Hairdressing is one of the oldest professions in the world, & barbers hold a unique cultural significance in our life. A common word for a barber in languages from the Indian subcontinent, is नाई nāī which is related to Sanskrit word नापित nāpita (barber). Although, this profession has ancient roots in India, which is evident in Indic origin words such as barber itself नाई nāī (< नापित nāpita), the word for knife छुरा churā (< क्षुर kṣura), the nail-cutter is नहरनी nahranī ( < नखहरणी nakhahraṇī), scissors are कतरनी katranī (< कर्तरी kartarī), alum is फिटकिरी phiṭakirī (< sphaṭikārī), leather strop for honing knives is चमोटी camōṭī, box of shaving implements was भाडि bhāḍi, or a salon was खरकुटि kharkuṭi or भांडिशाला bhāṇḍiśālā; but many of the contemporary words related to hairdressing are of Persian origin indicating Persianization of Indian languages from 12th century onwards e.g. for blade उस्तरा ustarā, for scissors क़ैंची qaincī, for tweezers मोचनी mocnī, for comb kaṅghā कंघा, and mirror शीशा śīśā (<Persian) or आईना āīnā (< Arabic). With Persian words also came the synonymous word of नाई nāī – hajjām हज्जाम (barber) which is of Arabic origin, and it has also given us the word हजामत hajāmat (shaving, hair cutting).
The manual of Hajjāms
Muslim Hajjāms used to keep a small bag named Kisbat किसबत for their shaving implements. There was even a manual of barbering called Kisbatnāma किसबतनामा. The Hajjāms placed great faith in the traditions & commandments preserved in this manual Kisbatnāmā. It has elaborate instructions e.g. If the barber sits facing southward to shave a patron he should recite a certain Qur’anic verse, but a different verse if he faces north while taking up a razor, & before using it he must recite another verse; and will recite a different verse while honing the razor; when using the scissors or nail cutters; he will recite a special verse before extracting a tooth, or after shaving a man ; & when he wraps up his implements, a Hajjām must recite various verses from Qur’an. A novice Hajjām, must shave five persons gratis in God’s name before he is authorized to keep a Kisbat (the bag of shaving implements).
Gifts for the Barbers
Since barbers hold such important place in proper conduct of rituals during marriage, birth, tonsuring ceremony चूडाकरण cūḍākaraṇa, one of the 12 purificatory rites performed on a child in the 1st or 3rd year), funeral rites etc. in Hindu homes, there are various kinds of gifts (called पौनी pāūnī) which must be given tp barbers. Some are these gifts are –
हाथ-धुलाई hāth-dhulāī (barber’s fee for washing the hands of the bride and bridegroom before the marriage feast)
शरबत-पिलाई śarbat-pilāī (gift made to a barber who has acted as go-between in arranging a marriage)
शीशा-दिखाई śīśā-dikhāī (tip to a barber)
A Barber folktale
In Indian folktales, barbers are often described as clever and shrewd persons. Here is a folk tale collected in ‘’Folktales from northern India. Crooke, William, Pandit R. G. Chaube, Naithani S., 2002.’’
The Craft of Barber
There was once an old Mahajan who was a widower, blind, deaf and lame, and he had no children. One day he called his chief agent and said:—“I am very anxious to marry again so that I have an heir. If you can arrange this, I will reward you handsomely.” Now in that village lived a clever barber, to whom the agent went and said, “If you can arrange a wife for the Lalaji, you will receive much in reward, and be appointed also his family barber.” Delighted with this offer, the barber went to a village some way off, where a number of Banias lived. Upon hearing that Barber is going to Ujjain to find a suitable match, one the Banias said —“Worthy barber! Why should we send you to Ujjain? The marriage can be arranged nearer home, and if you could arrange it, we would make it worth your while.” The barber raised sundry objections, till they gave him a handsome
present, when he agreed to marry his client to the daughter of one of them. Now he knew they would be asking all sorts of questions about the bridegroom, which he could not safely answer. So he pretended to be very hungry, and when the women took him inside and began to feed and question him, he stuffed his mouth full of rice, so that he could not talk properly. Said one woman to him:—“How old is the youth?” “Twenty, twenty, twenty,” he replied.
“Does he care about seeing nautches?” asked another. “He sees nobody but himself,” said the barber. “Does he care for singing?” asked a third. “He never listens to anyone,” said the barber.
“Has he a conveyance?” asked a fourth. “He never moves anywhere without a conveyance” was his reply. The barber then left. When the marriage procession arrived and they realized that the bridegroom was deaf, dumb & lame, they seized the barber and shouted, “What a lying rogue you are!” But the barber replied, “If you think well, you will find that I never deceived you. When I was asked his age, I said “twenty” three times, which makes sixty. I said he never looked at dances or listened to singing, by which, of course, I meant that he was blind and deaf, and when I said that he never moved without a conveyance, you might have understood that he was lame.” Hearing this the merchants asked the marriage procession to return and to never set foot in their village again.
Hope you enjoyed reading this piece on language of barbers in India.
The Maxim of a King & a Barber
नृपनापितपुत्रन्याय: nṛpanāpitaputranyāyaḥ is a a popular maxim from Sanskrit literature. It is translated as the maxim of a king and a barber. The story goes like this –
“Once a king asked his barber to bring to him the finest looking young man from his kingdom. Next day, the barber brought his ‘not so attractive’ son to the king. The king obviously asked why is he amusing himself in this manner? The barber replied – my lord, in the eyes of each individual, their own are the best of the world. I find my son finest though he may not be so for you.”
So the Sanskrit phrase illustrates the maxim of innate fondness for one’s own.
Haircutting Days in India & Mongolia
I was under the impression that only in India, we have good or bad days for a haircut. In our home, there was an absolute ban for a haircut on Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday. Last year, I received this Mongolian Calendar in which each good day for haircut is marked with scissors.
Well this practice is not limited to India & Mongolia only, the practice of avoiding haircut on particular days was even popular in Victorian England. Here is an old rhyme in English on haircut days (from Encyclopedia of Hair, 2006).
Hairdo in Ancient India
Kesha vinyās केश विन्यास (coiffure / hairdo) and state of hair has always occupied an important place in Indian standards of beauty. Traditionally unkempt, unbound hair on a woman indicated either mourning, menstruation or abnormal state of mind.
Most importantly “darkness of hair” , “length of the hair” and it’s “abundance” were primary elements of hair culture of India. Similarly braids were also important – triple braids, chignon, or single braids – each having it’s symbolism.
In Indian literature, there are at least two instances when hair was let loose until a vow of vengeance has been fulfilled. “Draupadi” in Mahabharata did this , so did “Chanakya” (the teacher of Chandra Gupta Maurya) in Mudrarakashsa.
Some Photos below :