Hair for the gods at Tirumala temple
Thousands of devotees shave their heads and donate the hair at the shrine of Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in the hopes of getting their prayers answered.
IT IS dubbed the “the world’s largest barbershop”. The temple shrine of Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh attracts around 50,000 hair pilgrims on weekends and nearly twice the number on religious festivals. They go not just to pray, but also to get their hair shaved off.
A majority of the “hair pilgrims” flock here – to one of the world’s richest temples – to get their heads tonsured and offer their mane to Lord Venkateshwara, an avatar of Lord Vishnu. For most pilgrims, a visit to the temple is not complete without tonsuring – the ritual of shaving of all their hair.
The reasons for the tonsure could vary from a good harvest to the birth of a child, to the recovery of health from a life-threatening disease.
The pilgrims, wearing their Sunday best, sit on the floor before a line-up of barbers who have towels spread across their laps. The devotees lower their heads while nimble fingers get to work and lop off glorious locks.
Thousands of people – children, mothers and grandparents – can be seen milling around the gargantuan temple complex waiting in queues to get their heads tonsured. Those who have been through the rigours of tonsuring, sheepishly stroke their heads to get used to their new bald status.
Huge amounts of hair is swept into enormous steel bins which are periodically emptied by an army of volunteers into burlap sacks. These sacks are then brought to a central collection point where hair is segregated, spread out and dried.
This intriguing practice dates back to the ninth century when devotees believed that if they dedicate their hair to the deity, their most fervent wish will be fulfilled. The Tirumala temple is also amongst a handful of Hindu temples that allow access to nonHindus to enter its sanctum sanctorum which holds the deity.
Due to the heavy rush, the temple offers 16 tonsuring halls – two of which run round the clock. For this large-scale tonsuring, the temple trust employs nearly 650 barbers, including 60 women, and each of them can shave off an average of 60 heads in a six-hour shift. Using nothing more sophisticated than a sharp knife and a bowlful of water, the barbers can shave a head in a jiffy.
According to the temple authorities, the daily average of 800kg of hair harvested easily crosses 1,000kg on weekends and during peak season. This practice has helped make Tirumala Venkateswara Temple one of the richest religious pilgrimage sites in the world, even outstripping the Vatican and Mecca due to the sheer numbers arriving on a daily basis.
Three or four times a year, collected hair is auctioned. Roughly 100 tonnes of human hair is sold annually to companies that make hair extensions, wigs or furniture for mattress stuffing. The temple has been able to cash in on an exponential growth in demand. This money is recycled back to the temple and community, including local hospitals, religious schools and provides free meals to needy pilgrims visiting the temple.
Recently, the temple made news by becoming the world’s first temple to e-auction 65,000kg of human hair. The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, the trust which manages the affairs of the Lord Venkateshwara Temple, had as many as 49 traders participating in the auction.
Interestingly, Tirumala has also spawned a lucrative hair business in India. Thanks to what is now called “temple hair”, India can boast of a gargantuan hair industry which is worth a staggering US$200mil (RM600mil). Much of this hair comes from Tirumala and is mostly exported to the West where it is sold for around US$250 (RM750) per kg, occasionally even fetching an astounding US$800 (RM2,400) per kg.
Indian hair brokers typically sell the hair to factories in India where it is sorted by length and goes through the first stages of
using nothing more sophisticated than a sharp knife and a bowlful of water, the barbers of Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in India can shave a head in a jiffy.
Hair from the Temple is brought to a central collection point where it is segregated, spread out and dried.
Hair pilgrims go to the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple not just to pray, but also to get their hair shaved off.