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Do you have hair extensions? This is where they come from

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Faith and worship are supposed to serve as open grounds for sowing the seeds of altruism and harvesting a truckload of compassion and philanthropy.

But the almighty is like a debt collector on a rainy day; moving from house to house, rattling a donation tin and extorting even the most unassuming of blind followers that barely have a penny to fix a leak in the crumbling, galvanised roof over their and their family’s heads.

Marshalling his team of pious non-charlatans to manage the religious purse, this fabrication of the human mind moves swiftly in the shadows: teasing with religious propaganda on the one hand and reaping the spoils of impoverished households with the other. Is there any wonder why Hindu Priests preach in the name of austerity and self-induced poverty?

And what exactly do a Hindu priest and the multi-billion dollar beauty industry mogul have in common? The answer: profit.

Ever been to a hair salon and had $5000 “real hair” extensions put in? Bit dear for something you can get for more than a tenth of the price, but then again people do prefer wrapping stuffed foxes around their necks as opposed to settling for a faithful faux.

Nevertheless, if you do currently have a sheet of glossy, straight black hair that would look flawless on a now bald Indian girl, trotting off to school in an impoverished village somewhere in the south of India, you deserve to know the truth.

For that is exactly where your brand new hair comes from. Or at least some of it. And the centrepiece of this blind-eyed sweatshop? Tirumala Venkateswara temple in India. This majestic sanctum for the unholy attracts pilgrims by the hoards, with numbers reaching in the tens of thousands, making it the temple with the most hair donations in India.

Boasting 18 shaving halls, 650 barbers and a throng of women and girls eager to have their heads shaved, the effect is mesmeric. Perhaps these women and girls have absolutely no problem parting ways with their precious strands of hair, which are tied back in a single braid and chopped right off the cusp, but what is questionable is the particular demographic.

Most of the women and girls that donate their entire scalp of gleaming, glossy hair earn less than $1.25 a day: the classic definition of extreme poverty. The wealthier women also participate in this ritual, which pays homage to the Lord Vishnu who, legend has it, took out a large loan to help pay for his wedding and has been in debt ever since. The difference between rich and poor is that the former donate a mere three strands of hair in comparison to being left clean-cropped.

According to Mayoor Balsara, the Chief Executive of India’s largest exporter of human hair, “for poor rural women, their hair is their only vanity.

“They have saved up to make a once-in-a-lifetime journey. Thousands have made an oath to their gods – they may have asked to be blessed with a child or for a good harvest. Should their wish be fulfilled, they offer their most precious possession as a sign of gratitude.”

This statement has been echoed by some of those impoverished women who claim that “Offering your hair to the god is a symbolic gesture of surrendering one’s ego and a way of giving thanks for your blessings.’”

Having drawn fire from world wide humanitarian bodies, temple officials moved quickly to defend their actions of accepting vast amounts of donations and dealing with international conglomerates, claiming that they use part of their profit to support local development projects.

“For example, we financed children’s education by building schools. We distributed approximately 30,000 free meals every day for the poor and needy, and we have built hospitals to cure those who, otherwise, could never afford such expensive treatments,” was the claim of a director at the Tirumala Temple.

While this may sound fair, it in no way complies with fair trade regulations. The average donation per woman is 10 ounces of hair that fetches $350. Each year, India exports almost 2,000 tons of “temple hair” on estimate, of which the finest strands will fetch a whopping $580 per pound. None of this actually makes its way back to the poor women and girls that are the very crux of the industry’s survival.

Ironically, some companies abroad actually process and package “temple hair” and sell it in parts of India. In other words: robbing from the poor to give to the rich.

Another theme I find interesting: how religious institutions manipulate the masses. This is one such example.

Nikhil Lakhani

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