As much as I have deeply wanted to donate my hair to God over the past 7 years or so, the idea of it also scared me deeply. One doesn’t just get a haircut and donate the leftovers: one donates the whole thing. This makes sense, as otherwise, it wouldn’t be a great sacrifice, and it wouldn’t be worth much of anything.
While the poor in India donate their hair because it’s their only prized possession, most do so with the belief that when a head is shaved, a person loses their beauty. Hindus (in the South, at least) feel that donating their hair is more important than donating money because it is the ultimate sacrifice. A sacrifice of one’s vanity makes for a great lesson in humility.
So yes, I was scared. Scared to shave my head. Scared of what I’d look like, scared of being rendered “ugly” or unattractive. What if I had a really lumpy head? Scared of how others would see me – afraid of how others might judge me. What would they think of me? Clearly, my vanity needed a reality check.
I picked a random date to shave my head and the night before, prayed for the strength and courage to go ahead with it. On the day of, I admit, there was a lot of procrastination. I tried me make up excuses. We had to make a decision: either to shave my head by the Ganges (and risk attracting quite the crowd of onlookers) or shave it in our hotel room, away from the Ganges, but at least overlooking the sacred river from our balcony.
Because I could not have my hair shaved at a temple or at a barber, I had to ask Travis for his help. In as much as this was a sacrifice for me (to donate my hair), I think that it was quite the sacrifice for him as well. He had been opposed to my tonsuring, as he liked my long hair and usually find a woman with long locks more attractive. For him to have to cut my hair off must have been really, really difficult. I am grateful that he was able to help, and that he did it with so much grace and strength.
I had expected to get really emotional while cutting off my hair – I had pictured images of me with tears running down my cheeks. I was also scared that I might panic and get into a whole “what am I doing” ordeal. But because it was just the two of us, and not something part of a larger ritual, the hair cutting went off quite casually. I only got emotional as I cut off the first strain of hair, but afterward Travis and I joked around, and he gave me a great mullet before cutting more hair off.
Eventually the haircut was finished, with Travis leaving me with a crooked, but sort of cool, Mohawk. The hair had been cut off with scissors, and we were unsure if our razor could handle the insane quantity of hair that I had/have. With my skull sore from all the cutting, we decided to wait until the morning before trying to cut any more off.
In the morning we decided to try shaving my hair off in the shower. It felt weird, and painful at times (apparently I have a sensitive skull with some dry patches, who knew!), but we managed to shave the sides of my head to the skin. It wasn’t the ultimate smoothness, but it definitively was clean shaven. We didn’t think that the razor could handle the Mohawk though, so we decided to get to it after lunch.
On our way to the restaurant we walked by the ghats, and came face to face with a whole group of women with freshly shaven heads. I tried to show them my head, motion shaving gestures, try to figure out where their barber was but to no avail: I was only shooed away.
As we kept walking, we saw more people than usual getting their head shaven, and even their body hair. Clearly something was going on – but at least I would be able to get my head shaven without having to use the burning ghats barbers.
After lunch I headed for one of the barbers I had spotted earlier, and made the head shave motion. He understood, and spoke English. We established that I wanted to shave the whole thing off (mourners keep a little tuff of hair on their head, and so do priests), and he instructed me to sit on a jute bag (now a carpet) facing him. He rubbed my head with water and soap, then took out a straight razor, put in a “new” blade and proceeded to shave off the hair. He cut me a few times, but it was a whole lot faster than it had been with Travis (who pointed out that doing it all this way would have been easier – only had we known!).
While I was getting my head shaven a man named Baba wearing a large amount of basil and flower garlands approached Travis, and decided that we needed to be blessed. Of course, it entailed parting with some Rupees (is anything religious in this country ever free?) but it made for some cool photos.
Now that I was clean-shaven, the last step of my process was to actually offer my hair to God. I decided to do this at evening puja (prayer), performed at the Dasaswamedh (main) ghat. We hired a boat, and while parked in front of the festivities I closed my eyes and said my prayers to God. I then took my hair out of the plastic bag, and offered them to the Holy Ganges. I also offered some hair to Shiva, the city’s main deity (and my favourite Indian god). It was a really moving moment, and I finally felt that the process was over.