Barbers work quickly with their sharpened razor blades on the devout pilgrims sitting cross-legged on the floor as devotional music plays on the speakers.
The pilgrims are tonsured, the hair is promptly scooped up by women workers and the barbers finish the process off by smearing sandalwood paste on the freshly sheared heads.
This scene plays out countless times daily at the ancient Venkateshwara Temple in Tirupati, in the southeastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Over the years, tens of millions of devotees have taken part, donating their locks in a centuries-old act of veneration and faith.
Before going to the temple, which is run by Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam (TTD), an independent trust, the pilgrims have prayed to the temple’s presiding deity, Lord Venkateshwara – sometimes for a child, at other times for the health of a sick relative, or perhaps for a new house or car.
When their prayers are answered, they march off to the temple to offer their tresses – a sign of giving away one’s ego.
Up to 90,000 devotees have been known to visit the temple in a single day, with an average of 35 per cent to 50 per cent offering their hair – most of them women, who have more highly prized locks. Each year, according to TTD, about 12 million heads are shaved.
Devotees do not receive money for their offerings, but they are rewarded with free food.
Pramila Kumar, a 58-year-old from Andhra Pradesh, had come to offer thanks for a grandchild born after 10 years of marriage.
Her daughter had undergone fertility treatments and finally conceived, delivering a baby boy. She said that the minute she had offered her waist-length locks, she felt lighter and full of gratitude for her prayers answered.
Yet what few people know is that the sheared tresses fuel a global wig and hair extension market that is expected to reach more than U$10 billion (S$15 billion) in revenues by 2023.
The cut hair from Venkateshwara Temple is kept in a special warehouse, where it is sorted and then sold every few months in an online auction.
The business earns the temple about US$17 million a year in revenues, although the figure varies, according to TTD. In 2013, it earned a high of US$27 million.
The money is ploughed back by the temple authorities into running schools, colleges, hospitals and orphanages in Andhra Pradesh, as well as for giving free meals to temple pilgrims.
India has long been one of the world’s biggest exporters of human hair, with many of the high-end hair extensions found in beauty salons and shops around the world coming from its temples. The country accounted for 32.5 per cent of total global hair exports in 2019.
Most of the hair is sent to China and Hong Kong, where it is turned into the finished product, usually a wig. China’s wig export account for more than 70 per cent of the global supply, while the US, Europe and Africa are the major consumers of the finished products.
“Human hair that is traded is of two kinds,” Kishore Gupta of Gupta Enterprises, a Chennai-based hair export company, explained to This Week in Asia . “Remy hair is the prized, long hair that … is harvested in a single cut, and commands a premium price.”
The hair that comes from the temples is of the Remy variety – high-quality hair that comes with the cuticles intact.
“What’s interesting is that the bulk of hair sold in India isn’t tonsured, but non-Remy hair that comes from barber shops and the combs of long-haired women, collected as household waste from villages and households,” he said.
“The price of hair from Tirupati can be as high as 33,000 rupees S$600) per kilo for a 25-inch hair length.
”We buy Remy hair from temple auctions and non-Remy hair from dealers across India, as well as semi-processed hair, and then redraw the hair to our clients’ specifications according to size, quality and colour,” Gupta said.
But it takes a lot of work to turn human hair into a luxury product. It is a labour-intensive process, which starts with cleaning, untangling, sorting it according to length, and then processing the hair and crafting it into the final product.
“Untangling … tangled comb waste hair is a process that requires a lot of patience, and one woman can do only about 400 grams a day,” Gupta said, with about 250 grams of hair used to make a single wig.
One of the biggest companies in India’s hair industry is Chennai-based Raj Hair International.
“We source 50 per cent of our hair from temple auctions and 50 per cent from hair traders. In our state-of-the-art factory it is sorted and graded according to length, colour and texture.
”It is then washed, graded, and developed into finished products from wigs to wefts,” said George B. Cherian, the managing director of the company. A hair “weft” is a collection of hair strands that have been woven onto a fine strip of cloth.
Raj Hair exports to more than 56 countries across the world and to celebrity stylists who cater to the Hollywood market, with clients like Queen Latifah and Shakira.
A large share of Indian hair is bought by Great Lengths International, an Italian firm that services the luxury hair segment, and markets its products as “ethical hair” – in other words, hair procured voluntarily from women (and sometimes men).
“Great Lengths selects the very best human hair from different Indian Hindu Temples. The hair has been donated willingly to the temple as an act of devotion,” the company touts on its website. “The key advantage to the community is that the revenue generated by the sale of Temple Hair is used for social benefit.”
Great Lengths supplies hair extensions, to more than 60 different countries and over 40,000 salons.
Pavitra Kumar, who owns a beauty parlour in New Delhi, which she preferred not to name, said that synthetic hair, though popular, has its limitations – it cannot be heat-styled, curled or straightened.
To create permanent hair extensions, salons like hers rely on human hair.
“It’s indeed a fascinating journey – how hair obtained from an act of devotion … enters the realm of glamour and fashion,” she said, referring to the hair sourced from Venkateshwara Temple.
Gupta, the hair exporter, agreed.
“It‘s strange that something which is the pride of women has much more value when it’s sheared,” he said. “Hair is money when it’s collected, not thrown away. It’s a story of faith fuelling an age-old desire to look beautiful.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.