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The Indian Custom Of Tonsuring-Why Do Indians Shave Their Heads

Updated on July 13, 2011

Bedecked Hair Of An Indian Bride

Hair Is Precious

The Indian culture is vibrant with several customs being followed along the length and breadth of India. Tonsuring or shaving the head is one such custom. And there are many beliefs to support this according to one's religion and caste and sometimes the village they originate from. Hair is considered precious and one that frames your face giving you a beauty and an identity. Indian women sport long tresses and girls braid their hair while older,married women pin it up into buns. Women of all ages love to adorn their hair with fragrant and colourful flowers that are strung together on a thread. Today,women in Indian cities do not follow this to a T.They are independent and their men allow them to wear their hair in any style they want and are prepared to pay any amount for a good stylist at a reputed salon. But,that is only a small margin of women. The majority of young ladies still love long braided hair adorned with fancy hair clips,flowers,brooches-colours to match every outfit. Some love to sport a ponytail and some leave their hair loose. Girls and those yet to marry are always encouraged to grow their hair long so as to be able to have an elaborate hairdo for their wedding. Older women generally sport a bun which is considered more dignified and respectful.

Hindu Priest

Hair Style In The Time Of Gurukuls

In the olden days and the mythological stories, we read about the Gurukul system where a handful of young boys were left with a teacher(their Guru) either in the forest or the village to get their education from him.He would provide for them in addition to teaching them all they needed to know in the ways of this world and how to be warrior as well. In return they would do anything for him,and at the end of their study they were to give "Gurudakshina" or Fees. This would be anything that the Guru asked of the student. Now,these students were to shave their heads from the front and only until the top of their head.The hair on the top of their head could not be cut or shaved if the boy's father were alive. And this kind of hairstyle at once signified that he was a Brahmin(high caste). It is said that only such boys could be educated or become temple priests. The hair on the top of the head would be longer and would stick out of the middle of the shaven head and would be tied into a knot. While studying,it is said, that this portion of hair would be tied to something so that if he happened to doze off,it would wake him up to study again.

Even today,some temple priests sport this pujari style (half or three fourth head shaven) look.

Shaving Of Heads In A Temple

The First Shave!

Family And Friends Watch The Tonsure In Festive Mood

Why Do Indians Shave Their Heads?

Religious beliefs that have been followed over generations is at the heart of this most popular custom. Here are some instances when a person's head is shaved.

Hindus believe in rebirth,not necessarily as a human being,and so to attain liberation from this cycle of rebirth,such customs were enforced. Most often, the people themselves come forward for all these customs,as being seen clean shaven,they are then perceived as devout.

Shaving one's head is a symbol of total submission to God. As a sign of repentence,head is shaved in a temple of a particular deity,then the devotee bathes and stands bowed down in the presence of the deity,seeking forgiveness and offering to become a new person. Tonsuring is the outward symbol of beginning life anew. The most popular among Hindu temples for tonsuring is the one at Tirupathi in Andhra Pradesh where people from all over the world queue up right from early morning to late evening just to get a sight of the bejewelled deity in the sanctum sanctorum. This practise still exists and is very popular among Hindus from all over. There is even a separate queue for politicians,eminent industrialists and popular film stars. And it makes for front page news the next day.

Today,the people are not guided properly and come for a variety of reasons other than seeking God's absolution of their sins,to get themselves tonsured at a temple where barbers are an essential part of the temple as are pujaris(priests). Most come to offer their precious hair as an offering for favours received. An oath taken earlier,if and when it comes to pass,will be a sign that God has answered their prayers,and so the hair is offered as offering. In history and mythological books,we see characters cutting off a part of their body,whichever is most important for them,and giving to the deity. Today's reasons cited are as follows and quite often the whole family gets themselves tonsured.

  • We got our first child after several years of marriage.
  • We got a male child after 3 females.
  • My son got an engineering seat in a good college.
  • My son is going to America for higher studies/job.
  • My daughter got engaged to an NRI husband.
  • We just built our dream house.
  • Passing an exam in first class.

This practise of shaving the head in a temple is not restricted to Hindus alone. Some Indian Christians and Muslims also practise this custom. Among churches,the Vellankanni church in Tamil Nadu is the most famous and seen as a sort of pilgrimage for Catholics.

Servants in olden days were often told to shave their heads and always look down at the floor while listening to their masters.

Widows were made to shave their head till about 40-50 years ago,the reason being after the husband dies,a woman loses her right to live. In marriage, husband and wife are one soul and so when the husband died,shaving the head of the wife was akin to being dead. In some sects,sati was performed,where the wife was made to sit on the funeral pyre of her dead husband and burnt. The belief was that both would then attain "moksha". This practise does not exist anymore. Today,widow remarriage is encouraged in addition to helping them become financially independent.

Punishment was meted out to members of a different village if they dared enter the rival village. Robbers and petty thieves had their heads shaved in front of the whole village as a lesson for others. Lovers of rival villages or communities were separated and taught a lesson by, guessed it, being shaved in front of the whole community.

Lastly,when a man dies,his sons shave their head and light his funeral pyre as a belief that only then their father attains "moksha".

Not all reasons to go clean shaven are religious. It is said that hair grows very well once the head is clean shaven. And so, when a child reaches a year or a year and a half,the head is shaved and all baby hair gives way to super luxurious tresses. The barber is called home for the occasion and a feast is arranged for family and friends. Yes,for generations,even my family has gone through this ritual,because we are Indian Christians.

It is imperative to note that the Sikhs are the only Indians who are forbidden to ever cut their hair or trim their moustache or beard. They take great care of their long tresses,both men and women and the men wear an elaborate turban which characterizes them a Sardarji. The long moustache and beard is combed and a tight net is used to keep it in place.

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    • profile image

      anil kumar 

      6 years ago

      Hindu Brahmn priests made many many religious rites and rules, using fear mechanism, and basically keeping themselves busy (employed) at the cost of ignorant masses ! India has the most # of religious holidaysin the world and is the most materialistic, double faced, society today !

    • Purple Perl profile imageAUTHOR

      Esther Shamsunder 

      7 years ago from Bangalore,India


      Let us assume that it is a style statement.It could also be due to excessive loss of hair due to an illness, treatment or if she is a Catholic,& has been to Velankanni church in India,she might have opted for tonsure.

    • profile image

      7 years ago

      Is there any particular reason why a Christian from India (Hydrabad, specifically) would shave her head?

      How about if she were living in the United States?

      (Yes, there is a specific reason I am asking.)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      very interesting facts. .

    • Purple Perl profile imageAUTHOR

      Esther Shamsunder 

      8 years ago from Bangalore,India

      haba f,yes, moustache and beard are also shaved off while shaving the head at the temples.

    • profile image

      carlos zepeda benitez 

      8 years ago

      i do not agree with these practice

    • profile image

      haba f 

      8 years ago

      If you're Hindu can you shave your moustache?

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Nixce Hub

    • profile image

      promoth roy 

      8 years ago

      i can nt find ans why hindu women keep their hair long bt i learnt much from here

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      it symbolises ''shedding of ignorance''...

    • maverickmonk profile image


      9 years ago from india

      one can shave his/her head if they are uncomfortable with their hair...everything else is just irrelevant

    • Purple Perl profile imageAUTHOR

      Esther Shamsunder 

      9 years ago from Bangalore,India

      Lamme,thanks for stopping by.

      Tyrell,most people are guided by superstitious beliefs in India. So, what one does is mostly to follow others in the same community and this goes on for generations in the name of tradition or be excommunicated for not adhering.This of course, is becoming more of an exception today among educated middle and upper class society.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I'm ethnically indian and don't agree with this practice. Is there any proof that not shaving the childs hair, will affect the the childs hair growth in later years. Religious beliefs aside - I can't see the point of doing this. I have a full set of hair and never had my head shaved. Can someone send me a link of scientific evidence to support this claim? Thanks.

      I also think it's great to discuss the traditions of people. It's nice to understand why people do the things they do.

    • Lamme profile image


      9 years ago

      Very interesting learning about another culture.

    • Purple Perl profile imageAUTHOR

      Esther Shamsunder 

      10 years ago from Bangalore,India

      Glad to help you get some info on our Indian culture,AEvans.Thanks for stopping by to read and comment.

    • AEvans profile image


      10 years ago from SomeWhere Out There

      I enjoy learning something new and I always wondered why they shaved their heads, I am certainly glad that women are no longer burnt and re-marriage is now encouraged how amazing how somethings change. I have gained a greater insight into the world of Tonsuring and Indian Culture. :)

    • Purple Perl profile imageAUTHOR

      Esther Shamsunder 

      10 years ago from Bangalore,India

      Many thanks Jerilee Wei,cindyvine and Teresa for stopping by.I am so glad to be able to give you a peek into our customs and traditions. Indians are by far more hospitable and tolerant because we are used to living side-by-side with other communities and watching each perform their own rituals according to religion and beliefs. And being part of everyone's celebrations. Perhaps,you would be encouraged to visit this INCREDIBLE INDIA!

      Cindyvine,thank you for sharing about why the Buddhist monks have to shave their heads. I was not aware of it.

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 

      10 years ago from United States

      Very interesting! I find it appalling how little we all know about your culture and customs. It is very useful to have someone explain this so logically.

    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 

      10 years ago from Cape Town

      Fascinating, when I was at Shaolin last weekend, they said that the hair belongs to the mother, that's why they shave the heads of the Buddhist monks so that they no longer belong to their mother and cut their ties with her.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image


      10 years ago from The Other Bangor

      Excellent hub. This is a fascinating look at a custom with which I am unfamiliar -- rich with details that illustrate the traditions. Thank you!


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