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Durable Link to this BlogThursday, August 13, 2009

Shameful Practice of Shaven heads

See Also: The Trauma of Widow Tonsure

My childhood and early youth were spent in small towns of Karnataka. It was quite a common sight to see young and old Brahmin widows dressed in drab red sarees covering their shaven heads, moving about meekly with downcast eyes, when compelled to move out. Many widows worked as cooks and did menial jobs. Social reformers and enlightened citizens of late 19th and early 20th century, worked very hard to improve their condition and convince common people that the cruel strictures imposed on widows were not mentioned in ancient Hindu holy texts. A century later, the sight of a shorn widow in red saree has disappeared, thanks to their tireless efforts. It is only in old movies or those with old social themes that we see such women characters, created to render realistic touch. But it is worthwhile to remember the most pitiable plight of a Brahmin widow of bygone days.

Women as such are second class citizens in many countries of the world and are even denied fundamental rights. But the lot of a Brahmin widow was perhaps the most miserable. She could never remarry, even if she were widowed at a tender age. Whereas a widower was advised to marry as early as possible. She was made to look ugly by shaving her head the moment her husband died. Child marriages being common, the child-wife was condemned to widowhood for life. She could not wear ornaments, dress only in a red saree, eat only once a day, observe all fasts and slog in the household as unpaid servant.

The most agonizing experience was to offer her head to the village barber, every fortnight for shaving. The crude cutter and blunt razor at times left the scalp bleeding. To add insult to injury, the barbers undertook this job unwillingly because any work connected with a widow was (and still is!) thought to be inauspicious! Even in the 21st century, superstitious Hindus of all caste and class, think that sight of a widow early in the morning is a bad omen! They were prohibited to attend any social family function. The worst insult in Kannada language is "Mundeganda" (husband of a shorn widow)

Thanks to the tireless efforts of great social reformers like Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Pandita Ramabai, Justice M.G. Ranade and his wife Ramabai, Maharshi Karve and his wife Anandibai and her sister Parvatibai Athavale, that positive effects were obtained slowly.

Parvatibai Athavale (1870-1955) was widowed in her twenties and was tonsured as was the practice. She was an illiterate. Her sister Anandibai was also a child widow whom Karve married and the family was ostrasized by the entire community and the town itself! Encouraged by Karve couple, Parvathibai educated herself, helped found and run a Home for Widows and destitute women, traveling and collecting funds. Her daring act was allowing her hair grow after twenty years of "shaven head". She had to face slanders, suspicions and insults for her bold stand. She has poured her thoughts on the harrowing subject in her auto biography "My Story".

These days outward signs of widowhood have almost disappeared. The cruelty, humility, ill-treatment and dependency are not apparent. But remarriage of a widow is not at all easy in-spite of good qualifications, earnings and good looks. In smaller towns and villages, disdain towards unfortunate widows still persists.

Amma's Column by Jyotsna Kamat

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Jyotsna Kamat

Jyotsna Kamat Ph.D. lives in Bangalore.


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