“Nice Moustache Maharaja!” shouted another grinning local to my fellow traveller Campbell, as he and I walked through the dusty streets of Jaisalmer, in India’s North-Western state of Rajasthan. We were two scruffy backpackers making our way through postcard India, in search and in appreciation of India’s castles and fortresses, bright turbans and saris, markets, camels, thalis and chai tea. It wasn’t the first compliment he’d received towards his full beard and large, curly moustache. He’d been growing it since leaving home months prior – while I, relatively clean shaven, had to endure entire days empty of reassuring compliments… scientific curiosity had now replaced my jealousy. During our short time travelling together, Campbell was receiving 10 ‘nice moustache’ comments per day (but seriously, who was counting?), and it was now obvious: India is one of the most welcoming places on earth for a man with a half-decent moustache. We were to soon find out that the curled-at-the-ends style, commonly known as the handlebar moustache – is the exclusive style of the ancient rulers of India – the Maharaja’s.
In conversations since, when asked for advice on travelling to India, “grow a moustache” is what I tell people. Respect towards upper lip hair is more than a recent tradition in India. Reflected in paintings and art for centuries as the style of their heroes, warriors, leaders and poets – the moustache in India gained such tremendous respect, it was formally regarded as the style of the ruling class. It visually distinguished a member of the upper castes, such as Brahmins or Kshatriyas, who were the warriors and leaders of India, of whom Campbell was now recognizably regarded.
At the other end of the caste system however, were the ‘untouchables’. Banned from growing the prestigious moustache, these workers and servants could be clean shaven or sport full beards, but never a magnificent ‘mo! India to this day struggles to throw off the restraints of this ancient caste system, but it can be light-heartedly observed through their continued obsession of the mighty, moustachioed male.
The second largest state in India, Madhya Pradesh, nicknamed ‘the heart of India’, due to its central location, actually offer cash incentives (known as the ‘mustache allowance’) to their police force if they sport a moustache (Reference)! Taking this to heart, one meritorious super-intendant has formed an elite group of 50 moustachioed police officers to patrol a particularly rough region, using “mustache warfare” to make a difference, and I quote: “…they could be put on motorcycles to patrol sensitive pockets in the district. This…would serve as a sort of psychological tactic against criminals” (Reference). The most famous dacoit, or ‘bandit’ of modern India was Veerappan, known for having the most famous moustache in India in recent history, at least until he was shot dead by police (Reference). Rumour has it (although I couldn’t back this up with facts) is that across India, a “splendid moustache” is mandatory for any respectable hotel doorman job – if you’ve been to a hotel in India you’ll know this is true!
The moustache is arguably losing its appeal in recent years. India’s leading Bollywood stars and Cricket heroes are increasingly shunning the moustache in favour of clean shaven, ‘better-for-kissing-scene’ faces, however 8 out of 10 men in India’s South still sport moustaches, and the Tamil film industry is almost entirely made up of moustachioed actors, like Joseph Vijay and Ajith Kumar. The virility, wisdom, and power associated with Indian moustaches goes back centuries, with fables like the of the Rajput warriors who refused to submit to the orders of the invading Mughal armies orders to shave their large moustaches (Reference). Even the colonial British, who began as a clean-shaven nation when they first landed on the sub-continent, saw a fondness for the masculine facial hair of their new Indian colonial subjects develop over time. This went on to literally dominate their entire armed forces of the British Empire from before Napoleonic times up until 1910, where it was forbidden for anyone in the entire British army to shave their upper lip (Reference)! The habit was only broken (sadly) during WWI, when the uncomfortable realities of gas-masks favoured a clean shaven face. A generation later, during the passive resistance movement of the legendary Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi himself advocated moustaches as a symbol to opposing British rule (Reference), and sported one himself (was mostly to do with reducing India’s reliance on British Imports at the time, like razors).
Moustache fever has existed long enough in India that they claim to host the most competitive moustache competition on Earth. This occurs each November, during the famous Pushkar Camel Festival, near Jaipur. Here, hundreds of men face off over face-fur, made up of mostly local contenders. If you can win a moustache competition in India, you’re probably the world champ, so it’s no coincidence that the reigning champion is also recognized as having the World’s Longest ‘Mo (Guinness Book of Records). Ram Singh Chauhan is a legend, whose upper lip hairs extend no less than 14ft from his face. His moustache has literally paid the bills over the years, as his fame has led to a modelling and acting career spanning decades… look for him in the classic James Bond film Octopussy (Reference)! In fact, much of the movie was filmed in the Lake Palace in Udaipur. For any competitive folks out there, the reward is 1500 rupees, approximately $25 USD (Reference), so neither the prize money nor your pride will cover the cost of the flight to and from. Still, if that doesn’t deter you, this is your competition:
If you’re planning a trip to India, and can grow a moustache… grow a moustache! The west has a hot-cold attitude towards upper lip hair, but you’ll find an everlasting love and respect for a fine moustache in India. It may look odd, even creepy at home – but here you could be a maharaja!
More details on the Pushkar Camel Festival and Moustache Competition, where you can witness their Moustache Competition.
Photographic proof of India’s thriving Moustache Culture: