Seated on a brick platform under the shade of a neem tree near his sprawling house in the western Indian state of Gujarat, Savjibhai Rathwa gets ready for his alternate day ritual – a head bath. But it is no normal washing of the head; Savjibhai’s takes hours, and, for this ritual, he’ll use nothing less than 10 buckets or 180l of water. But then the 62-year-old needs to – he is the proud owner of dreadlocks a mind-boggling 62ft (18m) long.
‘It takes me three hours to wash my hair,’ says the grandfather, caressing a section of his long mane. ‘But I don’t mind that. I hate to keep my hair dirty. Luckily, I have my grandchildren to help me.’
They’re standing behind him – Nihal, four, and Nikita, six, smiling and ready to do his bidding.
Savjibhai says that he was 12 years old when he had a dream in which a deity directed him not to trim his hair. Ever. ‘Since then only once have I cut my hair,’ he says.
The 167cm-tall man admits that his friends used to poke fun at him for allowing his hair to grow. ‘A few used to mockingly call me effeminate,’ he laughs. ‘Some thought I was planning to become a hermit and renounce the world.’
Savjibhai, who inherited around 20 acres of farmland from his parents and earns a living raising crops, says that one major problem he had because of his long hair was that he initially found no women willing to marry him. ‘By the time I was in my twenties, my hair was really long – around two metres – and most of the girls in my village were reluctant to even talk to me because they thought I was a hermit.
‘When I reached marriageable age, most refused to even look at my face,’ he adds, twirling his long moustache.
After being rejected several times, he says he seriously considered shearing his locks. ‘My parents and several village elders too told me that I should cut my hair as that was the only way I would get a girl to marry me,’ he says.
To satisfy them, he reluctantly cut a lock of his hair. ‘But I hid it in a trunk and refused to discard it.’ he says. However, he was filled with so much remorse that he decided that even if he did not get married, he would never cut his hair again.
Finally, in his late twenties, Savjibhai found a girl who agreed to accept him as her husband.
‘After marriage too, she has never had a problem with my long hair,’ he says. ‘She understands that it has to do with my belief.’
Considering the sheer length of his dreadlocks, Savjibhai requires help from his grandkids to wash them.
During the early years, his wife used to help Savjibhai wash his hair, but after her death in 2005, his children and now grandkids lovingly help him maintain his locks.
Holding one end of the dreadlocks, Nihal begins a long walk unravelling his grandfather’s hair, careful at every step not to let it fall on the ground. Once he has the entire length of hair stretched out, the boy ties it to a pole planted in the far end of the yard. Meanwhile, Nikita pours some shampoo into her cupped hand and runs it all along the length of the hair.
‘I have to use about 30 pouches of shampoo, 8ml each, every time I wash my hair,’ says Savjibhai. That is almost a quarter-litre of shampoo every alternate day.
‘It costs me around Rs100 (about Dh5) for every wash,’ he adds. ‘So every month I have to set aside Rs1,500 just to ensure that my hair is not dirty and smelly. This does burn a hole in my pocket, but I don’t mind.’
Apart from farming, Savjibhai also raises cattle; he has around 30 cows, and the milk they produce is sold to neighbours. This fetches him a reasonably good income that helps him take care of his family, which includes son Deep Singh, daughter-in-law Gitaben, and the grandchildren, all of whom live in their palatial home.
About half an hour after she started shampooing her grandfather’s hair, Nikita shouts out that she is finished. ‘Can you bring the buckets of water?’ she calls out to her mother. Gitaben lines up the large buckets of water, and the three of them together wash Savjibhai’s hair. Then, the kids help him dry it.
Nihal, who has closely cropped hair, and his sister with shoulder-length hair, struggle to carry the wet and heavy dreadlocks around. They stretch them out before tying the loose end to the iron grill of the window of their house.
Has he ever had any major problems because of his long mane?
Cleanliness is of utmost importance to Savjibhai, and he is careful to not let his locks fall to the ground.
‘No, never,’ says Savjibhai. ‘Initially, I used to oil my hair every day. But once it became locks, I stopped. Now, I’m only particular about keeping it clean.’
Today he is taking particular care because he and his family will be attending a wedding in the neighbourhood.
‘Hurry up, Grandpa or we will get late for the wedding and the feast,’ shouts out Nihal, grinning and racing away to get dressed.
Savjibhai smiles and checks if his hair is dry. ‘You know, there are a lot of women in my village who have said they are quite envious of my hair,’ he says with a smile. ‘In fact, even after so many years, every time I go out, there are at least a few people who come up to me to ask me the secret of my long hair and how I maintain it.’
The only problem he has with his hair is carrying it around. ‘Earlier, it used to just fall all over my face and when plaited, it used to trip me up when I was walking,’ says Savjibhai. ‘Finally, I decided to wear it like a turban.’
However, when it began to grow in length and became too much to balance on his head because of the weight, Savjibhai started to carry it wrapped around his arm, like a large shoulder bag. ‘It’s heavy, but still manageable,’ he says.
Even as the other family members are busy getting ready to go for the wedding, Savjibhai, tired after the three-hour-long washing session, decides to take a snooze.
The sexagenarian tends to wrap his mane around his arm walking around, but during a special occasion, he ties it up like a turban.
An hour later, he is up. Slipping on a shirt and fixing his dhoti, the traditional white cloth worn by men like a sarong in India, the farmer rolls up his hair into a mammoth turban. ‘I usually don’t wear my locks like this, but when I go for a wedding or any social event, I prefer keeping my hands free,’ he says. Then, holding the hands of his grandkids, the sexagenarian sets off towards the village hall, where the marriage is to be held.
Even as the children are busy enjoying the music and feasting, the celebrations are rudely interrupted by sudden shrieks from a nearby pond. A group of people rush to find a four-year-old boy, who had waded into the pond to fetch a ball, on the verge of drowning. He apparently lost his footing, and not knowing how to swim, is now struggling for his life.
‘Someone fetch a rope,’ shouts out a man standing near the edge of the pond. Savjibhai instinctively opens up his dreadlocks and hurls the loose end towards the drowning boy.
Amazingly, the boy grabs it and the grandfather and a few people slowly begin to pull him to safety.
Later, after the boy is administered first aid, Savjibhai ties his hair back into a turban.
‘Maybe this is the reason I’ve been growing my hair all these years... so I could save this little boy,’ says the eccentric saviour with a smile.
The celebratory mood is back and Savjibhai’s action is appreciated by the crowd who garland him as a mark of honour.
While the kids start tucking into the feast, Savjibhai has just a glass of fruit juice. ‘I am a vegetarian and eat only home-cooked food,’ he says.
He also avoids fried foods and survives largely on fruits, rice, lentils, pulses and milk as well as dairy products such as yogurt and ghee.
Is that the secret of his long hair?
‘I think so,’ he says. ‘That and lots of milk. I drink about six glasses of milk every day, each with a pinch of turmeric and a piece of jaggery.’
Considering his achievement, and complete commitment to the cause of his hair, one wonders why he hasn’t attempted to enter his name into the Guinness World Records? ‘I really did not know there was such a book,’ he says.
Three months ago. a reporter spotted him and featured him in a local Gujarati newspaper. ‘He told me that I should consider applying to be featured in the book,’ he says.
Following the publication of the feature, scores of people from neighbouring states and even from far-flung cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai made a beeline to Savjibhai’s house to see the amazing length of his hair for themselves.
‘One of them offered to take me to the US,’ he says. ‘He said I’d become famous because of my hair. He took me to Mumbai where he put me up in a hotel for a week. But I don’t know what happened, because he said it did not work out and I returned.
‘Anyway I’m not impressed with these things. Media attention comes and goes, but nothing changes in our lives.’
Meanwhile, a local non-profit has agreed to help him with the documentation to enter the Guinness World Records for the world’s longest hair.
‘I’m still not very keen but my family and friends want me to try,’ he says. ‘So I will.’