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In Pics | Indian hair for the Gods ends up on heads in Europe, Africa

Hair grown by Indian devotees as donation to temples as part of oaths and divine repayment finds its way into Europe, Africa, the US and Asia as high end wigs, hair extensions.

india Updated: Aug 01, 2017 10:28 IST

The donation of hair at Hindu temples across India is considered an act of devotion by millions, symbolising a ritualistic purification and a repayment of the debt to the gods. This sacrifice on the part of the devotee also translates into big bucks for the Indian and international fashion and wig making industries. (Arun Sankar / AFP)

For Hindu followers it is an act of devotion, but at the Thiruthani Murugan temple and others across India there are millions to be made from heads that are shaved and smothered with tumeric paste.

Some days there are hundreds of disciples waiting before dawn at the hilltop shrine west of Chennai to take part in the centuries-old traditional offering to the gods.

Hindu devotees get their head shaved as offerings to the Thiruthani Murugan Temple in Thiruthani, Tamil Nadu. (Arun Sankar / AFP)

As they ask the deities for good fortune and health, temple attendants collect the locks for sale to be used for wigs or fashion industry hair extensions.

India has long been the world’s biggest exporter of human hair -- in money terms -- and businesses say the country earns several hundred million dollars a year from its high quality locks. China and Russia are serious rivals in terms of volume.

The collected hair is then auctioned to hair processing firms that treat the raw hair and prepare it for international export. (Arun Sankar / AFP)

European countries are the biggest customers, but a lot is also sold in the rest of Asia, the United States and even Africa.

There are about 10 major temples, and other smaller ones, in India with a cut of the market. Some villages also collect their inhabitants’ hair.

A worker sorts and arranges human hair according to its length and texture at a processing centre in Alinjivakkam, Chennai. (Arun Sankar / AFP)

The most expensive type -- capturing a quarter of the overall market -- is hair shaved directly from the scalp of one donor. The rest -- cheaper cuts sourced from comb waste -- fetches a lower price.

Some temples make pilgrims braid their hair before it is cut so that the locks all face the same direction.

The hair collected at Thiruthani Murugan is auctioned to processing plants which sell the finished product as all-human wigs or hair extensions.

Locks of treated hair are hung out to dry before being packaged. India has long been the world's biggest exporter of human hair -- in money terms -- and businesses say the country earns several hundred million dollars a year from its high quality locks. (Arun Sankar / AFP)

Business has to move quickly at the temple, one among the six holy shrines of deity Lord Murugan.

From four in the morning to sundown barbers clip away. Pilgrims queue for hours, sometimes much longer on festival days, to make their sacrifice.

Finished wigs and hair extension pieces made from hair collected from temple auctions are displayed at a boutique in Chennai. (Arun Sankar / AFP)

Tens of thousands, including women and children, shave their heads here every year, applying a bright yellow paste of tumeric powder before offering their prayers.

For devotees who are the bedrock of this industry, a ritual shower and application of tumeric paste on their freshly shorn scalps is the final step --unaware of the journey their donations make all the way to international markets and buyers. (Arun Sankar / AFP)

Pilgrims climb 365 steps to reach the shrine, which is open year round. The profits from the sale of their hair goes towards the upkeep of the temple.

First Published: Aug 01, 2017 10:22 IST