Globalization's Personal Link Hindu Locks Keep Human Hair Trade Humming

By Britta Sandberg

Part 2: Twenty-Thousand Life Stories on the Factory Floor

The Chikkatirupathy village temple and modern Bangalore, where a company called SDTC Exports is based, are separated by a two-hour drive and at least a century. The road to SDTC's offices leads past flat-screen billboards and construction sites the size of soccer fields, where Bangalore's new apartment and office buildings are being built. The city grows by several square kilometers each year, swallowing up the surrounding countryside.

Mayoor Balsara is standing in a large room holding a dark, knotted bundle in between his shoulder and his elbow, measuring it. "No gray strands, 51 centimeters, very good quality," he says. "This hair has never been chemically treated." He has purchased the hair for approximately $100 (€68). Balsara, 33, is India's biggest exporter of high-quality temple hair.

On SDTC's factory floor, Indian women wearing white coats and masks sit in front of mountains of dark hair arranged on the floor, sorting the hair by color tone. Other women sit on low blue stools, at tables that look like small children's desks, pulling bundles of hair across something that looks like a bed of nails. Balsara will not combine Manibhen's hair with that of other women -- the normal procedure -- but will package and label it separately.

Depending on length and thickness, a woman has an average of 200 to 300 grams (7-14 oz.) of hair on her head. In Balsara's plant, hair is arranged in bundles and laid out on the concrete floor by the kilo -- one biography next to another. Manibhen's hair, which she never had cut by more than a few centimeters, is the hair she had when she gave birth to her second son -- and the hair she had when her husband beat her. Men were seduced with the hair lying on Balsara's factory floor. Some women fell in love while wearing it, others suffered. Seen mathematically, the five tons of hair stored in the basement correspond to the fates of 20,000 different women.

A Holy Business

Balsara hasn't been in the business long. He studied business management in London, and eight years ago a friend came up with the idea of exporting hair. At that time, Indian temple hair was being sold at $30 (€20) a kilo. Today the going price ranges from $300 (€205) to $600 (€410). "Hair has become one of the most expensive commodities in the world," says Balsara, who exports more than three tons to Europe each month, sending it there by airfreight. Sea freight would be cheaper, but it's too slow.

There are 300 employees at SDTC, and Balsara plans to hire another 100 this year. When the hair arrives from temples, it is washed, brushed on the nail-studded boards, sorted by length and packaged. The Indian women remove their shoes while working at SDTC, something they would normally do only in temples. Before the product is taken to the airport, the women line up in front of the crates and say a prayer of farewell. "It is a holy business," says their boss.

Balsara recently bought a 300-square-meter (3,230-square-foot) condominium in a building that boasts a doorman, a pool, a gardener and pale marble floors in one of Bangalore's best locations. A couple from New York lives in the apartment below him, while India's best-known racecar driver lives across the hall. Balsara wears a faded green T-shirt with the Heineken logo, torn jeans and a goatee, mirroring the understated look of fashionable young Indians. When he launched his company, he was concerned that he wouldn't survive the first year. Today, he says, his only problem is: "How do I get more hair?"

With a population of more than one billion, India offers plenty of potential suppliers of hair as a raw material. Nevertheless, the competition for temple hair is fierce. Temples now hold hair auctions, and even the right to bid at these auctions must be purchased. Prices have exploded in response to rising global demand, a fact that has not gone unnoticed among temple managers. Very few are interested in fixed agreements to sell hair at previously arranged prices anymore.

The Largest Barbershop in the World

Balsara sends agents around the country to search for new sources in even the smallest villages. Sometimes Balsara himself approaches bald-headed women on the street to find out where their heads were shaved -- after all, it could be a temple he hasn't heard of yet.

Forty of his employees work directly in temples. They monitor the temples' procedures to ensure that the hair is kept properly stored, and they arrange for timely shipment of the product. The temples are permitted to spend no more than one third of their revenues from hair sales on temple expansion and renovation. The rest goes to charities, schools, orphanages and hospitals. A government agency monitors temples to ensure compliance with this quota.

The Balati Institute for Surgery near the southern Indian city of Tirupati, for example, receives funding from temple hair sales -- revenue that is reflected in an abundance of Western high-tech equipment throughout the hospital. Balati offers operations for free that the average Indian wage earner would be unable to afford. "We are part of one of the world's biggest charitable projects," says the hospital's director. "Normally a single operation would cost €1,000 ($1,470)."

Balati receives its donations from the country's richest temple, Tirumala-Tirupati in southern India. The temple is organized like a holding company, with a foundation managing its annual revenues of roughly €250 million ($368 million). "What else should we do with the hair, other than sell it?" the temple director asks.

Fifty thousand pilgrims come to Tirupati each day, and about half of them, including men, have their heads shaved. Most of the hair is exported to China, where keratin is extracted from it for use in cosmetic products. There are 600 barbers working at the Tirupati temple, making it the world's largest barbershop.

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