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Hindu Tonsure

RIM (Sikha)

" By the command of the Veda, the ceremony of tonsure should be legally performed by the three first classes in the first or third year after birth." (Mann, ii. 85.)

PERHAPS nothing impresses a stranger in India so much as the peculiar manner in which the Hindu treats his hair. He sees some with a clean shaven head, except a top knot of greater or less size and length, whilst others have portions only of the scalp shaven, leaving fantastic locks of varying size and shape. On the other hand, some few are to be seen with the head covered with long, thick, tangled hair that seems as though it had not been interfered with in any way, either from the tonsorial or the toilet point of view, since the hour of birth. If the ordinary Hindu were accosted and questioned on his own tonsorial peculiarity, he would probably have no reason whatever to give for it, except the universal answer to such questions that it is the custom of his caste. He would, perhaps, treat as ridiculous any catechizing on such matters—the custom exists and therefore it is followed.

The Sanskrit name of this top-knot is sikha, and by that name it is known amongst the upper classes of all Hindus whatever their vernacular. In Tamil it is called cudimi, in Telugu zuttu. It is a curious circumstance, and one suggestive of further study, that whilst the tonsure of the Roman Catholic Priest—the first ceremony in dedicating a person to the priesthood—consists of shaving a circle on the crown of the head, the Hindu tonsure—one of the chief ceremonies in the upanayanam, or investiture with sacred powers—consists of removing all the hair except a circular portion situated on the same part of the head.

Although the sikha is so important that without it a Brahmin is not a Brahmin, the tonsure and. the investiture with the yagnopavitam being the chief elements in the upanayanam or spiritual birth of the twice born, there seems to be but very slight foundation for so complicated a superstructure. Learned Shastris seem to be unable to give anything on the point from the Vedas, except the mantram to be quoted later on, and the allusions to the same in Manava Dharma Sastre,. The ceremonies appear to have gradually grown with the growth of the rest of the Hindu ritual. The first notice of them that appears in the Laws of Manu is the following :—

"By oblations to fire during the mother's pregnancy, by holy rites on the birth of the child, by the tonsure of his head with a lock of hair left on it, by the ligation of the sacrificial cord are the birth taints of the three classes wholly removed." (ii. 27.)

Hair ceremonies commence before the birth of a child as, for some six months before that event, the father abstains altogether from shaving until the eleventh day of the child's birth. Doubtless this ceremony is set aside in many instances in the present day of compromises, especially in the case of Government and other officials who would not think it respectful to appear before their superiors with a beard of such a growth. By orthodox Hindus, however, and especially by those in rural parts, this custom is still strictly followed. In the laws of Mann it is thus written :-

" By the command of the Veda the ceremony of tonsure should be legally performed by the three first classes in the first or third year after the birth." (ii. 85.)

This command, still strictly carried into effect, is now usually observed at the third year instead of the first. There are instances where, in the event of either of the parents making a vow to that effect, the hair of a boy is not cut at all until the upanayanam ceremony. Suppose the infant were taken ill, or misfortune were to happen to him, a vow might be made to a certain god that the first hair-cutting of the child should take place at the shrine of the god invoked.

The ceremony of the first performance of the tonsure (chaulam) is as follows. Hitherto the boy's hair has been allowed to grow like that of a girl, and the fond mother has been wont to cherish it and ornament it, in the same way, with plaitings and jewels ; but now the uncut locks must be sacrificed to the inexorable laws of the Hindu religion. On a propitious day, previously fixed upon by the purohita, musicians are called and a feast is prepared for friends and relatives. The first three cuts with the scissors must be made by the mother's brother or, failing such a relative, by the next nearest of kin on the mother's side. After these first three cuts have been made, the boy is handed over to the family barber, who clips off all the hair except a small portion on the top of the head. Some time after this clipping, perhaps a month after, the head is shaved for the first time. When the head is thus, shaved, various fashions are adopted according to varying ideas of beauty. Sometimes separate locks are left over the temples and at the back of the ears;. these are called kakapaksham or crow's wings. Sometimes, the hair is allowed to grow all round the head, whilst the whole of the top is clean shaven. The head is shaven, as a rule, about once a month.

If for any cause whatever, the boy's mother has made a vow to a certain god, it is the rule for this cutting of the hair to be made at the shrine of the god invoked. A pilgrimage is arranged to the place and there the ceremony is performed. If, for financial or other reasons, it is not convenient to make such a pilgrimage at the time when it is imperative to perform the ceremony, then the shaving takes place at home ; but a small tuft is left near the sikha, to be removed at the shrine when opportunity for a pilgrimage occurs. Sometimes the hair that has been clipped off is preserved, and tied up in a cloth to the rafters of the house until a pilgrimage can be arranged. This is the only occasion upon which the hair is allowed to remain in the house, for cut hair is always considered impure. When opportunity offers, the hair is then taken to the shrine and thrown into the sacred tank of the temple, or delivered to the officiating priest for disposal. The god Venkateshvara at Tirupati is a favourite one in South India for such vows. This god also has a shrine at Dvaraka Tirumala, near Ellore in the Kistna District, which is for all practical purposes held to be as holy as Tirupati.

The real sacred tonsure is not performed until what may be called the religious coming of age. This varies according to caste. The following is the law laid down on the subject :—

" In the eighth year from the conception of a Brahmin, in the eleventh from that of a Kshatriya, and in the twelfth from that of a Vaisya, let the father invest the child with the marks of his class." (Manu, ii, 86.)

These marks of the class consit of the yagnopavitam, the mark on the forehead, and the sikha or sacred top-knot. At this important ceremony the head is shaven in the presence of the family, whilst the family priest chants mantrams, and musicians play on their instruments without. The top-knot and four small spots surrounding it are left unshaven ; the five places being called pancha sikha. The top-knot itself must be the size of the foot-print of a cow (gopadam) ; but, as there are cows and cows, this is rather an uncertain measurement. This is the reason why such various sizes in the sikhas are seen ; some being comparatively very small, whilst others are sufficiently large to cover a great part of the head, and, when untied, to flow down in a sweeping tail to below the waist.

The whole of this shaving ceremony is very interesting. Each family priest has a rubric telling him exactly what to do on such occasions. These rubrics were originally drawn up by Rishis or Sages, and their directions are strictly carried out. The shaving rite is administered just before the young man is invested with the sacred thread. The priest acts for the father who may be ignorant of the mantrams and ritual. The theory seems to be that the father administers these rites in the god's stead, and the priest acts for the father. The priest goes through the ceremony, the father following him, when he is able to repeat the words at all. As a kind of introductory sentence to the shaving rite the following sentence is repeated :—

The meaning of this is very difficult to make out, but it means somewhat as follows :-

" He (Jagatjanakaha—the progenitor of the world) shaves, repeating the four mantrams commencing with the one that begins with the words yena vapat—uttering one at each of the four cardinal points, and making circumambulation (pradakshinam)."

The priest then instructs the father of the youth, who is being invested, to take stalks of the sacred grass (darbha) and to put one on each of the four sides of the youth's head, indicating the four cardinal points of the compass, and to cut each stalk with a razor, thus showing the barber where to leave the four patches in shaving the head. The priest also directs the youth to turn to the four cardinal points, commencing from the east, and at each he repeats the following mantram, from which the whole of this ritual seems to have been elaborated .-

" The all-wise progenitor of all things, with what razor he shaved the Moon and Varuna with the same he shaved Brahma. He also shaves the head of this youth. May he have long life and may his ignorance perish."

A short time after the upanayanam, another ceremony is performed with reference to the hair ; this time in a temple. The former one was done in the house. At this second ceremony, the four spots that were left unshorn around the sikha are now shaven clean off, and no hair is left on the head except the top-knot itself. I have enquired of learned Pandits as to what would happen if, through baldness, or by the effects of any disease or accident, a man were to lose his sikha. It appears that, in such a case, the absence of the hair would not necessarily disqualify him from performing the sacred offices.

A custom has grown up that appears to be generally followed, though it is said to be against the strict letter of the law, for boys to allow the side patches to grow again after they have been shaven off. These beauty patches, however, can only be worn during the lifetime of the boy's parents ; So upon the death of either parent he must remove all except the sikha. -When, however, for his own, soul's benefit he adopts religious observances, such as prayers. and sacrifices to fire and the sun (homam and suryanamaskaram), he must shave off all hair, except the sikha.

There is a passage in Maim which alludes to a custom now apparently extinct. I can find no trace of it, though it may possibly be in vogue in some other parts of India. The passage is as. follows :—

"The ceremony of cesanta, or cutting off the hair, is ordained for the priest in the sixteenth year from conception ; for the soldier, in the twenty-second ; for a merchant, two years later than that." ii. 65.)

The Hindu, in South India at least, does not wear a beard, though it appears as if it were worn by some in other parts. Customs may differ in such widely distant places in this as in other respects. The Kulin and some other Brahmins of North India do not even wear the sikha. They crop their hair after the European fashion, but these must, by this fact alone, be disqualified from performing sacrificial and other rites and ceremonies.

When it is said that the Hindu does not wear a beard, we must except the Yogis or hermits who shave 'neither the head nor the face. In the chapter on devotion, Manu lays down the law as follows on this point :-

" When the father of a family perceives his muscles become flaccid and. his hair gray, and sees the child of his child, let him then seek refuge in a forest.

Let him wear a black antelope's hide, or a vesture of bark ; let him bathe evening and morning; let him suffer the hairs of his beard and his nails to grow continually." (vi. 2, 6.)

When a Hindu becomes a Sanyasi, that is when he enters the fourth and last stage of the Hindu spiritual life, he, having then done with all sublunary affairs and even with religious rites and ceremonies, cuts off his sikha and all the hair from his face and head. Henceforth he goes quite bare.

" Having thus performed religious acts in a forest during the third portion of his life, let him become a Sanyasi for the fourth portion of it, abandoning all sensual affections and wholly reposing in the Supreme Spirit.

His hair, nails and beard being clipped, bearing with him a dish, a staff and a water pot, his whole mind being fixed on god, let him wander about continually, without giving pain to animal or vegetable beings." (Mann, vi. 33, 52.)

The moustache is, as a rule, worn by the Hindus of every caste and nation except the priestly classes. The priest, of whatever caste he may be, even the dasari or pariah priest, must have his face clean shaven. In the chapter on the sacred marks, mention was made of the three great schools of philosophy into which Hindus are divided.' Those who belong to the Visishtádvaita school are strict worshippers of Vishnu. Men of this sect never wear the moustache, but are always clean shaven. They also abstain from smoking, although they may console themselves with snuff. The Smarthas who hold the Advaita doctrine, and who worship Siva in particular but reverence Vishnu ; and the Madhvas who follow the Dvaita system, and who worship Vishnu in particular, but reverence Siva are both divided into two divisions of secular and priestly Brahmins. The Smarthas are Niyogis and Vaidfkis ; and the Madhvas are Vyaparis and Acharyas. The Vaidikis and the Acharyas are the priestly classes, and as such they should always have a face quite clean shaven. They, as well as the Ramanujas, must abstain from smoking. In these latter days, however, the Vaidfkis are far from strict in these matters ; and many of them wear the moustache. They also, in very many cases, have abandoned the priestly office and follow the profession of the bar, or go into any of the various branches of the public service. For all of these occupations their hereditary connection with Vedic learning and general culture seems to particularly fit them. Therefore, if a Hindu is seen with a clean shaven face, it may, as a rule, be set down that he is either a priest or a member of one of the priestly classes.

There is, however, an exception to this. Amongst Europeans the sign of mourning for deceased relatives is to wear black clothing ; but amongst the Hindus, besides the absence of colour in the face mark,' the sign of mourning is to shave off the moustache.

At certain holy rivers there is a festival called pushkaram, held every twelve years, when those Hindus who have lost their fathers make a pilgrimage to the river, in order to perform ceremonies for their deceased ancestors. There are said to be twelve rivers in India that are thus honoured. The initial act in this ceremony is to shave the head and face quite clean but to leave the sikha untouched. Widows should attend these festivals and undergo the ordeal of shaving and bathing for the benefit of the soul of their departed husbands. The merit thus acquired is for the souls of the departed forefathers, or husband, as the case may be. At the time of shaving, the attendant priest repeats the following words of purification ; the pilgrim repeating them after him, if able to do so :¬

" Sins as huge as mounts Meru or Mandara,

Sins of various kinds,

These sins adhere to the hair of the head,

For these sins I undergo this shaving."

Sacred bathing in these holy rivers, accompanied by religious shaving, is also sometimes resorted to by a conscience-stricken sinner who seeks, by prayaschittam or expiatory rites, to be freed from the burden or penalty of his offences. If any one has been so very unfortunate as to kill a cow, even accidentally, or if he has upon his conscience some equally heavy burden, he must seek the advice of his spiritual director who may recommend a pilgrimage to some holy river. The distance may be very long, and the consequent trouble and inconvenience very great ; still, under such circumstances, the penitent would probably attempt the task. On arriving at the place indicated, he will first seek the services of the local barber, and. then plunge into the purifying stream to come forth, as he hopes and believes, with all his guilt cleansed away. At this religious shaving, the incantation must be said by the puskharam pilgrim. There is an analogy between these purificatory rites of shaving and bathing and those prescribed in the Old Testament for the purifying of the leper and for the purifying of the Levites. (Lev. xiv. 9 ; Num. viii. 7.) As a rule, a woman never parts with her hair, for a woman to be shorn is a sign of widowhood ; but there are times when an exceedingly religious or loving woman may, in order to bring blessings upon her husband, part with a little, of her cherished hair. When this is done it should he at the confluence of certain rivers ; and there, with appropriate rites and ceremony, the wife may submit to her husband's cutting off a short length from her long hair, the severed portion being then offered to the river deity. At times of sickness, both men and women may vow to a certain god that, in the event of recovery, they will make a pilgrimage to its shrine and offer up their hair. When such a vow is upon a man, he will not shave at all but allow all his hair to grow, until he may be able to make the pilgrimage and carry 'into effect his vow. In fulfilment of such a vow the man or woman will go to the shrine of . the god invoked and, with due ceremony, be clean shaven.

The rules connected with the act of shaving are strict and complicated. It is not right that any one should shave himself. The law is thus laid down by Manu :-

" The sun in the sign of Canya the smoke of a burning corpse, and a broken seat must be shunned ; he must never cut his own hair and nails, nor ever tear his nails with his teeth." (iv. 69.)

It is easy to see how this restriction arose. Young boys cannot shave themselves and, even if they could, it would be a very clever boy indeed that could shave his own head, especially the back part of it. Here Hinduism steps in and stereotypes a custom, making it a religious observance. The shaving and the pairing of the nails should not be carried on in a room of a dwelling house, as hair and nail pairings are considered to cause pollution. These operations are always carried on in some open place, such as a verandah or shed ; but more often in the open street. They are not done more than once or twice a month in the case of the commoner people, whilst once a week is perhaps the rule amongst the richer classes. In the towns, men in the higher ranks of society, shave the face even oftener than this, but not the head. In the Hindu village divisions there is a regular grant of land (in'am) for the village barber, and any infringement of this grant leads to law-suits by the injured party. Curious to say there have been suits instituted by a village barber to restrain the inhabitants of his village from being shaved by any other than himself. A. man cannot be shaved every day even if he were so inclined, as there are certain holy days and unlucky days upon which it must not be done. For instance, there can be no shaving on the day of the new moon (amavasya) and on the eleventh day after that, or on the day of full moon (pournami) and on the eleventh day from that, as these are holy days ; or on Tuesdays and Saturdays, as these are unlucky days. As a man can only be shaved when he is fasting, the operation is generally done in the morning.

I have avoided dealing with the vexed question of the retention of the sikha by Christian converts. Discussions on this subject have occupied the attention of two well-known Indian Bishops and found them ranged upon opposite sides. Some hold that it is merely a national custom, no more connected with religion than everything else Hindu is, and so its retention or not is merely a matter of taste ; others maintain that it is so intimately connected with pagan rites and ceremonies as to be distinctly heathen and demand its complete removal. Others again take a more moderate view, and, whilst they deprecate its retention by Christians as being to some extent a badge of Hinduism, would not imperatively demand its removal, trusting that as Christianity spreads, this also together with other customs will gradually die out.

( Originally Published 1908 )

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