Religious offering: Faith, hope - and Western vanity

The practice of Hindu pilgrims shaving their heads has created a £3.7m business for a southern Indian temple that sells tons of hair to Westerners. Jerome Taylor reports from Tirumala

Saturday 16 December 2006 01:00

Dressed in her best yellow sari Mahibha Basu laughs nervously and threads her long, dark hair through her fingers as she sits on a stool awaiting her turn to see the barber. All around her, nimble-fingered professionals with razor-sharp blades are cutting hair with the kind of speed and precision that is only honed by years of practice. Ms Basu is not waiting for just another haircut. She is in one of Hinduism's holiest temples and is taking part in a pilgrimage of enormous religious significance.

Three minutes later she emerges into the crisp morning sunlight and makes her way to the main temple complex. With a bright red tikka mark adorning her forehead and coconut offerings in her hand, Ms Basu looks like any other Hindu pilgrim but with one startling difference. Her head has been completely shaved.

Her hair, meanwhile, has been carefully tied together and placed in a giant steel tub for storage. Within a matter of months Ms Basu's black tresses could be half a world away, adorning the head of any of the A-list celebrities in the West, from Paris Hilton to Victoria Beckham to Donatella Versace, who have embraced the fashion for hair extensions.

Ms Basu is just one of thousands of devotees who travel to Tirumala temple in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, one of Hinduism's most sacred religious sites and a place all Hindus are expected to visit at least once in their lifetime. Forty thousand pilgrims arrive every day to worship at the feet of Lord Venkateswara, a powerful avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu who, devotees believe, has the ability to grant the wish of any pilgrim who has made the journey to his temple. During major religious festivals the authorities prepare for up to 120,000 pilgrims to make the journey up the forest-clad mountain where the centuries-old Dravidian temple stands. So many people come to Tirumala, in fact, that many Indians claim the temple is the world's most popular pilgrimage site, even outstripping the Vatican and Mecca in the sheer numbers arriving on a daily basis.

Tirumala's draw is largely down to the awesome power of Lord Venkateswara. But what makes this particular temple stand out is the incredible number of people who have their heads shaved as part of the worshipping ritual in a tradition known as "tonsuring". Practised by Hindus for thousands of years, it symbolises the devotee's desire to overcome their ego, a fundamental teaching of the Hindu faith. But nowhere is tonsuring more enthusiastically practised than at Tirumala.

Ms Basu has travelled 1,500 miles from her native Bengal to ask the presiding deity to grant her most fervent wish. Four years ago she fell pregnant but miscarried shortly afterwards. "Now I am trying to get pregnant again," she says. "I have come here to ask the god to grant me and my husband a child."

In one of the many buildings surrounding the main complex, pilgrims queue in long snaking lines as they wait to see one of the temple's 600 barbers. Working in shifts around the clock and using nothing but a sharp razor, water and immense skill they can cut off a pilgrim's hair in a matter of minutes.

The effect is astonishing. All around the temple thousands of bald devotees stand in groups, their laughter echoing off the walls as they joke and point at each other's new, unfamiliar look. Bald-headed children run between the multitude of hat wallahs that line the surrounding streets selling a vast array of baseball caps to protect heads from the baking sun.

For the authorities who run Tirumala, the enormous volume of hair produced each day has spawned a lucrative business courtesy of the Western world's newly discovered desire for human hair extensions - a fashion that has become hugely popular over the past couple of years thanks to the endorsement of celebrities. The temple has been able to cash in on an incredible growth in demand. Thomas Gold, whose Italian-based company Great Lengths International buys hair only from Tirumala, says the price of hair from the temple is now 10 times what it was five years ago.

"It's really amazing how the price has just shot up every year," he says from his company headquarters in Rome. "The Indians started understanding that this was a booming business and that we would still purchase at whatever price."

The industry has also benefited from a shift in the public's perception of hair extensions. "Up until five or six years ago," says Mr Gold, "it was unthinkable for a woman to say 'Look I'm wearing hair extensions'. Now women will positively show them off to their friends. The taboo has been abolished."

The global hair industry is now worth an estimated £160m and is growing by 25 to 30 per cent each year. Indian hair is particularly sought after because it is cheaper than European varieties and will not have been chemically treated or dyed. Moreover Chinese hair, which globally still makes up the majority of hair exports, is considered too coarse to make good hair extensions.

Over the course of a year, the temple auctions 90 tons of hair, providing revenue of around £3.7m which is then ploughed back into charitable causes, including a number of specialist hospitals. "The money from hair is significant but it isn't our main source of income," says the temple's executive officer, APVN Sarma. "Our primary source is donations but the income from hair is still very important."

The temple has an annual budget of £90m, making it one of the richest religious institutions in India and also one of the country's largest charities. Part of the reason why Tirumala is so popular with devotees and donors is the temple's long tradition of welcoming all visitors regardless of caste and religion. It is one of the few major Hindu temples that allows non-Hindus to enter the inner sanctum that holds the deity.

"There is no shrine in India where so many subdivisions of Hinduism recognise this as a holy place," says Mr Sarma. "We even have a number of Muslim and Christian devotees. It has always been a temple where other religions are recognised." But for the temple authorities, hair wholesalers and the thousands of low-income Indians employed in the country's hair trade, the popularity of hair extensions could not have come at a more opportune time. Two years ago the Indian hair market was on the verge of collapse thanks to a surprise religious ruling from an orthodox rabbi.

Until then Tirumala's main clients were not the exclusive hair salons of Mayfair and Rodeo Drive but the Jewish wig makers of Brooklyn who provide many orthodox women with sheitels to cover their hair. The business, much of which is run from New York, is a lucrative one with some of the costlier wigs selling for anything up to $4,000.

Indian hair was popular with sheitel makers for the same reasons it is now popular for hair extensions; it was cheaper than European hair but equally thick and glossy. But after travelling to Tirumala in 2004 a London-based Rabbi, Dayan Aharon Dovid Dunner, issued a decree arguing that sheitels made from Indian hair were not kosher because the hair came from an idolatrous ritual. Although Judaism follows no central religious authority and even though a majority of rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Dunner's ruling, the orthodox community obeyed the decree almost unanimously. From Brooklyn to Tel Aviv giant bonfires were erected as women burnt their Indian sheitels. "It was chaos," says one manufacturer who asked not to be named. "Overnight sales of Indian hair dried up as everyone frantically bought up European wigs. No one uses Indian hair now."

Hair wholesalers in India saw their market disappear over-night. Yet salvation came in the most unlikely form: the hair extension-loving celebrity, and soon the industry was booming again.

As the hair extension industry grows so do the question marks over where and how the hair in our salons came to be there. Stories have emerged of impoverished European women desperately selling hair that took them years to grow. Even worse, human rights groups have made accusations that much of China's hair comes from labour camps. But for those clients worried about the moral repercussions of buying human hair for their extensions, Indian temple hair has the added bonus of being one of the most ethical sources not only because the money goes to charity but also because the hair is given up wholly voluntarily.

It is a fact that has not gone unnoticed by those wishing to market temple hair to its full capacity. "There is nothing to hide about this beautiful business. It's a win-win situation for everyone," says Mr Gold, who feels more clients are starting to insist on ethically-sourced hair.

It is a wonderful irony that hair discarded by pilgrims in order to prove they can overcome their ego is then shipped and sold to Westerners looking to improve their physical appearance and self-confidence. The bizarre role reversal the hair goes through is not lost on the temple authorities. "People in this part of the world tonsure their hair to lose their pride," says Ramapulla Reddy, one of the temple's senior administrators. "On the other side of the world they do the opposite."

Even though the vast majority of devotees at Tirumala have little idea what lies in store for their hair, they seem unconcerned by the idea. "I don't care where the hair goes afterwards," laughs D Vasudevarao, a pilgrim who has been coming to Tirumala for 20 years. "What is most important to me is that I have left my ego outside the temple. What happens to the hair afterwards is immaterial."

For Ms Basu the idea that her hair might one day adorn someone else's head is a delightful surprise. "I think it's wonderful that my hair might be used in the West to make someone happy," she says. "Why not? I have no need for it."

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