Hair tonsuring ritual - is it a business?

"I have decided to go to the temple at Tirutanni and shave my hair. That way, the gods will bless me and my family," says a devotee of Lord Vishnu from Chennai.


Once, when Nitin Gadkari spilled beans about the best fertilizer for his garden, he mentioned that he also established a factory to extract amino acids from the waste hair. “If there is appropriate leadership, then one can even turn waste into gold,” he stated. Keep reading to know what this article is trying to bring before you. 

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The Legend Associated with Lord Vishnu: 


Before talking about anything else, I would like to share a couple of versions of the myth that revolve around the Hindu deity Lord Vishnu. It is believed that the lord was once hit on his head with an axe due to which, he lost a portion of his hair. An angel named Neela Devi noticed this and offered her hair to Lord Vishnu. The lord felt grateful for her compassionate act and from thereon, it is said that He grants the wishes of those who offered their hair as a sacrifice to him. According to another legend, it is believed that Lord Vishnu made a huge debt for his marriage and was till date, unable to repay. Thus, Hindus contribute to paying off his debt by offering their hair to the lord. So, Hindus, be it for getting their wishes fulfilled or in gratitude of their fulfilled wishes, offer their hair to Lord Vishnu. The south Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are the biggest centres of shaved hair, for, they house the temples of Tirutanni and Tirupathi where most hair tonsuring in India takes place. 


Hair-tonsuring Practice - The Origins: 


The origin of the head shaving is not so clear but it is dated back to early Celts, the people based in North Britain, of course with no connection to religion back then. Claiming origins back to the age of Jesus Christ, the followers of both Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church practiced this rite. In the Latin ritial of the Roman Catholic Church, 'first tonsure' was the rite performed to induct someone into the clergy. Different types of tonsures based on the pattern such as clerical, baptismal, and monastic were in practice until the Roman Catholic Church completely abolished the practice of tonsure in the year 1972.


Coming to the Hindu religion, tonsuring is a part of several of their religious ceremonies. People believe that the tonsuring of hair should be performed either in the first or the third year of the child. Tonsuring head is a practice observed in various occassions - happy and sad, even till date in the Hindu communities. Buddhism sees tonsure as the most important rite to becoming a monk and the process is renewed at required intervals to keep the head cleanly shaven. Some Chinese Buddhist monks also have 6, 9, or 12 dots on the top of the head, a result of burning the shaven scalp in 6, 9 or 12 places with the tip of an incense stick. Islam also holds a custom for the pilgrims on the Hajj to shave their heads before entering Mecca as a sign of giving up of vanity and also for cleanliness. Jain monks, on the other hand, don't use blade or knife but pluck their hair so as to keep their scalp bare and clean. 


The Hair-tonsuring Practice - A Belief or a Business? 


Well, to talk about practicing hair tonsure, the south Indian temples are the prime centres where this practice has been happening for years now. Two of the most prominent Hindu temples in Tirutanni and Tirupathi have dedicated halls around the them called 'Kalyankatta' where hundreds of barbers set their tools to work. Thousands of pilgrims come to offer their hair everyday and tonnes of hair is collected. Tirupati is not only the most visited holy shrine in the world but is also the largest collector of human hair. This temple is also the richest temple in the world when one speaks of donations received. Everyday, an average of 50,000 to 100,000 pilgrims visit this shrine. Thousands of them offer their hair as a mark of reverence, gratitude and submission to lord. 


What happens to the hair thus collected? 


The collected hair is separated into grades. If it is longer than 31 inches, it is categorised as Grade 1 hair. If it is between 15 and 30 inches, it is considered as Grade 2 and anything shorter than 15 inches, is taken as Grade 3 hair. The price of the hair on the e-auctions depends on the grade of the hair. While many temples form contracts with the traders, main temples like Tirupati hold online auctions and the hair is sold to the one who bids the highest. The net average income reportedly rounds up to three million dollars a year, while all Indian temples on the whole bring in about $100 million a year. 


Who Buys The Hair? 


Have you ever thought where the hair extensions and wigs in the fashion industry came from? Well, the majority are from China and India. Indian hair is majorly bought by Great Lengths International, a real hair extension corporation, Italy from where the hair is supplied to 60 different countries covering over 40,000 salons. Who are the customers of Great Lengths? Well, Jennifer Lopez, Tyra Banks, Beyoncé are just a few. Again, whoever buys and uses the hair is beyond the topic of discussion here. What is on focus is that many worshippers don't even know where their hair is going and how it is coming to use to someone else living on the other part of the world. 


Charity? Can We See It? 


The temple officials say that the revenue generated out of this whole process is diverted to fund various activities at the community level like providing medical aids, catering to educational systems and towards other infrastructure development projects. But are these really being done on ground level? I don't mind temples selling the donated hair of the pilgrims but can they also transparently show how the revenue generated is being used? Doing thus, not only develops trust and respect on temples but it also gives the worshippers a sense of satisfaction that their rituals and sacrifices are not going unrecognised. Won't that satisfy the pulse of the worshipper? 

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