You know how when your a kid and it’s Christmas Eve, and that anticipation you feel waiting for Santa to come and deliver your gifts under the Christmas tree… well this weekend was like that! I finally made it to Periyapalayum temple, an Aman temple and saw hair tonsuring happening with my own eyes! Let me just say, though my visit there was like unwrapping a Christmas present on Christmas day, it was also definitely not what I was expecting. It was, for lack of a better word, awkward. I felt as though I was a bit of an intruder in the inner sanctum of the temple, and an awkward onlooker in the tonsuring hall. Even just walking around the grounds with Mr. Vikaraman and the two heads of temple hair collection-Mr. Apun and Mr. Morgan, exacerbated my feeling of being a foreigner; not because of how I look, or the clothing I wore, but because of my religious beliefs. Since I have been here in India I have visited temple with Renuga (the cleaning lady in the office that is my friend and occasionally brings me lunch) and participated in the different religious actions in the temple, while thinking only of God, but when I went into this temple I felt as though I was cheating on God. Now I know the first commandment says “though shalt not worship false Gods or place any Gods before me”, yet, when I went into that temple, did it count? Did I break one of the 10 commandments? When I witnessed other people giving their hair up to a God (Goddess Bhavani Amman to be specific- the sister of Lord Krishna who managed to escape from the clutches of Kamsan, demon king, and after warning Kamsan about his death she decided to settle in this place in name of Sri Bhavani) I felt as though I was occupying a strange spiritual place. It was just… weird. I am sure I probably sound like some hippie spewing out info about her aura being under siege, but to sum it up, I just felt awkward, and left the temple questioning myself, for probably the thousandth time, what do I hope to gain from this year? Why am I studying hair ? I can definitely assure all of you that this year is most certainly making me question what I am doing with my life, and with this year. So now that I have had my philosophical moment, what I guess you can say is that I am still coming to grips with understanding all of my feelings in my role as Alex the researcher and Alex, the person. That being said, here is Alex the researcher giving background on the temple based on my thorough google search.
Periyapalayum temple, also known as Bhavani Amman Temple is located in Peripalayam which is approximately 45-50 km outside of Chennai and attracts thousands of devotees during the festival months of Aadi and Avani. People normally visit on the weekends (thus why I visited on a Saturday) to pay homage to the Goddess and often tonsure their heads, wear neem leaves as garments, offer Pongal (a tasty food akin to flavorful cream of wheat filled with spices and particularly tasty at breakfast time), and offer prayers and give thanks for blessings they have received. During the Hindu month of Aadi, which is a 10 week month during which time Amman temples, or temples that honor the “Shakti” of the female are celebrated. Shakti means female cosmic energy and power. Shakti is the concept or personification, of divine feminine power and change. Simply, put woman means power, and men… well, we’ll just get back to you… So during the Amman festival times, woman is celebrated and one of the ways to do that is to tonsure the head.
Since this past weekend was the last week of Aadi, I was expecting to see long lines for hair tonsuring, and fell a hugely festive attitude in and around the entire temple, especially after what I had read in different blogs, and heard from a number of people in the office, however, I was actually underwhelmed. I took the staff pick up van to the factory and and then from there rode with Mr. Vikaraman on his motorcycle to the temple! Let me just say riding on a motorcycle (without a helmet, but who needs safety) was such an exhilarating and scary feeling all in one! At some points during the ride, I was clinging to the back of the motorcycle for dear life while praying to God to let us not hit a sudden pot hole, or for me to fall off and end up in a ditch on the side of the road! As you can tell, I am most certainly fine, and have lived to see another day! By the time we got to the temple, my butt was so sore from the bumpy road and I had a layer of dirt all over my face, but I was excited to be at the temple, and on solid ground! When we first got there we stopped at this woman’s house whose name I don’t know, but she brought us filter coffee, and I was then introduced to Mr. Apun and Mr. Morgan. They have both been in the hair business for over 30 years, so needless to say, they know what they are doing.
After our coffee I was escorted through rows and rows of temple relic vendors selling everything from coconuts and silver pieces for pooja (offering) to bangles and children’s toys. At the end of the rows of vendors was the entrance to the temple. Since no pictures were permitted I don’t have any photos of the actual temple, but Mr. Apun and Mr. Morgan gave me special permission to take pictures and video in the tonsuring hall, so I’ll post the photos :).
We arrived at the tonsuring hall which reminded me of an open air cafeteria filled with rows of tiled benches covered in hair. I must say, when we entered the hall (around 12:15pm) I was expecting to see more tonsuring happening than I did. Mr. Vikraman had said that noon was a good time to see the tonsuring since that is when the majority of people go, however, there were only two families in the hall, and both were there having their children’s heads tonsured. Even though I didn’t see thousands of people there, it was still a good experience to see my first tonsuring happening on such a small scale. It was also interesting to see how younger children reacted to having their heads tonsured as opposed to adults and older children. After visiting Periyapalayum, it will be very interesting to compare the tonsuring set up here to larger temples like Tirupathi.
What is hair tonsuring? Simply put, hair tonsuring is the act of shaving the head bald in order to sacrifice/ give offering to God for having answered a prayer. Not only is the definition of tonsuring pretty srtaight forward, but so is the actual process. At Periyapalayum, people line up and pay 10 rupees for their tonsuring ticket in order to come into the hall. Once inside, a temple barber directs them to disrobe to their underwear if they are children, or men and then sit on the tonsuring benches. Women however are simply instructed to sit on the benches wearing whatever clothing they came in since it would be improper for a woman to be half or fully naked in front of men. (If showing your calves is a big deal here, imagine showing more than just leg…) Besides, southern India remains one of the most religiously conservative places in the country (and this is not personal biases speaking, pinky swear!) Getting back from my tangent… When you go to have your hair tonsured the first thing that happens is the body must be purified.
Water is poured over your hair until is it sopping wet. Depending on how long the hair is, your hair is parted down the center of your head into two sections that look exactly like pig tails. The barber then places a new clean razor on his straight razor (like the ones in the barber shops) and begins shaving. To tonsure an entire head it takes about 3-4 minutes tops. At the end a sandalwood paste is slathered onto the now bald head in order to discourage the appearance of razor burn, ingrown hairs, ward off infection and to keep the head cool in the heat. Children are redressed in new clothing, since after tonsuring your head, it is like you are reborn. Women are given a “goodie bag” of turmeric and this cool red powder called Kum Kum in Tamil (the English name I do not know), a yellow rope that is tied around the woman’s neck after marriage, and a south Indian sweet that is supposed to support immune health and tastes good (I have forgotten the name of it unfortunately).
Some women decide that they don’t want to tonsure their entire heads and instead offer only a portion of the hair. This is called motti in Tamil. Basically they pay 10 rupees for a trim, yet have the satisfaction of having donated their hair to God. These women still get a goodie bag!
After spending a few hours at the temple, Mr. Vikaraman, Mr. Apun, Mr. Morgan, and myself went back to the house were we first met, had another cup of filter coffee, took photos, and then Mr. Vikaraman and I left, carrying the coconut that Mr. Apun had given on my behalf for offering to the Goddess Bhavani, and my tonsuring goodie bag. I returned home Saturday, stuffed from the Chettinad chicken and lamb meal Mr. Vikaraman and I stopped for on the way back to Chennai, and feeling a little drained both physically (you try riding on the back of a motorcycle for 2 hours without a helmet on a hot dusty road) and spiritually. I took a long hot bucket bath, and instead of taking what I had planned on being a 2 hour nap, woke up the next morning at 8am! What can I say, a girl needs her beauty sleep! This experience was definitely very rewarding, and pushed me outside of my comfort zones. But isn’t that what this year is all about???