The Pilgrimage

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[Note: This story was written WAY back in 1999 or thereabouts and has NOT been edited. Warning: This might get a little cringe!]

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.

Everyday 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/braid and snipped off.
#5. Tying the hair into a single twist knot and cutting off the rest of the length.
#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 bright 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 Shanthi.


She 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 attender (equivalent of a bellboy, only this ain’t a hotel) and gave him the keys.

“483.” That’s all he said. The attender 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 attender gave her the keys. She gave him a 5-rupee note. He smiled and left.

She 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.

She 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 braid 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.

Her 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.

“What’s that for?” she asked.
“To cut your hair,” said her mother.
She 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.

“Another 15 minutes. Then I’ll go and have my head shaved,” she thought.

This 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 “Kalyanakatta” 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.

Shanthi 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.

Five 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.

It 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.

The 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.

He reached for a comb and a pair of scissors. Shanthi 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 Shanthi 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.) Shanthi was mesmerized by the absolute sync in which the comb and scissors worked. Almost like poetry n motion! She sneaked a glance at the other two women. One had a braid coming down to her waist and the other had her hair in a knot.

She 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. Shanthi saw a mass of hair fall to the floor and wondered where it came from. The woman paid the barber and left.The woman with her hair in a knot got up next.
“How much, madam?” asked the barber.
“Just cut off my knot.” said the woman.
“And you madam?” the barber asked the other woman.
She simply held her braid an inch or so below her nape to indicate the cut.
The barber now looked at Shanthi. “Clean shave,” she said, realizing how strange it felt.

The barber gestured Shanthi 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. Shanthi 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 Shanthi got a bird’s eye view of a braid being chopped off.

The barber’s left hand closed around the braid and the scissors slid on at the position indicated. Then she saw the scissors snip, scrunch and slash their way through the woman’s braid. The braid 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. Shanthi shifted her weight a little and realized that she was standing on the erstwhile customer’s chopped off hair.

“Please madam,” said the barber gesturing to the chair.

She 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.

“First time?” he asked, picking up the chopped off knot and braid and consigning them to a basket in the corner.
“Yes,” said Shanthi.
“Just relax, and leave your hair to me.” said the barber.
‘Do I have a choice?’ she thought to herself.

The barber took a shaving brush and dipped it in a tiny bowl of water. He bent her head forward. Shanthi 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.

‘He won’t shave my hair dry, will he?’ she thought nervously, looking at the barber change the blade of the razor.
He saw the nervous look.
“Don’t worry, madam. You are in good hands,” he said with a smile.
He 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.

She 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.

“Would you mind a bit of combing before I start cutting your hair, or would you prefer me to use the scissors straight away?”
“I don’t mind.” she said. Somehow she was almost beginning to like this.
The 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 Shanthi. Customers like Shanthi were rare. Usually only one in a thousand had hair like that and wanted to offer all of it.

Shanthi 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 Shanthi began to relax and lose her nervousness.

As the combing operations went on, the barber asked her, “How would you like your hair shaved?”
“You mean I can decide?” asked Shanthi.
“What are my choices?”
“I can shave you in the traditional way.”
“Count that out.”
“I can cut off the bulk of your hair in a knot, braid, ponytail or loose, optionally reduce your hair to scalp with scissors and finally shave off whatever is left.”
“Sounds better.”
“So how do you want your hair cut?”
“Any way you please.”
“Hmmm… And do you want a real short cut before the shave?”
“Yes.” said Shanthi.
The 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 braid.

“Twin braids?” asked Shanthi.
He continued to weave her hair into a braid, pausing to comb occasionally. The only sounds were that of the comb crackling through her hair. He did a good job of weaving her hair into a braid. Then he pulled the other knot loose and began to comb out the other half.

“Beautiful hair,” said the barber.
“Coming from a barber, I guess it IS a real compliment,” said Shanthi.
The barber smiled and started the job of braiding her hair. Shanthi slipped a hand out from under the sheet and felt the beginning of her right braid.
“I actually prefer tighter braids,” she said.
“Well, these are easier to cut.”
‘I am getting my hair cut. Not styled,’ she reminded herself. A couple of minutes later the barber was done.

“Ready for the first cut?” he asked. She 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 inquiring eyebrow.

“We 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.
The barber took just 10 seconds to come to a decision. No way he was going to be hurried through Shanthi’s head shave. And from the look on her face, she could use a 10-minute respite from her own impeding cut.

“I hope you don’t mind madam?” he asked Shanthi.
He then turned to the spokeswoman of the three. “Well, what may I do for you?”
“I want my head shaved, and the others are getting their braids cut off.”

The 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 Shanthi and tossed the knot into a basket in the corner.

“Since they are in a hurry, would you mind taking off their knots and braids?”
Shanthi 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 sprayer.

“You can use the stool at the far side,” called the barber.
She 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 on it.

“Where do you want me to cut?” asked Shanthi picking up the woman’s braid.
“Leave one knot and cut.” replied the woman.
Shanthi quickly looped the woman’s braid into a single twist knot and began to cut off her braid. As she cut she was beginning to feel excited. All too soon the braid came off. The woman got up and felt her knot. She gave Shanthi 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.

“Same for me.” she said.
Shanthi went through the motions again. This time she was luckier. The braid was thicker. She put the scissors under the knot and began to cut. The scissors seemed to slice through the woman’s hair which resisted in vain. Soon she held two cut braids 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.

Shanthi held out the braids to the barber.
“Keep them as souvenirs if you want,” he said.
“But they are offerings to God.”
“They are. But what is God going to do with them?”
“I don’t know. What do you do with them?”
“We sell them. The temple gets 50% of all proceeds from sales of hair.”
“To wig makers. Even exported.”
“Then shouldn’t these be sold?”
“What difference does two braids more or less make?”
She felt the braids thoughtfully. “OK. I’ll keep them.”
“Shall we get on with your interrupted shave?” asked the barber.
Shanthi 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 braids 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 braids, 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.

“Comfortable?” asked the barber.
She managed to nod her head.
The barber picked up the scissors and bent her head forward and to the left. She felt his hands close around her braid and exert a gentle pull. She saw the scissors move in behind her head at her braid. Then the scissors bit. SSSSCCCCRRRRUUUNNNCCCCCHHH! SSSSNNNNNIIIIIIPPP!

SKKKKKKKRRRRRRUUUUUUNNNCCCCHHHHH! The sound seemed to be amplified. One braid cut off. The barber dropped the braid into the basket and turned his attentions to her left braid. SSSSCCCCRRRRUUUNNNCCCCCHHH! SSSSNNNNNIIIIIIPPP! SKKKKKKKRRRRRRUUUUUUNNNCCCCHHHHH! The second braid 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 bottle, 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.

In 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 braids reposing in the basket with a jumble of knots and braids. Her head felt really light after all this. She took out her purse to pay the barber.

“No payment. We are even.”
“How come?”
“You 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.”
“If you say so,” said Shanthi “Thanks for every thing.”
She walked out of the door and into the sunshine, with two braids that she had cut not half an hour ago.

5 responses to “The Pilgrimage

  1. Great story, thanks for sharing it! The tonsuring at Tirumala-Tirupati has fascinated me for a while. I do enjoy seeing the occasional video from the big tonsure hall but the smaller shops are nice as well.

    What I like about seeing the big hall is the ruthless efficiency. But as you portrayed, the individual shops are a bit more of a connection between the barber and person donating.

    I have read your other stories and enjoyed them, I hope to read more Tirumala-Tirupati stories if you’re inspired to write them.

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