Markets in Everything: Hair

by on July 31, 2012 at 9:31 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

Sometimes markets in everything surprises even me. Who knew that the market for human hair entangles the Russian mafia, Indian mystics, and Paris Hilton’s “precious.” Here is one bit:

Barbers at Tirumala Venkateswara

In the state of Andhra Pradesh in southeastern India is a cluster of seven hills. Perched atop one is Tirumala Venkateswara. Dating back nearly two thousand years, it is the most visited religious site in the world. With attendance three times that of the Vatican, Tirumala hosts nearly 20 million pilgrims a year. About half are women participating in a ceremony they hope will bring good luck. Perhaps they still haven’t found a husband. Perhaps their child is sick. For their luck to change, they believe, a special action is required.

So, after waiting in a queue that is miles long, 25,000 women each day mount the steps of a special building. Inside sit some six hundred barbers. The women bend over and, with a few deft strokes of a straight razor, the barbers shave off their hair. The hair used to be thrown away. These days, if it is virgin — that is, never colored, never processed, never cut, having cascaded from her head two or three feet or more — it will have a significance that is not merely spiritual. It is auctioned to licensed peddlers; this past year Tirumala held several online auctions, in one day reaping $27 million. Peddlers sell the hair to exporters, who sell it to manufacturers, who process it and sell it to distributors, who sell it to salons, who attach it to the heads of millions of Western women. Removing the hair had been a means of ego eradication; adding it serves now as an ego boost.

Hat tip: Daniel Lippman.

1 sunbomb July 31, 2012 at 9:38 am

Chris Rock’s documentary ‘Good Hair’ should be a interesting view then:

2 Careless July 31, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Wow, that’s easily the most badly written long Wikipedia article I’ve ever read.

3 Andre July 31, 2012 at 8:06 pm

It’s a great movie though. They do a long bit where he goes to India and interviews people at one of these temples. Then follows the hair back to LA.

4 Rahul July 31, 2012 at 9:49 am

Hair selling always reminds me of Fantine from Les Misérables.

… least we don’t trade in human teeth anymore (I hope!).

5 Mike July 31, 2012 at 11:23 am

See this too… stolen hair extensions

6 Anon July 31, 2012 at 12:16 pm

A few corrections about Tirumala/Tirupati:

1. Probably more men give up their hair rather than women ; ofcourse , when auctioned its probably worth much less.
2. The miles long queue is not for the hair”cut” , but for visiting the Deity in the temple ; I think the one for giving up hair is much shorter.
3.Very often its not for a future wish but a past commitment of visiting Tirupati ( sometimes by choice by an uphill 7 Km climb) in case a wish is fulfilled . In many cases since the primary Hindu ethos is “you are only entitled to your actions, but not to the fruits thereof” there may not even be any wish involved.
4. Ego eradication is right !! There is nothing as ego-eradicating as giving up your hair ( unless you are a Yul Brynner or Telly Savalas) and being endlessly teased about it for the next few months. Happened to me twice ( not by choice) as a tween in a residential school. Also did it once as an adult , by choice.

7 Lurker from AP July 31, 2012 at 1:13 pm

+1 (though Not sure about the “primary Hindu ethos”)

“the past commitments” are often made by a woman promising to sacrifice her husband’s or son’s hair in return for a favor such as: a good husband for her daughter, son getting accepted to Medical/Engineering college.

Another point I would add is that there are not many adults (among those who would get their heads shaved in Tirupati) with “Virgin hair”. It is a pretty consistently followed religious rite of hindus in AP that a child’s first haircut is a clean tonsure, with the hair being offerred to Lord Venkateswara of Tirupati. This usually happens before the child is 3.

Happy to see an MR post about my home state.

8 Brandon Berg July 31, 2012 at 12:47 pm

“Perhaps they still haven’t found a husband.”

It seems to me that shaving one’s head may be contraindicated in this situation.

9 Thor July 31, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Yes, doesn’t it signal desperation? Er, among other things…

10 YSK July 31, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Hilarious. you guys obviously have no clue about traditional marriages in India.

11 mk July 31, 2012 at 12:49 pm

I wonder how easy it is to verify that the hair is “virgin”. The pilgrims seem to have no incentive to lie when asked if their hair has ever been cut, dyed. etc. But the temple, auctioneer, or whoever it is who profits from the sale of the hair would certainly have an incentive (assuming that there is greater demand for virgin hair, as the article implies).

12 Anon July 31, 2012 at 1:11 pm

A large number of these people are from a rural environment where the concept of coloring hair does not exist ; plus the natural black is the preferred/admired color. In some parts of India including the state where this temple is situated traditionally girls may get a haircut at age 1 or 3 ( a full shave) and never have a haircut again, unless they give up the hair at Tirupati.
So while your basic point is correct, a surprisingly high percentage of hair indeed has not been cut or dyed.

13 TJ July 31, 2012 at 1:10 pm

Someone already linked to “Good Hair”, but I want to second it if anyone thinks this is interesting. As a white man who never had any particular exposure to black communities, it blew my mind. It is also very much a “markets in everything” movie.

14 Fatih Karakurt July 31, 2012 at 1:55 pm

That’s the main source for orthodox jewish women’s wigs. I guess symbiosis of religions…

15 sunbomb July 31, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Watch Good Hair; you may be surprised where the symbiosis occurs.

16 Rahul July 31, 2012 at 2:15 pm

What’s the connection between orthodox jews and wigs? Pardon my ignorance.

17 Brian H. August 1, 2012 at 11:02 am

Orthodox Jewish women generally cover their hair as sign of modesty. Wearing a wig (scheitel) as a hair-covering is somewhat controversial among the religious authorities, but it seems to be commonly accepted these days.

There was a controversy when it became widely known that the hair for many scheitels was procured in a pagan/idolatrous ritual. Now there are many kosher-certified wigs available on the market.

18 uvadude July 31, 2012 at 2:43 pm

surprising the muslims didn’t raze this site and erect a mosque, like in so much of india and elsewhere

19 rec1man August 1, 2012 at 10:08 pm

This temple was in South India, ruled by the Hindu Vijayanagar empire until 1650

Within the temple there are idols of the emperor of Vijayanagar – Krishna Deva Raya ( ruled 1500-1530 )
and his 2 wives

20 YSK July 31, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Didn’t get the part about “Indian mystics”. Just because a religious practice looks alien to you doesn’t make it “mystical”.
For Indian women, shaving off the hair is a big, big thing because, traditionally, a shaved head represented widowhood. Since Indian widows were (are?) generally treated quite despicably, traditional Indian women typically abhor anything that represents widowhood.

21 londenio July 31, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Why not title “Markets in Everything: Ego”?

22 mavi boncuk July 31, 2012 at 7:29 pm

like in so much of india

23 jose July 31, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Good Hair was good. Clearly what is needed is genetic engineering to let black women grow Indian women hair.

24 AD August 1, 2012 at 9:07 am

A few strokes of a straight razor? That sounds painful.

25 freethinker August 2, 2012 at 11:50 am

Years before I became an atheist I too underwent the ritual of getting my hair shaved at the Tirupati temple by choice. I was made to believe that the deity of that shrine is vengeful, and if you do not fulfill your vow to him you are in trouble. This superstition generates terrific revenue. I was not motivated to undergo that ritual by the desire to surrender my ego or whatever. All this philosophical thinking is only in theory . In actual practice I was motivated by superstition and this is so with most of the pilgrims. And this superstition is perpetuated since it brings huge business for the temple.

A word about women undergoing this ritual. In my state , and in most others, a Hindu women is deemed a widow if she does not wear bangles on her arm, a ring on her toe, the dot her forehead and the “mangalasutra” chain the groom ties around a bride’s neck at the culmination of the marriage ritual. The tonsured head cetaris paribus only signals she paid a visit to the Tirupati temple in fulfillment of a vow, period. No one says she identifies herself with widowhood to surrender her ego. All talk of ego destruction is deceptive, the main goal being justifying a superstitious practice.

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