The time I got my head shaved at the world’s busiest holy site

In the hills above Tirupati, in Andhra Pradesh, is the Tirumala Venkateswara temple, which is a city almost itself. For good reason: It is the most visited holy site in the world. According to various sources, 50,000 to 100,000 people per day visit here; that number can swell during holy festivals to 500,000.

The temple, nestled on the serpent of the world.
The temple, nestled on the serpent of the world.

It also is one of the richer holy sites, also for good reason. Lord Venkateswara — a form of Vishnu — had to borrow money from Lord Kubera to cover the cost of his wedding to Padmavati. Followers are still helping him pay the loan back — it was one heck of a wedding.

During our yatra, this temple was the most crowded we visited — there was one Siva temple where we waited longer — and it was the only one where we had to go through a check-point of sorts, as foreigners, before we entered the inner sanctums of the temple. This involved our going through the “passport line,” which cut off hours of waiting. It also involved our having to, as a group, cut into that line, a squeeze and push of epic proportions. Those of us in the back ended up using rugby techniques to help keep us together.

Perhaps it’s worth backing up a second. (That was nearly impossible to do in that crowd.) If you’re not fully familiar with visiting a Hindu temple — and we weren’t before our trip — the word “line” might strike you as curious. While there are spaces to sit quietly, areas where kirtan might be happening and secondary temples to different gods (Ganesh, Hanuman, the Devi), the main thrust of the visit is taking Darshan, where you see and are seen by the temple’s main murti. (You can take Darshan with the other murtis, too, but the main one is the draw, so to speak.)

And taking Darshan means waiting for Darshan, and that means waiting in lines. And when I write, “lines,” I mean lines as you’d find at Disneyland: snaking, corded off lines marked off by ropes or fences.

The line here, with people waiting hours and hours, with its crossing over streets, going up and down steps, narrowing from five people wide to two, was intense. The squeeze when we joined was one of the most physical moments of the journey, along with the chariot pull in Chidambaram. But it wasn’t nasty, aggressive or scary. It wasn’t as bad as a Black Friday shopping line. (Remember that guy? “Calm the f%#k down! Push one of my kids and I will stab one of you motherf%@kers!”) In fact, right after the squeeze from five across to two, someone led a long, consistent chant of “Govinda!”

There was a lot of love.

The Darshan also was good here. (We were lucky throughout our trip on getting good Darshan.) I was tall enough to be able to see Lord Venkateswara, resplendent in his jewels, from far off and as we closed in on it. It was both long and then intense Darshan.

Tirumala also is famous for its best-in-the-world Laddu. We were told that the same people can use the same ingredients down the mountain and the Laddu won’t come out as tasty.

So, to recap: Busiest holy site in the world. Intense but loving wait for Darshan. Good Darshan. Yummy Laddu.

Why the recap? To give some context for this:

Post shave
Post shave

On our itinerary, the phrase “tonsure, if desired,” sat alongside the visit to Tirumala. Tonsure, for those unfamiliar, is the ritual shaving of the head.

Let me rephrase the above: On our itinerary, the phrase “tonsure, if desired,” sat alongside the visit to Tirumala like a challenge.

I won’t lie and say I had a lot to lose here; 15 years ago, when my hair was at my mid-back, I did. It felt more like a baby step, one of many on the trip: First temple visit; first Darshan; pull a chariot; sit where Ramana Maharishi did; climb the earthen form of Siva’s shaft of fire. Lose your hair.

Still, there was something symbolic about the gesture, and despite having most of two weeks for my hair to grow back, I wouldn’t be returning to the routine world without some mark of where we’d been.

So I didn’t know if I would do it. And as our visit to the temple went on, I didn’t know if I’d have to make the choice. There was no mention, there was no sign of some tonsure torture area. We got our Darshan, we got our Laddu. It seemed we were ready to get going.

Not so fast.

I wish I could remember more precisely hearing tonsure come up. We all were walking along; there was a low building behind us. And then I felt questioned, not by anyone in particular, but a general, surrounding question:

Are you going to do it?

I doubt I would have gone alone. Of the six men — I don’t count our leaders, Robert Moses or Radhakunda Das — on our trip, there was one who was game. And if I wouldn’t go alone, I couldn’t expect him to do so.

In we went, with a helpful guide from the local ISKCON temple (those temples, by the way, are an exception to the standing in line experience). There was another long passage/line, ala Disneyland. Only this one had no one, so we walked, back and forth, up a ramp, back around, until we reached the ticket stand.

Yes, I’m serious. The ticket stand. Here you received a ticket and a little packet; I looked in and saw there was a Gillette razor blade inside. The ticket had a number that, once we had walked farther on to the tonsure room, corresponded to one of the 20 or so barbers seated inside.

I didn’t actually go to my proper line; it was so uncrowded — I guess everyone was still in line for Darshan — that I just was plopped down next to my fellow yatri.

The barbers sit on a concrete ledge that runs along the wall of the room, down both sides. Next to them is the shaving water; in front of it, water for rinsing. You sit on a lower, squared off concrete seat that also runs the length of the room, which is probably 40 feet by 60 feet, all white; in front of you is a lot of water and a lot of hair. In between you and the barber is a pool of sorts, defined by the high ledge he is on and the lower one on which you sit.

It make two, six-inch-deep, wall-long trenches on either side, basically.

My barber had a very kind face, and he seemed amused by our appearance; there was probably a lot of amusement, but I was too lost in the moment, trying to make sure I was doing the right thing, to notice. We had to take off our shirts and money pouches; I had to give my glasses to our guide.

And we started.

My barber dosed me with water from the bucket of shaving water two times, then basically massaged my head to get it wet. There was no soap or anything. He then told me to pray to Govinda, put my blade into his razor and methodically got to work.

I sat crossed-legged in front of him, leaning forward so my hair and the water fell between us. He moved my head forcefully but not harshly as he shaved. I prayed to Govinda before moving on to the Hanuman Chalisa, which I remembered more clearly than ever before.

And it was over. I was soaked. It felt as though my barber rubbed a little antiseptic all over my head; I watched as my fellow yatri get the same stuff in just one little spot. Either my barber was being nice or I had a lot of nicks and cuts.

From the tonsure room we moved on to the wash area — there was one for women, too, I saw, and I think a separate tonsure area for them. In the wash area, a helpful fellow tonsure-ee explained that we should go into the different rooms where there were spigots and buckets. (If we haven’t made it clear from posts about India, we encountered nice people after nice people. He was among them.) Some men were washing themselves completely; I just dosed my head a few times. As we walked from there, we both ended up having sandalwood paste rubbed on our heads. My fellow yatri might have paid some Rupies for that.

When we finally made it back to the group, they were surrounded by dozens of Indians, who I later learned had been taking their pictures, talking to them — pretty much reacting to the sight of Westerners at this hilltop temple. Our addition, two yellow-headed guys a bit dazed by what had just happened, seemed to be the icing on their Laddu. There were lots more pictures, lots of laughter.

But not much hair.

It was a turning point, among many, of the trip. A step a little deeper into the experience, into letting go, into trying to let whatever we encountered in.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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