A Look At The Contentious Human Hair Trade In India

Just over three hundred miles south of Hyderabad, the hub of all the IT giants including Microsoft and Google in India, nestled amidst the rocky hills lies the temple city of Tirupati. Not only does this obscure place on the map attract millions of Hindu pilgrims from across India and the world, it also plays the starting point of to an intriguing multi-million dollar business - trade of human hair.

Surpassing Mecca, Jerusalem or Rome in terms of pilgrim numbers, every year more than 30 million pilgrims make a visit to the temple in quest of the blessings of Venkateshwara, an incarnation of lord Vishnu - the four armed deity venerated as the supreme god. The pilgrims who come here - arrive with a desire to catch the all-potent glimpse of the god and a vow to shave off every strand of hair from their head as a gesture of humility. This sacred practice is believed to be an ancient ritual. Hair, being a symbol of individuality and attractiveness, when offered to god is considered an act of great sacrifice.

At Tirupati, it is not only the men who undergo tonsuring, even women and children participate in this fascinating mass head-shaving practice before visiting the holy shrine. Over five hundred barbers work in three shifts, round the clock shaving the heads of thousands of pilgrims in the main tonsure centre in the town. The daily amount of human hair offering weighs nearly a ton.

Over the last few decades, the temple has begun to convert the everyday nuisance presented by tonnes of sacrificed human hair into a money spinning scheme. The ancient ritual has been transformed into a business venture feeding into the multi million dollar hair trade. Every day more than fifteen thousand devotees sit in front of a barber and a straight razor in the spacious tonsure hall called Kalyankatta inside the temple. The sacrificed hair is collected and sealed in containers, stored in a collection center till the date of the auction. Not a single strand is allowed to be wasted.

Ironically, hair collected in this ancient practice is bartered through the most technologically advanced medium, via online auctions. This divine business model adds a significant share of income to the temple revenue which is believed to be more than twenty million dollars annually, making it the richest temple in India. While for the devotees the path of sacrifice leads to happiness, the commercial opportunity provided by the mass-practice of this ritual has turned into a goldmine for hair trading businesses.

Across the globe, this offering made to god is eagerly exchanged for dollars, since profit margins in the hair trade business are high, fueled by a recent fad for hair extensions in the west. Importers say that the market for Indian hair is growing exponentially yearly, most of it being bought by Europe and China. The longer the hair strand the more it's price and good quality long hair can sell upwards of Rs. 10,000 a kilo. After passing through hands of several middlemen, much of the hair finds its way to the beauty salons of western nations where "Temple Hair" has become a prized accessory. Apart from finding its use in the cosmetics industry, the hair is also used to manufacture an amino acid which is used as a preservative.

It is fascinating to know that most devotees who go through the tonsuring ritual have no idea about the money the temple is earning from selling their personal sacrifice. While the Temple trust claims that the money earned through this hair auction is employed for the welfare of pilgrims and is put back into the society, there are no systems in place to check the same. Yet the queue at Kalyankatta keeps getting longer and longer every year with more pilgrims making an offering of hair before the deity.

A sacrifice of one allows someone else, thousands of miles away, to satisfy a desire to look and feel more confident and beautiful such is the glory of globalization.