Many, many years ago while watching TV I learned that in India, one could go to temples and donate their hair to God. At that moment, I knew: this was something that I had to do.
At least 7 years have passed since, and finally, I have made it to India. To Travis’ dismay (he loves my hair), I am still as resolute as ever to perform the ultimate sacrifice.
For someone who was so looking forward to doing something for so long, I was embarrassingly unprepared. I soon learned that tonsuring one’s hair as a donation to God isn’t as widespread in India as I thought: actually, there is only one temple in India where it is performed, and it was way out of our way in Southern India.
This would be Tirupati Venkatesware Temple, located in Tirumala. So many pilgrims come here every day to worship and donate their hair that the temple is considered to be the largest “barber shop” in the world. Over 75 tons of hair is collected annually. While donated hair used to be burnt or used to stuff mattresses, over the last 20 years the hair has become an extraordinary economic resource. In fact, the temple, widely known as India’s richest, boats hair sales used for wigs and extensions retailing an estimate of 23 million USD.
Some of the proceeds go towards hospitals, schools and other community projects, but sadly only a small percentage. While pilgrims say that they do not care what happens to their hair after it is donated, in a way I am glad that I didn’t donate my hair at Tirupati: I feel that it might have had an assembly-line feeling to the whole deal, which would have lessen the experience. And knowing that they would profit from it seems just… wrong.
Further research brought to light two common hair shaving practices in India, and sadly neither of them applied to my situation.
The first, mundane sanskar, is the ritual of shaving the hair of a child (of 1, 3 or 5 years of age). This is done out of the belief that cutting the child’s hair cuts their ties with their past life and ensures that they are not hunted by their past. This is something that we had widely seen done in Bangladesh, as it is also observed by some Muslims.
The second ritual is one that we observed every day here in Varanasi, where mourning men shave their heads.
In spite of this, I persevered. On our first day here in Varanasi, I saw many women with clean shaven heads, and I was convinced that there was a way for me to get my head shaved here, at a temple. As it turns out, these women came from the South, with the belief that one should shave their heads when entering Holy Cities. There are no temples here where the ceremony is performed: instead these women hire a barber to come by the Ganges to shave their hair.
With no temple to go to for the ceremony, and uncertain about the acceptability of using a burning ghat barber to shave my head (we don’t mean to offend), I realized (yes, it really took me that long) that to donate my hair to God, I didn’t need a temple or a ceremony or people around me doing the same thing. God is everywhere, and so this could be just between him / her / them and me. I could do this anywhere.
All I needed was scissors and a razor.