There's just no way around it -- the bald women are alarming-looking. In this small city in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, they're also everywhere: grandmothers and gawky teenagers and pretty young matrons by the hairless hundreds, walking along the road or squashed into the backs of minibuses or waiting cross-legged in the shade in front of the municipal train station. It's impossible to look directly at them, at first. Despite their gold jewelry and bright saris, their palely gleaming scalps call to mind prisoners, cancer patients, inmates of a 19th-century insane asylum.
The women -- and men, too, though the sight of men with freshly shaved heads is far less startling -- are religious pilgrims visiting Tirumala, a temple of the Vaishnava sect of Hinduism high in the red granite hills above the town of Tirupati. Since the ninth century, devout Hindus have been coming here to pay their respects to the resident deity, Lord Venkateswara, one of the forms of the god Vishnu. And for many of these pilgrims, a visit to the temple is not complete without tonsuring -- a ritual shaving off of all their hair as a gesture of devotion and gratitude to the god. These devotees believe that if they give up their hair, the god will grant them any wish. But in recent years, the practice of tonsuring -- aided by the implacable forces of globalization -- has also helped to make Tirumala into one of the richest religious pilgrimage sites in the world.
For the reason, look no further than the pages of the nearest celebrity gossip weekly. The lush, high-quality hair extensions beloved by celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Britney Spears, and Jessica Simpson have helped create a soaring Western demand for "temple hair," as it is often called. Temple hair most often comes from Tirumala, by far the largest of the South Indian temples where tonsuring is practiced. And at Tirumala, the glossy, healthy, waistlength hair from the heads of young Indian women -- women who typically have not cut their hair since early childhood, and who have never allowed anything harsher than fresh coconut oil and herbal Ayurvedic soap to touch it -- fetches the highest prices.
Brett Butcher, the national program director for the American arm of the Italy-based high-end hair-extensions maker Great Lengths, is rhapsodic as he describes the strength and beauty of temple hair. Even after it has been sorted, cleaned, processed, stripped of color, recolored one of 56 available hues, stitched into extensions, curled or straightened, and bonded to a woman's natural hair, extensions made with temple hair can last for up to six months, all the while being brushed, washed, and styled just as if they were their wearer's own strands.
"It's the highest-quality hair that's available to the mass market in the world," Butcher says. "And the best part is that it's donated by these women, to pay tribute at the temples."
In fact, it can feel a little disconcerting for a foreign visitor to see just how freely thousands of women do give up their hair at Tirumala each day. In the temple's main tonsuring room, a line of women wait, barefoot, on a white tile floor that is grimy, slippery, and strewn with matted clumps of hair. The women are wearing their festival best, saris and shalwar kameez in shades of shocking pink or turquoise or tangerine, and some of them have garlands of jasmine wound around their long braids. One by one the women sit on the floor before a line of five impassive-looking female barbers with towels spread across their laps. One by one they lower their heads forward over the tiled floor.
The barbers are brisk, businesslike. They scarcely look up as they work, periodically dunking the razors in buckets of cold water and taking care to scrape off even the fine hair on the nape of a woman's neck or below her ears. On average, the temple goes through 50,000 blades a day. One by one the women stand up, staggering slightly, perhaps dizzy as the blood rushes from their heads. Their hair -- vast quantities of it -- is being swept into giant steel bins, about eight feet high and roughly twice the diameter of a standard New York City trash can. But most of the women leave the room quickly and don't even turn around to look. If they're aware that anything happens to their hair after they leave, they don't show it.
Teams of men empty the steel bins, methodically stuffing skein after skein of hair into burlap sacks. The sacks of hair are then brought to a central collection point -- several Quonset hut-shaped warehouses behind the temple's main marketing office -- where the hair is spread out and dried. An unmistakably scalpy coconut-oil smell emanates from the wide-gauge screen windows of these vast storage sheds. Inside, the dark piles of human hair are waist-deep.
Good-quality hair -- typically from young women -- that is more than 16 inches long can sell for 12,000 rupees (around $245) per kilogram or more, says Mayoor Balsara, who heads SDTC Exports, an independent company that buys temple hair from Tirumala, does part of its processing, then sells it to Great Lengths. "Because they understand that hair has value, they take great care that it's collected and stored in a proper manner," Balsara says of Tirumala's administrators. (SDTC Exports monitors the temple's storage procedures.) And for good reason: "We call it black gold," says O. Balaji, the chief accounts officer of the Tirumala temple, proudly. After the hair is dried, it is sorted into grades, depending on its length. The price for temple hair has more than tripled over the past five years, thanks to the burgeoning hair-extension industry -- a fact that "was really a big surprise for us," Balaji says. "Really now it is fetching a good amount. The hair must be given lots of importance here because of the amount of revenue it produces. Our deity is now the richest deity in the world."
Three or four times a year, the hair collected at Tirumala is sold at auction. Approximately 500 tons of human hair is sold per year, Balsara says. Before the hair extensions craze began, about ten years ago, the hair was sold to wigmakers or to furniture companies as mattress stuffing -- but far less of it was sold, and for far less money. The hair now brings the temple 100 crore rupees (approximately $20.6 million) annually. The money, Balsara says, is all poured back into the temple and the community: providing the free meal that each needy pilgrim is eligible to receive upon a visit to the temple, for example, and supporting local hospitals and religious schools.
"My favorite thing about Great Lengths, which I just love, love, love, is that the hair is a huge source of revenue for these needy communities," Butcher says. (Great Lengths is not the only company that buys hair originating from Tirumala -- hair extensions makers and wigmakers worldwide purchase temple hair -- but it is the biggest.) "The temple funds schools and medical centers," Butcher says. "It maybe looks a little brutal when you see the hair being cut off, but the pilgrims feel that it's really an honor for them to do this."
Fair enough, but are the female pilgrims to Tirumala -- whose hair fetches the money -- aware of what their hair is worth, or of the simple fact that it's being sold in the first place?
In the warm morning sunlight outside the tonsuring room, the mood among all the so-called "tonsure pilgrims" -- the roughly 10 percent of visitors to Tirumala who donate their hair -- has lightened, now that the ritual is complete. Hindu holy Muzak plays in the background and families mill around the gift shops, gardens, and snack stalls outside the main temple. Small children are wailing -- after having their own hair cut off or perhaps confronting a bald mother for the first time -- and the passersby shoot their parents warm, understanding looks. But among the adults, there seems to be a sense of giddiness and shared relief that the tonsuring ordeal has passed.
Para Sakthi, a 40-year-old pilgrim wearing a fuchsia sari and a large gold nose ring and clutching her 6-year-old daughter, Manju, by the hand, explains that she and Manju were both tonsured that morning as a gesture of thanks for the health of their cow.
"We had a cow at home that was sick," explains Sakthi, who is from the city of Vellore, in Tamil Nadu. "Everyone was earning money from the cow -- that cow supported us all. We asked God to please heal our cow, and it worked. Now our cow is better, so we have come to Tirumala."
Asked how long her hair had been before making her pilgrimage to Tirumala for tonsuring, Sakthi grins broadly and gestures at a point on her lower thigh. "I wanted to offer it to God," she says. "I have grown my hair since childhood. If you have a problem and God helps, this is what you do."
Sakthi furrows her brow momentarily when asked if she knows that the hair from tonsurings at Tirumala is later sold to make hair extensions. When told that hair extensions can cost as much as $3,000 at salons in the United States -- more than triple the average yearly per capita income in India, just over $800 -- her smile vanishes. She rolls her eyes skyward.
"Well, I didn't know this, that our hair was sold," Sakthi says. "But it doesn't bother me as long as the money goes to God."
But the money certainly doesn't all go to the temple. After the hair is sold at temple auctions to Indian hair brokers, it typically is sold to factories in India where it is sorted by length and goes through the first stages of cleaning, fumigating, and processing. Then it is sold to wigmakers or hair-extensions makers, who process the hair further at facilities in Tunisia and Italy. From there, it is sold to distributors in dozens of countries around the world, who in turn sell the hair extensions to salons. All involved take a cut.
After their tonsuring, Sakthi and Manju join the line to get into the main temple. "Doing darshan," as viewing the statue of Lord Venkateswara in the temple's inner sanctum is called, typically follows the head-shaving ritual and can take 14 hours or more. It is a deeply emotional experience for many pilgrims. When, after a very long day in line (darshan is a strictly shoes-off affair, and there's lots of murky standing water -- with the occasional rat and submerged rock), the pilgrims come within sight of the statue, many burst into tears. So many pilgrims try to sink to their knees, or even faint, in front of the statue that temple workers sometimes physically push the crowd along.
In the train station, two sisters from Hyderabad, 25-year-old Rana and 26-year-old Mangamma, shriek with laughter and clutch each other in disbelief when told, in brief, about the economics of the hair-extensions industry, with the $3,000 figure translated into Indian rupees. Both sisters wear pretty paisley scarves tied kerchief-style over their newly bald heads; both say that their hair had reached below their waists until that morning.
Mangamma claps her hands over her mouth, then over her ears. "I didn't know this!" she exclaims, and repeats herself several times. "I didn't know!" Rana, with delicately arched brows and enormous brown eyes, recovers her composure more quickly. She asks again for an explanation of what hair extensions are and why exactly Western women like Indian hair so much. Then she nods, as if it all suddenly makes perfect sense. "It is for the god, and we are happy," Rana says firmly.
There is a moment of awkwardness as Mangamma absorbs her sister's words and nods slowly. Has her joy in the Tirumala pilgrimage been spoiled with crass talk of the international hair trade, the extensions industry, the coloring and processing and fumigating and stitching that the sisters' heartfelt sacrifice will soon undergo?
But Rana does indeed seem serenely happy: intrigued and flattered to learn that the beauty of Indian hair is known and appreciated by Hollywood celebrities, and even more proud of the gift she's just offered to her beloved deity.
Of course, thousands of young women like her aren't aware of what happens to their Tirumala sacrifice, their beautiful hair. Would it matter to them? Would they want to know? And if they don't know, and are happy, should it matter to us?
The hair-extensions industry has made it easy to get lush tresses. Answering the moral questions it raises is more complicated.