How Indians shave their head and hope for luck

Amma Gopala

Every year millions of people travel to two temples in southern India, hoping for an answer to their prayers. But every miracle requires a sacrifice – and many pilgrims sacrifice their hair.

Gopala Amma is desperate to reverse her family’s bad fortune. They are in danger of losing the one room they share off a small alley in the Chennai suburb of Param Bur.

Amma works hard as a cleaner but is struggling to make ends meet. Her husband has lost his job and has begun to drink heavily, while her eldest son is failing in his studies. All this has prompted Amma to think of asking asking the Hindu gods for help.

“I have decided to go to the temple at Tirutanni and shave my hair. That way, the gods will bless me and my family,” she says.

This will not be just a snip but a full head shave – all 81cm (32in) of her long wavy locks will go. By sacrificing something so beautiful to the gods, by shedding her ego, she hopes they will bless her with good luck in return.

Human hair is valuable in India. Many of Amma’s female neighbours collect hair from their combs to sell or barter to the hair collectors who come once a month on scooters calling for “comb waste”.

They either trade the hair for pots or are given a few rupees, depending on the weight. The collectors then sell it to the factories.

But comb-waste hair tangles. Shaved hair is more highly valued because continues to fall naturally, as it did on the original owner’s head, and can be used to make a lifelike wig.

From Hollywood to the UK to South Africa, the most widely used human hair is Indian, as its texture resembles Caucasian hair, which the hairdressing industry deems desirable.

To India, the market is worth more than $250m (£175m) annually. A kilo of shaved hair fetches up to $130 (£91), so a long head of hair such as Amma’s – which comes to about 160g (6oz) – will be worth about $20 (£14).

But for Amma this is not important.

The practice of hair-shaving – or “tonsuring” as it is termed when done for religious reasons – is associated with an ancient Hindu myth.

There are several versions of the myth but they centre on the god Vishnu, who was hit on the head with an axe, causing him to lose a section of his hair. The angel Neela Devi then offered a lock of her hair as a replacement, and Vishnu was so grateful that he thereafter granted wishes to anyone who offered their hair as a sacrifice.

Image caption

Whole families sometimes offer their hair to Vishnu

The southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are where most hair tonsuring in India takes place. Two of the main Hindu temples, in the towns of Tirutanni and Tirupati, collect tonnes of human hair every month.

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