Markets in Everything: Hair

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.


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