Where do hairs for fashion wigs and hair extensions come from? The answer is: everywhere, but the majority of them come from China and India, where human hair is a lucrative business.
In India, China, and eastern Europe, small agents tour villages coaxing poverty-stricken women to part with their hair for a small payment. Sometimes, husbands would force wives into selling their hair and slum children would be tricked into having their heads shaved in exchange for toys. There was one incident in India where a group of men held down a women, cut off her locks and took off with it.
But what’s more disturbing is that many temples in South India are reaping millions of dollars in profit from religious sacrifice made by pilgrims without their knowledge. The hair donors, many of which are poor, never receive a penny in return. Many of these women are not even aware that the hair they donated praying for good health of their husbands or good school grades for their children are being sold to high fashion houses and turned into expensive wigs.
At the center of the controversy is Venkateswara Temple situated in the hill town of Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh, India. It is the richest temple in the world in terms of donations received, and one of the most visited place of pilgrimage. On average, the temple receives between 50,000 to 100,000 devotees everyday. Tens of thousands of them undergo ritual shaving or tonsuring.
Legend has it that Lord Vishnu, an avatar of God, once got hit on his head and a small portion of his scalp became bald. A heavenly princess noticed the bald spot and immediately cut of a portion of her own hair, and by using her magical powers implanted it on Lord Vishnu’s scalp. The Lord was so impressed at her sacrifice that he dictated that all devotees who come to his abode should offer their hair to him, which the Lord would pass it on to her. A different version of the legend holds that Lord Vishnu once took out a large loan for his wedding, but was unable to replay. To this date devout Hindus have been helping Vishnu pay off his debt by offering him their hair.
In earlier times, the hair was thrown away into the river. But today they are sold to vendors in western countries through online auctions that fetches the temple between $3 to $6 million every year.
Everyday between 500 to 600 barbers working in rotation shave over 20,000 heads. Baskets filled with hair are collected every six hours and stored in a vast warehouse where it is piled knee deep. The hair is then untangled and sorted based on length, grades and colors. Then it is washed, treated, and dried under the sun.
Indian hair is most sought after because the hair is naturally silkier, and most rural women who donate their hair have never used artificial dyes or colors. Some hair have never been cut before. The longest strands—anything above 18 inches—are the priciest pick, at roughly $300-$450 per kilogram. The best quality hair sometimes sell for as much as $800 per kilo. The shorter hair is used to stuff mattresses, create oil filters or extracted for amino acids.
The largest share of Indian hair is bought by Great Lengths International, a real hair extension corporation based out of Italy. Great Lengths supplies hair extensions to 60 different countries and over 40,000 salons. In an upmarket central London salon, a full head of Great Lengths extensions costs around £900, or over $1,100, and lasts up to six months. Hollywood celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Tyra Banks, Paris Hilton, and Beyoncé are among Great Lengths regular customers.
The most striking fact is the disconnect between the high-fashion buyers and the impoverished suppliers of this commodity. Many worshippers are unaware that their hair is being used to create hair extensions 7,000 miles away. Most don’t even know what hair extensions are.
While the entire operation may seem highly unethical, temple officials have defended their decision to sell donated hair arguing that money collected is funneled directly back into the local community to fund medical aid, educational systems and other crucial infrastructure projects.
Venkateswara Temple is just one of many South Indian temples engaging in this business. Altogether, Indian temples bring in a total of over $100 million yearly from hair sales.