ADVERTISEMENT

Hair and Shanti: What Hair Means to Indians 

The story of Indians and their hair.

Updated
India
4 min read
 A sadhu adjusts his dreadlocks after taking a holy dip in the waters of Sangam in  Allahabad. (Photo: Reuters)

Hair acquires a deep rooted place in Indian culture; why, is it not offered at temples, or during religious ceremonies and mournings? But we often miss noticing the apparent associations Indian culture has with coiffure. It’s actually interesting to note that through this mass of black extensions, that emerge from our follicles, we have been distinguishing between castes, religions and lifestyles for centuries.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Sanyasi’s Dreadlocks

A Hindu ascetic woman smiles as she adjusts her hair after taking a dip in the Ganga river (Photo: Reuters)
A Hindu ascetic woman smiles as she adjusts her hair after taking a dip in the Ganga river (Photo: Reuters)

A never-combed head full of dreadlocks is that of a sanyaasi, the wild one – the one who wanders, is outside the social fold, has no social obligations, no desires, and no ambitions.

 A Naga Sadhu sits in his tent during the second “Shahi Snan” (grand bath) at “Kumbh Mela”, or Pitcher Festival, in Trimbakeshwar, India. (Photo: Reuters)
A Naga Sadhu sits in his tent during the second “Shahi Snan” (grand bath) at “Kumbh Mela”, or Pitcher Festival, in Trimbakeshwar, India. (Photo: Reuters)
ADVERTISEMENT

The Sikh’s Kesh

 A soldier from India’s Sikh regiment stands guard at the historic Red Fort in the old quarters of Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)
A soldier from India’s Sikh regiment stands guard at the historic Red Fort in the old quarters of Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)

Kesh is one of the five most important K’s of Sikhism that were mandated by Guru Gobind Singh as symbols that profess the believer’s faith and devotion to Sikhism. Sikhs allow their hair to grow to their natural length as part of their religious beliefs.

The Newborn’s Mundan

Hair and Shanti: What Hair Means to Indians 

Hair assumes significance in a child’s life when his first growth is offered to the gods in an elaborate religious ceremony called the mundan, or the first haircut.

The ceremony which is done at an auspicious time and date is performed by a priest, with the belief that it purifies the child and protects him from the evil eye. The Mundan is one of the most important occasions for the parents of young boys.

ADVERTISEMENT

Hair as a Caste Marker

Boys wearing a choti and janeyu, which is a thin consecrated cord made of cotton strands, worn to symbolize the coming of age among adolescent Brahmin, or high caste Hindu males. (Photo: Reuters)
Boys wearing a choti and janeyu, which is a thin consecrated cord made of cotton strands, worn to symbolize the coming of age among adolescent Brahmin, or high caste Hindu males. (Photo: Reuters)

Ever since the Vedic period, high caste Hindu men have kept the sikha, or choti – a lock of hair at the back left after shaving the whole head; the sikha signifies devotion to God, a one-pointed (ekanta) focus on the path to a spiritual life. The choti, in the process, also became a strong Brahminical symbol in casteist India.

Shaving Hair to Express Extreme Loss

ADVERTISEMENT

The fascinating theory about hair in India is that it can be used to display both extreme loss and utmost devotion.

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

After the death of a father, the eldest son must offer his hair to the gods, as part of the antim sanskar to mourn the loss of his departed father.

A man is draped in a traditional white robe in front of a pyre of a family member at a cremation ground on the banks of river Ganges in Varanasi. (Photo: Reuters) 
A man is draped in a traditional white robe in front of a pyre of a family member at a cremation ground on the banks of river Ganges in Varanasi. (Photo: Reuters) 
ADVERTISEMENT

Offering Hair to the Gods

 Devotees shaving their heads at ‪Tirumala‬ Venkateswara Temple. (Photo: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/ItsTirupati/photos/a.212136028988299.1073741828.209676665900902/363499073851993/?type=3">Facebook/Tirupati People</a>)
Devotees shaving their heads at ‪Tirumala‬ Venkateswara Temple. (Photo: Facebook/Tirupati People)

Tonsuring is a common ritual in the temple town of Tirupathi (south India). Every day thousands of men and women tonsure their heads as an offering to  Lord Balaji to show their gratitude and to pay back for any favours received! It is interesting to note that more than 1,500 women partake in the ceremony daily. Temple authorities sell the hair that is offered to the deity.

A documentary, Hair India by filmmaker Raffaele Brunetti follows the journey of hair from the holy temple to top-notch beauty salons of the world.

Shaving Hair: A Symbol of Protest

Devadasis get their head shaved in protest. (Photo: Reuters)
Devadasis get their head shaved in protest. (Photo: Reuters)

Tens and  thousands of members from the Jain community shaved their heads in a single ceremony to protest against the banning of ‘Santhara’, a religious practice of the Jains, in what they termed was a ‘peaceful’ protest.

Devadasis, too, tonsured their heads to protest the women’s reservation bill at a demonstration in 2010, demanding that their economic interest be included in the bill. Shaving hair, you see, has been a potent tool to register anger and to protest against issues that matter to a set of people.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Hair and its Gendered Notions

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

A woman’s hair in India’s patrilineal society is, mind you, not a topic that can be brushed aside. The first time the author’s digressing father got her hair chopped off into a boyish mushroom cut, the fiery grandmother didn’t speak to the bad dad for a week. Long hair is said to be the sign of a devi. It is also the sign of, ah well, virginity.

Even today, many conservative Indians refer to the short haired woman as “baal kati”, a taunt for being westernised.

 Kamala, an Indian girl wears red ribbons in her hair. (Photo: Reuters)
Kamala, an Indian girl wears red ribbons in her hair. (Photo: Reuters)

But one thing is for sure — oily, ribboned chotis that involved the gentle folding over and under of hair into three skeins is in the memory of many a pubescent school-going Indian girl.

Today, hair can be manipulated in a hundred ways, as modern treatments make it possible to straighten, curl, or colour it. But even with all that, certain cultural and traditional associations haven’t changed.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

ADVERTISEMENT
Published: 
ADVERTISEMENT
Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!
ADVERTISEMENT