There’s a strong chance that if your baby is of Indian heritage, he or she will be blessed with an admirable head of hair. The type of crown that makes fellow parents coo over its thickness and sheer quantity and to wonder what on earth you are doing to make it grow so fast (almond oil massage works a treat for anyone who is wondering).
My 10-month-old son is heading towards his third haircut and this doesn’t include home botch jobs. The last one resulted in my father asking whether we had traced around a bowl to cut his grandson’s fringe. We swiftly headed to the barber to salvage what we could.
As his first birthday approaches, however, he could be on his way to parentally imposed baldness – via a traditional hair-shaving ceremony otherwise known as the Hindu mundan. Although, the idea of seeing my strapping nipper without his silky mane is something that I am finding it hard to get my head around.
In Hinduism, the mundan is one of 16 purification rituals known as Shodasha Samskara. The ceremony is believed to rid the baby of any negativity from their past life while promoting mental and spiritual development. Some like to emphasise that it improves the growth of the baby’s hair, although I think it has more to do with genetics than a razor. And anyway, blunt ends will always feel thicker.
My daughter escaped the ritual baldness, as many baby girls do. My mother-in-law agreed to my suggestion that a lock of her hair would be a sufficient offering at the ancient shrine of the goddesses Tara-Tarini. I popped the hair into an envelope and sent it off to the Kumari hills in the Indian state of Odisha, where it took part in a prayer ceremony under a bodhi tree.
My elder brothers got away with a trip to the local barber in Southall where they were given zero cuts. As newly arrived migrants from Tanzania in the 1970s, I doubt there were the facilities for anything grander even if my parents had had the desire. My mother declined the kind offer from the Turkish barber to bag up the strands. “We know your community immerses the hair into the ocean,” he added. Instead, a religious meal was organised by our elders in Dar es Salaam in honour of the family goddess, and an offering was made in our ancestral village in India and all parties worldwide were satisfied.
My husband, on the other hand, had the full grandeur – Vedic mantras chanted at an auspicious time of the day, hair shaved in front of an audience of extended family members and friends, followed by a banquet for pilgrims at the local Krishna temple.
It’s not only in Hinduism that a baby’s first haircut holds a special place. The Chinese shave the infant’s head in the first month. Traditional Muslim families wait a mere few weeks, while Jewish families hold out until the child is three. Cleanliness features highly among the primary reasons for the practice (although helping with headaches and teething have also been noted, albeit rather unconvincingly).
Even if you are not one for customs, chopping away those ringlets marks a poignant transition from babyhood to toddlerhood, and the realisation that those chunky thighs will be next to go.
Hair forms an immense part of our identity, framing us and boosting our confidence. So I respect those adults who choose to practise ritual tonsuring themselves. Whether it’s the pilgrims who offer their hair as sacrifice to deities at temples in Tirupati or Thiruthani, or the male Hindus who shave their heads after the death of an immediate family member as a sign of bereavement – the idea of surrendering one’s ego as an act of devotion feels both gracious and humbling.
Yet I remain cautious about babies undergoing the same act. The medical grounds feel questionable, and the spiritual unnecessary. What can be more divine, untainted and void of vanity than a new life?
Infants often cry hysterically during their mundan. Some look utterly bewildered noticing their prickly scalps in the mirror for the first time. They stroke their heads with trepidation. What must be going on in those little minds? My son sobbed having a quick snip at the barber’s and that was without an audience of well-wishers and a hefty garland around his neck. Sure, they’ll get over it. Babies are quick to forget, but mothers are not.
Add to this, the modern mundan takes place in a digital age. On Instagram, #mundan brings up a gallery of photographs before (shaggy-haired tots with endearing smiles), during (cue the tears) and after (scalps plastered in a paste of turmeric and sandalwood, the Hindu swastika painted vermilion and suddenly conspicuous ears). Praise the child who manages to snooze through the entire affair (rare, but true). Targeted party favours, kids’ merchandise and professional staging are thrown into the mix for those wanting a grander affair. The baby bonnet with a “Baldy” logo caught my attention.
Behind the portraits of wailing babes are beaming elders. Hinduism comes up trumps on that front with a family centred ceremony for everything under the sun. This is where my husband’s argument that the mundan is of great cultural importance holds some weight.
“All the males in the Padhy clan have had their heads shaved,” he smirks. “The first grandson should be no exception.” The subject is likely to re-emerge as dinner conversation during our forthcoming trip to Delhi to visit family. My husband and I will exchange nervous grins and be swift to change the subject as the verdict remains in a position of stalemate.
“It’s only hair!” I hear you cry. And, admittedly, we have already chopped and shaped it a few times. Crawling on all fours with “curtains” blocking the boy’s sight was not sustainable, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to use my daughter’s clips and hairbands.
So if my son does return without his mane come the autumn, I would like to think his mighty follicles will be quick to sprout back hair in full force.
And let’s not forget the cooling effect that comes with baldness, an added benefit as we hold out for an Indian summer.