India has a rich history and a diverse culture. And in between the pages of its ancient scriptures, lie some incredible stories related to long tresses and opulent hairstyles that the country has always boasted of. Rashi Chauhan digs deeper into the Indian antiquity and brings to you some interesting anecdotes about hair.
In 2015, the Archaeological Survey of India organised a unique photo-exhibition at the Red Fort in Delhi called Kesavinyas: Hairstyles in Indian Art, with the aim of studying the long tradition of coiffures in India. It provided a narration to the history of the sub-continent through the medium of hairstyles seen in artifacts spanning over millennia and dynasties. The exhibition reinforced and brought to the fore many loaded points regarding hair and its place in the culture of our country, and zoomed in, inadvertently, to the specific customs thriving till today.
The heavily ingrained idea of long, waist-caressing locks amongst women, the untouched dreadlocks of the sadhus and the yogis, the tightly knotted and turbaned tresses of the Sikhs, the tonsured scalps of the widows, Brahmins and monks–all these practices have remained unchanged to a great extent in India, despite the trichological alterations that the country went through in favour of modernityand utility.
The second half of the year in the country is mostly dedicated to a cascading arrival of one festival after the other, and as old traditions spring back to life from their ancient realms, there is no better time than this to investigate a bit of history behind the Indian hairstyles.
A Spiritual Metaphor:
The Autobiography of a Yogi has an important lesson from old: “The spinal cord is like an upturned tree, with the man’s hair as its roots, and afferent and efferent nerves as branches.” Thus, it gives the basic reason for most yogis in Hinduism opting for long locks: they absorb more electric current from the environment and draw more energy to the brain. Similarly, in the Yogic literature, a woman symbolises Shakti (Divine Energy) which she bestows by the movement of her long hair. The swiftly moving waves of this energy generated by the sweeps of long hair keeps the vibrations of Shakti in the body of a woman in an awakened state.
In Sikhism, there is a spiritual reason behind people, especially the men, keeping their hair uncut since birth. A mark of their dedication to their religious vows, Sikhs believe in respecting and preserving the creation of God. Hence, their tresses never see a blade ever. It also stands as a symbol of the collective consciousness of their community.
A Symbol In Religious Mythology:
Hair in Hinduism is a powerful symbol. In the basic sense, the hair of a person always conveys a message regarding their persona, and every flower and accessory that goes into it has a meaning too. Unbound and unruly hair represents a wild nature, and on the other hand well-oiled and combed hair is a mark of civilization and domestication.
Shiva has thick matted dreadlocks, much like Kali’s hair, which is a mark of their wild nature, fury and power. In the Mahabharata, Draupadi’s choice of keeping her hair unwashed and unbound until the war is won, represents her fury and yearning for vengeance for her insult by the Kauravas.
Amidst the plethora of deities in the Hindu mythology Lord Krishna has curly hair, an indicator of his controlled, civilised, yet not-so-simple personality. The goddesses— Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga—have loose unbound hair, a symbol of their power, yet controlled nature.
The tonnes of hair that the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh receives, every year: the devotees shed their hair, in turn shedding their shakti and tej for their wishes to be granted.
Tonsure And Its Implications:
The act of shaving one’s hair in India, as in many cultures across the world, is a mark of mourning, social ostracization, and detachment. The male mourners in Hindu families shave their heads before performing the last rites of the departed; the widows in some ‘orthodox’ sects were forced to shave their heads once they lost their husbands. The practice was/is followed to keep them separated from the world of society and desires.
A shaved head is also a mark of a practicing ascetic, a person who has attained worldly detachment in pursuit of one’s spiritual goals such as the Buddhist and the Jain monks. While in Hinduism once you achieve nirvana, you reach a level where nothing really affects you. That is why the sadhus tend to let their hair grow.
A head without any hair is also designates knowledge. Brahmins shaved their head except for leaving a tuft on the top, showing that while they belonged to the social world, they were also detached from it by the virtue of their great knowledge.
Social Status And Sanitation:
Long hair comes with a requirement for intense care and management, something that requires, time, funds and hygienic conditions. Since only the rich were granted all three of these things, long locks, inevitably and especially, in women, (who were anyway relegated to the houses as they were not allowed to work), became a marker of their social status. Only the poor women had to go to work, live in unhygienic conditions where it was impossible to maintain long hair, and they never had the money and resources to maintain long tresses.
Hence, long hair was a luxury only the rich, and the high-caste, women could afford to have. Similarly, under many dynastic rules, the slaves and criminals were marked with shaved heads, a consistent reminder of their low or fallen social status.
Some Interesting Points About Hair From Around The World:
• The tradition of designating men to have short hair and women to have long ones goes back to the Biblical times. In St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he asks, “Doth not nature itself teach you that if a man have long hair it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her.” The tradition of designating men to have short hair and women to have long ones goes back to the Biblical times. In St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he asks, “Doth not nature itself teach you that if a man have long hair it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her.”
• The Red Indians believed their long hair (for both men and women) to have supernatural powers and hence, after the first shave as a new born, they never cut their hair. During the Vietnam War, the American Special Forces in the war department required undercover experts who had exceptional tracking abilities. For this job a few Native American men were carefully selected and enrolled for training. But, once enlisted these men, who had initially shown tracking abilities of almost supernatural levels, failed miserably in their training, and their skills that had been present before seemed to have vanished. When questioned the men said that this had happened due to the haircut that they had been given upon enlistment-with their hair they had lost all their powers.
• In most of the ancient Japanese culture, the women of aristocracy were expected to arrange their hair in highly intricate and elaborate hairstyles piling atop their heads. Apparently (as a joke), it was a common belief that these hairstyles would place pressure on their brain, preventing them from thinking too much, as thinking was the designated job of the man.
• The Japanese also believed that the hair of the women had mystic powers of providing safety, granting fertility, or just bestowing good luck. A temple in Kyoto has an ancient rope made out of human hair (one of the holiest things in the temple) that was donated by the female worshipers.
• Another Japanese myth is that female hair could attract the spirits of the dead. So while it made women more careful about managing their hair in case they caught the wrong spirits, they also left their hair in places of worship, hoping that the spirits of their departed loved ones would return home.