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NATIVE LIFE IN TRAVANCORE
The REV. SAMUEL MATEER, F.L.S.
Authored by
Of the London Missionary Society
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NativeAnchor

CHAPTER XVIII


THE KUDUMI, OR HINDU TUFT OF HAIR


The propriety, or otherwise, of Native Christians retaining the kudumi or topknot of hair worn by Hindus, has for the last twenty years been greatly discussed amongst missionaries in South India, and upon it opinions are seriously divided. To aid those who wish to arrive at a right conclusion on the subject, we purpose to lay before them our notes and experience for the consideration of all interested.


The moot point is — Whether is the wearing of the kudumi a national and respectable usage — a mere fashion depending on personal taste, and therefore to be included in the category of things absolutely indifferent to the Christian believer — or a badge of Hinduism — of religious significance, and consequently to be rejected by those who profess to - follow the Lord Jesus Christ.


This question is in many respects similar to and affiliated with, that of Hindu caste, the identity of which with social rank, or its un-Christian and heathenish character, was long debated; and judgment in it is now given almost unanimously by evangelical missionaries against the observance of caste. Hindu caste and the kudumi appear to be closely associated. Those who retain the former invariably retain also the latter; and sometimes but a half-hearted opposition is given to caste by those who defend the use of the kudumi.


The scale for and against the kudumi has vibrated variously at various times. In the early stages of Protestant missions, the matter appears to have excited but little attention, being swallowed up in the more comprehensive and burning question of caste and its evils. Yet when a mission was evangelical, and its founders careful, the kudumi was generally objected to and discarded. In the Church Mission in North Travancore, it was naturally laid aside from the first, the clear and united testimony of the ancient Syrian Christian Church, the Roman Catholics, and the Muhammadans having guided the English missionaries to a sound decision.


In the London Mission in Travancore, little attention appears to have been paid to the subject; but the Rev. J. C. Thompson, who arrived in 1827, was one who took a zealous interest in it. Mr. Abbs from 1837 required the relinquishment of the kudumi by all communicants and mission agents. Mr. Cox also bore testimony that “the greatest care has always been taken not only to remove every mark of caste and heathenism, as the kudumi, &c., but also to root out every lurking remnant of those evils;” and Mr. Baylis wrote of the Neyoor District under his care — “By degrees I got all the agents and church members to leave off the kudumi, and then never admitted or baptized with it; and it became customary to leave it off in Nagercoil District.” But within the last dozen years a change has gradually taken place. Though the missionaries, we think, generally dislike the top-knot, they do not seem to feel it their duty, or perhaps quite practicable, to insist on its entire abandonment.


In Tinnevelly, definite action was taken respecting caste and the kudumi in 1846, as described by the late Rev. J. Thomas in the following terms. “When in the year 1846, the Committee of the C. M. S. determined upon presenting to the Bishop for ordination several of their catechists, they resolved that caste should be entirely relinquished by the candidates, and that the kudumi should also be removed.


Mr. Thomas went to Madras in company with Mr. Pettitt to confer with the Committee on the subject. At that time there were several members who from their knowledge of Hindu customs and literature were thoroughly competent to deal with such a subject. We found on our return to Tinnevelly, that there was no hesitation on the part of the candidates to comply with the Committee’s resolutions. The Rev. J. Devasagayam had been in holy orders for many years previously, and had never worn the kudumi.”


The learned Bishop Caldwell, however, wrote in 1867 a pamphlet on the other side of the question, regarding the top-knot as merely a national fashion, and as rather a mark of civilisation, refinement, and adornment, than as possessing any particular religious import, and now the kudumi is allowed to a very large extent in the missions of the C. M. S., as well as in those of the Propagation Society.


The light in which the top-knot is regarded in some other parts of India is fairly stated by Mr. Thomas in the same paper. “Throughout the whole of India, all Protestant missionaries of every denomination (except indeed the old German Missionaries of Tranquebar and Tanjore, with their successors in the Tamil Mission field) have been led, and no doubt after much anxious inquiry, to insist upon the removal of the kudumi at baptism, as a sign of sincerity. Such is, I believe, the uniform custom in Bengal — on the Western Coast among the German Evangelical Missionaries — and at Masulipatam by missionaries of the C. M. S.; and we may be well assured that the missionaries of North India, whose knowledge of Sanskrit literature is a necessary qualification to their usefulness in that part of the country, must have made themselves thoroughly acquainted with all the adjuncts of the kudumi question before deciding that it ought to be removed by their converts.


We may also feel satisfied that a man of Mr. Noble’s stamp at Masulipatam, having Mr. Sharkey as his coadjutor, would not lightly require a sacrifice on the part of his converts which was not indispensably necessary. To the Brahman, the removal of the kudumi and string is considered as equivalent to death; and yet his Brahman converts at baptism willingly gave up the string and kudumi, with the conviction that this was imperatively necessary to prove that they fully and entirely renounced heathenism, and willingly took up the cross to follow Christ.”(“Ind. Evan. Review,”April, 1876.)


In the vigorous Arcot Mission of the Dutch Reformed Church, the views held on this question are thus described by Dr. Jared Scudder : “With reference to the kudumi, my own opinions are very clear and definite. I believe it to be a distinctive mark of heathenism. I am thankful to say that in our Mission we have never baptized a kudumi, and I hope we never shall. . . . We have, from the first, enforced excision of the tuft, it being a principle with us that the kudumi must fall before baptism; and once off, it does not often grow again. . . . .I am persuaded that it is a badge of heathenism. Some time ago, a learned Brahman in one district was asked what would be the effect of the removal of the kudumi. ‘When the kudumi goes, Brahmanhood goes,’ was his significant reply. Judging from personal observation and conference with others, I feel pretty sure that no missionary, however tolerant he may be of the kudumi in practice, likes his native ministers and catechists to wear it.”(Bang. Conf. Report, Vol. I. p. 316.)


To similar purport are the words of Dr. E. Scudder of the same Mission. “The view we have held from the origin of our Mission is that the kudumi is one of the strongest links in the chain of religious superstition and caste feeling. Our people, therefore, all excise it when they join us. Very little objection is made to this, and their heads certainly present a more civilised and Christian aspect when the European mode of wearing the hair is substituted. Whether an evil or not in itself considered, the kudumi is certainly productive of discord and mischief in its relations to the Church of Christ.


"Formerly it was regarded as heathenish by the majority of Christians, and the applicant for church membership was required to excise it before admission. Now there appears to be a disposition to ignore it. — There is much confusion, and not unfrequent heart-burnings, among the Christians of different societies. The advocates of the tuft are not willing to abandon it, even when they enter communities where the opposite practice prevails; and hence the latter are made to feel more forcibly their singularity.”


In Mysore, the kudumi is cut off by the Wesleyan Missionaries. Rev. W. Burgess, of Madras, considers that “this practice in its origin is undoubtedly heathenish, and had a religious significance; though not clear in his own mind that it is now thus to be regarded.”


Rev. B. Rice, L.M.S., Bangalore, thinks it is, “if not a mark of heathenism, at least of caste, and a disposition to fraternize as much as possible with the ways of the Hindu world.”


“In the Telugu country,” says Rev. F. W. N. Alexander, “the kudumi is not known anywhere. It is a universal opinion that it is completely heathenish, and we should set our faces against it.”Mr. Hay, of Vizagapatam, says : “The change is so great in embracing Christianity that all caste ideas are completely given up. The Hindu kudumi is given up, and the hair worn in some other way.” So also the late Mr. Beynon, of Bellary : “Kudumi and other caste and heathen customs have never been allowed amongst our Christians.”


Rev. J. H. Walton also writes : “We discussed the subject in Bellary; and after consulting the opinions, not only of influential, native Christians, but also of leading orthodox Hindus, we considered that the tuft of hair was so intimately associated with heathen practices, so much an evidence of worldliness in those Christians who wore it, and so diametrically opposed to the apostolic doctrine contained in the11th chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians, that it was desirable to disuse the custom among the members of our churches.”


Rev. J. B. Graeter, of Mangalore, points out that in Lev. 19, 27, the practice is condemned, though the passage may not literally refer to the kudumi.


Rev. P. Rajahgopaul, of Madras, remarks, “Most of our pupils were of caste families; and when a man became a true believer, and wished to enter the Christian Church, at once the kudumi went, and there was no more trouble about caste.”


And Dr. James Glasgow, of Guzerat, informs us : “The top-knot is voluntarily cut off by converts of the Irish Presbyterian Mission; if they did not do so, the Missionaries would insist upon its relinquishment.”


In order to form a correct judgment upon the question before us, it is essential to note the position of the kudumi in the system of Hinduism, and also the light in which it is regarded in the present day. On these considerations necessarily depends its practical treatment in the Christian Church. Now it is an undoubted fact that the kudumi (called also caula, chonti, shendie &c.) is one of the most important observances of Hinduism. The remarks of Professor Monier Williams in his useful “Manual of Hinduism” (pp. S9-60) seem to us abundantly sufficient to set the whole matter at rest.


He says : —

“As an unmarried student, the young Brahman was to reside with his preceptor until he had gained a thorough knowledge of the three Vedas. He was to go through twelve ‘Sanskaras’ or purificatory rites, which purify a man from the taint of sin derived from his parents, and which are enjoined, with certain variations, on all the three first classes alike.


They are as follows : —

1. Garbha dhana, ceremony on conception;

2. Punsavana, on the first indication of a living male’s conception;

3. Simanton nayan, arranging the parting of the mother’s hair in the fourth, sixth, or eighth month of pregnancy;

4. Jata karman, touching an infant’s tongue with honey and ghi thrice at birth;

5. Nama karana, giving a name on the tenth or twelfth day after birth;

6. Nishkramana, taking out the child in the fourth month to see the sun;

7. Annaprasana, feeding it with rice between the fifth and eight month;

8. C’uda karman, or c’aula, tonsure of the hair, except one lock on the crown of the head, in the third year;

9. Upanayana, induction into the order of a ‘ twiceborn ‘ man by investiture with the sacred cord;

10. Kesanta, cutting off the hair, performed on a Brahman in his sixteenth year, on a Kshatriya in his twenty-second, on a Vaisya in his twentyfourth;

11. Samsvartana, solemn return home after completing a course of study with a preceptor;

12. Vivaha, marriage, which completes the purification and regeneration of the ‘twiceborn.’

Of the above rites — 1, 2, 3, and 10 are little observed. The other eight are more worthy of attention; 8 and 9 are of considerable legal importance, even in the present day, and 7 is still practised; 7 and 12 are said to be the only rites allowed Sudras; and the 12th, vivaha, marriage, is a religious duty incumbent on all persons alike.”


To the same effect writes Dr. John Wilson, of Bombay, in his work on “Indian Caste” (p. 15) : “Caste has its marks, and signs, and symbols, and symbolical acts, as well as its laws and customs; and very great stress is laid by it on their constant exhibition. The grand index of Hinduism is the tuft of hair on the crown of the head — called in Sanskrit chuda or shikha in Maratti shendi, in Bengali tika and in Tamil kudumi — which is left there on the performance of the sacrament of tonsure on the first or third year after birth in the case of the three first classes of Hindus. In consequence of this mark Hinduism is popularly known as the shendi dharma, or religion of the shendi.”


Until the kudumi is worn, the Brahman child is but a Sudra, and every Shastri attests the religious character of this symbol; and this is as expressive today as it ever was. Balfour, in the “Encyclopaedia of India,” defines the chonti or kudumi as “among Hindus, a tuft of hair left unshaved on the top of the head.”


For some of the actual present-day uses of this heathen badge see a very instructive essay by a native Christian — Mr. V. Samuel, of Nagercoil — published in the Indian Evangelical Review for October, 1876. He shows that the kudumi is in Travancore fully saturated with superstition, and inseparably associated with Hinduism and caste.


On the sixteenth day after the birth of a child, the father bathes, and, taking a few drops of water from his wet kudumi, pours them into the child’s mouth : then, for the first time, he sees and handles the child. When the child’s head is first shaved, the barber is invited, incense is offered to the image of Pilleiyar, and the shaving of the greater part of the hair is done by the barber, the remainder by a Brahman with certain mantrams.


The last portion of the hair is enclosed in a silver case and tied around the waist of the child as an amulet. On the child’s first going to school the teacher touches him by the kudumi, divides it into three parts, and after having plaited them together at the crown of the head, worships it.


The chief use of the tuft, however, is to perform the funeral ceremony necessary for the salvation of the father. “In order to quench the hell fire, the son must uncover the sacred portion of his head by shaving off the Kudumi, put upon it a new pot full of water, that it may attract from it the virtue of quenching the hell fire, and walk with it three times around the deceased parent, each time cutting a new hole in the pot, that the water may spout out as he walks along.


"The third time he must break the pot at the head of the bed of the deceased, and pour a few drops of this sacred water into the mouth of the parent, as the parent formerly did to the son. The cutting off the kudumi on the occasion of the death of the parent, is not regarded as a sign of sorrow, but is considered an essential requisite for performing the funeral ceremony which is absolutely necessary for the eternal welfare of the deceased parent.


"No one but the heir of the deceased cuts off the kudumi, and that at no other time but on the occasion of the parent’s death. A father may lose a dozen children, but he never thinks of shaving his kudumi as a sign of sorrow. A man may have six sons, of whom only the eldest cuts off his kudumi on the occasion of death.” Is not this literally “making baldness between the eyes for the dead”? (Deut. XIV. i.)


With this we may compare the classical custom of cutting off the hair and devoting it to a deceased father, or as an offering to appease the infernal gods. In the Choephorae of Aeschylus, Orestes at the tomb of his murdered father says :


At whose high tomb I bow, shade of my father !

Hear me, O hear !

To thee these crisped locks

Once sacred to the nurture-giving stream of Inachus,

In the anguish of my soul

I now devote.


Compare also the curious custom of the Buddhist priests in China, who have small round bald spots on the head, increasing in number with their rank in the priesthood. They take a small candle, or some such combustible, and set it on fire on the head till it burns down to the flesh, leaving a bald spot. This is done again when the next step in the priesthood is obtained — therefore, a purely religious badge.



Quotations are given from commentators on Lev. XIX. 27, from which the following sentences may be extracted : — “This kind of coiffure had a highly idolatrous meaning, and it was adopted with some slight variation by almost all idolaters in ancient times.”


“The Gentiles cut their hair for the worship of devils or idols, to whom young men used to consecrate their hair, as Homer, Plutarch, and many others write. God would not have his people agree with idolaters, neither in their idolatries, nor in excessive mourning, no, nor so much as in the appearance and outward significations or expressiofis thereof”


From these and other considerations, the essayist with great reason asks, “Is not this reason quite sufficient for the Christians of the present time to cut off their kudumi, especially in the infant state of the native church, when they should be taught, not only to keep themselves aloof from superstitions, but also to show their aversion by acting quite contrary to them?”


In deciding the question before us, it is not the historical or traditional origin of the kudumi that is of primary importance, but the actual feeling of the Hindu mind upon the subject — the associations connected with the kudumi, or any other custom — and the influence which the observance or abandonment of the practice is seen to exercise upon converts to Christianity.


There are some questions, too, that are settled by a kind of spiritual instinct, rather than by logical reasoning alone, or specific texts of Scripture. We generally find that when men become decided on the subject of personal religion, card playing, dancing, and theatres, and in India, the tom-tom used in demon worship, flaunting processions, and wasteful and extravagant display at weddings, are given up, and people of evangelical views and earnest piety are fairly well agreed on these matters.


There is greater care to live separated from the world, and to avoid everything that leads the heart away from God. In consulting with native Christians as to the propriety of permitting or discouraging various doubtful native customs, we have often found them saying, “this, or that, must be allowed to the new Christians, else they will be dissatisfied or leave us; but the mission agents do not approve of it, and ought not to practise it.”


The relinquishment of the kudumi by the native clergy of Tinnevelley doubtless had its rise in some such feeling, that though it may be allowable to the common people, yet the clergy are expected to be very much their superiors in the strict avoidance of whatever is of doubtful propriety. Even were we to take the lowest ground, that the kudumi is to be classed with gold ornaments and fine clothes, we think that the excessive pride, the intense love of the world, and the characteristic weakness for vain display before heathen neighbours, and passion for paltry fame exhibited by many Hindus, need correction; and that it is thoroughly in accordance with the spirit of the admonitions of Scripture to renounce the kudumi.


Even granting that it were lawful for native Christians to wear the tuft, we have no hesitation in saying that in Travancore and Malabar, at least, it is, in the Scriptural sense, highly expedient for the sake of others to relinquish it. There the Syrian Christians, Roman Catholics, and Muhammadans have left it off on the ground that it is a badge of heathenism, which it certainly is to all intents and purposes in that part of India. It is not right to shock the feelings of other Christians by retaining such a mark of Hinduism.


Not long ago a native missionary from the Tamil country was itinerating amongst the Syrian Christians. Lodging in one of their houses, his servant, who wore the kudumi, entered the kitchen to prepare some food. The women of the house, seeing the tuft of hair, cried out, “A heathen has come in here !” and fled in dismay. The missionary, who himself did not wear the kudumi, had to explain, with much shame, that his attendant was not a heathen, but a Christian.


There can be no doubt that the kudumi is associated in the minds of Hindus with the profession of Hinduism, and with heathen ceremonies and ideas, and that, therefore, it should be given up by native converts, so as to separate them completely, as far as this goes, from heathen influences.


Of course our readers will understand that only that particular mode of cutting the hair, so as to leave a central tuft, which has a special significance among Hindus (as the blue ribbon has amongst temperance reformers), is objectionable, and that the hair may be freely worn in any European fashion, or shaved off periodically as most Hindus prefer, or in any other form which has not this special significance. Without the queue a Hindu cannot perform the appointed ceremonies, nor retain his caste standing, although certain curious and anomalous exceptions to this rule have been pointed out.


In the theistic Tamil poem, Siva Vakyam, the kudumi is opposed along with other Hindu practices, as in the familiar quotation : —


“The four Vedas, the sacrificial Kusa grass, the kudumi, the ascetic’s staff which Brahmans cord”— when (you were) born, were the Brahman’s cord and the kudumi born with you ?”


Fully a century ago. Father Bartolomeo remarked that “when a Brahman by his own fault has forfeited his cord, or his tuft of hairy he loses all his privileges, and can no longer discharge any of the sacerdotal functions.”(Voyage, p. 298.)


The relinquishment of the kudumi has, therefore, a far greater influence in separating Christians from heathenism, and distinguishing them on all occasions as Christians, and so reminding them and others of their obligations to act consistently under circumstances of temptation, than some would be inclined to give it credit for. It will be found that by far the greatest number of thoroughly earnest and sincere Hindu converts acknowledge that they ought to give up this custom.


Take, as an instance, the following sentences in the autobiography of a convert to Christianity applying for baptism in Madras in 1853. He says, “As in the last assault they laid hold of the hair of my head (kudumi) I had that removed. This effectually severed my connection with Hinduism for without the hair as it is commonly worn, I could not maintain my position among them.


It is one of the marks of Hindu idolatry,, and removing it has effectually cut me off from them.” The rejection of the tuft is thus a proof of sincerity, an invariable and noticeable mark of having fully relinquished heathenism and caste.


The Rev. J. D. Thomas, of Madras, remarks that he noticed some time after the baptism of a convert that he had discarded the kudumi, and asked why he had done so, though it had not been insisted on by the missionary as an essential for baptism. The convert replied that his friends did not believe he was baptized because he had not removed it, and therefore to convince them of the fact, he had voluntarily cut it off. (Madras C, M, Record, June, 1880.)


Candidates for baptism sometimes beg the missionary to allow them to retain the kudumi in order to lessen, as they fancy, the mockery and annoyances which they shall have to endure from heathen relatives. In cases where this concession has been made we have sometimes found that the application was but an index to the general state of mind of the individuals — that they had never thoroughly broken with heathenism, nor heartily placed themselves on a level with their Christian brethren.


It is extremely doubtful, too, whether the yielding in this one item of usage would, on the whole, lessen the trials of a convert; and sure we are, that to require them to surrender without reservation, and at once, say before baptism, all that is inconsistent with the Christian profession is truest kindness in the end, and much preferable even for their own comfort. Those who manifest thorough decision of character will meet really less annoyance from others.


The heathen relatives or employers will have less hope of success in the endeavour to turn back a thorough-going, earnest convert; and will sooner cease their useless efforts than in cases where timidity or hesitation is shown.


Generally, native Christians who wish to retain the kudumi profess to think it a trifling matter, of no importance whatever — simply for personal adornment, or a concession to popular usage; yet in some instances, when tested, they would rather be outside of the visible church and its privileges than yield the point. The only individual instances I have met with, in twenty years, in which persistent refusal to part with the tuft of hair was maintained, were three.


One was that of a Government Apothecary, educated and brought up amongst Christians on the Eastern coast, by whom the kudumi is worn and caste distinctions zealously observed. On asking him to conform to our rules in the matter of the top-knot and of partaking of food with other respectable Christians, he refused, on the ground that he was accustomed to visit and enter the houses of heathens, where the absence of this mark would lead to a less favourable reception.


Now his wearing or lacking the kudumi does not at present connote his caste or rank, as it is worn by all castes, but he found it a convenience to be mistaken for a Hindu, or not identified as a Christian in his professional attendance upon heathen patients.


This spirit, or that which leads a “caste Christian” to determine that under no circumstances will he ever taste food from the hands of native Christians of lower caste than himself, however respectable in character or office, or from Europeans, cannot belong to one “born of God.”


Another case was that of a Christian teacher in a Travancore Government school, who had Hindus and others in his class. He dressed in a particular mode in imitation of the higher castes, and retained the kudumi, as he himself acknowledged, for reasons similar to the above. The third case was somewhat of the same character.


In a lamentable instance of the total apostacy of a youth who had been well educated in English for mission service, and who afterwards wished to pass for a caste Hindu, he not only took a heathen name but assumed the kudumi also. In Damaun, in the Bombay Presidency, a large number of Roman Catholic Christian Kolies, being alarmed by an epidemic of cholera in 1821, abandoned Christianity and supplicated Devy and other deities.


“They discontinued all intercourse with their Christian brethren and resumed the custom of wearing the sandhy, or tuft of hair on the crown of the head.”(Madras Jour, Lit, Sci., January, 1837.)


The absence of the kudumi, usually somewhat disadvantageous in Travancore as being a sign of association with Christians known to be of humble birth, has been in troublous times highly inconvenient and even dangerous; and occasionally quite the contrary. The Hindu officials of the Native Government regard the tuft as a distinct mark of heathenism, and its absence as one proof of the actual profession of Christianity.


In former times, when people were seized for Government service on Sundays, or for work for the temples. Christians were often exempted on the spot on showing that they had no kudumi. Again, in a certain district a persecution of the poor Christians was begun by a Tahsildar and Sudra landowners, exasperated by the rapid spread of Christianity and the elevation of the low castes. False charges were laid against the Christians, and the Tahsildar sent his peons to seize as Christians all whom he found without the tuft.


During the “uppercloth” disturbances in 1858, “some of the Sudras collected mobs of men with whom they frequented the daily markets, watching both for the Christian men and women, examining the heads of the former to ascertain whether they had cut off the kudumi, or lock of hair which is a mark of heathenism, and to assault them if by its absence they were found to be professors of Christianity.”


From the preceding remarks and illustrations, it will be evident that the kudumi is not such a trifle as it might appear at the first glance to be. Some may think it a great descent from the delightful and elevating topic of Infinite Mercy in the conversion of a human soul to advise upon the subject of hair dressing !


Yet an inspired Apostle more than once delivered judgment in addressing converts from heathenism, respecting the covering of the head, the length of the hair, and mode of dressing it, and other apparently trifling points. When such usages have a religious bearing or signification they become matters of conscience. No true- hearted soldier will be ashamed of the colours of his regiment, but rather glory in them.


It is remarkable that the kudumi is only permitted where there are large bodies of nominal Christians, whom it may be sometimes difficult to retain under strict discipline. As the “adherents” of our various Missions, unbaptized or noncommunicants, become more numerous and more powerful by their contributions for the support of native agency, and thus less amenable to judicious control, is there not danger of their demanding indulgence in caste and kudumi, in doubtful or heathenish ceremonies at marriages, in worldly display and immunity from Church discipline, and thereby swamping the more spiritual element. This tendency should be met with sagacious prevision.


Only the spiritual conversion to God of all our people, and their growth in grace, will correct all errors and remove all that savours of heathenism, and on this blessed work our best energies should be concentrated; but it may be helpful, meantime, to understand the true nature of indigenous customs, and the light in which they should be regarded by Christian missionaries; and this is what I have attempted to show with reference to the kudumi.