[This was initially written as ‘The Fertility offerings’ on my blog. But half way through, the sheer number of characters I had planned became unsustainable and I lost interest. Now, with a couple of stories in the Goddess Chronicles, I decided to make some major changes to the story and tie it into the same universe. Some characters were cut, and some links have been made to existing and upcoming stories. Hope you folks have as much fun reading, as I had writing.]
Shreya climbed up the hill that led to the family temple. Set on the top of a small hill, maybe 150 feet above the outskirts of the village, it was in the middle of an orchard owned by her family. She walked slower than the other women going up the rough hewn stone stairs. She paused occasionally to take in the picture postcard views of the fields surrounding the village, wishing she’d brought her camera along with her. Her exasperated mom called out to her to hurry up. As she walked up the stairs, the conversation she had with her mom about the visit replayed. She had just come home from the last examination of the academic year.
“Mom, I’m home.”
“How did you do?”
“Meh… I’ll pass.”
“Keep that up, and I’ll get you married off soon,” her mom teased. “Anyway, we’re leaving for the village next week.”
“Oh… is this for the festival?”
“Yep. Time to pay our respects to the Goddess. For keeping us fed, and our farms bountiful.”
“How come I never saw you get shaved before this?”
“There was… a lapse. I was supposed to five years ago, but we couldn’t go. Remember, that’s when your dad was traveling abroad.”
“Oh, yeah. The year of the bob.” She got smacked lightly on the head and winced.
“I did get shaved thrice before you know, when you were nine, four, and before you were born. Anyway, this year you’re shaving your head too.”
“Don’t be so surprised. It’s a tradition in our family. At least you’ll have the option of stopping once you get married.”
“I suppose you’re right. Say, can I keep my hair short after I start college?”
“We’ll see. So I take it I’m not going to have to drag you kicking and screaming to the barber…”
“You know me mom. I promise.”
As a result of that promise, she was now climbing up the 259 stairs that led to the hilltop temple. She had no feelings of regret or dread. In fact she was looking forward to the new experience. She looked up the path at the gaggle of Rapunzels of various ages heading up. One part of her wondered how many of them would shed tears. Pretty much every woman in the crowd had long hair. The combination of genetics and selection she supposed. (Traditionally arranged marriages. She didn’t know of anyone that had gone against the family and married a short haired woman. Or someone with less than spectacular hair.)
Every woman that got married into the family had long hair. She mentally ran through the list of women: Balamani the matriarch; Jayanthi, her co-sister; her mom, Ramya; the new bride, Harini; Vandana, her aunt. The only exception was her other aunt, Radhika. She was a daughter of the family, long since married. She had no obligation to offer her hair. Yet, she had shown up. Every one of them had hair ranging from hip length to knee length. It was almost as if it was a prerequisite of choosing a bride. She barely suppressed a giggle at the mental image of potential matches being screened in a ‘hair assessment event.’
The stairs yielded to the open ground of the hill top. They came up to the entrance of the temple that was tastefully decorated with long woven chains of flowers. Inside, the temple was also festive. A small sanctum on one end of a large covered stone pavilion, the roof of which was held up by intricately carved stone pillars. A 5’ idol of the Goddess of fertility was in the center of the sanctum. She was four armed, holding sugarcane stalks in one hand and rice stalks in the other. She cradled a small baby in her lap with her other two arms, signifying fertility of both land and woman. A couple of women were busy putting the last touches of decorations in and around the sanctum. A guy was sitting at one end of the pavilion, leaning against a pillar.
In the center of the pavilion was a stone pedestal. The right height for someone to be seated. Despite the age and wear, there was a motif of a woman being shaved, carved into the base. An old wooden table was set off to one side of the stone ‘stool.’ The women came out of the sanctum to welcome the newcomers. One of them was carrying a silver tray that she set on the table. It caught Shreya’s eye as she walked past it, following the group. Scissors, comb, manual clippers, a straight razor and a couple of packs of blades. All of them lying on a bed of rose petals. The older one of the two applied vermillion to the forehead of Balamani, welcoming her. Large thick cotton mats were laid out on one side of the pavilion and the family went there to sit down and await their turn to sacrifice.
Shreya found herself a place at the back of the group and sat down. Smoothing down her new silk half-saree, something she wasn’t quite used to yet. Tucking a stray wisp of hair behind her ear she looked around, spotting her mom up ahead. A loose knee length braid almost half of which was lying on the floor. Well, it won’t be long before all of it will be on the floor. The other girl brought in a stack of white sheets that she left on the table. Followed by a basket of jasmine flowers, strung out in a chain. Balamani stayed to talk to the woman who welcomed her.
“Yes my lady.”
“So, you are taking over from your father?”
“Yes, my lady. As you know my brother is settled abroad and is not interested in maintaining tradition.”
“A pity. I am sure you can handle this. After all, you have worked at your father’s shop.”
“Yes, I have been shaving women since I was sixteen.”
“I see your husband is here as well and so is Radha. Have you taken care of all the arrangements?”
“Yes. We can start as soon as you are ready.”
Radhika joined them, handing a cloth bag to Priya, who put her hand inside and took out a thick braid that was almost four feet in length. Going by the haphazard cut ends, it looked to have been cut very close to the nape. She placed the cut braid on the table beside the shearing implements.
“Padmaja’s braid*?” asked Balamani.
“Did she get shaved? Was it done at home?”
“As far as I know, yes. She had a barber come home and shave her.”
“When was this done?”
“Good. So she followed the instructions properly.”
“You know how she is…”
“It’s good to see tradition being followed. Is your daughter also offering her hair?”
“No. Rekha doesn’t want to do it. I’ve asked her multiple times, but she just won’t.”
“Don’t force her Radhika. Both of you are under no compulsion to offer your hair.”
“But it is a tradition…”
“The same tradition also says that both of you are exempt. You are doing it because of your love and respect for the Goddess. Trust me, if She wants your daughter’s hair, She will send the right person to collect it. For now, it is not you.”
She patted Radhika’s cheek and walked up to the sanctum to begin the offerings.
Balamani, the Matriarch.
Kneeling down she touched her forehead to the floor. A few rose petals were dropped on her head, symbolic of the Goddess’ blessing. She stood up and followed her barberette to the sacrificial platform, and sat down on it. Priya might be half her age, maybe even less, but now, she was the agent of the Goddess and commanded her complete submission. Till the last strand of hair was shaved off her head, she was the sacrificial lamb.
As Priya dropped rose petals on Balamani’s bowed head, her heart soared. This was the moment she was waiting for all her life. Ever since she started helping out at her dad’s barber shop during the festival, she wanted to be the one to handle this family’s offerings at the temple. It was her dad and mom who used to do it, but now the mantle had passed to her. Even though she was married, and living in the city, she came back to keep the tradition alive. Besides, how could she pass up the opportunity to shave a few Rapunzels? She did run a salon for women back home, but it wasn’t the same.
She walked back to the platform. Balamani followed her and sat down on it, clasping her hands together in her lap, and bowing her head deferentially. Priya pulled out a ball of string from the flower basket. Breaking off a length, she looped it around the base of Balamani’s flower decked bun several times and tied it tightly. She lit a few sticks of incense. Holding them below the thick heavy bun she let the fragrant smoke waft over it. She called over her sister, Radha. Handing her the incense sticks, she picked up the brand new scissors. She ran a thumb along the cutting edge to test the sharpness, and snipped them in the air a few times to limber up her fingers. She looked around at the gaggle of women chatting. In a few moments, the conversations ceased and a tranquil silence fell.
She stood off to one side, hand on top of Balamani’s head, she pushed down firmly. The head went down obediently. She slid the scissors into the soft hair at the occipital and closed the blades, making the first snip of the season. Holding her head immobile, she continued to slide the scissors in, cutting off chunks of hair that entered the bun. It had been a few years since she cut a woman’s hair like this. The bun slowly started to separate from the head. She moved her hand down to hold the hair together where it was being cut. Balamani kept her head perfectly still. The bun started to move down till it was hanging by a single chunk. The scissors went in one last time, a loud drawn out snip, and the heavy loaf of hair fell to the floor. Radha picked up the bun and set it on the table. She stuck the incense sticks in the bun. Priya looked around the group. She found Jayanthi, sitting in the middle of the group. A loose, lazy braid was draped over her shoulder and fell into her lap.
“Radha, I don’t want to see any loose braids and buns around. Take them one by one, make sure their hair is in a proper braid for the offering, with flowers. Jayanthi, Radhika, Vandana, Harika, and Deepika: get your hair done properly by Radha.”
Radha was surprised at the commanding tone that her sister’s voice took. Normally quite jovial and fun loving, she was now like a strict school teacher. Prashanth, Priya’s husband, brought out a wooden stool from storage and Radha picked Jayanthi to come with her. He was also a part time barber who had worked at his father-in-law’s shop, rubbing elbows with his future wife. He knew the reason his wife insisted on braids: They were always easier to handle and sell. In fact there were probably prospective buyers already lined up. Traditionally, all the harvested hair belonged to the barber / barberette.
Priya turned her attention back to Balamani. Prashanth brought her a filled water sprayer as she took a sheet from the pile. Shaking it out, she covered Balamani with it, pulling it tightly around her neck. The most influential woman in the village. Now, ready to be shorn like a sheep. She ran her fingers into the thick hair up her nape, pulling gently. She started to spray water on Balamani’s head, working her fingers through the thick jagged bob left behind after the bun was cut. She took her time massaging Balamani’s head, loving every bit of control she had over her.
She smoothed down the wet hair. Droplets of water dripping from the jagged ends onto the cloth. Snapping a fresh blade into two, dropped one half back into the tray. Standing before Balamani, she slid the blade into the razor. Holding her chi, she drew her head forward and adjusted the angle. Starting at the crown, she made a long smooth stroke down to her forehead. This was like old times in the shop with her father.
Balamani felt Priya’s strong grip on her chin, adjusting her. She obeyed meekly. She felt the razor scrape down the top of her head and the first chunk of wet hair fall into her lap. She closed her eyes for a moment as the barberette continued to shave her from crown to forehead. Each confident stroke, sending another chunk of hair that desperately tried to cling to her face before falling into her lap. Her scalp was stretched at each stroke to ensure a smooth close shave.
Her face was turned to one side as Priya started to shave the side. The razor glided down her temple and sideburns. Shaved hair tickling her ear as it slid off into her lap. She moved her hands under the cloth, a little restless and a clump of hair slid off to the floor. Her face was turned the other way as the shaving proceeded. The razor slid down her sideburns all the way to her chin. Priya might have been fast and ruthless with the razor, but she was surprisingly gentle at the same time.
With both sides shaved, her head was then pulled down firmly. Chin to chest. Even lower than it was when the bun was being chopped off. The razor now glided down from her crown to the nape. Long smooth strokes and Priya’s fingertips flicking off the shaved locks. Some of the women watched nervously as the staid matriarch’s hair rained to the floor. The same fate awaited them.
A few last gentle turns as Priya scraped off the last of the wet locks on the back of Balamani’s head. Folding her ears and getting every last strand of hair cleaned up. She wiped the blade on her wrist and slowly undid the sheet covering her up. Balamani stayed put as Priya ran the razor down her neck all the way to her shoulders. A quick rub of the freshly shaved head, and Balamani was done. She got up from the platform and went back to sit with the other women.
Following Priya’s instructions, Radha collected Jayanthi and took her for processing. Jayanthi sat on the old, slightly rickety stool. Her braid was quickly undone and Radha got busy with the comb. This was something she usually enjoyed. She would often have Priya or Radha come down and pamper her hair on the weekends. Now the same girls were going to be separating her from her prized tresses. She watched with a mixture of trepidation and respect as Priya nonchalantly shaved the oldest woman in the group. Who, for her part, was completely submissive and obedient.
She could understand being that way with the barber, but with a barberette? Who was possibly younger than almost every married woman here? Still, she could not help but admire the ruthless efficiency with which Balamani was shorn. She tried to relax and enjoy the combing, but being on the stool meant that she would be up next. Or at least as quickly as possible. Balamani was almost completely shaved, but Radha still hadn’t quite started braiding. It would probably be someone else.
The sheet was undone and Balamani’s neck and shoulders were cleaned up. Priya cast her eye among the lot. “Harika!” she called.