Recycled as expensive wigs for the West or sold for use as raw material for the chemical industry, India’s human hair trade has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry. At least three types of hair are harvested in India: temple hair, village hair and barber hair.
Given the mass numbers of faithful Hindus, temple hair is the most abundant source available. Each year, thousands of worshippers make pilgrimages to temples where their hair is cut as an act of religious offering or thanksgiving. This custom is lucrative and temples designate women to ensure that the pilgrims’ hair is braided properly before it’s cut. By having the hair cuticles face the same direction, temples are able to sell the locks to wig makers for big money. The Balaji temple in Tirupati collects tons of hair each week, generating an estimated annual income upwards of a couple of ten thousand dollars.
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Village hair is regarded as lower quality than temple hair because it’s derived from women’s hair combs. The hair is collected monthly by a “hacker”, who then sells it to hair-processing factories. The women exchange the hair for sweets, plastic toys and bindis. Barber hair, or thuku as it is known, comes from the sweepings off the floor at barbershops.
Once collected, cut, cleaned and sorted, it is exported for different end uses. The bulk of the hair trade is for wigs and hairpieces. Indian hair is renowned for its quality. It is generally 30-70cm long and is bought raw for $2-5 (Rs93-233) a kilo by buyers from hair-processing factories at hair auctions held by the temple authorities. Once processed, it’s sold to wig makers for around $40 per kg.
Hair is used for a multitude of purposes. Men’s temple hair is used for jacket linings, cosmetic brushes and is also interwoven with other fabrics to make suits. Lower-quality barber hair is converted into amino acids which, in turn, are used in food and medicine.
The hair goes through different cleaning processes depending on how it will be used. Temple hair is soaked overnight in caustic soda and shampoo, rinsed clean the next morning and put in the sun to dry. Then in designated “combing rooms”, large groups of women take bunches of hair and thrash them repeatedly against upward-facing spikes. By repeatedly doing this, the worker is left with a bundle of hair of the same length, with the shorter strands left on the metal spikes. It is then tied with a cord to make thick bunches and the ends are cut to precise lengths. The hair is then ready for export.
Village hair, which is also used for wig making, goes through the same process apart from the fact that immediately after collection, hackers rub it in dirt to increase its weight and hence the value. Thus, when it comes to cleaning, the workers have the laborious task of using a metal spike to undo the knots and shake the dust out.
Low-quality barber hair arrives in big piles. It is sifted carefully by hand to remove debris such as razors. It is then put into a large machine and chopped into little pieces to be sold and converted into amino acids.
Workers employed in the hair trade are predominantly women. Protective clothing is non-existent—not even gloves for workers who remove razors from barber hair. Women cover their mouths with their saris to avoid inhaling hair dust belched out by hair-chopping machines. Children are also used as labourers, often at the first stage of cleaning when a child’s small nimble fingers are good at untangling knots.
Adrian Fisk is a British photographer who has been living and working in India since 2003. His work has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Financial Times, Vanity Fair and The Economist. In 2007, he was identified as one of “The World’s Top Photographers” in a book published by RotoVision.