expecting payment.

The eunuchs' territory is sharply defined by tribal agreement, said Gulzar, who displayed a notorized agreement drafted by the police giving him and the other four eunuchs living in the Old Delhi house exclusive rights to their neighborhood.

He nostalgically recalled the era when eunuchs, entrusted with the security of royal harems, were given the run of palaces and were lavishly dressed by appreciative princes.

When the princely states were dismantled and the eunuchs' generous compensation exhausted, he said, they gradually slipped into the quasi-legal trade of bartering their superstitions for money. "It's the only thing we know," Gulzar said.