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

Halle Berry uses hair extensions. So does Angelina Jolie. Much of the hair they end up with comes from women who offer up their locks to Hindu gods in Indian temples. SPIEGEL followed one pilgrim's hair from Bangalore to Munich.

By Britta Sandberg

It's a Tuesday in January, and Verena Franke is sitting in the Visage Hair salon in Munich's trendy Schwabing neighborhood. She wants longer hair because she is convinced that it's attractive and will make her look more feminine. Beyond that, she hasn't thought much about it.

She has worked her way up to this day, saving €1,000 ($1,470) in tips. Having one's hair lengthened isn't cheap but, as Franke says, looks are important in her line of work.

Franke is a bartender at a trendy Schwabing bar called the "Roxy." She is 27, her hair is of medium length and dyed black, she wears fake fingernails and has permanent make-up eyebrows. She is sitting in front of a box of 150 skeins of real black hair, known as extensions. The 45-centimeter (18-inch) extensions, color tone No. 01, arrived in today's mail. What Franke doesn't know is that her new hair extensions are now exactly 7,698 kilometers (4,781 miles) away from where they started their journey -- and that they used to belong to a woman named Manibhen Yashwanthpur. In fact, she doesn't even know that this woman exists.

Soon the hair will be hers, when Ms. Klingspor, the owner of the salon, attaches the extensions to Franke's hair, and for a brief time the lives of these two women -- Yashwanthpur, who sacrificed her hair as an offering to the gods, and Franke, who just wanted longer hair -- will be linked in an unusual way. It's a global exchange that is being completed in this Munich salon -- between women who need more hair to feel more attractive, and other women who can supply the hair they need.

In the past, the hair Indian women offered to the gods was used to make oil filters and fill mattresses, but all that has changed since extensions came into vogue. The hair extension business is growing at the phenomenal rate of 40 percent annually, creating a network of dealers on all continents and air shipments around the globe. And the sole purpose of all this effort is to transfer hair from one head to another.

Many of the world's most glamorous women, including Angelina Jolie, Christina Aguilera, Cameron Diaz, Gisele Bündchen and Victoria Beckham, routinely augment their own hair with extensions. Céline Dion spends $6,000 (€4,080) each month to have fresh extensions flown in.

In one world, simply having one's own hair is no longer enough. Hair has to be shiny, smooth, long and perfect. But in another world there are more important things than hair. Globalization brings these two worlds together.

Hair for Lord Venkateshwara

It's a humid day in the state of Karnataka in southern India. Manibhen Yashwanthpur was up early this morning, and after waking her husband and their two boys, she packed an orange sari into a red plastic bag. Yashwanthpur is 30 years old, a thin, serious woman who looks 40. Her hair is long and dark brown. It is beautiful hair, and today is the day she plans to offer it to Lord Venkateshwara.

She stands in front of the shaving room in the temple of Chikkatirupathy, a small village temple with colorful figures on the roof. Her husband and their two children have accompanied her there from their home village.

The name of the village is the same as hers, Yashwanthpur. She grew up there, met her husband there and married him 15 years ago. At some point he began drinking brandy, lots of it. He also beat her, for years, even in front of their sons. He routinely drank away the money the couple earned working at the local cement factory.

A year ago Manibhen prayed to Lord Venkateshwara, asking him to remove the scourge of her husband's alcoholism from her family once and for all. Her husband stopped drinking a month ago. "Now if that isn't a miracle," she says, smiling for the first time.

The temple barber wets Manibhen's hair, ties it together with rubber bands on both sides and applies his razor, exposing her scalp, bit by bit, making a scraping sound as he works. Manibhen sits in front of the barber, her legs crossed and her face unmoving. The procedure takes four minutes, and then Manibhen is bald. It will take her years to grow back the hair she had only a few minutes ago. She wraps a scarf around her shaved head.

Shaving the head is an age-old Hindu ritual. Babies are shaved for good luck. Adults allow themselves to be shaved to thank the gods. It is a ritual about vanity, but about abandoning it, not encouraging it. Hair represents the difference between male and female, between beautiful and ugly, and hair protects and conceals. Those who sacrifice their hair are giving the gods a piece of themselves.

Manibhen receives no compensation for her offering. "This is a tradition, not a business," says the temple manager. She doesn't know what will happen to her hair, or that, after 29 days, a depigmentation process and a color bath, it will arrive in a salon in Munich's Schwabing neighborhood. She has never heard of extensions, not to mention Schwabing.

After the ritual, she will wash herself, put on her fresh, orange sari and pray that her children will receive a good education.

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