The total number of pilgrims who flock to St. Peter’s Square and Mecca every year do not equal the number of Hindus who go to Tirupati. A city in Andhra Pradesh, in south-eastern India, Tirupati is home to one of the most ancient and sacred religious regions for Hindus. There are twelve temples, among which is one dedicated to Sri Venkateswara, one of the avatars of the powerful god Vishnu. In this incarnation, Vishnu is prayed to as the Lord who forgives sins, able to erase the material desires of one’s life. In this way, one is able to get closer to the end of the reincarnation cycle. Every day, tens of thousands of believers shave their hair off as a sign of penance and to ask for the favour of Venkateswara. Everyone shaves their hair; including men with short hair and women, sometimes with long, well-kept hair. The hair symbolizes their past life, with all the associated sorrows and sins, and cutting it signifies the desire to start a new life.
You can easily imagine the amount of hair that accumulates month after month, after millions of shaved heads. What do they do with it all? Well, the management of the temple has chosen a course that to many may seem prosaic: auction it. This is why Tirupati is a major supply centre for those who produce hair extensions in the West, such as Great Lengths, the company of Anglo-Italian David Gold, a leader in the industry, based in Nepi. The journey of the hair begins with its auction in India, then it is washed, bleached, re-coloured, styled, cut to the right length and distributed to hairdressers around the world who offer them to customers that sometimes pay several thousand dollars for it. With the money generated, the management of the temple of Sri Venkateswara can finance hospitals or schools for the disabled, i.e. it is used for charity. For those who wonder whether the pilgrims agree with the trade of their donated hair, we met a woman who claims to actually pity those who buy and wear the extension made with her hair. In fact, the pains and misfortunes of the past are contained in the hair; we hope that this does not influence these people in the end.
Ph. Adrian Fisk // Human hair trade – Flickr