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Most Hindus living in India will tonsure their hair at least once in their lives. In Hindu culture, tonsuring is performed for various reasons, including as a means of honoring the gods, remembering a loved one (usually deceased), seeking purification or fulfillment of wishes, or as a form of protest or punishment. While certain Hindu sects have practiced tonsuring for centuries, the hair was not always sold for profit. Since the 1960s, however, tonsured hair has been collected, cleansed, and auctioned to commercial hair distributors from around the world in a series of events that is not part of the religious ritual. Today, tonsured Indian hair is considered of the finest quality, generating millions of dollars in the wig and hair extension market,1 as recently publicized by Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair and Al Jazeera’s documentary Hair India. Thus, hair that is sacrificed at the altar of a deity and renounced by the participant is the source of much of the West’s high-quality wigs and hair extensions.1,2 Religious Aspects of Tonsuring The Grhya Sutras (“domestic writings”) of the Vedas, which were written in late Vedic Sanskrit around 500 BC and mainly relate to the rites of passage, advise that mundana (“tonsuring”) or chudakarana (Cūḍākaraṇa or arrangement of the hair tuft), the eighth of the 16 Hindu saṃskāras (“sacraments”), be performed during the first 3 years of life so that children can be cleansed of impurities incurred during their previous incarnation. Children are usually tonsured with sparing of a round patch or tuft of hair (śikhā, shikha, or cūḍā) on the vertex or crown of the scalp. During the ancient times of Gurukul (guru meaning teacher and kula meaning extended family), a period from roughly 1000 BC to 700 AD when students lived with their teachers while learning scriptures, the sikkha was grown into a ponytail that was tied to the ceiling when the student was studying. Consequently, if he fell asleep, his nodding head caused a sharp tug of the hair, thus awakening the somnolent young scholar. The sikkha is also believed to protect one’s memory. Furthermore, in some Indian families, following the death of an elder, the oldest son will offer his hair so that the deceased may reach the heavens; some widows also tonsure their heads following the death of their husbands.2 The main purpose, however, for tonsuring is to have one’s mannat (wishes) fulfilled by a temple-specific deity. The most famous deity associated with tonsuring is Tirumala Tirupathy Venkateshwara Swamy, whose temple is situated on a hillock in southern India. This temple is the site of the world’s largest recurring pilgrimage and communal tonsuring that attracts approximately 50 000 visitors everyday, about half of whom donate their hair. The devotees span a diverse group of individuals from illiterate paupers to rich industrialists and movie stars. Regardless of a person’s status, the entire scalp is usually tonsured and the hair offered with profound deference to the deity. This ceremony is performed with great fanfare, often followed by a large feast. Participants believe the hair that regrows is more luxurious and long lasting.2 Tonsuring is also practiced for spiritual reasons by some Buddhist and Jainist monks; in general, hair serves a prominent role in many religious practices (Table). In some orthodox Jewish sects, men and boys never cut their sideburns; thus, Jewish boys are often seen with long uncut sideburns (or sidelocks, payot, פֵּאוֹת), and men with full unshaven beards, based on Leviticus 19:27, which states “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.”3 Married orthodox Jewish women are modest about their hair and often wear scarves or wigs (sheitel), sometimes made of Indian hair, over shorn scalps, although this practice has recently been deemphasized by certain Orthodox groups that consider Hindu tonsuring to be an idolatrous practice.4 Both Sikh men and women take pride in their long hair, while many Muslim women cover their hair with a hijab. Table. Examples of Hair Customs Practiced by Some Individuals Within Various Religious Groups View LargeDownload Nonreligious uses of tonsuring include forms of protest by, for example, dissatisfied workers. In addition, criminals are sometimes tonsured and paraded through the streets as a sign of shame (usually one-half of their head and one-half of their mustache is shaved to symbolize dishonor). Commercial Aspects of Tonsuring Upon entering Tirumala temple on behalf of themselves or with the child to be tonsured, practitioners purchase a ticket and a new double-edged razor blade and then proceed to a large hall, where tonsuring is performed assembly-line style. The blade is handed to 1 of over 600 barbers, and then affixed to a scalpel. Prior to the human immunodeficiency virus epidemic, a single blade was often used to tonsure a large number of heads. After wetting the hair, the barber shaves off a small patch on the crown and then proceeds to enlarge the shaved area on the central scalp, followed by the frontal, lateral, and posterior portions. Individuals are encouraged to chant “Tirumala Tirupathy Venkateshwara Swamy” during the process.5 The hair is subsequently swept up and piled into warehouses where it dries. Meanwhile, a marketing representative from the temple accepts offers from various international hair exporters for a silent auction. The hair is then shipped internationally to the winner’s factories, where it is sorted, cleansed, dyed, packaged, and then shipped to resellers around the globe. The temple’s involvement in the hair industry began in the early 1960s, encouraged by solicitations from wig makers for raw materials. Before the auctions began, the hair was burned, but this practice was banned in the 1990s owing to concerns for air pollution. At the first hair auction in 1962, a kilogram of hair sold for about $24.50; today it is sells for up to $600. Indian hair is renowned for its superior strength and shine; furthermore, Indian women frequently comb their hair and rarely treat their hair with chemicals. In the West, wigs or extensions made of high-quality Indian hair range in price from $400 to $10 000.5,6 While much of the hair is sold in urban areas as wigs and extensions, not all tonsured locks become part of the hair industry. A large portion, particularly men’s hair that is too short for the cosmetic market, is sold to chemical companies and transformed into a purified L-cysteine, the amino acid that gives hair its strength. L-cysteine is used as fertilizer, as a cigarette additive, and also as a nutritional additive (usually labeled as L-cys) in various food products (eg, Tastykakes, Tasty Baking Company; Kraft Lunchables, Kraft Foods; Noahs Bagels, Einstein Noah Restaurant Group Inc; Emergen-C, Alacer Corp). L-cysteine is used in an effort to soften snack cakes and enhance the meat flavor in Lunchables.5,7 Regardless of the hair’s ultimate destination or uses, given that this sacrificial act is one of humility and purification, supplicants are not typically concerned with the shrine’s proprietary efforts. Back to top Article Information Corresponding Author: Barry Ladizinski, MD, Department of Dermatology, Duke University Medical Center, PO Box 2822, Durham, NC 27710 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Published Online: July 31, 2013. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.4025. Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported. References 1. Ladizinski B, Ganta N, Norton SA. Tonsuring and the Western wig and hair extension market. Arch Dermatol. 2012;148(1):88.Google ScholarCrossref 2. Perl P. The Indian custom of tonsuring: why do Indians shave their heads? http://purpleperl.hubpages.com/hub/The-Indian-Custom-Of-Tonsuring. Accessed March 12, 2012. 3. The Holy Bible: King James Version. New York, New York: Oxford Edition; 1969. 4. Rai S. A religious tangle over the hair of pious Hindus. www.nytimes.com/2004/07/14/world/a-religious-tangle-over-the-hair-of-pious-hindus.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm. Accessed July 31, 2012. 5. Rajendran A. On the human hair tonsured at Tirumala Temple. http://www.hindu-blog.com/2007/06/on-human-hair-tonsured-at-tirumala.html. Accessed August 10, 2012. 6. Carney S. The temple of do: how 50,000 Hindu pilgrims keep Lady Gaga looking hot. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2010/02/remy-hair-extentions-india. Accessed August 10, 2012. 7. Sharp S. The human hair additive in your food. http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2010/03/human-hair-additive-your-food. Accessed: August 10, 2012.
JAMA Dermatology – American Medical Association
Published: Sep 1, 2013
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