Around 100 women from Andhra Pradesh (AP) will break away from tradition in the Tirumala Tirupati Balaji temple - one of India's most conservative (and perhaps richest) temples - when they start tonsuring women devotees by end-May, 2005. The women barbers will sit in the `kalyanakatta' - an enclosure inside the temple where tonsuring is carried out - wielding razors to assist women devotees wanting to offer their hair to Sri Venkateshwara, the presiding deity of the temple.
The historic shrine of Sri Venkateswara is located on a hill at Tirumala, Chittor district. The temple attracts pilgrims from across the world who are known to stand in serpentine queues for long hours to get a glimpse of the chief deity.
Each day, countless devotees have their hair shaved off and offer it to the deity in the hope that their troubles will disappear along with their hair. This has for long been a tradition at the temple (and has also led to a booming business in hair export for wigs etc.).
Women devotees who come to Tirupati to tonsure their hair - there are around 4,000 out of the 50,000 who visit the temple every day - had been demanding female barbers for a long time. Women devotees felt uncomfortable sitting close to male barbers. The male barbers, around 400 of them, have been appointed by the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) board, which runs the temple. Some women even complained that male barbers touched them (sometimes in the face) or misbehaved with them while shaving their hair off.
"Hearing such complaints, I thought why not have women barbers. After all, women are in every field today," says K Radha Devi, President of the Rashtra Mahila Kshuraka Sangham (RMKS) or AP Women Tonsurers Association. This proposal had been raised by the TTD Executive Officer P Krishnaiah back in 2001 but put on the back burner amidst objections, primarily because it meant breaking away from the age old tradition.
But Radha Devi, 33, who saw in the proposal a chance of employment for many women in the Nayee Brahmin (new brahmins) caste, the barber community, refused to let go. The barber community says that as they are involved in a `purification and cleaning process' - of shaving off hair - their role is similar to brahmins. The community is largely poor with little or no land holdings.
This enterprising mother of two met the then chief minister, N Chandrababu Naidu, and later his successor, Chief Minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, on the issue.
However, things moved only when Radha Devi and other members of RMKS met Minister for Endowments M Satyanarayana Rao in December 2004. They requested that women barbers be allowed in the kalyanakatta. On March 31, the TTD board decided to recruit about 100 female barbers. Some of the members made a strong case for women barbers, saying that women devotees would be more comfortable with them. They argued that by providing women barbers, the temple would fulfil a long-standing demand of pilgrims.
While pushing for their entry into the temple, Radha Devi, who runs a beauty parlour in nearby Punganur village for the last 11 years, managed to train 200 women in the art of tonsuring. "There's nothing to it," she laughs, "I can finish a tonsure in 15-20 minutes."
In fact, Radha Devi and RMKS women got some practice at a recent temple festival. At the festival, at least 30 women who had come to offer their hair to the deity, used women barbers. "Initially, women were reluctant to come to us because they were worried we did not have the expertise and would end up hurting them. We even gave Rs 10-20 (1US=Rs 44) to some volunteers for a demonstration," says Shobha Rani, a mother of two.
Rani works as an agricultural labourer and is the prime breadwinner - her husband spends most of the money he earns on alcohol. Rani says she really needs the Tirupati temple job. Women are to be given a two-year contract, with a starting salary of Rs 3,000 per month. However, they want to be paid at least Rs 7,000 as their male counterparts earn Rs 7,000-10,000 per month and are entitled to free accommodation, free food cooked at the temple, and a bus pass to come up to the hill where the temple is located.
The board's decision to appoint women barbers has led to a deluge of applications - around 2,000 for just 100 jobs from even women living in far off coastal areas like the Srikakulam district.
This has also set off a controversy because among the applicants are many women running beauty parlours in villages surrounding Tirupati. The 45-member association feels that women from the Nayee Brahmin community should get preference not only because they belong to the barber community but also because many are very poor, destitute and are suffering at the hands of alcoholic husbands.
Jyoti M, who was recently trained in the art of tonsuring, works as an agricultural labourer and earns barely Rs 2,000 a month. She often has no work. She has a young daughter; her husband is an alcoholic and she finds it difficult to run her household.
Of course, some religious leaders are still trying to stall this move. Sri Swaroopanandendra Saraswathi, who runs the Visakha Sri Sarada Peetham in Vishakapatnam, argues that women are considered as representatives of goddess Lakshmi (Hindu goddess signifying prosperity) and therefore, should not take up the job of tonsuring, which is identified with the `daridra' (poor and destitute). "Those who have problems offer their hair in a temple in the hope that they can get rid of their troubles along with their hair. How can the temple administration involve a woman in this kind of a job?" he recently questioned.
Radha Devi has threatened to launch an agitation if Swami Saraswathi's comments are taken seriously. "Is it okay for spiritual men to board aeroplanes and travel in air conditioned cars? Which dharma (faith) permits this and which dharma prevents women from taking to tonsuring as a profession for their livelihood?"
A few conservatives, while quoting some Hindu text, also talk about women being impure. But Karunakar Reddy, TTD member, says, "For one thing, the tonsuring is not happening inside the sanctum sanctorum. Besides, we have many women volunteers working inside the temple and there has been no objection to that!"
He says that the TTD has been adopting many modern practices, including going online to sell tickets for the different darshans (viewing the deity) carried out. "We are in a different culture today. These swamis (religious leaders) are just giving a spiritual spin to a biological situation to hang onto outdated concepts that do not make sense in the modern world." He concedes these controversies have delayed the process of appointing women barbers. "These are just procedural delays. Women barbers will be appointed in pursuance of the board's decision by May end."