We Indians believe in tonsuring for various reasons – a ritual shaving of the head during early childhood, the shaving of the head upon the demise of one's father, the shaving of one's head in the (mistaken) belief that this will make the hair grow back thicker and of course the shaving one's head for religious reasons. Men and women of many religions do this: Jain monks pluck the hair off the heads to keep the scalp bare and devoid of lice, Muslims often shave their heads before entering Mecca as a rejection of vanity. People ritually shave their heads in their thousands at many Indian temples, particular in the south, as a show of gratitude and respect and sacrifice. What happens to that hair?
The ritual shaving of the heads of pilgrims visiting Tirupati is so popular that Tirupati has become the world's largest collector of human hair. With about one lakh visiting pilgrims per day, this is also the most visited holy place in the world.
There is an estimated three million dollar revenue generated per year from the hair that is collected and sold at Tirupati alone. The money is then used for charitable purposes, schools and temple maintenance. The barbers get about 15 rupees per shave, which takes just a few minutes.
In the Tirumala temple, there are 600 barbers that attend to about twenty thousand tonsures each day. About 500 tonnes of hair is collected each year!
Most Indians don’t use hair colour and other chemical products for their hair and Indian hair is therefore prized for its natural and silky texture. The demand for this hair is very high.
This image of a little girl at the Thiruthani Murugan Temple was taken prior to her head being shaven; clearly against her will in this case.
Here the mother, daughter and grandmother have had their heads shaved together during their temple visit.
Hundreds of hair processing factories have sprung up in Chennai and surrounding areas because of the high volume of hair that generated by these temples.
The hair is disentangled, graded, cleaned, dried and coloured. Scenes such as these may be seen at the many hair processing units.
There is a huge demand for natural human hair extensions in the west and Indian hair is highly prized because of its similarity to European hair texture. Curly hair is more popular in African markets whereas straight hair has more demand in Europe. Apparently the Americans like everything!
The journey from a temple to a Hollywood celebrity or fashionista’s hair extensions may be an unlikely one; but it’s a true story!
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