I arrived in Chennai, India, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, with a head full of curly, brown hair. It was the longest my hair had ever been, falling down to my shoulders in a pyramid of curls, all due to my girlfriend Holly’s move to India. She left the United States six months earlier, and I resolved not to cut my hair until I saw her again.
“You’re going to want to cut that soon,” she advised me when I got off the plane on a muggy October morning. Chennai days were swelteringly hot and humid, even in the winter. Plus, one of the places where Holly worked had a lice problem.
“My friend Niranjan said that you can donate your hair to a Hindu temple, and they will shave off it for you,” she suggested. I filed this information away.
Meanwhile, the next six weeks passed in stumbling, clumsy fashion as I labored to adjust to the Chennai lifestyle. The transition was rough. Chennai is a “vibrant” place (read: loud, crowded, and boisterous). It is a hard city to navigate, or even cross the street, and the unfamiliar foods were wreaking havoc on my stomach. How could something so delicious cause such discomfort? Throughout this period, I kept my guard up, warily holding myself at a remove from my surroundings.
In late December, just after our first Christmas away from home and family in the U.S., one of Holly’s Indian friends, Simona, invited us to her home in Madurai.
“There are many temples. Bert can get his head done,” Simona said. She was eager for us to leave the big city, and see other parts of Tamil Nadu. In Madurai, a city that is 2,500 years old, the famous Hindu temples date back hundreds of years, and the faithful make frequent pilgrimages to worship at these holy shrines.
The temple itself (Mariammam) was unassuming, yet packed full of bowing devotees, laughing children, praying businessmen, and persistent beggars. The act of having one’s head shaved is called tonsure, and it is a tradition that has many expressions across numerous faiths. For Hindus, tonsure is a way to offer a sacrifice to the gods, and a blessing is received in return.
I was instructed to sit on the floor in a small concrete room. A man dressed in jeans and a blue shirt sat crosslegged in the corner. As I sat, he put his hands on my head and moved me into position. Using a straight razor, he started at my hairline and methodically worked his way back. Time slowed down. I closed my eyes and listened to the prickly sound of the razor and the chanting in the background. I prayed for a spirit of peace, and offered a blessing of health and happiness to my family and friends, old and new. I opened my senses to the experience, let the guard down on my heart, and felt my soul fill with gratitude to my kind hosts, and their large country of which I was now a tiny part.
That was the precise moment that I became fully present in India.
It was a humbling experience. I felt renewed, refreshed, open to change, and literally lightheaded. Tonsure accomplished in ten minutes what the previous six weeks had failed to teach me. Immersion was the key, and I was the novice initiate, finally ready to take the plunge.
For the rest of the day, I was a sight to see, like a bald, white unicorn. Many people approached me to take photos and thank me for my offering. I smiled and thanked them back. When we visited the glorious Meenakshi temple, I stood in mute wonder at the beating heart and vibrant history of this powerful religion. There was still so much that I did not know. At one point, an elephant’s trunk rubbed my bald head in blessing.
What I have taken with me since that day, after my return to Chennai, is a recognition of the patterns that form the life of a city that initially seemed so chaotic and disorganized. Once I saw the structure in the rituals, I found an honest appreciation for the daily expression of a living faith. It is hard work to give so much of your time and energy in recognition of a higher power. It is a daily sacrifice, yet I see it all around, and it tells me that we are not heroic as individuals. We share this planet with billions of others, and together we can honor our common humanity by offering our gifts of presence, humility, and understanding. Our gods smile upon us when we do.
I rub the small prickles on my scalp when I need a reminder.
About the Author: Robert Caswell is an artist and art therapist who has worked in hospitals, clinics, and outpatient centers for adults with severe mental illness. He enjoys traveling every time he gets the chance, even if he has to create the chance for himself. His most recent experience was a journey to southern India.
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