By Anthony Kuriakose
On festival days, like the annual Vaikunta Ekadesi, when 350 thousand pilgrims congregate, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) – the Tirupati temple authorities-
find, that the standard force of 500 barbers, they employ to cut the hair offerings made by the devotees are not sufficient and the special committee appointed has recommended at least employing 1500 more barbers to ensure that the huge hair cutting halls - the largest ‘hair cutting saloons’ in the world - in the temple premises are not overcrowded with waiting pilgrims.
According to the TTD Chief executive officer, the annual pilgrim turnout (increasing every year) in 2010 to the temple was 25 million. The average number every day is 50 thousand, with seven times the number coming on festival days. Forty per cent of the devotees tonsure their hair as offerings or about a million an year - the cut hair weighing 500 plus tonnes.
Offering hair to Lord Sri Venkateshwara Swamy at Tirumala is a very ancient tradition. There are various reasons mentioned behind this tradition. One purpose of tonsuring is said to show ones devotion to God, by shaving their heads clean and by doing so it also enabled these people to free themselves from their past sins and continue on with purer lives. Another version is that hair is a symbolic offering to God, representing a real sacrifice of beauty; in return for God’s blessings. Again one spiritual reason given is that cutting away the hair would efface the ego of the individual and please God with this sacrifice.
In the past, competition by barbers for cutting your hair was ferocious. Temple barbers would pounce on pilgrims as they got out of the buses, shaving a strip of hair off as many heads as possible to maximise the scalps committed to them, then returning to finish the job later. Today, thanks to the TTD, it is more organised, though only less frenetic.
The place where pilgrims fulfil their vow of tonsure is a huge four storeyed building called Kalyana Katta. Over 500 barbers, operating in three batches round the clock, are available at Kalyana Katta, to perform the hair cutting. The building is equipped with two big tonsure halls with platforms to seat both the pilgrim and the barber. There are four waiting halls and a well-organised queue system. Tonsure is done free of cost at Kalyana Katta. Antiseptics are mixed with water and applied to the head before tonsuring to prevent skin-related and other diseases. Bathrooms, with geysers for hot water, are provided for the pilgrims who have their heads tonsured. A computerised system is in place to issue tokens for tonsure.
A throng of humanity presses the pilgrims into the Kalyana Katta and as we inch slowly toward the tonsure halls, cracked concrete floors give way to cool white tiles. The computer operator in the counter, checks as to who is requesting the token (male or female) and enters the same in the computer, so that for all female devotees, the token numbers will be of those barbers, specially identified to shave female devotees and the TTD has taken care to select the these based on their job history (lack of number of eve teasing complaints?) and also they are mostly slightly old barbers who are seasoned and its less likely the female devotees will feel uncomfortable.
Then, a uniformed man hands us paper tokens imprinted with a bar code and a picture of God Venkateswara. The next official you encounter, hands over two razor blades: one for the head, one for the beard. The crowd of men and women then proceed down a wide staircase. The stairs end at a vast, tiled hall where long lines of men face tiled benches running along the walls. In the centre of the hall are four massive steel vats to store the cut hair.
One must match the token code— for example MH1293—to a sign on the wall, then take the place in a queue of about 50 bare-chested men. The pilgrim at the head of the line sits in front of the numbered barber and fixing the given blade to his razor handle, the barber completes the complete tonsure in a matter of six minutes at the maximum. Each barber’s quota is 60 tonsures per shift of eight hours and that does not allow much of a rest.
These barbers are not supposed to charge any amount for their ‘holy’ task (tips accepted) and are given a salary of ` 7,000-10,000 per month and are entitled to free accommodation, free food cooked at the temple, and a bus pass to travel to the temple. In 2005, the Tirupati Devasthanam wanted to employ women barbers to take care of orthodox / squeamish pilgrims, who did not want to get touched by male barbers, but that scheme did not take off.
Until the early 1960s, the temple simply burned the hair it collected. (Citing pollution, the government banned the practice during the 1990s.) Then wig makers began seeking raw materials at Tirupati. At the temple’s first auction, in 1962, the hair sold for 16 rupees a kilo. Now it fetches up to 20 times as much, and the auctions have become cutthroat affairs. The auction is a regulated process: notices appear in three newspapers, in four languages each, and on the temple’s two official Web sites.
Tirupati hair is sold to two distinct markets. The bulk of it, some 500 tons per year from short-haired men, is purchased by chemical companies that use it to make fertiliser or L-cysteine, an amino acid that gives hair its strength and is used in baked goods and other products. The more lucrative hair of female pilgrims—temple employees call it “black gold”—is tied in individual bundles and brought to the tonsuring centre’s top floor, where women labour over small heaps of the stuff, sorting it by length.
The bidding at the temple hair auction is highly competitive, as Indian hair tends to be fine, lustrous and free from chemical treatments. MF