The Business of Temple Hair Offerings
(continued from brief story....)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.