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Dressed in her best yellow sari Mahibha Basu laughs nervously and threads her long, dark hair through her fingers as she sits on a stool awaiting her turn to see the barber. All around her, nimble-fingered professionals with razor-sharp blades are cutting hair with the kind of speed and precision that is only honed by years of practice. Ms Basu is not waiting for just another haircut. She is in one of Hinduism’s holiest temples and is taking part in a pilgrimage of enormous religious significance.
Three minutes later she emerges into the crisp morning sunlight and makes her way to the main temple complex. With a bright red tikka mark adorning her forehead and coconut offerings in her hand, Ms Basu looks like any other Hindu pilgrim but with one startling difference. Her head has been completely shaved.
Her hair, meanwhile, has been carefully tied together and placed in a giant steel tub for storage. Within a matter of months Ms Basu’s black tresses could be half a world away, adorning the head of any of the A-list celebrities in the West, from Paris Hilton to Victoria Beckham to Donatella Versace, who have embraced the fashion for hair extensions.
Ms Basu is just one of thousands of devotees who travel to Tirumala temple in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, one of Hinduism’s most sacred religious sites and a place all Hindus are expected to visit at least once in their lifetime. Forty thousand pilgrims arrive every day to worship at the feet of Lord Venkateswara, a powerful avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu who, devotees believe, has the ability to grant the wish of any pilgrim who has made the journey to his temple. During major religious festivals the authorities prepare for up to 120,000 pilgrims to make the journey up the forest-clad mountain where the centuries-old Dravidian temple stands. So many people come to Tirumala, in fact, that many Indians claim the temple is the world’s most popular pilgrimage site, even outstripping the Vatican and Mecca in the sheer numbers arriving on a daily basis.
Tirumala’s draw is largely down to the awesome power of Lord Venkateswara. But what makes this particular temple stand out is the incredible number of people who have their heads shaved as part of the worshipping ritual in a tradition known as “tonsuring”. Practised by Hindus for thousands of years, it symbolises the devotee’s desire to overcome their ego, a fundamental teaching of the Hindu faith. But nowhere is tonsuring more enthusiastically practised than at Tirumala.
Ms Basu has travelled 1,500 miles from her native Bengal to ask the presiding deity to grant her most fervent wish. Four years ago she fell pregnant but miscarried shortly afterwards. “Now I am trying to get pregnant again,” she says. “I have come here to ask the god to grant me and my husband a child.”
In one of the many buildings surrounding the main complex, pilgrims queue in long snaking lines as they wait to see one of the temple’s 600 barbers. Working in shifts around the clock and using nothing but a sharp razor, water and immense skill they can cut off a pilgrim’s hair in a matter of minutes.
The effect is astonishing. All around the temple thousands of bald devotees stand in groups, their laughter echoing off the walls as they joke and point at each other’s new, unfamiliar look. Bald-headed children run between the multitude of hat wallahs that line the surrounding streets selling a vast array of baseball caps to protect heads from the baking sun.
For the authorities who run Tirumala, the enormous volume of hair produced each day has spawned a lucrative business courtesy of the Western world’s newly discovered desire for human hair extensions – a fashion that has become hugely popular over the past couple of years thanks to the endorsement of celebrities. The temple has been able to cash in on an incredible growth in demand. Thomas Gold, whose Italian-based company Great Lengths International buys hair only from Tirumala, says the price of hair from the temple is now 10 times what it was five years ago.
“It’s really amazing how the price has just shot up every year,” he says from his company headquarters in Rome. “The Indians started understanding that this was a booming business and that we would still purchase at whatever price.”
The industry has also benefited from a shift in the public’s perception of hair extensions. “Up until five or six years ago,” says Mr Gold, “it was unthinkable for a woman to say ‘Look I’m wearing hair extensions’. Now women will positively show them off to their friends. The taboo has been abolished.”
The global hair industry is now worth an estimated Â£160m and is growing by 25 to 30 per cent each year. Indian hair is particularly sought after because it is cheaper than European varieties and will not have been chemically treated or dyed. Moreover Chinese hair, which globally still makes up the majority of hair exports, is considered too coarse to make good hair extensions.