by Erin Biel:

Nestled in South India’s Seshachalam Hills lies the famous pilgrimage town of Tirumala. Here the Sri Venkateswara Temple is open for worship and acts of devotion — which, at this particular shrine, usually means a haircut. According to ancient lore, Vishnu — an avatar of God and the Preserver of the World — once took out a loan in order to pay for his wedding celebration. Now Vishnu requires assistance in paying off his debt. The devout poor are happy to help, trekking hundreds of miles in order to offer up perhaps the only gift that they can: their hair. Piling into the temple, devotees sit cross-legged, heads bent forward. Scissors and razors flash as 600 barbers deftly shave over 20,000 heads a day, making this “the world’s largest barbershop,” according to Britta Sandberg of der Spiegel. In a rapidly commercializing India, a new industry has grown out of these rising piles of hair. Collecting over 500 tons of human hair each year, the Tirumala temple has now found a way to cash in on India’s luscious locks.

While China supplies the most real hair to the extension market, Indian hair is considered more valuable, as Julia Angwin reported in The Wall Street Journal. The hair is naturally silkier and has never been treated with artificial dyes. Originally, Indian hair was used to fill bed mattresses and make oil filters; now the increasingly high international demand for real hair extensions has placed the Tirumala temple and others at the center of a lucrative market.

Each day, over 50,000 Hindu pilgrims trek to the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Tirumala in order to show their devotion to Sri Venkateswara, an avatar of Lord Vishnu. Half of these visitors end up donating their hair to the temple. (Courtesy Dieter Telemans and Thomas Gold)

First Stop

SDTC Exports is India’s largest exporter of human hair, maintaining five factories throughout South India with over 1,000 employees. SDTC’s chief executive, Mayoor Balsara, has seen the company grow from the ground up. When the company opened nearly 15 years ago, Balsara “got in the car, drove around the whole of Southern India and went from temple to temple, trying to understand what this business was that I wanted to initiate,” he said. “I would stop women on the street who had shaved heads and asked them where they donated their locks.” Balsara now obtains his hair from nearly 20 different temples. Hair is sold per kilogram, and the price varies depending on length, density, volume, and quality. Hair over 18 inches long is the priciest pick, at roughly $300-$450 per kilogram.

At the SDTC factories the hair undergoes a meticulous refinement process. As Balsara noted, “One small mistake and the quality of the hair is seriously compromised. This process requires extraordinary skill, and a rigorous training program of around six months is required for employees to be considered for this operation.” Upon arrival, the hair is scrutinized and grouped according to various grades and colors. Then it is washed, treated, and dried with natural sunlight. Balsara’s factories contain no machinery; instead, women sit bare-footed on the ground and monotonously brush strands of hair through hackles, comb-like mechanisms that remove impurities. Then the hair is collected into strands of 200 hairs, bundled and ready for a trip around the world.

The True Gold-i-locks

SDTC sells all of its top quality hair to Great Lengths International, the world’s “premier” real hair extension corporation, based out of Italy. In 1991, thermoplastic-applications expert David Gold invented the landmark Heat Frequency System, which uses a keratin polymer to attach real hair extensions to pre-existing hair. Great Lengths has grown exponentially within the past two decades. It exports hair extensions to 60 different countries and over 40,000 salons. As David Gold said in an interview with ABC’s Tracy Bowden, “Hair, as a commodity, should be quoted and is up there with gold and silver and platinum.” Needless to say, he has had no problem finding interested — and very devoted — customers. The international glitterati jostle for his extensions, which come in over 50 different carefully dyed colors. He counts Jennifer Lopez, Tyra Banks, Paris Hilton, and Beyoncé among his biggest “devotees.” Ironically, even Bollywood stars buy from Gold, giving these extensions a true world tour.

Gold began eying “Indian Temple Hair” after hearing about its divine qualities from a wig-making acquaintance. At the time, Gold’s son Thomas was attending school in London. His best friend was an Indian boy named Mayoor Balsara. At Thomas’s university graduation party, Gold took Balsara aside and made a business proposition: Gold would fund the rest of Balsara’s education if he promised to go into the hair extension business and serve as Great Length’s on-theground supplier of Indian Temple Hair. Balsara agreed immediately to what he referred to as “a life-changing decision.”

As global demand for Indian Temple Hair has increased, prices across the supply chain have increased as well. Balsara noted, “Good hair is finite in supply, yet demand is seemingly infinite. Hence we are able to sell our hair sometimes for even $800 per kilo.” The increase in price has certainly not deterred Great Lengths, as it now purchases between four and a half and five kilograms of hair each month. “They have such a voracious demand for the best quality, they always need more!” exclaimed Balsara. With an annual growth rate as high as 150 percent, Great Lengths now churns out $80 million worth of hair extensions per year.

A Questionable Arrangement

The disconnect between the high-fashion buyers and impoverished suppliers of this commodity is striking. Poor Hindu worshippers are unaware that their hair is being used to create hair extensions 7,000 miles away. Most don’t even know what hair extensions are. Nevertheless, Indian temples bring in a total of over $106 million yearly from hair sales. While turning such a profit from pilgrims’ donations may seem incongruous, “the money collected is entirely re-invested in the upkeeping of the temple and for charitable purposes,” a director at the Tirumala Temple affirmed. “For example, we financed children’s education by building schools, we distributed approximately 30,000 free meals everyday for the poor and needy, and we have built hospitals to cure those who, otherwise, could never afford such expensive treatments.” To combat corruption, the temple has even established an oversight committee to ensure that funds from hair auctions make their way to the local communities. Even when devotees are notified of their hair’s final destination, they seem unfazed. As one Hindu man told ABC’s Bowden, “For us, hair is not important — for us, God is important.”

In fact, both Balsara and the Golds maintain strong ties to their temple suppliers and greatly respect the tradition of Hindu hair sacrifice. Balsara noted, “It is a symbolic gesture to God, a sacrifice. For many women in India, their hair is indeed something they take great pride in. To donate their hair to God is a greater sacrifice than donating money. Whether the hair is sold, burned, or buried — this will not stop this age-old Hindu tradition.” Thomas Gold justified the sale of hair as “a win-win situation.” He added, “Even the women interviewed with bald heads say, ‘we hope that they make good use of the money.’”

An illicit hair trade outside of the temples has developed alongside the legal hair export business. “rag pickers” — impoverished individuals trying to scrounge a bit of money to survive — go weekly to villages, encouraging women to collect any hair that falls out when brushing. In return the women are paid with little barrettes and hair clips. It takes about a month for these men to collect a kilo of hair, which earns them about $12, according to Bowden. But sometimes the needy take darker measures. Husbands desperate for money have been known to force their wives to shave their heads, a $10 windfall. Even children get exploited by their parents in this fashion. As E.V.K.S. Elangonvan, minister of state for textiles and commerce in Tamil Nadu, admitted to the U.K. weekly The Observer, the Indian temple hair trade is “obviously an environment that breeds illegality.” Nevertheless, large companies such as Great Lengths deny using illegal means, noting that it would be too difficult to acquire the large amounts of hair that they need.

In a country that is 85 percent Hindu, hair supplies are unlikely to run low any time soon. The devotees will keep coming, the locks falling, and the real hair extension trade growing. With the help of millions of pilgrims, Great Lengths is well on its way to making hair extensions a luxury commodity for the masses.

Erin Biel ’13 is a Religious Studies major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at erin.biel@yale.edu.