|South India. The state of Andhra
Pradesh. The southern part of this technologically upcoming state. The
temple town of Tirumala-Tirupati. Situated in the seven hills that comprise
the Tirumala range. Here reigns one of the most powerful gods of the Hindu
religion. Lord Venkatesha. Also known by a lot of other names. He happens
to be the second richest god of the 21st century. The first of course being
the Vatican. Well anyway, coming to the point, one of the most common ways
of expressing your devotion and thanks to this God is OFFERING YOUR HAIR.
(Now no marks for guessing that one.)
hundreds of pilgrims, men and women, offer their hair as an expression
of their thanks, fulfillment of a vow and a host of other reasons. (During
seasons of special worship and festivals, this number runs into thousands.)
Men usually get their hair shaved (and it is not that interesting anyway.)
Women on the other hand have a wide range in their offerings.
#1. The least interesting being a trim, barely snipping the ends of their
hair, or snipping off five locks of hair from the forehead, nape, side
locks and the center (symbolically offering their hair).
#2. Snipping a little more, maybe a couple of inches??
#3. Cutting off 3-6 fist lengths of their hair.
#4. Or a length tied onto a knot/plait and snipped off.
#5. Tying the hair into a single twist knot and cutting off the rest of
#6. Shaving off the whole head of hair.
The last is the most interesting, and is done with a ruthless efficiency
that comes out of practice. The woman is practically shorn like a sheep.
Her tresses are damped (no sprayer, Just water sprinkled on the head.)
The wet hair is pulled into two knots and the hair is simply shorn off
with a straight edge razor with replaceable blades. Now what is described
here is a long standing fantasy of mine. One day (or maybe even less) in
a barber shop in this temple town, where a lot more finesse is used in
parting the women from their hair.
A Day in the Barber's
morning on the seven hills of Tirumala. Because of it's elevation, the
sun rays have long since reached the hill-tops, waking the birds, which
have already begun their daily jobs of foraging and fending their young.
Pilgrims have begun their morning tasks, and the furnished lettings providing
accommodation for them (tastefully called cottages, and let out on a daily
basis) are beginning to bustle with activity. It's still not the peak season
of festival and worship but still an estimated 2000-3000 pilgrims are coming
in and going out of this town every day. A courtesy bus that connects the
various parts of the hill-top town trundles and wheezes to a halt in a
street, and disgorges a few more pilgrims. One of these, a woman with long
thick hair which has become messy and tangled from traveling over 700 kms,
is the main character of interest to us. We'll call her Miss S.
struggled with a heavy suitcase and carried it some 70 yards to the office
where she had to register for a cottage. Somehow she managed to reach it.
She put the suitcase down and showed the officer-in-charge (The whole of
the temple town is owned, maintained and managed by the temple committee)
the receipt of payment she has made towards the letting of the cottage.
The officer, still bleary eyed from sleep, checked his register and reached
for the key-board behind him for the keys of a vacant cottage. He called
an attendee (equivalent of a bellboy, only this ain't a hotel) and gave
him the keys.
That's all he said. The attendee took her suitcase and escorted her up
the street three buildings away and up one floor. He unlocked the letting
and carried her suitcase inside. She followed him in and made a quick cursory
check. One room with an attached bathroom/loo. The attendee gave her the
keys. She gave him a 5-rupee note. He smiled and left.
switched on the ceiling fan and collapsed into a chair. Somehow she did
not feel as tired as she thought she might. A good night's sleep on the
train had ensured it. She mentally ran over what she had to do. First on
the list was offering her hair. She still had not decided whether to get
her head shaved or cut her hair off at the nape. Long hair might be good,
but it was a pain sometimes. Like now she thought. Then she had to visit
the temple and then a few other temples of importance scattered in the
foothills of Tirupati. She had been lucky enough to land a government job
(which rates pretty high in India) and thought it was reason enough to
give up her long tresses to God.
stepped into the bathroom and washed her face. It helped take some of the
tiredness off. She opens her shoulder bag and takes out a comb, intending
to comb her silken mane out for the last time before she submitted to the
barber's razor. She undid her tangled and messy plait and began to comb
it out. Fifteen minutes and a thousand tangles later, she had made up her
mind. All of her hair was going to come off. But somehow she felt a pang
of sadness at the thought of loosing her mane. She looked at her watch.
8:30 am. She still felt tired so she lay down on the cot.
mind went back to the very first haircut she ever had. Her mind flew back
in time. Nine years ago, she had appeared for her 10th-standard exams and
cleared them with a high percentage of 90. She and her parents had come
to Tirupati. She was sitting at her mother's feet and having her hair combed
out. After combing for about five minutes, her mother reached into her
hand-bag and took out a pair of scissors. The movement surprised her.
that for?" she asked.
cut your hair," said her mother.
was stunned. Before she could protest, her hair was gathered tightly into
a ponytail, which her mother held firmly. She tried to pull free but her
mother said, "Sit still. This is for God." She quieted down knowing there
was nothing she could use as an argument. Her mother then began to run
the scissors through her hair level with her shoulders. Snip! Snip! Snip!
Snip! Snip! Snip! Snip! Snip! She felt the scissors slash through her silken
tresses and her hair slide off her back. Her mother let go of her hair.
She had been left with hair that barely reached her shoulders. She fled
to the bathroom and cried for 10 minutes. What hurt her was the sneaky
manner in which her mother had cut off her hair. She would not have felt
bad if she had been told earlier that her hair was going to be cut as an
offering. She did not talk to her mother a whole month after that. And
it had been the first and last time scissors had ever gotten near her tresses.
A good combination of healthy hair and regular attention and maintenance
ensured that she did not even have split ends. She came back to the present
with these thoughts. She looked at the clock again 8:45.
15 minutes. Then I'll go and have my head shaved," she thought.
was the first time she would be getting her head shaved, and so was understandably
nervous. Three of her friends had come to Tirupati a couple of months back.
Two of them had offered their hair (completely shaved) at the "Kayanakatta"
or what can be described as probably the biggest barber shop in the world,
where they were practically shorn like sheep. But one of them had lucked
out. She discovered small barber shops and had gotten her hair shaved at
one of them, and turned in a graphic account of the methodical manner used
by the barber. First her hair had been combed out, tied into a knot and
cut off, then her hair had been cut really short with comb and scissors
and finally what was left of her hair was damped and shaved off. Far better
than being shorn like a sheep.
got up from the cot, put the comb back into her bag and extracted her money
purse from it. She tied her long thick tresses into a knot and stepped
out of her cottage, locked the door behind her and set off in search of
the barber shops.
minutes later, she saw a sign across the street, which said simply, "Women's
hair shaved here. Rupees 15 per head." Her heart threatened to jump out.
It had to be done. She crossed the street, her anxiety mounting by the
minute. She pushed open the door and entered.
looked just like a barber shop. She saw a woman in the chair being shaved
in the traditional manner. Her damp hair was tied into two knots and the
barber was busy scraping away with the razor. She almost felt disheartened.
On a bench were three women waiting their turn. There were two empty chairs,
but no more barbers. She walked over to them and sat down at one end. Moments
after she sat down, she saw the first knot of the woman in the chair roll
into her lap. The barber began work on the other half. It barely took him
a couple of minutes before the woman's scalp was laid bare. He picked up
the wet shorn clumps of hair from her lap, dropped them into a basket and
took off her cape. She paid him and left.
next woman got up. She had had her hair cut into a chin length bob. She
climbed into the chair. The barber shook out the cape, (it was actually
a cotton sheet) flicked it over his customer, drew the ends around her
neck and tucked them in. He did not ask her how much to take off. Obviously
it had to be the lot.
reached for a comb and a pair of scissors. S felt slightly better. At least
she knew she would not be shorn like a sheep. The barber began to run the
comb through the woman's hair. After a minute or so, he slid the scissors
under her bangs. Snip! Snip! Snip! She saw the bangs roll off the woman's
forehead. He put his hand on her head and bent it to the left. Starting
at her nape, he began cutting away on the hair line towards her forehead.
From her position S saw a large clump of black hair fall into the woman's
lap. The same thing was repeated on her left side. The barber then bent
the woman's head forward. Three down strokes with the comb, a quick reverse
to push up a clump of hair, and SLASH! CRUNCH! SNIP! The clump found itself
at the barber's feet. And so began the slashing and snipping and hair falling
all over like a snowfall. (Only there is no snow in South India.) S was
mesmerized by the absolute sync in which the comb and scissors worked.
Almost like poetry n motion!
on. She sneaked a glance at the other two women.
One had a plait coming down to her waist and the other had her hair in
turned her attention to the barber again. He took out a spritzer and began
spraying the woman's hair. The he took the cut-throat razor, changed the
blade and began to scrape off whatever was left on her head. She saw the
gentle way in which the barber worked so that he left behind no nicks and
cuts. A minute later, the woman had a white scalp. Gently he removed the
cape so that the hair did not get into her dress. S saw a mass of hair
fall to the floor and wondered where it came from. The woman paid the barber
woman with her hair in a knot got up next.
much, madam?" asked the barber.
cut off my knot." said the woman.
you madam?" the barber asked the other woman.
simply held her plait an inch or so below her nape to indicate the cut.
barber now looked at S.
shave," she said, realizing how strange it felt.
barber gestured S to the chair. She got up unable to believe that her turn
had come so fast. She saw the barber reach for the scissors. He turned
the woman around. He bent her head slightly and his fingers of his left
hand closed around her knot. S stopped to watch. She could see over the
barber's shoulders. The scissors slid into position and the barber began
to cut. SCCCRRRUUUUNNNNCCCCCHHHHH!! She almost felt the scissors bite into
her own hair. SSSKKKKRRRRRRRKKKKK!!! SCRUNCH!!! SNIP! The knot came off
and the woman was left with shoulder length hair. The barber tossed the
knot onto the counter attached to the mirror. The other woman also got
up and came over to the barber. He turned her around and asked her where
to cut. She showed him the position with her index and middle finger making
like a pair of scissors. Once again S got a bird's eye view of a plait
being chopped off.
barber's left hand closed around the plait and the scissors slid on at
the position indicated. Then she saw the scissors snip, scrunch and slash
their way through the woman's plait. The plait was coiled and tossed onto
the counter and fell beside the knot. The woman who had just given up her
knot paid the barber for both of them and they walked out of the door.
S shifted her weight a little and realized that she was standing on the
erstwhile customer's chopped off hair.
madam," said the barber gesturing to the chair.
climbed on to the raised footrest and turned around to lower her petite
frame into the chair. She slowly settled into the soft comfort of the large
chair. The barber seemed to sense her nervousness.
time?" he asked, picking up the chopped off knot and plait and consigning
them to a basket in the corner.
relax, and leave your hair to me." said the barber.
I have a choice?' she thought to herself.
barber took a shaving brush and dipped it in a tiny bowl of water. He bent
her head forward. S was slightly puzzled, but obediently bent her head.
(There is not much you can do once you get into a barber's chair.) She
felt the wet brush behind her right ear, across her nape, and up behind
her left. It sent a delicate shiver up her spine. The barber put the brush
back and picked up his razor.
won't shave my hair dry, will he?' she thought nervously, looking at the
barber change the blade of the razor.
saw the nervous look.
worry, madam. You are in good hands," he said with a smile.
came behind her and bent her head once again. Folding her right ear forward,
he began shaving away the strands of hair below the hairline. Slowly and
carefully. The feel of the cold blade scraping away sent shivers running
up and down her spine. She had never felt anything like this in her 24
years. The shaving went on across her nape. The barber paused to wipe the
accumulated strands of hair on her knot. Finally he folded her left ear
and shaved behind it. He wiped the blade on her knot and put it away.
felt him squeeze her knot gently, probing for bobby pins. His skillful
fingers found and eased out the four pins in her knot. The barber caressed
her knot with his left hand as he reached for the comb.
you mind a bit of combing before I start cutting your hair, or would you
prefer me to use the scissors straight away?"
don't mind." she said. Somehow she was almost beginning to like this.
barber dug his fingers into her knot, pressed in with his thumb and gave
a gentle pull. A cascade of silky hair came loose and hung behind the chair.
The brief gleam in the barber's eyes went unnoticed by S. Customers like
S were rare. Usually only one in a thousand had hair like that and wanted
to offer all of it.
felt her hair gathered into the barber's hand. His fingers barely went
around her hair. The teeth of the comb entered her silken tresses and began
their downward journey. It would be a long time before another comb went
the same way through the hair. The barber continued to comb her hair in
slow strokes. Occasionally a tangle that she ahd missed earlier made her
wince. But on the whole the barber was very gentle with her hair. As the
combing went on S began to relax and lose her nervousness.
the combing operations went on, the barber asked her, "How would you like
your hair shaved?"
mean I can decide?" asked S.
are my choices?"
can shave you in the traditional way."
can cut off the bulk of your hair in a knot, plait, ponytail or loose,
optionally reduce your hair to scalp with scissors and finally shave off
whatever is left."
how do you want your hair cut?"
way you please."
And do you want a real short cut before the shave?"
barber parted her hair into two halves. The left half was tied into a rough
knot and the combing resumed on the right half. It went on for about five
more minutes. Then the barber divided the half into three sections and
began to weave her hair into a plait.
plaits?" asked S.
continued to weave her hair into a plait, pausing to comb occasionally.
The only sounds were that of the comb crackling through her hair. He did
a good job of waving her hair into a plait. Then he pulled the other knot
loose and began to comb out the other half.
hair," said the barber.
from a barber, I guess it IS a real compliment," said S.
barber smiled and started the job of plaiting her hair. S slipped a hand
out from under the sheet and felt the beginning of her right plait.
actually prefer tighter plaits," she said.
these are easier to cut."
am getting my hair cut. Not styled,' she reminded herself.
couple of minutes later the barber was done.
for the first cut?" he asked.
nodded. Her heartbeat had shifted into overdrive. A shadow fell across
the doorway. The barber turned. Three women were at the door. All of them
looking a bit apprehensive. The barber raised an enquiring eyebrow.
have to give our hair, and our return trip is in the evening and we are
in an awful hurry. Can you just finish with us fast?" said one of them.
barber took just 10 seconds to come to a decision. No way he was going
to be hurried through S's head shave. And from the look on S's face, she
could use a 10-minute respite from her own impeding cut.
hope you don't mind madam?" he asked S.
then turned to the spokeswoman of the three. "Well, what may I do for you?"
want my head shaved, and the others are getting their plaits cut off."
barber gestured to the second chair. The woman climbed in. The barber took
a pair of scissors and the cape. Swiftly he covered her with the cape and
bent her head. Holding her knot firmly, he slid the scissors behind the
knot and began to cut. The sharp scissors began to scrunch and slash their
way through the knot. It came off in five seconds. He handed the scissors
to S and tossed the knot into a basket in the corner.
they are in a hurry, would you mind taking off their knots and plaits?"
was surprised. Barely a minute ago, these pair of scissors were about to
bite through her hair. Now she was given them to cut the hair of the barber's
other customers. She had never cut hair in her life. But there was always
a first time. She took the proffered scissors and got off the chair. She
saw the barber pick up the spritzer.
can use the stool at the far side," called the barber.
looked at the women. They were bewildered. The barber had begun to work
on the woman spraying her hair liberally. Still scissors were scissors,
and they were in a barber shop. One of them walked to the stool and sat
do you want me to cut?" asked S, picking up the woman's plait.
one knot and cut." replied the woman.
quickly looped the woman's plait into a single twist knot and began to
cut off her plait. As she cut she was beginning to feel excited. All too
soon the plait came off. The woman got up and felt her knot. She gave S
a smile and thanked her. She looked at the barber. He was busy shaving
the woman. He had already laid half her scalp bare, and the cloth was dark
with clumps of wet shorn hair. He gave her a grin and a nod of encouragement.
The other woman walked up to her and sat on the stool.
for me." she said.
went through the motions again. This time she was luckier. The plait was
thicker. She put the scissors under the knot and began to cut. The scissors
seemed to slice through the woman's hair which resited in vain. Soon she
held two cut plaits in her hand. The woman got up. Meanwhile the barber
had finished with his customer. He gently removed the cape and sent a cascade
of hair onto the already messy floor. The woman paid the barber for all
three of them and left.
held out the plaits to the barber.
them as souvenirs if you want," he said.
they are offerings to God."
are. But what is God going to do with them?"
don't know. What do you do with them?"
sell them. The temple gets 50% of all proceeds from sales of hair."
wig makers. Even exported."
shouldn't these be sold?"
difference does two plaits more or less make?"
felt the plaits thoughtfully. "OK. I'll keep them."
we get on with your interrupted shave?" asked the barber.
smiled. Clumps of shorn hair crunched as she walked over them to
the chair. She climbed onto the footrest and turned around. As she sat,
the barber picked up her twin plaits and let them down behind the chair.
He then picked up the sheet which served as a cape and shook it out. Seconds
later she saw the sheet float down and cover her. The sheet was pulled
back, slipped under her plaits, wrapped around her neck and tucked in.
She looked in the mirror at her reflection. For the first time in her life
she was sitting in a barber's chair and was completely covered with a cape.
She almost felt like a sheep readied to be shorn. And the cape made her
feel captive, and at the mercy of the man with the scissors.
asked the barber.
managed to nod her head.
barber picked up the scissors and bent her head forward and to the left.
She felt his hands close around her plait and exert a gentle pull. She
saw the scissors move in behind her head at her plait. Then the scissors
bit. SSSSCCCCRRRRUUUNNNCCCCCHHH! SSSSNNNNNIIIIIIPPP! SKKKKKKKRRRRRRUUUUUUNNNCCCCHHHHH!
The sound seemed to be amplified. One plait cut off. The barber dropped
the plait into the basket and turned his attentions to her left plait.
SSSSCCCCRRRRUUUNNNCCCCCHHH! SSSSNNNNNIIIIIIPPP! SKKKKKKKRRRRRRUUUUUUNNNCCCCHHHHH!
The second plait landed in the basket. Nine years of growth. She sighed
as the barber ran his comb through what was left of her hair. The began
the flurry of snipping and slashing that felled clumps of her soft silken
tresses to the cape or the floor. Her lap began to fill with hair. She
was beginning to wonder where it all came from. Fifteen minutes later,
the final clump of hair was cut to size. The barber put away the scissors
and picked up the spritzer, and began to spray. The fine mist of water
began to damp her stubble. Then he picked up his razor, changed the blade
and began to shave her. Slow and gentle scrapes removed the stubble and
began to lay her scalp bare. She felt the cool air on her scalp. It was
kind of weird after being used to a blanket of hair for 24 years.
a couple of minutes the barber had finished with her. He undid the cloth
and carefully removed it, sending another cascade of hair to the floor.
She got down and took a final look at her plaits reposing in the basket
with a jumble of knots and plaits. Her head felt really light after all
this. She took out her purse to pay the barber.
payment. We are even."
gave two of my customers haircuts, I gave you one. In fact, if you come
again next time, I owe you one on the house."
you say so," said S, "Thanks for every thing."
walked out of the door and into the sunshine, with two plaits that she
had cut not half an hour ago.
(Or is it???)