In the city of Tirupati on top of a hill sits the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, one of the pilgrimage sites for Hindus. Early in the morning, pilgrims begin climbing the steep hill on which the temple stands. One after the other they come—men, women, and children—the bright colors of their clothes dotting the hillside, the chanting of their deity’s name breaking the morning silence. Many of them come because they want to undergo a ritual called tonsuring, a partial or complete shaving of their heads.
The pilgrims climbing the hill practice the Hindu religion, but if you had visited this site a week ago, you would have found, amidst the swirl of color and sound, a man looking out of place in his yarmulke and tzitzis braving the hill alongside the pilgrims. What was a Jew doing on the site of a temple?
He had come at the behest of rabbanim to observe and report on the tonsuring act and everything associated with it. Since the hair shaved off the pilgrims’ heads is sold and some of it is made into wigs, there is a possibility that much of it will end up on frum women’s heads. Might this mean that frum women would be wearing hair that was offered as a sacrifice for an avodah zarah?
In 2004, concerns about this issue reached a fever pitch. Women discarded and even burned their wigs. And though ultimately there were poskim who declared that it was mutar to wear the wigs, the matter has resurfaced. Now, in 2018, the subject of sheitels and temple hair has taken center stage again.
The Jewish delegate stood and watched. Cautiously, he approached one of the pilgrims. “Why are you here today?” the delegate’s interpreter asked the pilgrim.
“I came to tonsure because I want to give thanks to the deity. One year ago, I lost my job and opened a new business. I made a vow that if my business succeeds, I will come here and donate my hair to the temple. So now I am fulfilling my promise.”
He approached another pilgrim and asked him the same question. “My baby isn’t well,” he replied. “The doctors say he is very sick. I am going to do tonsuring and hope that this will answer my prayers.”
The tonsuring facility is an imposing four-story building called the Kalyana Katta. Before entering, the pilgrims remove their shoes. Inside the vast hall sit rows of barbers, hundreds of them, braiding pilgrims’ hair, tying the ends with ribbons, snipping the braids off, then razoring the leftover tufts of hair down to the scalp. The pilgrims sit cross-legged on the floor in front of the barbers during the procedure.
A cacophony of sounds fills the hall. Shouts are lobbed from one person to the other. The snip-snip-snip of scissors, the susurrus of razors against bald scalps, the swishing of barbers’ towels, the continuous footfalls along the great hall…they all seem to blend into one loud hum. The barbers casually discuss the weather as they shave, or the local news, or gossip.
Once the pilgrims’ tonsure is complete, they head to the pushkarini, the ritual bath, and immerse in their clothing. When they come out, they change into clean clothes and join a long line of people, called darshan, who are waiting to step into the temple to see the deity for a few seconds. Some of the pilgrims offer flowers, fruit, or oil to the deity. Others simply walk by quickly, happy to have been in the deity’s presence even fleetingly.
The Jewish delegate observed all of this and continued asking questions. Many of these questions had been asked in 2004, but one was new. “Do you tonsure because of the Neela Devi legend?” the delegate asked each pilgrim who was willing to talk to them.
The Neela Devi legend is one of the main reasons the sheitel controversy has surfaced again, 14 years after the matter was supposedly settled. A group of wig stylists who had been conducting research on tonsuring online came upon a surprising and rather troubling piece of information, a legend they hadn’t heard before.
According to this legend, a certain deity of theirs was once struck in the head by a cowherd’s axe in a field. As a result, part of his hair fell out, leaving him with a bald spot. When a mythical character named Neela Devi saw what had happened, she cut off a piece of her own hair and covered the bald spot with it. The deity then supposedly promised that whenever his devotees tonsured their hair, it would be dedicated to Neela Devi, and she would bless them for their sacrifice.
This legend was shocking. Until now tonsuring had been understood as a process of banishing of one’s ego, a humbling and surrendering of oneself. But if tonsuring was also a gift or sacrifice to an avodah zarah, how was it possible that it did not constitute idol worship? It was mainly because of this question that this delegate now found himself on the hill of Tirupati.