A Short History of Dreadlocks: The Backpacker’s Favourite Hairstyle

Two Backpackers Getting Dreadlocks on Khao San Road

Dreadlocks – Back to your roots!

A quick stroll down Khao San Road in Bangkok and you’ll see backpackers of all sorts, (not just your hard core hippie types), having their hair patiently weaved and twisted into the tangled, matted tresses, known as ‘dreadlocks.’ However, rather than just ‘another backpacking trend,’ like your Chang vests and fisherman pants, the origin of ‘dreadlocks’ can, in fact, be traced back thousands of years with their ‘roots’ in ancient religions and cultures from all over the world…

Railay Beach & Reggae Music

In Southeast Asia, dreadlocked dudes can mostly be spotted in chilled out beach areas, South Thailand’s islands being prime locations. Basically, anywhere there’s a reggae bar and a Bob Marley CD playing (on repeat)! It’s true that Bob’s got a lot to answer for when it comes to spreading the trend and making dreads famous around the world. When reggae music became popular in the 1970s many musicians, artists and authors adopted the hairstyle as a fashion statement, an expression of individuality or personal spirituality.

A dreadlocked Job2Do spotted on the boat from Railey to Koh Lanta.
A dreadlocked Job2Do spotted on the boat from Railey to Koh Lanta.

Rastafarians

Originally, in Jamaica, the Rastafarians grew their hair into dreadlocks as an important part of their religion; in honour of the Nazarite Vow, present in the bible. “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard.”

A dreadlocked Samson is believed to have fought and killed the lion, which corresponds with the Rasta belief today that their strength is in their hair. And, just like Samson who became weak when his head was shaved, many Rastafarians greatly fear their hair being cut.

Threats to arrest and cut hair were made in the past against Rastafarians by colonial rulers which forced them to flee to isolated areas of Jamaica.

Some say that the name ‘dreadlocks’ actually derives from post-emancipated Jamaica when ‘ex-slaves’ who wore the hairstyle as an expression of rebellion were called ‘dreadful’ by the European influenced society. Another theory suggests the word ‘dreadlocks’ comes from religious belief. The person wearing them being someone who ‘feared’ or ‘dreaded’ the Lord.

Dreadlocked Mummies in Ancient Egypt

Representations of dreadlocks can be traced back much further than Bob and much further than the Rastafarians. In fact, the earliest examples of dreadlocks date back to North Africa, with depictions found in the artwork of Ancient Egyptians wearing ‘locked hairstyles’. Dreadlocked mummies have even been recovered!

There are also references to dreadlocks in the narratives of the Ancient Greeks, the Aztecs, the Nazarites of Judaism, the Dervish of Islam and early Christians. Throughout history, the hairstyle has very often been associated with religion and spirituality.

Holy Hair and Hymns to the Long Haired Sage

There are strong references to the hairstyle present in the Hindu religion, where Shiva and his followers were described as wearing ‘jaTaa’ or ‘twisted locks of hair.’ Sadhus and Savhis, Indian holy men and women preserve their sacred locks to represent their disregard for pointless and profane vanity and their disbelief in asceticism.

According to the sacred Hindu scriptures, the Vedas; and the ‘hymn of the long-haired sage’ dreadlocks symbolise that the wearer has a special link to the spirit world and is even a master of fire. The hairstyle has become a part of many sacred rituals, with holy men wearing their ‘jata’ (long hair) in a twisted knot on top of their head, only to let them down for special occasions when the strands are rubbed with ashes and cow dung, then scented and adorned with flowers. In Hindu cultures in Malaysia, Indonesia and all across Asia adhere to similar rituals.

Dreadlocked Sadhus in Nepal
Dreadlocked Sadhus in Nepal.

Hippies and New Age Travellers

In modern times, dreadlocks have been adopted by certain sub-cultures, whose reasons for wearing them can range from political, cultural and spiritual reasons. The hairstyle has often been associated with those seeking a natural, organic approach to life, new age travellers or hippies for example, which may be the link to why some backpackers wear them today.

Some say they are a symbol of freedom, independence, rebellion to regular ways of life (try getting an office job with them), of a closeness to nature and to the earth man. Contrary to what some people believe, dreadlocks are not grown from unwashed hair and they don’t smell. (Although there are bound to be exceptions to the rule.) Many dreaded folks take great care to maintain their locks and don’t avoid shampoo, just detangling conditioners. The only way to really get rid of dreadlocks is to cut them off!

Do you like dreadlocks? Would you ever get them?

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    Nikki Scott is the founder & editor of South East Asia Backpacker. A traveller-turned-entrepreneur, she left the UK in 2009 and after 6 months on the road, she started a bi-monthly print magazine about backpacking in Asia. South America Backpacker soon followed and today she runs her backpacking enterprise from her base in Spain. Her honest and fascinating book, Backpacker Business, tells the story of her success in the face of adversity.