Every day at the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in India, about 10,000 people sit cross-legged on the floor of the tonsuring room and let one of the 500 temple barbers shave off their hair. For many Hindu pilgrims, the shave is an intensely moving experience, as they believe that by sacrificing their hair here they will gain Lord Venkateswara’s protection and be cleansed of material debts.

Once the hair hits the floor, however, it enters the world of business. The strands are collected by attendants, packed into large steel bins, washed, and sorted according to length and quality. Twice a year, the stored hair is auctioned off and exported, mainly to the USA, UK and China, where it is used to make hair extensions and wigs. Long, untreated Indian hair is in high demand; the temple’s longest hair sells for RS20,000 (US$375) a kilogram.

Last year, amid concerns that buyers were forming a cartel, conspiring to keep bids low, the temple stopped its open auctioning process and began to sell online instead, through secret tenders. So far, it’s proving extremely lucrative; in 2011, the temple sold 561 tonnes of hair for RS2 billion ($36.9 million).

These tights are filled with human hair. Packed together, they can be used to mop up oil spills.

Human hair: A growth industry

23 hair-005Wigs

A head of human hair can sell for up to US$3,600 on online message boards such as buyandsellhair.com. Buyers place a premium on “virgin” hair that has never been chemically treated, from a person who doesn’t smoke or drink, and eats mainly organic food.

23 hair-006Clothing

In the 13th century, in what today is the southwest USA, native Anasazi women wove socks out of their own hair. Today, hair clothes are back: French designer Charlie Le Mindu charges up to US$30,000 for his clothes and hats made of human hair.

23 hair-007Soy sauce

In 2004, China Central Television uncovered a workshop in Hubei province where human hair was being used to make soy sauce. Like soy beans, wheat and bran, the raw ingredients traditionally used for making the sauce, human hair is rich in protein, but more readily available.

23 hair-008Flavor enhancer

L-cysteine is an amino acid used as a dough conditioner in products such as pizza. It can be synthesized chemically, but is usually sourced from duck feathers or human hair, especially straight Chinese hair, which is easier to process.


From the pages of COLORS #85 - Going to Market.