NEW DELHI, India (WOMENSENEWS)--When Nafisa Ali, a Bollywood actor and Miss India 1976, shaved her hair, she wasn't trying to make a style statement.
She offered her waist-length locks at the 1,200-year-old Sri Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati, a town in Chittor district of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, to thank its deity for granting her a private wish she had made on behalf of her family that had given her life new meaning. The tradition of offering hair is a symbol of religious devotion and surrender of the ego.
"Twelve years ago, when I was 37 years old, I had taken a vow that if my wish was granted, I would give my hair at Tirupati," Ali told Women's eNews.
Little did she know that this mark of respect to the Hindu gods would be collected in gunny bags by temple workers and stored in special containers for auction to hair exporters.
It's not possible to say exactly where the actor's hair went, but a great deal of women's hair collected at temples winds up as hair extensions for Hollywood film actors who pay as much as $3,000 for the final product.
Although both men and women offer their hair at temples, most of the hair that is exported for the lucrative salon business comes from women. Women's hair is usually long, dark and silky, and is most prized by merchants and wig-makers.
Exporters say hair from men is usually used for coat linings and to extract L-Cystein, a protein used as raw material for a range of products including baby food and doughnuts.
Five Categories of Hair
Wholesalers sort hair into five categories. The kind that is black and longer than 6 inches is the most sought after. This "remy" or "black gold" category sells for as much as $160 per kilogram.
The second category of black hair, between 8 and 16 inches long, sells for around $44 a kilogram. The third category of black hair, shorter than 8 inches, sells for under a dollar a kilogram. The fourth and fifth categories are gray hair shorter than 8 inches, which sell for about 10 cents a kilogram.
Once exporters have bought hair they re-sort it into straight, wavy, silky and curly hair. The hair is then shampooed, dried in the sun and combed.
Every year hair worth about $136 million is shipped from India, one of the largest exporters of human hair, to factories in China. There, Chinese hair is mixed with Indian hair to make wigs and hair extensions for Western markets.
While China is the biggest market for Indian hair, Jaswanth Soundarapandian, regional director of the government's council on hair export, says other countries are also important. He told Women's eNews that hair worth $82 million was exported to the United States during the 2004-05 fiscal year, 30 percent more than the previous year. He said that for the three-quarter period between April 2005 and December 2005 exports fetched $54 million.
"There has been a steady rise in demand from China," he says. "However, while it remains our biggest buyer, the burgeoning hair fashion trends in countries like the United States of America and European countries have helped to expand trade."
Hollywood a Major Consumer
Exporters say buyers from countries such as the United States pay $1.50 for a strand of hair that expensive beauty salons may then weave into extensions or wigs that can sell for between $1,500 and $3,000. Exporters say that Hollywood is one of the biggest consumers of human hair.
"Hair that is thrown away is waste but hair that is collected is money," says Kishore Gupta, one of the largest exporters of human hair. Gupta says his Chennai-based Gupta Enterprises boasts an annual turnover of over $20 million and that he expects this figure to grow in coming years.
Hindu temples, where devotees such as Nafisa Ali tonsure their hair, are the largest hair suppliers. The top grosser is the famous temple in Tirupati.
Every year, over 9 million devotees stand in serpentine queues to pay obeisance to its deity and have their heads shorn to fulfill a vow or pledge. After the hair is collected, the temple stores it in 14 steel containers, with male and female hair kept separate. Once the warehouse is stocked, auction notices are advertised in four languages, all south Indian, in three popular newspapers and on the temple's official Web site.
In the most recent financial year the temple sold over 3 million kilos of hair for about $1 million.
Hair Offerings Rising With Population
Temple administrators say that the volume of hair has been increasing every year since the 1980s as the number of devotees has risen in tandem with the overall population of the country.
The temple, which employed only a few barbers in the 1960s and 1970s now employs 600 barbers who work around the clock. Demand for their services is so intense that the temple has begun allowing women into the formerly all-male ranks.
In May 2005, 100 female barbers joined the "kalyanakatta," the temple enclosure where tonsuring is performed. The female barbers cater to female devotees, who number about 4,500 out of the 20,000 who tonsure their hair every day.
While the female barbers earn about $68 a month, their female clients are paid nothing. Male and female devotees offer their hair as part of religious practice.
Exporters also buy hair from salons and rag-pickers. In the village of Bhagyanagar, Karnataka, about 2,000 families depend on the hair they collect from garbage dumps.
Gupta, the hair exporter, said that he distributes plastic bags to women in the local village near his factory in Eluru, Andhra Pradesh, to keep outside their huts. Every time they comb their hair, those that fall are collected in the bag. After a week, a broker will collect these bags and pay the women a small sum.
Swapna Majumdar is a journalist based in New Delhi writing on politics, gender and development issues.
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