The sikha or shikha (Sanskrit: शिखा; IAST: śikhā; "crest") is a long tuft, or lock of hair left on top or on the back of the shaven head of a male Orthodox Hindu. Though traditionally all Hindus were required to wear a śikhā, today it is seen mainly among Brahmachari, 'celibate monks' and temple priests.
Traditionally, Hindu men shave off all their hair as a child in a saṃskāra or ritual known as the chudakarana. A lock of hair is left at the crown (sahasrara). Unlike most other eastern cultures (including ancient Egypt) where a coming-of-age ceremony removed childhood locks of hair similar to the śikhā (e.g. a forelock or pigtails in China, a topknot in Thailand, a sidelock in Egypt etc.) in India this prepubescent hairstyle is left to grow throughout the man's life, though usually only the most orthodox religious men will continue this hairstyle.
The śikhā is tied back or knotted to perform religious rites. Only funerals and death anniversaries are performed with the śikhā untied or with dishevelled hair. Dishevelled hair is considered inauspicious, and represents times of great sorrow or calamity. In Hindu scripture, Draupadi took an oath in the assembly of the Kurus after she was molested by Dushasana that she would remain with dishevelled hair until the enemies were properly revenged. Similarly, Chanakya is said to have taken an oath to leave his śikhā untied until he humbles the Nanda kings who insulted him.
Tamil Nadu and Kerala
The Tamil word for śikhā is kudumi and traditionally it is represented in two styles. The most common kudumi (called Pin Kudumi) is identical to the śikhā, with a knotted lock of hair on the crown of the head and the rest of the hair shaved off.
Mun-Kudumi is a style where the hair is grown long in the front and knotted to the forehead. This hairstyle was popular among earlier Brahmin groups of South India, such as the Chozhiya, Dikshitar, and Namboothiri. The Nair ruling class of Kerala, though not Brahmin, also sported this style.
The technique used to tie the hair into a Kudumi is as follows: The lengthy hair can be tied with the help of left thumb and index fingers. You roll up the lock of hair over the left thumb and index fingers put together by your right hand till you reach the tail end. Then hold the tail end of hair by the left thumb and index fingers and pull out the fingers with the tail end of the hair. You get the knot. After some little practice you will get a tight and neat knot.
The śikhā reportedly signifies one-pointed (ekanta) focus on a spiritual goal, and devotion to God. It is also an indication of cleanliness, as well as personal sacrifice to God. According to Smriti Shastras, it is mandatory for all Hindus to keep śikhā and the first three twice-born or dvija castes (brahmins, kshatriyas and vaisyas) to wear yajnopavita (sacred thread), also called janeu, pool nool, or paita. It has been said that the śikhā allows God to pull one to heaven, or at least from this material world of maya (illusion), but this belief may stem from an Islamic superstition (see below under 'Similar hairstyles'), although as it reads in the Chaitanya Caritamrita:
While there was much roaring and crying at the Bhattathari community, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu grabbed Krishnadasa by the hair and took him away.—
As Krishnadasa was a follower of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (an incarnation of the god Krishna), he most likely would have kept the Vaishnava śikhā hairstyle, so the idea of God using hair as a handle is a Hindu concept too it seems.
In his autobiography, Mohandas K. Gandhi writes about his encounter with an orthodox Hindu:
He was pained to miss the shikha (tuft of hair) on my head and the sacred thread about my neck and said: 'It pains me to see you, a believing Hindu, going without a sacred thread and the shikha. These are the two external symbols of Hinduism and every Hindu ought to wear them.' ... [T]he shikha was considered obligatory by elders. On the eve of my going to England, however, I got rid of the shikha, lest when I was bareheaded it should expose me to ridicule and make me look, as I then thought, a barbarian in the eyes of the Englishmen. In fact this cowardly feeling carried me so far that in South Africa I got my cousin Chhaganlal Gandhi, who was religiously wearing the shikha, to do away with it. I feared that it might come in the way of his public work and so, even at the risk of paining him, I made him get rid of it.WikiSource
The śikhā was one of the few symbols of Hindus that transcended caste, language or regional barriers. Although there were variations of the style of sikha amongst communities, it was obligatory for all males.
Vaishnavism (Sanskrit: वैष्णव धर्म, IPA: [ʋəiˈʂɳəʋə ˈd̪ʱərmə]) is a tradition of Hinduism, distinguished from other schools by its worship of Vishnu or his associated Avatars, principally as Rama and Krishna, as the original and supreme God. In appearance, Vaishnavas - especially the monks - are usually easily recognizable by their particular forehead markings (tilak) and śikhā.
In Western countries, the śikhā hairstyle is often seen worn by adherents of the Hare Krishna movement, a Gaudiya Vaishnava school founded by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada . Srila Prabhupada often referred to the śikhā as a "flag", a term which illustrates the idea that the body is a temple with a flag on top. Srila Prabhupada felt that the śikhā hairstyle was an important facet of his Krishna Consciousness movement, indeed a vital facet:
- "I have no objection if members of the Society dress like nice American gentlemen; but in all circumstances a devotee cannot avoid tilak, flag on head, and beads on neck. These are essential features of a Vaisnava."
Letter from Srila Prabhupada to Brahmananda - 14 October 1967.
- "...we must have always our tilak and sikha and there is no compromise for this purpose."
Letter to Brahmananda - Seattle 6 October 1968.
- "According to sastra anyone who wears tilaka and sikha and kunti over and above the Vaisnava dress or Vaisnava sannyasi must be accepted [as a bona fide member of Vedic culture] especially while chanting Hare Krishna mantra with bead bags."
Letter from Srila Prabhupada to Syamasundara dasa – 8 April 1974.
- "The Vaisnavas, with tilaka, with kunti, with chanting beads, as soon as you see... And practically you know. As soon as they see these Hare Krsna movement people, they also chant, "Hare Krsna," giving a chance to the others. The dress is also required. You should be always equipped with tilaka, kunti, and sikha, sutra. Then, as soon as a common man sees, "Oh, here is a Hare Krsna man. Hare Krsna," he'll chant. Automatically you give a chance to chant Hare Krsna. So this is required. The foolish rascals, they say that "What is the necessity of this, that?" No. This is necessity. You must always remain dressed like a Vaisnava. That is necessity."
Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.28.19 - Nairobi, October 29, 1975.
In ISKCON, as in Gaudiya Vaishnavaism, there are certain rules regarding the appearance of the śikhā. Gaudiya Vaishnavas traditionally keep the sikha about the size of a calf's hoofprint, approximately 1.5 inches (2.5 - 4 cm) in diameter. Srila Prabhupada mentioned this in a conversation with some of his disciples in Hawai'i:
- "Gaudiya Vaisnava sikha is an inch and a half across, no bigger. Bigger sikha means another sampradaya. And they have to be knotted."
May 6, 1972, Hawaii; Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta V, page 93.
Hindus have a common belief that the śikhā "allows God to easily pull one to paradise". While the śikhā has been known to exist in India for from as far back as Chanakya, some scholars have argued that this be an Islamic, or at least an Arabian superstition, as the following passages may illustrate:
The Persians allow no part of their body hair except the upper lip, which they wear long and thick and turning downwards; as also a lock upon the crown of the head, by which they are made to believe their Prophet will at Resurrection lift them into paradise. Elsewhere their head is shaven or made incapable of hair by the oil dowae (daway) being thrice anointed. This had been made the mode of the Oriental people since the promulgation of the alcoran (Al Quran), introduced and first imposed by the Arabians.—
In 'Passages of Eastern Travel', Harper's magazine, 1856, p. 197, an American traveller wrote:
All Arabs, men and boys, have their heads shaved, leaving only a scalp lock, said by some to be left in imitation of the Prophet, who wore his own thus; and by others said to be for the convenience of the angel who will pull them out of the graves when the day of rising shall come.—
Riffian (Berber) men of Morocco had the custom of shaving the head but leaving a single lock of hair on either the crown, left, or right side of the head, so that the angel Azrael is able "...to pull them up to heaven on the Last Day." 
High-born Chamorri men of the indigenous Chamorro people of the Mariana Islands also wore a hairstyle similar to the śikhā. (see statues of Chief Gadao or Chief Quipuha in Chief Quipuha Park, Paseo de Susana peninsula, Agana, Guam.) Later, particularly on the island of Guam, this śikhā-like top-knot hairstyle became somewhat of a political statement for young men:
In the late 1980s, early 1990s there was a resurgence of the top-knot hair style. One of our senators now, before he became a 'certified' politician, was sort of a radical activist. He first he started out with a group called the Chamorro Che‘lu’s. Che‘lu means 'brother' or 'sister,' but his group, they were all young men, and really macho. They all had their hair cut to have a top-knot. And that fueled a debate: 'Do I have to have a top-knot in order to be a Chamorro?' Some guys would wear their hair long and you wouldn’t know it was a top-knot until they pulled it up and you could see that they shaved the whole underpart. It was really threatening, and made some people really nervous. But the fact that such people are now senators and they tend to get a lot of votes, that’s a sign to me that people are really taking issues of culture a lot more seriously, at least the grass roots population.—
The oseledets, or khokhol hairstyle of the Ukrainian Cossacks, or Zaporozhians, was quite similar to the śikhā, although it may sometimes have been situated not at the crown, but towards the front of the head. Indeed, another Ukrainian word for this particular hairstyle is чуприна, chupryna meaning 'forelock'. According to legend, Zaporozhians would grow their scalplocks to provide "...a handle by which the enemy could carry a Cossack's head, should he succeed in severing it."
A stone head discovered at the Neolithic site of Nevalı Çori in Anatolia features what some have interpreted as an early example of a śikhā, perhaps the mark of a priest or shaman. More likely it represents a snake, since snakes are prominent in the iconography of Neolithic SE Anatolia, though why a snake should be depicted on top of a shaven head has not been satisfactorily explained.
The scalplock of many Native American tribes (particularly of the eastern woodlands, such as the Huron) is very similar in appearance to the śikhā, although like the Cossack oseledets, a much different meaning was applied to this hairstyle compared to the Hindu śikhā.
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu performing a 'kirtan', a devotional song, in the streets of Nabadwip, Bengal. Note the śikhās on Sri Chaitanya's followers.
Joseph Brant with a scalplock.
Chamorri Chief Gadao of Guam legend with a śikhā-like hairstyle.
Akha man smoking a pipe with a śikhā-like hairstyle.
A European artist's conception of a Manchu warrior in China. Note the śikhā-like hair on the severed head (From the cover of Martino Martini's Regni Sinensis a Tartari devastati enarratio, 1661).
Shaved head with long braided rattail (haircut). The śikhā differs from the rattail in that the śikhā emanates from the crown of the head, whereas the rattail grows from the nape of the neck. Also the śikhā is never braided.
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- A Pictorial History of The American Indian, Oliver La Farge, ISBN 978-0-517-01695-4
-  An excellent website for further information on śikhā.
-  An ISKCON handbook for monks of Krsna.
-  A deity with śikhā from Nevali Cori (image).
-  A boy with śikhā, sculpture, Notre Dame, France (image).
-  A Vaishnava with śikhā (image).
-  Ukrainian cossack with the śikhā-like oseledets (image).
-  Contains images of Chief Quipuha of Guam and his top-knot.