Hair and Shanti: What Hair Means to Indians
The story of Indians and their hair.
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.
The Sanyasi’s Dreadlocks
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.
The Sikh’s Kesh
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 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.
Hair as a Caste Marker
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
The fascinating theory about hair in India is that it can be used to display both extreme loss and utmost devotion.
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.
Offering Hair to the Gods
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
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.
The Hair and its Gendered Notions
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.
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.
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.