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Matting of Hair among Women in South-western India

Govind Dhaske ( is director, Selfhood, Kadegaon, Maharashtra.

Matting of hair is a neglected health problem in India with religious undertones and paucity of research on it. To capture the experiential understanding of matting of hair among women in south-western India, an interpretive phenomenological study was conducted. The thematic accounts of affected women uncovered the health and human rights marginalisation surrounding the matting of hair, effectively making it a neglected harmful cultural practice. 

The author is thankful to Margaret Adamek (Indiana University School of Social Work) for extensive guidance and editorial suggestions. Further, the author would like to register his gratitude for the valuable suggestions from Bob Vernon, Carmen Luca-Sugawara, J Rosario, Rajendra Kumbhar, and Sudhir Kumbhar. The author is thankful to the reviewer for extensive useful suggestions.

Matting of hair among women in India (largely called as Jata) is a neglected coercive cultural practice. In south-western India, when any woman gets affected by matting of hair, and her family members or the members of the community come to know of it, they tend to tag it as a manifestation of the divine (Kumbhar and Dhaske 2009). As a religious phenomenon, the small matted portion of hair grows under observance. Eventually, it leads to multiple mental and physical health problems for the affected woman. In the run, affected women and their family members have to face other forms of religion-based marginalisation. In common terms, matting of hair, that is jata, is different from “butt of hair;” rather jata can be termed as several butts stacked together to form an agglomerated mass of hair on the scalp. As there is paucity of research on the topic, the scale and wider implications of the matting of hair are yet to be documented. This study was designed to create systematic foundational knowledge on this issue.


According to the religious meanings attached to it, matted hair is seen as the “invitation from goddess Yellamma to join the order of Jogtins” (Kamble 1988: 162). As and when “a girl presents matting or knotting of her hair or copper-coloured hair,” it implies that the goddess has chosen her to serve (Torri 2009: 38). The literature on the topic shows that the growth of matted hair is also linked to the divine power gifted to change femininity (Bradford 1983). Based on a survey about the reasons behind devadasi dedication, it was revealed that the emergence of matted hair is a major reason for young girls to become devadasis (Kamble 1988).

The matting of hair is known by different names across India and the globe such as jata (Kumbhar and Dhaske 2009), jade (Ramberg 2009), jutt and rat’s nest (Krysl 1998), jat (Kamble 1988), and jedi (Bradford 1983). Globally, medical practitioners and researchers have outlined matted hair as the bird’s nest hair (Dawber and Calnan 1976), twisted-rolled hair knots (Itin et al 1994), felted hair (Bogaty and Dunlap 1970), tangling of hair (Graham 1953), and the plaited pigtail (Bradford 1983).

Although matted hair has been seen as a religion-based symbol, some medical practitioners have termed it as a health problem and, in some cases, a coexisting condition allied with other health issues (Dogra and Kanwar 2004; Joshi and Singh 2010; Kanwar and De 2007; Palwade and Malik 2008; Pavithran 1990; Siragusa et al 1996; Suresh Kumar et al 2001; Wolf et al 2008; Zawar and Mhasakar 2003). In India, mainly in southwestern parts, the matting of hair is an essential feature for the devadasi as well as similar types of religion-based symbolism followed by common people. In this way, health problems are reified as traditional cultural practices. Some studies on the problem of matting of hair in India have outlined the physical and mental health problems faced by affected women (Dhaske 2018; Kumbhar and Dhaske 2009, 2015).

Significance and Prevalence of the Problem

The problem of matting of hair is important for several reasons. Matting of hair exists among the traditionally oppressed social groups such as Dalits. Furthermore, the traditional practices surrounding matting of hair show women’s systemic marginalisation through religion-based superstitions. In a gendered context of public health, the physical and mental health implications for the affected women are complex and challenging. Therefore, in view of the minimal knowledge on matting of hair and underlying health and human rights violations, this problem needs allied knowledge production and evidence-based advocacy for intervention from social workers. Despite having a ban on the devadasi custom, some coercive religious practices derived from the devadasi custom are still prevalent in the community. There is a dominant belief that matting of hair happens due to lack of proper hygiene. However, historical medical texts have shown that matting of hair does not take place exclusively due to lack of hygiene and there are several factors responsible for same.

Some texts deny matting of hair as a disease (Van Harlingen 1884; Zajaczkowski 2010) while some call it conditions of aggravated lousiness (Van Harlingen 1884). Some historic etiological descriptions show the lack of cleanliness and hair damage due to wearing a fur hat (Chromy 1813) as reasons for the matting of hair. Le Page (1884) considered nervous force as responsible for the matting of hair and termed it plica neuropathica. Simpson and Mullins (1969) wrote about the likelihood of the occurrence of matting of hair with hysterical women. Pavithran (1990) and Bansal and Kuldeep (1992) wrote about psychological symptoms or health problems as concomitant conditions for matting of hair. In some cases, matting of hair was triggered by shampoo or soap (Graham 1953; Howell 1956). But, the inability to create similar matting using the same substances denied the claim and indicated other possible reasons. Ramanan and Ghorpade (1993) reported a similar case of a 22-year-old woman who had matted hair due to soap. Bansal and Kuldeep (1992) documented the case of a 60-year-old woman who had moderate hypertension and faced plica neuropathica after using oil-containing herbals. Bharti and Singh (1994) attributed mechanical and psychological disturbances as the triggering reasons for the matting of hair in one case.

While matted hair is less common in the 20th and 21st centuries, historically, Hebra and Kaposi (1874) pointed out the existence of plica polonica in several regions of Europe, including Gallicia, Posen, and Poland (also Schuster 1968); on the banks of the Weichsel and of the Dnieper, Ukraine, Lithuania, Bukowina, Podolia, Silesia, and the countries inhabited by the Sclavonian race (Beigel 1859). Medusa-like hair were seen in the nearby regions of Alps and Weser, Moravia, Hungary, Carniola, Ceylon, Paris, France, England, and among native Indians (Kiichenmeister 1857). Furthermore, the existence of plica polonica was identified in Hungary, Moldo-Wallachia, the south of Hussia, and in the South Sea Islands (Hebra and Kaposi 1874). There are seldom any cases reported in journals that show matting of hair.

In the Indian context, matted hair carries an ascetic, shamanic, ritualistic, devotional, and cultural value. Hence, its prevalence is high across India, mainly the western and southern parts of India. Devadasis carry matted hair as a religious symbol (Kamble 1988; Ramberg 2009). As devadasis are mainly attached to certain temples, the occurrence of matted hair is more among societies that worship the goddesses Yellamma of Saundatti and Kokatnur and the goddess Mayakka from Chinchali, both located in Karnataka, and the goddess Bhavani of Tuljapur in Maharashtra.

The Karnataka State Women Development Corporation (2009) found that there are 22,873 former devadasi women. Notably, some estimates by non-governmental organisations show that 5,000 to 15,000 girls are dedicated through the devadasi custom per year and later get auctioned secretly, mainly to urban brothels (Varhade 1998, qtd in Human Rights Watch 1999). In another estimate, Nag (2001) mentioned a figure of around 2.5 lakh, mainly dedicated to the goddess Yellamma and some other deities such as Hanuman and Khandoba. These are mainly located in the border areas of Maharashtra and Karnataka. The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) provided data which was later reported in the media, highlighting that the 2,50,000 girls dedicated as devadasis included 16,624 girls from Andhra Pradesh, 22,941 from Karnataka, and 2,479 from Maharashtra (Jadhav 2012). The devadasi statistics indicate the possible high prevalence of matting of hair across India. Matting of hair goes unnoticed in the medical statistics. It is not reported largely because it is not seen as a health problem due to the religious colouring and gaps in health education among affected women and their families.

Research Method

In spite of the global evidence highlighting the matting of hair as a health problem, historically, there are no well-directed efforts to create a formative knowledge base about this parti­cular suffering and its implications on the affected women. In the light of the fact that there is no foundational knowledge base on the problems of matting of hair, it is essential to document the primary accounts of the lived experience of affected women.

An understanding grounded in the lived experiences of women will be able to guide knowledge-based interventions and standard operating procedures for the suitable institutions and professionals. Moreover, it will guide the policy advocacy for reform based on the documented lived experiences of marginalisation, and other explicit and latent forms of violation of human rights. Therefore, the research design chosen was exploratory and qualitative in nature, mainly aimed at the document­ation of the lived experience of women who have undergone or are undergoing the experience of the matting of hair. Moreover, the phenomenon of matting of hair was required to be captured as foundational knowledge on the issue hence the study employed the Heideggerian interpretive phenomenological approach. The phenomenological approach has a strong influence on knowledge development (Mackey 2005) and is aimed at capturing the “experiential essence” of participants. However, the phenomenological approach is not aimed at reclaimed and neutral descriptions (Berrios 1993: 213).

The taken-for-granted views about experiences are analysed and examined to reveal “new and/or forgotten meanings” (Laverty 2003: 22). Notably, phenomenology deals with “the question of the relation of mental events to physical events” (Taylor and Heiser 1971: 480).

The phenomenological research method asks a basic question such as “What is this experience like?” and keeps a focus on the lifeworld or human experience as it is being lived (Laverty 2003: 22). The hermeneutic phenomenology is primarily recommended in social work research to comprehend complex human experiences (Wilcke 2002). Notably, phenomenology highlights that human behaviour can only be understood “from the vantage points of the perceptions of the actors” (Black and Enos 1981: 34).

This study took place in four districts of the south-western region of Maharashtra, that is, Sangli, Satara, Solapur, and Kolhapur.

The primary criteria of selection for the setting were the prevalence of the historical temple-based devadasi practice, social, cultural, and economic homogeneity, and the vicinity of the major temples associated with the practices surrounding the matting of hair. The study covered mainly two types of participants, that is, those who had experience of matting of hair in past or those who are undergoing it presently.

The selected participants were within the age group of 18–70 years and were able to speak in the local Marathi language.

As an ethical code, the researcher did not accept parti­cipants with any significant cognitive incapacity; those under the pressure of religious sanctions about not sharing; those who expressed an inability for any reason; pregnant women; and women suffering from severe physical or psychological issues.

During a rigorous pre-research consultation, the researcher captured the conceptual diversity emerging from multiple aspects, such as caste, class, culture, and other objective identity features. This shaped the fore-structure of the researcher. Mackey (2005: 182) outlines fore-structure as “what is understood or known in advance of interpretation.” As a part of ethical research practice, oral consent for the audio recording of interviews was taken. The researcher read out the consent form to provide information about the participant’s rights during and after the study.

Since it was a foundational study on matting of hair the researcher adopted the purposive sampling method for the recruitment of 13 study participants. Purposive sampling allowed the researcher to incorporate study participants that represented the existing and emerging diversity among the matted-hair-affected women and their lived experiences. For interviews, the study used unstructured, in-depth phenomenological face-to-face interviews. The interviews were used for capturing the detailed human experience and the participant’s views about the phenomenon under inquiry (Roulston 2010), that is, the matting of hair.

The open-ended questions sought individual perspectives of participants and the meaning of lived experience, description of events, feelings, opinions, and suggestions related to matted hair. The questions asked were broad in nature (Baker et al 1992) to avoid the undue influence of the researcher. The basic research question was: “What is/was your lived experience of being-a-matted-hair-affected-woman?”

Interviews were taken for 12 to 34 minutes with an average of 20 minutes based on the convenience and willingness of the study participants. The interview transcripts were in Marathi and were later translated into English for further data analysis. Based on hermeneutic research ethics, two
experts from the field checked the translation of the interview text. As the experts suggested adding more notes for words and expressions in the local language, the researcher complied with it. Further, the researcher valued the confidentiality and privacy, social justice, and practitioner research that are prominent ethical considerations in any qualitative research (Shaw 2003).

Thematic Data Analysis Process

The identity of research participants was kept confidential by assigning a unique number for each transcript with a corresponding pseudonym. The researcher used a conceptual mapping software to aggregate a wide array of events in the lived experience of affected women. As a first step, the interviews were transcribed, and translated to integrate the “recurring phrases, the researcher’s questions, their own emotions, and descriptions of, or comments on, the language used” (Biggerstaff and Thompson 2008: 179). Before coding, the audiotapes were listened to many times while reading the transcripts to understand the content and essence.

The researcher prepared a tabulated form for data analysis based on Smith et al (2009) for coding and documenting emergent themes in a more structured manner. All transcripts were analysed using the coding approach suggested by Larkin et al (2006: 116) through “cumulative coding (when patterns of meaning are generated within a transcript) and integrative coding (when patterns of meaning are generated across a set of transcripts).”

The first order descriptive coding included identification, description, and understanding two related aspects of the respondent’s account. Further, the process led to identifying “the key ‘objects of concern’ in the participant’s world, and the ‘experiential claims’ made by the participant” (Larkin et al 2006: 111). Aggregating the understanding derived from the primary and secondary codes coupled with research notes led to the broad themes and sub-themes.

The study had seven broad themes within which one theme had five sub-themes that outlined the lived experience of
matted-hair-affected women.


The primary coding provided the structure of lived experience, whereas the secondary coding helped the researcher recognise the commonality of experience. The researcher integrated it further to establish the overlapping superstructures of lived experiences and outlined the ontological nature of being-there (Dasein) as elaborated by Martin Heidegger.

The seven broader thematic stages identified were: the pre-matted-hair emergence stage, the matted-hair emergence stage, the post-matted-hair emergence stage, the matted-hair stage, the pre-matted-hair removal stage, the matted-hair removal stage, and the post-matted-hair removal stage. The matted-hair stage had five sub-thematic areas: the religious everyday bodies, the embodiment of compromised religiosity, religious ritual following, structural vulnerability, and gendered discourse. Each stage is summarised below to present a precise account of the phenomenon of matting of hair using paradigm cases, exemplars, and themes (Benner 1985, 1994; Crist and Tanner 2003).


Pre-matted-hair emergence stage: Prior to the emergence of matted hair, the study revealed the gendered identity of women in the patriarchal, social, and familial structures. The affected women reported a prevalence of the matting of hair among relatives and shared varying degrees of awareness and vulnerability to the same as women. The broad categories of affected women’s gendered roles that emerged from the study were reproductive, parental, and caregiver roles, apart from the domestic and occupational roles.

During the emergence of matted hair, one participant was pregnant; three were lactating mothers; one participant was looking after a small child as a widowed mother; one was doing post-birth nursing of a grandson, and one was suffering from stigma due to not being able to give birth to a child. Improper maternal care and neglected health were revealed from matted-hair-affected women’s experiences. One participant shared:

There is no proper attention. No one from my family gives attention … Moreover, my husband is no more so who will give attention? I have a son. Now, I have to do all the inquiry, who else will do it? [Desperation in the voice]

The inattention towards women’s health problems was a pretext for most of the cases in this study. The precipitating role of the already existing health problems needed timely attention as it had a bearing on the possible aggravation.


Matted-hair emergence stage: In the matted-hair emergence stage, participants showed a sequential manifestation of religion-based discourse visible from the events shared by them. Through various pathways, women had to imbibe the religion-based discourse surround the emerged matted hair. One participant shared her experience:

That way only. Even if I comb or bathe, then also, the amassed hair remained as it is [could not be separated]. It came down in the form of a ponytail down below. When told that it is of a god, we did not do anything to it.

Post-matted-hair emergence stage: This stage showed experiences that had the structural function of religion-based patriarchy. This way, the affected women and their family members practised their compliance to the religion-based discourse surrounding the matting of hair. At this stage, consultation with the religious authorities was a striking event. Significant relatives and devadasi women in the vicinity were major entities that influenced or controlled these consultations which led to the formal religious signification of matted hair as a divine symbol. One of the participants mentioned:

I only realised that. [Promptly]. Then, I went to ask a priest about its removal as I never wanted it, “When you [the goddess] are there why jata for me? Why a heavy load on my head?”


The matted-hair stage: The matted-hair stage was exemplified by the formation of the identity: being-a-matted-hair-affected-woman. It got defined through the demonstrations of ontic necessities (Heidegger 1962) mainly learned or forced from the dominant religion-based discourse. This stage involved rigorous religion-based everydayness. As being-a-matted-hair-affected-woman, regular hair washing was changed to religion-based washing of hair.

The experiential testimonies of participants showed the complex structure of the appearance-related stigma due to the matted hair. On the one hand, the matted hair was portrayed as the embodiment of auspiciousness; on the other hand, the affected women were exposed to diverse social environments where matted hair carried stigma through different inter­pretations. For matted-hair-affected women, there were restrictions on their movement and social participation. The most intense form of marginalisation was visible through the impact on the sexual life and marital relationship.

The treatment-seeking of affected women showed pre­ference towards the ethno-religious medicine practices. The demotion of space and social communication was reported by some participants. Particularly, participants who were keen on removal of matted-hair were deprived of the removal at this stage. One participant shared:

I took medication, still [no relief]. I visited Gadhave [the surname of a local physician] but no relief. Then when inquiry was done, I was told, “It is of a god. Do not take any medicines.”

The pre-matted-hair removal stage: The pre-matted hair removal stage showed demonstrative impact. There was positive feeling about the matted hair in the early stage when the matted hair was small. As it can be seen from the testimonies, problems and suffering became intense and explicit when the matted hair grew larger in size and thickness, after several months or years.

For some women who were still carrying matted hair, the religion-based processes offered different challenges. When it came to treating the affected women, the attitude of physicians showed fear about treating the matting of hair or the allied health problems. Notably, cultural sensitivity was found to be insufficient in dealing with harmful cultural practices such as the matting of hair due to its sensitive nature and lack of such training in medical education. One participant shared:

Trouble means … I used to get headaches due to the weight (of jata). I used to have a recurring headache. The water never used to get drained off the hair. I used to get cold frequently. That is why I removed it.

For the removal of matted hair, the affected needed a conducive familial, social, and institutional environment. Furthermore, the motivation for the removal of matted hair decided the prognosis, as well as the prevention of the repetitive emergence. Notably, most affected women wanted to remove matted hair due to persistent health problems. Among the affected women who decided to keep the matted hair, the pre-matted-hair removal stage showed an inclination towards religion-based practices. For women who underwent matted-hair removal through activist-led interventions, there was sufficient motivation for removal and rationalisation of the religious outlook.

The matted-hair removal stage: The jata removal or the matted-hair removal stage went through the necessary ontic demonstration of the religion-based rituals before under­going the removal. The necessity of getting permission from the goddess for removal was explicit among some women. Almost all women who underwent matted-hair removal prohi­bited the use of scissors for removal calling the matted hair a divine object.

This study found that the options made available for matted-hair removal were not consistent with the cultural beliefs about the removal. Moreover, the affected women found the culturally insensitive methods used for the removal of matted hair coercive.

It should be noted that some women kept their matted hair as they could not find a culturally sensitive method approved by religious beliefs and guiding entities. One participant shared:

I used to cover and tie it all. I used to tie a cloth and used to cover it all [head] … Moreover, 2–3 times, I was forcibly taken away from the queue [for jata removal at Saundatti]. I used to say, “Mine should not be removed!” [Pause]. “No scissor should be used on my [jata].”

Post-matted-hair removal stage: Matted-hair removal is a highly implicative process as it features modifications to the body and loss of the religious symbol. Such changes can lead to a challenging personal, familial, and social situations for the affected women. The activist-led removal could result in a feeling of distress due to emphatic religious beliefs. While some women felt highly encouraged for the removal due to support from their spouse and family members, others could not make up their mind for it. Some women reported change in outlook and health conditions after the removal. The existence of social blaming for matted-hair removal is prominent in the experience of women who have undergone the removal. A participant shared:

Nothing as such. [People] used to say, “It looks good after jata removal.” Few said, “When you had jata you used to look good.” [They] used to say like that.

Implications of the Study

As this study was aimed at exploring and documenting the lived experience of women affected by the matting of hair, it provided an in-depth understanding of the experience. The study revealed that accessing medical services for health problems during the phase and after the removal of matted hair hardly compromises the affected women’s religiosity or belief systems. Yet, the social gaze, religious symbolism, and social as well as priestly vigilance, makes it challenging for women to imagine treating the matted hair or associated health problems medically. Considering the emergence of the matting of hair in a situation with prevalent physical and psychological problems, the family members were found accountable for the neglect of health and human rights violations. The nature of suffering and coercion due to the matted hair exemplifies it as a harmful cultural practice within the existing legal framework in India.

The Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013 has clauses that view actions such as preventing a person from seeking medical treatment, and carrying out or encouraging inhumane activities in the quest for some bounty or rewards as punishable crimes. Therefore, matted hair and religion-based colouring should be viewed as violation of rights of the affected women. A public disclosure of information about the practices of the religious institutions pertaining to the matting of hair should be made legally mandatory. Furthermore, a mechanism needs to be established to ensure proper screening for hair health for early detection. To avoid the religion-ordained beggary through the symbolic use of the matting of hair, adequate livelihood opportunities and social security should be provided by the state. While devadasi dedication is banned by the law, some allied practices derived from the original custom, such as the matting of hair, are still prevalent. There should be extensive guidelines based on the existing law to ban all the allied harmful cultural practices. A committee can be established for the same by the state and a legally sound institutional mechanism should be established to prevent the drudgery of women due to the matting of hair.

The problem is prevalent among rural women, and hence it requires special attention considering the exclusion of rural women from mainstream health delivery. The use of harmful substances for washing the matted hair, the improper access and availability of health services as well as the poor basic infrastructure necessitate policy-based interventions. The much-debated Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and existing legislation can be evolved to create a convergence-based structure to address the problem of matting of hair. The ignored group of matted-hair-affected elderly women requires proper access to health and legal services. The other excluded groups that need attention are the homeless, poverty affected, and beggars.

This study is a foundational evidence-based resource to guide the practice of social work around the problem of matting of hair. The cultural competency required for social workers to address oppressive global cultural practices, such as genital mutilation in Africa, can benefit from the findings of this study considering the gendered nature of the societies.

This qualitative study can be a valuable guide for the development of social work intervention models on the matting of hair to reduce the distance between research and practice (Mahtani 2004). Furthermore, it can act as a valuable resource for social work intervention research as it demonstrates the utility of Heideggerian hermeneutic phenomenology in social work research, education, and practice.

As it is associated with health implications, this study recommends an inclusion of comprehensive cultural competency and medico-legal understanding about harmful cultural practices like the matting of hair in medical education in India. An institutional mechanism for removal-related referrals should be a legal obligation for the healthcare providers, and the respective agencies can create such a conducive environment in the best interests of the constitutional right. As the study noted, the prevalence of matted hair was among young mothers and girls. As such, hair health should be considered an integral part of health education on maternal care. The school-based health monitoring for hair-related disorders can help in early detection of the matting of hair.

This foundational study reveals that the religious practices related to the matting of hair and women’s experience of same show health and human rights violations. Hence, matting of hair should be termed as a harmful cultural practice and proper legal instruments should be developed and implemented to curb the coercion of women.

Limitations of the Study

The study was constrained by the patriarchal and cultural factors as family members of affected women declined to allow their participation in some cases. Almost all interviews required permission from family members. The researcher was unable to recruit enough devadasi participants due to religious constraints on sharing about the matted hair. The study was constrained by the unavailability of credible information about the matted-hair-affected women with temples, government offices, and activists, which hampered the flow of data collection. Due to the high work burden, few participants kept interviews shorter than expected.


This Heideggerian interpretive phenomenological study outlined the multifaceted marginalisation of the matted-hair-affected women. The everydayness of affected women showed the reification of an apparent health problem through the imposition of a religion-based discourse. Furthermore, the study highlighted the role of complex structural forms of politico-religious patriarchy and resultant coercion of women through the cultural practices around the matting of hair. The evidential narratives of affected women delineated the phenomenological description of health problems associated with the matted hair and underscored the pressing need for urgent redress through the social work profession, public health system, and the allied policies. Until such patriarchal cultural belief systems are dismantled along with the existing coercive and harmful cultural practices, women’s health will remain at risk.


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Updated On : 6th Sep, 2019


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