Chapter 26
Tonsures at Tirupati

Not only men but also women undergo tonsure.

There is a custom of tonsure which is speciality of this Temple. Many devotees go there with the intention of votive offering of their hair to the Lord. Performing tonsure at this place is considered praiseworthy and believed to confer great merit. Not only the men perform this tonsure but also women,married as well as unmarried offer their hair by getting Mundana performed here. Sri Sitapati observes;

"Another unique custom of Tirumalai is the Tonsure ceremony. Pilgrims to Tirumalai usually offer the hair on their head to the Lord as a devotional offering. Persons in need of the assistance of the Lord,usually take a vow and when they visit the temple,offer their hair at the Kalyaanakatta, special hall erected for this purpose. A bath in the Pushkarini follows the Tonsure ceremony; The pilgrims then enter the temple and worship the Lord." [Sitapati: 1972: 155]

There are legends and inscriptions in this temple for such trivial things, as use of camphor and such materials for the deity, and champaka and tamarind trees. But the most surprising thing about tonsure here is that, though it is being practiced since hoary past, there is not even a legend, let alone an inscription.

No inscriptions mention about tonsure

Shri Sitapati observes:

"The Tirumalai Temple inscriptions mention about food offering etc. made to the Lord, but no mention is made of this curious custom of offering of hair. The custom was perhaps introduced to stress the quality of humility, as well as renunciation of what is usually prized. It is also possible that this custom came into prominence when the Vaishnavas vigorously started their poselytising activities by setting up missions and by converting people from other sects and beliefs into the Vaishnava fold. Some fees are collected for the Tonsure ceremony and it is possible that the revenue aspect might have been one strong reason for the introduction of this custom in Tirumalai. Sri T.K.T. Veera Raghavacharya in his book 'History of Tirupati' has reproduced in Appendix I, a reprint of an article published in August 1831 A. D. by an English District Collector of the region about Tirumalai in the Asiatic Journal. The reprint mentions that "offerings or counickee are made generally from interested votives, and are of a very diversity of articles conceivable; gold and silver lumps, coins of all sorts, bags of rupees, copper, money, spices, asafoetida, the hair cut off the head frequently vowed from infancy, and given up by some beautiful virgin in compliance with her parent's oath. [emphasis original] From the above it is evident that this custom at least existed in the year 1831 A.D. if not earlier. [Sitapati:154]

Conversion is the main reason for tonsure

In the above account, Sri Sitapati gives three possible reasons for starting the practice of ceremonial tonsure, as follows;

(a) To stress humility,
(b) Conversion of other sects to Vaishnavism, and
(c) Monetary reasons.

Of the above (a) and (c) are not of any importance. Only we have to consider a point of conversion of other sects into Vaishnava fold. Shri Sitapati is not very explicit about his point, or is rather shy, as to why the practice of mundana as associated with the conversion of other sects to Vaishnavism. Perhaps devotee in him overrides a scholar in him. What is the relation of mundana with the people who got converted? Presuming these other sects were Shaivites, mundana has no value in Shaivism. It is certain that mundana does not form a traditional method of worshipping Vishnu. Also mundana does not form a part of conversion to Vaishnavism, as will be seen from the description of Vaishnava conversion given in Chapter 24. What Sitapati probably means to say (but does not) is that, those converted to Vaishnava fold were already used to, and rather fond of ceremonial tonsure at temples and did not want to give up the practice even after conversion to Vaishnavism. Who were such people? It was one of the old practices of Buddhists, as we know to becomes Shramaner or Shramaneri and to stay at a place of worship, pilgrimage or a centre of learning for a few days in attendance with the masters, the essential requirement being the tonsure of head at that time. This practice of spending few days as Shramaner or Shramaneri, either for learning and spending more time, or for the purpose of ceremonial initiation of Shramaner as a notional gesture for a few days, is prevalent even today, in most of the countries where Buddhism is a living faith. This is true of countries following Southern Buddhism as well as Northern Buddhism.

Tonsure was practiced by the Buddhists

We find innumerable references to this practice in old Buddhist texts. Dr.Anganelal observes:

"Pravajjya and upsampada were the special sanskaras of Buddhists. To accept pravajjya, either lifelong or for a few days was considered meritorious and to give moksha for all Buddhists. There are four categories of Buddhists with regard to observance of good conduct; upasakas who observe five, upasakas, who observe eight, Shramaner who observe ten and shramana or bhikshus, who observe two hundred and twenty eight sheelas. First two are for house-holders. Initiation of Shramaner is known as pravajjya and that of bhikshu is called upsampada. It is compulsory to become a shramaner, before becoming a bhikshu. [Angnelal, Sanskrit baudha sahitya me bharatiya jivan, (hindi), Kailash Prakashan Lukhnow, p. 159]

Description of rite of Pravajja

He has also given the ritual to be followed at this time.

"Only bhikshus could initiate others. We find a detailed account of pravajjya of Nanda in Saundarananda and Rahula in Mahavasstu. First of all the seeker of initiation was tonsured and then given ochre robes to wear. After wearing this the seeker lay Buddhist was initiated by Triratna and Pancha-sheelas and Shramaner was initiated by Das Sheela, (Mahavastu III 268/17-18). After cutting his hair Rahula was initiated with Trun Sanstaran, Sariputra holding his right hand and Moudgalayan holding left hand. (Mahavastu III/268- 69.) "After Pravajjya the initiated Bhikshu had to bow down to guru and seek his advice and orders. "This sanskar was open to women also (Divyavadana 318,7) and they too had to shave their heads and wear ochre robes, (Divyavadana 317/31-32.)"

Tonsure is ancient practice in this Temple

If the idea that the practice of tonsure is related to the conversion of other sects into Vaishnava fold is kept in mind, then it becomes clear that this practice is going on since the days of fall of Buddhism and emergence of Vaishnavism. It is not possible to postulate any later date for the beginning of this custom, because as the days went by the orthodoxy prevailed supreme and the sight of a shaven headed Hindu woman was considered more and more inauspicious. Under these circumstances it is inconceivable that practice of presenting the shaven headed women before the Lord could have started. And it must have been an ancient custom and continued in spite of being ignored by the Puranas, and in spite of being ignored by the writers of inscriptions. Rather, it could possibly be argued that such a neglect of its mention was intentional for obvious reasons that this practice had to be continued much against the wishes of the Brahmins. Therefore, Ramesan seems to be correct when he says;

"This custom of removing hair as a part of religious ceremony has a very hoary past." [Ramesan N., The Tirumala Temple, T.T.D., p. 587]

Shaven headed men, let alone women, are inauspicious to Hindu tradition.

It is a well known fact that a sight of shaven headed is inauspicious to a Hindu since long back, because of hatred against Buddhists. There are references to this not only in religious texts, but also in Sanskrit Dramas like 'Mrichacha Katika'

Hindu men have their heads shaven only when somebody elderly dies in the house and women were shaven headed only when they are widows and not otherwise. It is also well-known that sight of shaven headed widow is inauspicious to a Hindu. A glaring example of this was demonstrated by Brahmo Samaj in Bengal, when they arranged a reception of a dignitary by shaven headed widows on a New Moon day just to press home their point of view that neither the shaven headed widow nor the New Moon day was inauspicious.

Story in Vishnu Purana

That even the sight and a talk with a mundaka was considered inauspicious and punishable by several consequences is shown by a story in Vishnu Purana (part III Chapter 18 verse 53 to 100). The summary is given by Dharmanand Kosambi. [Dharmanand Kosambi, Bhartiya Sanskriti Aur Ahimsa, (hindi), p.184] It says that a king happened to talk to a pashandi, i.e. a shaven headed Buddhist monk, on the day of a vrata, as a result of which he was born as a dog then as a jackal and afterwards as a lamb, a vulture, a crow, a duck, a peacock etc. The author concludes this narration by saying;

"It is clear that the author of this puranic story has written it to show that on days of Vrata even talking with a Pashandhi can lead to horrible consequences".

Contempt of Buddhists in ancient Hindu texts

Dr. Ambedkar has given many instances of contempt of Buddhists in the ancient Hindu literature. [Untouchables, p. 96]

"That there existed hatred and abhorrence against the Buddhists in the minds of the Hindus and that this feeling was created by the Brahmins is not without support.

"Nilkanta in his Prayaschit Mayukha I, quotes a verse from Manu which says:- 'If a person touches a Buddhist or a flower of Pachupat, Lokayataka, Nastika and Mahapataki he shall purify himself by a bath'."

"The same doctrine is preached by Apararka in his Smriti. Vraddha Harit goes further and declares entry into the Buddhist Temples as sin requiring a purificatory bath for removing the impurity.

"How widespread had become this spirit of hatred and contempt against the followers of Buddha can be observed from the scenes depicted in Sanskrit dramas. The most striking illustration of this attitude towards the Buddhists is to be found in the Mricchakatika ..."

After describing how the monk is insulted and beaten up by Brahmin hero Charudatta, in this dramma, Dr. Ambedkar observes:

"Here is a Buddhist monk in the midst of the Hindu crowd. He is shunned and avoided. The feeling of disgust against him is so great, that the people even shun the road the monk is travelling. The feeling of repulsion is so intense that the entry of the Buddhist was enough to cause the exit of the Hindus. A Brahmin is immune from death penalty. He is even free from corporal punishment. But the Buddhist Monk is beaten and assaulted without remorse, without compunction as though there was nothing wrong in it."

Tonsures followed by Hindus

It has been pointed out that sight of a shaven headed man, let alone a woman, was inauspicious to a Hindu. This does not mean that Hindus were doing tonsure only at inauspicious times. Many examples can be quoted when Hindus indulge in tonsure. There is a ceremony called Chudakaran which is one of the sanskaras and is said to be to achieve long life. [Pandey: 1969: 94] Pandey avers that this ceremony was not concerned with the dedication of the hair to the deity. It was originally performed in childhood, but now a days it is usually done just before Upanayana. [Pandey:96] It is particularly interesting to note that a tuft of hair is left unremoved on the top and is called sikha. It is arranged according to family tradition, number of tufts being decided by number of pravara in the family. [Pandey:98]

Tuft of hair was reaction against Buddhism.

Pandey observes:

"Keeping the top hair, in its course of evolution, became an indispensable sign of the Hindus. The tuft and the sacred thread are the compulsory outward signs of the twice born. ... It may be a reaction against Buddhism and sanyasa", Pandey further adds. [fn.]

It is noteworthy that at Tirupati no tuft or hair is left over after the tonsure and thus it is against the tenets of Hindu Sastras.

Vedic Tonsures

The same applies to the tonsures in Sanskaras of Upanayana, Samavartanaa, and also as preliminary tonsure in Vedic sacrifices like Soma festival and Chaturmasya and Agnistoma where tonsure is performed, more as a part of general cleaning of body, rather than as a rite. And in any case, these tonsures associated with Vedic rites cannot explain the tonsures at Tirumalai for a simple reason that Vedic tonsures are privileges to be enjoyed only by so called 'twice born', whereas, at Tirumalai it is practiced by all castes and predominantly by the non-twiceborns. Can it be argued that this privilege was passed on by the Brahmins to other castes in later times? This is against the known history of this land. In this country, once any privilege is established, the Brahmins never renounced it for the benefit of others. A glaring example can be cited, when the Brahmins of Maharashtra complained to Brahmin Peshava rulers and got decree against Sonars, who wanted to wear dhoti in a particular fashion, but it was considered exclusive privilege of the Brahmins to wear dhoti that way. [Ambedkar: 1970: 58, Annihilation of Caste] If this is the state of affairs in secular matters, can it be surmised that a religious privilege like Vedic tonsure would be passed on to shudras? So it is futile to say that tonsures at Tirumalai have anything to do with Vedic rites.

Votive offering of hair is contrary to Hindus Sastras

Study of comparative religion shows that in ancient civilizations, tonsure was practiced by Semitic people, the Syrians, the Phoenicians, and the Priests of Isis. About all the above views of anthropologists, Shri Raj Bali Pandey comments that these views are not valid for tonsure in India. It is specially to be noted that offering of hair to the deity is contrary to the sastras. Shri Pandey observes:

"...In the opinion of some anthropologists, however, this ceremony had dedicative purpose in ins origin, that is, hair was cut off and offered as a gift to some deity. But this supposition is not correct, at least so far as Hindu tonsure is concerned. The dedicative purpose was unknown to the Grihyasutras and the Smritis. ..." [Pandey:95]

Why Brahmins had to concede to Tonsure

The Brahmanic practices always considered tonsure inauspicious, but the system was so deeply rooted in the minds of Buddhist common people that they would not give it up. So it became necessary for the Brahmins to adopt this system like many other Buddhist practices. In the case of tirthas, Puranas and Nibandhas of medieval period prescribed tonsure in temples and tirthas. e.g. Samba Upapurana, and we find in later Puranas like Kasi Khand of Skanda Purana, it is advised for pilgrims to undergo shave at a tirtha, with some amendments. Shri J.H.Dave tells us the rules are as follows:

"Whenever one goes to any Tirtha, the usual rule is that one should get shaved at that place, and should observe a fast. But, this rule does not apply in the case of the following four Tirthas: Kurukshetra, Visala, Viraja and Gaya. With respect to ladies, particularly those whose husbands are alive, it has been stated that mundana or shaving in their case is to be understood as cutting of their braid of hair by only two finger breadths." [Dave: I, xxiv]

Here we find an example of borrowing by Brahmins of a custom from the Buddhists much against their wishes, because they could not recommend a complete shave for women, unlike the Buddhists.

Ramesan observes:

"Exceptions were introduced to the rule about tonsure. Daksa forbade tonsure, the offering of pindas and the carrying of a corpse and all funeral rites to one whose father was alive and to a man whose wife was pregnant. But his prohibition did not apply to penances. The Baudhayanasutra already referred to prohibits the tonsure of women in penances. Angiras 163, Apastamba smrti I.33-34, Brahdyama IV.16, Vradha-Harita IX. 386, Parasara IX 54-55, Yama 54-55, all provide that in the case of married women whose husbands are alive, and in the case of maidens all their should be held together and only two finger-breadths of hair should be cut off. In the case of widows and ascetics the entire head was to be shaved." [Ramesan: Tirumala Temple, p.591]

Tonsures at Tirthas

Tonsure is also prescribed in ancient Dharmasastras while going on pilgrimage. Padmapurana and Skanda Purana advocate tonsure when starting for pilgrimage. A verse from Vishnu Purana which is also quoted by Tirtha-chintamani and Tirtha prakasha enjoins:

"Tonsure should be carried out at Prayaga when on a pilgrimage, and on the death of one's father or mother, one should not in vain (lightly) tonsure the head..." [Ramesan: 1981: 587]

Here Vishnu Purana has actually enjoined NOT to perform tonsures without a valid cause and in no case this passage of Vishnu Purana can explain the tonsures at Tirumalai. Thus Tirumalai tonsure do not conform with the rules of Puranas either.

Tonsure is not a method of Vishnu Worship

It is also noteworthy that the method of worship of Vishnu Image is described popularly as Shodas Upachar. These are 16 ways in which Vishnu Image should be worshipped. It should be noted that mundana or tonsure ceremony is not included as one of them.

Tirumalai tonsures are not Tantric or Natha practices

It has been suggested that offering of hair is equivalent to and symbolic of offering of head. This explanation also is not appropriate for a Vishnu temple because offering of head involves himsa which is against the tenets of Vaishnavism, though it may be permissible in Shakti puja.

Ramesan informs us that, seventh century reliefs at Mahabalipuram depict hair offering to the Devi Vakpati, eighth century court poet of Kanauj refers hair offered in a shrine of goddess Vindhyavasani, Tantrika ascetics considered sikha as one of Tantric angas to be worshipped at four comers of yantra. Offering of sikha was also an important ritual in the initiation of Tantric ascetics. Mahanirvan Tantra notes that Pitars, Devas and Devarsi and also 'the acts performed in the worldly stage of life reside in the sikha'. The ascetic offers his sikha in fire uttering mantras. Offering of sikha by the initiates is still a practice among the Nathapanthis.

What is the connection of these cults with Vaishnavism? They are both so called heretical cults and much nearer to Buddhism than to Brahmanism. How does one account for Tirumalai tonsures on the Tantric and Natha practices? As a matter of fact Nathism is considered by scholars as a corrupt from of Buddhism and believed to have originated from Buddhist Nikayas during the general decline of Buddhism.

Tirumalai tonsures are not prayschittas

There is one more group where tonsure was undertaken by followers of Brahmanism in ancient times. That is the performance of tonsure as a punishment and sentence by law.

Ramesan observes:

"... To these occasions may be added penances. The idea seems to have been entertained that whatever sin a man commits it becomes centered in the hair, as seen for verse quoted by the Madanaparijata and Prayaschittasam uchchaya Gautama. (27.3), Vasista Dharmasutra(24.5), Baudhayanasutra Dh.S(II.1.98-99) and others provide for the tonsure of the hair on the head and lips (except those on the eye-brows, the hair on the trunk and the top knot). [Ramesan: 591]

The Brahmins were exempt from capital punishment. Offenses which were punishable by corporal sentence for non-Brahmins, were punishable by tonsure in case of Brahmins. [Manu VIII, 379] It seems strange to the present day scholars that for the same offence, the punishment by ancient law was cutting of an arm in case of non-Brahmin and only a tonsure in the case of Brahmin. Though this discrimination is unfair, it should be realised that the ultimate effect of even this sentences of tonsure resulted in condemnation by the society and deprivation of the means of sustenance, because many times in the case of punishment to the brahmins by tonsure, they were also excommunicated and driven out of the village. Every student of ancient Indian history knows the severity of the sentence of excommunication. It was because of this that many authorities have made exceptions and given some concessions to brahmins under certain circumstances. Ramesan observes:

"... It was further provided by Parasara (IXC 52-54), and Sankha (pp.290-291) that in the case of a king or a prince or a learned Brahmana, tonsure of head should not be insisted upon, but that they should have to undergo double the usual penance and the dakshina would have to be double. The Mitakshara, III.325 quotes a verse of Manu (not found in the printed text) - 'tonsure of the head is not desired in case of learned Brahamans and kings except in the case of those guilty of mahapatakas, of cow-killing or of being an avakirnin ..." [Ramesan: 59]

It is of course improper to think that the people who undergo tonsure at Tirumalai are sentenced to undergo any punishment, neither is there any feeling of guilt in their minds. They undergo tonsure gladly with full religious reverence, and this type of tonsure as prayaschittas has nothing to do with tonsures in Tirumalai.


In conclusion, we may say about Brahmanic tonsures, that:

* 1. Hindu Sastras do not recognize tonsure as votive as an offering to a deity.

* 2. Preservation of tuft of hair on the top is obligatory for the followers of Brahmanism.

* 3. Young unmarried maidens and married women are not to shave.

* 4. Only widows are shaven headed.

* 5. Shaven headed men, and not only women, were considered inauspicious.

* 6. Shaving was done as punishments and in case of death of relatives.

* 7. In short, it was an occasion for sorrow and mourning.

Therefore, the traditional custom of tonsures performed at Tirumalai as religious ceremony can not be viewed upon as a custom of the Brahmanic religion, and as it is an unique and important part of worship at Tirupati, the shrine at Tirumalai could not have been a Brahmanic centre in olden days. There is a remarkable absence of legends or epigraphs about tonsures, denoting the displeasure of priestly leaders of the shrine, about it. All these go to prove that the practice of tonsure at Tirumalai is the relic of old Buddhist custom, and suggests the Buddhist origin of Tirumalai Deity.

Chapter 25          Chapter 27