Monday, October 12, 2009

Indian Rituals: A Hairy Tale

It's not that I'd never fiddled with my daughter's hairstyle before. I've had her hair up on both sides of her face in tiny pig-tails, turning her into the spitting image of Boo from Monster's, Inc (which, by the way, if you have not seen, you must. I will guarantee you will laugh more than the kids). I've pinned all manner of clips in her hair. I've tried to pull it all back into a severe pony tail only to have her silky strands escape the bondage a few at a time until there was not enough for the band to hold and it too fell away.

One fine day, however, I was seized with an urge to braid her hair. I sat her down on the bathroom counter top, partitioned her hair into two zones and proceeded to weave two plaits. She good-naturedly complied and held her head still while I tried to get the motions right.

Quietly, a feeling crept up on me. There was something surreal about the act, something about making three distinct strands on either side of her head, weaving each one by turn into a single plait. I was transported to another place, another time. I was on the floor in front of my mother, her hands working deftly on my hair to produce two long (and I mean long - they came down to my knees) plaits on either side of the back of my head. Every single day of my school life, she had braided my hair using the same motions I did with my own daughter.

My daughter's plaits turned out great, and for the first time since I became a mother, it occurred to me that hair - and all the things we do to it - is such an integral part of life in India, especially in the life of a child, especially during the time my brother and I were growing up. There are daily rituals, weekly rituals, rituals that take place perhaps once or twice in a lifetime.

Mom combing my hair when I was about three.

The daily rituals first. There was the oiling of hair. Every. Single. Morning. Coconut oil applied scalp to hair-ends and massaged in until not a strand was left uncovered, the constant movement of finger tips in your hair producing the kind of stupor that renders you putty in your mom's hands. Following the oiling, my brother got about five minutes of combing. Cow licks would be coaxed down towards the head with repeated patting, partitions drawn ramrod straight and cleared of hair trying to cross over the line.

I got about fifteen minutes. First came the combing. My head would be pulled back so my mom, sitting behind me, could see the hairline on my forehead and run the comb all the way through my hair to the tips. After about fifty strokes would come the braiding. My mom had a special trick - she would weave my plaits out of five separate strands, producing a stronger braid that did not loosen even a little bit during school. My hair was long enough that the plaits had to be folded up and secured at the top with ribbons according to the school dress code.

Weekly rituals took the form of the 'head bath' every Sunday. More oil, this time castor oil (no, not the kind you put in cars, thankfully, but equally sticky and heavy). We had to let it soak in for at least an hour before it would be washed away with seegekaayi, a brown-colored powder, and conditioned with a slimy concoction made of powdered leaves (chigaré pudi) mixed with water that left our hair shiny and silky. It really did, but it also managed to get in our eyes.

So Sunday afternoons were spent with blood-shot eyes and with hair banished of all traces of oil but smelling of leaves and nuts.

Summer holidays brought rituals of their own, although thankfully it was not every summer. One that I know nearly every South Indian Hindu family savors is the moggina jadé (literally braiding hair with flowers) tradition.

On the day I had mine made up, many summers ago in my ajji's (my maternal grandmother) house in Mysore, I remember her veranda being a beehive of activity. She had already been to the market that afternoon to get the freshest flowers she could lay her hands on - jasmine buds, jasmine blooms, jaaji flowers and the white insides of a banana plant. A couple of days before she'd already readied the colored threads, sticks of various lengths and thicknesses, hair pins, and the jewellery that she would use to decorate my hair.

A flower shop at the Gandhi Bazaar market in Bangalore. The orange flowers hung on the left are jaaji flowers. Swirls of white jasmine strung together lie in baskets on the right. The garlands are the kind that will be used in weddings for the bride and the groom to wear.

My grandmother's very capable fingers gently but firmly threaded the jasmine buds onto one semi-circular sheath of the banana shoot which she had cut to match the length of my hair. Slowly but surely the flowers filled the entire surface of the banana shoot. With the help of two girls who were learning art and craft from her, my grandmother strung the rest of the flowers into braids of their own with the help of some thread. When it was all done, the flowers formed a neat, colorful pattern. Then she weaved the colored threads around the now flower-covered banana shoot to add an interesting layer of color.

By then my mother had already braided my hair into a single plait falling down my back. They sat me down on a stool and went to work. With a whole lot of pins and black ribbons, they managed to get all of their art work onto my hair and this was the result.

We hot-footed it to a studio in the city before the flowers wilted. If you looked at that picture and noticed how the shoulders are hunched, you join a long line of very observant people. But in my defense, let me say that all the stuff on my hair was heavy. Very. My shoulders just sagged under the weight. So there.

These days, the moggine jadés are available ready made in flower shops in the markets, but watching it take shape right in front of my eyes was quite something else.

I asked my mom a couple of days ago why we did that - why we went through this elaborate process and took a photo at the end of it. She said it was a great way to keep the children occupied during the summer holidays and what better avenue for grandmothers to practice their craft than on their own grandchildren! Summer was also the time my grandmother worked on a lot of craft made of cotton and colorful foil paper. She conjured up beautiful garlands and other decorative items out of them and she would use them during the many festivals of the year. She employed us grand kids as gluers of all manner of shiny things on to the cotton.

The one other ritual most Hindu families follow is the shaving of the head. This has more of a religious flavor than cultural. According to custom, the child who has just turned two (i.e., during the third year) is taken to the temple of the family deity (this is one temple that the family tries to visit at least once a year, no matter how far it is from their hometowns) and the hair is shaved off as an offering to god and as a token of gratitude for the birth of a child. In most families, this custom is followed only for the boys, but some families get it done for the girls as well.

And so, finally, we come to this photo. Because the hair is not cut at all before it is shaved off at the temple, by the time the boys turn three it is very likely they'll have grown curly, shiny locks that would put any girl's to shame. Once the hair is shaved off and it grows back, regular haircuts become the norm. So mothers and the other women folk in the family see a golden window of opportunity - the one chance to properly dress up their darling boys as girls and acquire photographic evidence of their madness and the boys' utter helplessness.

Here it is, one such photograph of a boy that, alas, shall remain unnamed in this post. I have been threatened with the most dire consequences if I told you who he was.

I agree. Very, very cute! I'll be sure to tell him you said so.

Related Post: Grandmother Stories.

Updated (Oct 13, 09) to add a link to my post about traditional baby baths in India.


Ugich Konitari said...


:-), :-), and more :-). Enjoyed this greatly.

Wonderful post. And there was actually a photo of me in my parents house, where I actually resemble the said "boy" in your post. The eyes are a bit different, but the expression and attitude is identical.

Sylvia K said...

Oh, Sujatha, this is such a marvelous post and definitely started my day off with a huge smile! Now I know why Indian women -- and men :-), have such gorgeous hair! Loved the photos! And I promise not to say a word!

Have a great day!


Praba Ram said...

oh my gosh - DELIGHTFUL is an understatement...I enjoyed reading this SO MUCH!! ROTFL on the last pic! sorry!! :-) Seriously, such adorable b/w pics!!

So thoughtful of whoever took that picture of your mother combing you. Those spontaneous, capturing a moment ones - I don't even have one - my dad did have a b/w camera...woner why he didnt click any! :-)

yes - have a "studio" photo dressed-up in 9 yards sari - it was a golu dress-up and yes, I empathize with you on that burdened look! I think my parents actually made me walk all the way to the studio in that attire...I was 5 or 6.:-)

Thanks for such a lovely hairy tale!

Sands said...

How lovely. I didn't get the flower jadai but do remember the coconut oil massage each morning and the weekend oil bath with sesame oil and seekakai podi and hibiscus leaves :)

Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh what a little darling he is!!! I loved this entire post! you were beautiful. The hair is fascinating to me.

ra said...

lovely!!! you look so pretty! and so does the anonymous boy!

Choxbox said...

a.w.e.s.o.m.e. suj!

you look ultra pretty in both the pix, and please pull those cheeks in the last pic for me!

shoba said...

ROFL the last picture..I am sure , whoever the boy is, must be cringing everytime he sees that picture..LOL...
And oh! yes, I do remember the Sheekay , Chigare podi and the coconut oil. I was always fussy about my plaits and was never satisfied with the way mom did mine. Finally, we came to a compromise and things went smoothly. I missed the "Moggine Jades". You look very cute in that. We have a similar photo of my mom at home.Not to mention we have to wear that heavy jade during the weddings too..
A very nice post.. Brought back fond memories..

Lavs said...

Lovely post. Brought back so many memories for me.

Incidentally, today i found an old photo of mine in Poo jadai when i was 8 yrs old. I refused to let my grand mom plait it that one time coz i had a stye in my eye and didn't want a photo to remind me abt it later. But did we kids have any say then???

For us, the hair tonsuring takes place after 1st brother has so many snaps of him with krishna kondai(pony tail on top of head). But none of him dressed as a girl!:)

All your snaps look cute..and i thought the last one was a girl until i read the post :)

Cantaloupes.Amma (CA) said...

You had knee length hair !! WOW .. I hope you are one of the lucky few to still have them intact !

Could relate to everything mentioned in this post from daily combing routine to sunday oil baths to moggina jade. How did they spare you without a heavy saree ??? I was all of 5 and was made to tie a benaras saree heavier than self at that time :)
I had the most lustrous hair growing up .. using shampoo was blasphemy. In fact I don't really remember using it ... but things changed 180 degress since I moved to US ... i rarely use shigekaayi and shampoo is my saviour. THe result ... an excuse of hair.

Minal said...

that you can make such a lovely post from a simple topic as hair-care in India proves what I told you today - writing comes naturally to you!!!
lovely post - I'm curious to know who is the one in the last photo;-))) I 've kind of guessed but lets keep it at that!

Altoid said...

Uggggh! Why would you want to remind us all of those oily hair days Suj? I mean why, why why? Oil in the hair everyday, oil baths every weekend with seege pudi and chigare pudi[man those were a mean combo], bloodshot eyes, drowsy afternoons- the entire package used to be my nightmare. Nodding at the explanation about moggina jade being heavy, man it weighed a ton. And I have a similar pic in a langa and moggina jade btw[so does the entire world I am sure] which I'd never share :P.

Hairy tale indeed! *shudder*

Jinksy said...

Fantastic post, not to mention photos and flowers. How lucky you are to have such memories. All I can remember is catching headlice once from the child next door, and then having Mum and two Aunties taking turns to wield a nit comb through my blond curls. Ouch !

Sujatha said...

LOL at the coconut oil ritual!
We have our own hair rituals here- For some reason, my daughter insists on having her hair oiled ever so often, even if I dither out of sheer laziness. My son, on the other hand, will run miles away or at least 'pretend' to not like his mother's insistence on occasional coconut oil 'Tel malish' (sung in the inanely nasal tone of Johnny Walker from Pyaasa;)

Anonymous said...

Lovely post, and brought back such memories...I remember those no shampoo days - I think I only started using shampoo regularly in US....and now we've come sorta full circle - both kids love their weekly oil baths with "Meera".

After a few years of wanting short hair, my daughter wants a moggina-jade - she saw some in BLR this summer - have promised her one next summer, if she grows her hair long enough - and yes, that involves oil and 2 braids to school....interestingly, you can tell the girls of S.Indian origin in our elementary school - they all sport 2 braids to school!


dipali said...

You brought back so many memories of childhood! Though we did not have so many interesting rituals, having one's hair oiled and boys with plaits were part of it. Lovely hairy tale:)

Midlife Roadtripper said...

I think that I have missed a great deal of beauty growing up as I did. I can't recall such fond memories of hair care when I was a child. Nor it feeling particularly good to have my mother combing my hair. (I was quite a tomboy and it always seemed to be a tangled mess - things haven't changed much.)

I enjoyed this essay, Sujatha. Not only the information, but in the care and love portrayed in the fingers tending the hair.

aargee said...

very cute post..enjoyed reading throughout and it brought back a lot of memories. Life was so simple, yet beautiful those days....

Kavi said...

Brought back so many memories. Of another time. And even a couple of years back, my nephew went through the tonsure.

He went through the process in full sound and fury.

But was remarkably happy with the after effect !!

Wonderful posts. Black & Whites from the past always capture the imagination and attention. Lovely !

sujata sengupta said...

let me first laugh at the last pic..he sure looks like a doll!! the pic of yours in that braid with the flowers is nothing less than a classic!! now for the post..i cannot imagine the patience your mom had with your long hair!!! to braid it daughter has hair upto her hips and she hates it when its time to braid..

Sriram said...

I enjoyed reading this!

The sunday oil bath + sambraani (dunno the English word for this), 'parachute' coconut oil and combing the hair to perfection before going to school...memories!

cute pics! :)

SG said...

awesome post! you look adorable.. abt the boy in the last photo... i have to say.. he looks like a perfect little girl.. just a bit annoyed!

Sujatha said...

And, BTW, you're tagged!

Anonymous said...

Good post. Brings back lots of memories.

sambraani = incense

Sujatha Bagal said...

~ Ugich, thank you! So glad you enjoyed it! And man, wouldn't I love to see that photograph!

~ Sylvia, I hope you had a good rest of the day too!

~ Praba, thank you! :) It was my oldest uncle (my dad's oldest brother) who took the photo. He was a photographer with the Indian Air Force. We are so grateful for the photos he took. I wrote about him here if you're interested -

~ Sands, glad this brought back good memories. :)

~ Meredith, thank you!

~ Ra, thank you! I'll convey the message. :)

~ Choxy, will most definitely do that. Won't he be pleased!

~ Shoba, so glad you liked the post! By the time my wedding came around, my hair was short, so no moggin jade. Thank god!

~ Lavs, it has to be an odd-numbered year I think. If I remember right we got it done for my son when he was 11 months old. We didn't do the tonsure all the way because we got it done here in the US. The poojari just snipped some grass instead and we came and did a buzz cut. :) Glad you liked the post!

~ CA, nope. My hair is shoulder-length now and not nearly as healthy as it was back then. :( And thank god my mom and grandma did not make a fuss about the saree! Whoa! That must have been something!

Sujatha Bagal said...

~ Minal, thank you!

~ Alty, get with the program, every one else has happy memories of those times. I think we are all happy that they are so far away! Heh. And please do share the photo, pretty please?

~ Jinksy, that was funny!

~ Sujatha, so lovely that your daughter likes it! I hope mine will like it too. Right now it's olive oil once in a while. Hope to make it more regular.

~ M, what is Meera? A brand of Indian hair oil? And I do hope your daughter gets a moggin jage. That'll be awesome!

~ Dipali, thank you! Glad it brought back good memories

~ Julie, so glad you enjoyed the essay.

~ argee, thank you and I agree!

~ Kavi, thank you. I had a photo of me while I was getting my hair shaved off. You could SEE the full sound and fury. Heh heh. Decided not to put it up.

~ Sujata, I just talked to my mom and she reminded me that she braided my hair twice each day! I totally agree with you - she is a patient lady!

~ Sriram, totally forgot about the sambrani! Although it was mostly for the newborns. We just got it if we happened to be around. But thank you for pointing it out! Glad you liked the post.

~ Phoenix, that was his expression of choice! :) And thank you!

~ Anon, thank you.

Chapati said...

Haha, my brother didn't get his hair shaved off till he was about 2-3 eaither, and he had the most gorgeous long curly hair as a child. Many thought he was a girl, and most people look at all his childhood photos and think it is a picture of me rather than him!

Uma said...

First time here - loved the header and this post! Brings back a lot of memories... the pics are alluring too...
And why am I not surprised at the little boy - isn't it a tradition to dress up little boys as pretty dolls? I personally know couple of men who turn RED at the thought :D

Sujatha Bagal said...

Chapati, :)) That's happened quite a bit in our family too! :)

Uma, welcome to my blog and thank you! LOL!

Anonymous said...


Meera is a commercially available shikakai+chigare+other herbs mix. The other herbs vary - hibiscus, amla etc. All Indian stores seem to stock it - along the oil/soap/desi shampoos aisle. It doesn't clog up US plumbing, and seems to have at least some of the benefits of the plain shikakai we used.

As for sound and fury at the tonsuring - both my kids contributed their full share! But I still mourn the loss of the lovely ringlets my kids sported - both their hair grew back ramrod straight :(


Sujatha Bagal said...

M, you know what, after thinking about all this for the last couple of days and remembering, I am inspired - I'm going to go get that concoction and start doing the oiling and 'head bath' thing. Watch this space for some horror tales!

Radhs said...

Wow Sujatha,
I just loved this post,first time here and it brought back all childhood memories of mine.I've two boys now,so i dont even care to oil their hair now,i sure don't have so much of patience to oil and braid even mine.
Thanks for this post!

Sujatha Bagal said...

Radhs, thank you for reading and for your comment. Glad this brought back good memories. Welcome to my blog!

Neelu said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Haddock said...

Good to see the old pictures

Frankie Anon said...

What a wonderfully descriptive and informative post! I feel like I can smell the flowers. Your photo is simply lovely. A secret about me: When I was around 8 or 9, my one wish in life was that I could be an Indian girl with shiny black hair to my knees. Actually, I'm not sure I ever got over that, but you learn to live with what you're given (in my case, blonde hair that has gradually darkened to brown as I have aged.)