On The Kinnara Trail...
Among the less taxing things I did over the last month was a bit of online research on the classes of fantastic, semi-divine beings in Indian tradition - the focus was on the 'kinnaras' but I also read about the 'yakshas', 'gandharvas', 'vidyadharas', 'kimpurushas' (who are sometimes identified with kinnaras) and so forth...
I have read somewhere the word 'kinnar' being used to refer to the hijadas (eunuchs). This association has no real foundation in ancient literature. Kalidasa, for instance, refers to the slow gait of the generously-endowed 'Kinnara women'(*) (somewhere in the beginning of Kumarasambhavam) and that seems sufficient to rule out attributing any hermaphrodytic nature to these beings.
In Buddhist art, some of which predates Kalidasa, Kinnaras are half-men and half-birds (see Wikipedia, for example); in the Sanchi reliefs, they are shown diving down from the sky to worship the Master or a Stupa (in an earlier post here, I had noted a resemblance between these beings carved at Sanchi with the 'buraq' from the middle-eastern and Islamic traditions). Half-bird kinnaras abound in the Buddhist art of Thailand and neighboring countries. Needless to say, Kalidasa's slow-walker description does not match them.
I also remember encountering Kinnaras in the Amar Chitra Katha volume retelling the ancient Sanskrit prose classic 'Kadambari' - one of the principal characters encounters (and chases unsuccessfully) a troop of Kinnaras, who are shown as anthropomorphic midgets with horse-like faces. This 'alternative representation' is actually consistent with the following bit from Wikipedia: "Kinnaras were mysteriously linked with horses. Puranas mention them as horse-headed beings..."
To those who grew up in Kerala, the Gandharvas are far more familiar than the Kinnaras. In the mainstream Sanskritic tradition, the Gandharvas are mostly musicians or tricksters who occasionally turn into vicious beasts when cursed by some sage or the other but in Kerala, they are lustful 'possessors' of (usually) nubile young women, causing them and their families untold misery - Yakshis are their female counterparts and prey on men, a major difference being that a Yakshi summarily kills off her victm whereas the Gandharvas cast a life-long spell.
At least two major Mallu motion pictures have explored the possibilities of Gandharvas tangling with young girls' lives. Modern Malayalam lyrical poetry (film songs, mostly) often uses 'Kinnara' almost as a synonym of 'Gandharva'; and some lyrics feature absurd compounds like 'Gandharvakinnari'.
Quite recently, I saw in Chambakkara, an eastern suburb of Cochin city, Kerala, a brightly painted shrine named: "Vaishnava Gandharva Temple" - I never knew there was a Shaiva-Vaishnava schism among Gandharvas.
And to conclude, here is a 'case-study' from the Mallu classic 'Aitihyamala': "Once, ----- suffered from a strange affliction. Although it seemed as if the lady was insane, she had in fact been possessed by a Gandharva. The symptoms were a propensity to violence, often resulting in no-holds-barred attacks on people around and a tendency to remain totally unclothed...."
Update (July 2014): 'Chhatravum Chamaravum' a superb work of literary criticism by M.P.Sankunni Nair has some interesting information on Gandharvas. Among other things, Nair clearly states that Gandharvas are often associated with horses, just like Kinnaras. So using 'Kinnara' as a synonym of 'Gandharva' has a certain validity.
(*) Only yesterday, I happened to see a bit of an adventure on 'Animal Planet'. Somewhere around Namibia, a lady explorer (white) was trying to initiate two juvenile lions reared in captivity to a normal ('feral') life. Guiding/aiding her were a !Kung tribesman and his wife, and the latter brought back memories of Kalidasa's (sometimes rather fulsome) descriptions of female beauty, including that of the Kinnaris (of course, the !Kung lady was slick and quick as she walked the dunes). Rather than dwell further on these strands of memory, let me point to the tragic story of Saartje Baartman (see Wikipedia), about whom, Stephen Jay Gould wrote 'The Hotentot Venus'.