The Venkateswara Temple in Tirumala, India, had a problem.

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Thirty to forty actor pilgrims appointment the temple anniversary year, and in a action of abasement and sacrifice, 10% to 25% of them, men and women both, accept their active shaven. Every day, the Venkateswara Temple agents fills behemothic vats with animal hair, and for a continued time, its agents austere bags of pounds of hair—a baneful action that produces baneful gases like ammonia and was eventually banned by the Indian government in the 1990s. 

By then, however, they had apparent a new way to get rid of the hair: advertise it for millions. 

When appearance companies accomplish wigs—and back stylists band or braid beard extensions into customers’ beard in salons—they appetite to use absolute animal hair. To get it, they await on places like the Venkateswara Temple, which sells its beard in anniversary auctions. In 2014, appearance companies bid about $12 actor for what temple advisers alarm “black gold.” 

The Tirumala Temple bargain is allotment of a multi-billion dollar bazaar for animal hair—a all-around endeavor that includes accession continued locks to accomplish fashionable hairpieces and its added automated analogue of axis beard into fertilizers, capacity for clothes, and alike amino acids acclimated in pizza dough. 

Nearly anybody has beard they abandon afterwards a thought. Yet it can additionally be one of the world’s best adored resources, and businesses can’t get abundant of it. 

From Tirumala to the Salon

A affection wig fabricated of animal beard sells for bags of dollars in the United States, and beard extensions fabricated of absolute beard can advertise for several hundred or thousand dollars. But it takes a lot of assignment to about-face the beard of Venkateswara pilgrims into a affluence product.

When companies buy beard from the temple for as abundant as $700 per pound, it contains sweat, blood, and lice. The temple warehouses effluvium from bane and fungus. Investigative announcer Scott Carney visited Tirumala and alleged the beard a “foul-smelling heap.” As 600 barbers anniversary barber a arch every 5 minutes, they leave blood-soaked scalps and beard assurance littering the floor. 

It takes addition in the industry to admit why the beard is so valuable. Abandoned continued women’s beard is awash at auction—the temple sells men’s beard at a allowance for automated uses—and back abounding pilgrims appear from humble, rural towns, they accept not acclimated shampoos or styled and advised their beard in means that accident it. 

The Venkateswara Temple. Photo by Chandrashekhar Basumatary

To transform the best (longest) beard from debris into treasure, teams of workers untangle the hair, array it by length, aces out lice and added particles, ablution and dry it, and dye it a array of colors. Companies again either address the beard out to salons area stylists will sew, tape, or band the extensions into customers’ hair, or sew the beard into wigs. 

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The action is abundantly activity intensive. “To accomplish a high-end wig,” says Mo Hefnawy of Lori’s Wigsite, one of abounding retailers of wigs fabricated by Indian and Chinese manufacturers, “someone sat there with a aggravate and sewed a few hairs at a time. It takes 3 or 4 days.” 

Retailers like Lori’s Wigsite advertise wigs fabricated of fake, constructed hair, and they amount $250 area a animal beard wig would amount $1,500. But constructed wigs don’t aftermost as long, can’t be styled, and attending and feel beneath natural. Best bodies appetite wigs fabricated of absolute hair, Hefnawy says, but Lori’s sells added constructed wigs than animal beard wigs because they are added affordable. 

The majority of Lori’s barter ache beard accident from chemotherapy or altitude like alopecia. A boyhood are religious women who buy wigs as an another to abundantly ambuscade their hair, and some earlier men and women buy wigs to awning abrasion hair.

For the moment, though, beard extensions are added accepted amid adolescent women who appetite to bound change their hairstyle or buy the long, blubbery beard acclaimed in absterge commercials. Amid added celebrities, Victoria Beckham, Beyonce, and Kylie Jenner of Kardashian acclaim are accepted for acid extensions. 

Prices accept added with popularity. In several burglaries of beard salons, thieves abandoned banknote registers and went beeline for beard extensions account tens or hundreds of bags of dollars. 

When nonprofits like Locks of Love ask bodies to accord their beard (to accomplish hairpieces for accouchement adversity from beard loss), they are not allurement because continued beard is adamantine to find. The animal beard bazaar is able-bodied established, and anyone can go online and instantly adjustment beard by the pound.

Locks of Love asks for donations because beard is so big-ticket that abounding patients can’t allow thousand dollar wigs. 

The Secret Life of Hair

The bazaar for animal beard has consistently been a apparatus for accepting beard from bodies in poor areas to those who charge or appetite it in wealthier ones. 

History is abounding of examples of animal beard actuality advised as a admired commodity. Archeologists accept apparent animal beard wigs captivated calm with adhesive and affair in Ancient Egyptian tombs. Upper chic men in 18th aeon Europe wore continued periwigs fabricated of animal or horse hair, and thieves frequently formed in teams to abduct and resell them. An eyewitness of an anniversary “hair harvest” in a poor Italian apple in the 19th aeon declared seeing girls “sheared, one afterwards the other, like sheep.” Their beard went to Parisian markets that awash 200,000 pounds of animal beard anniversary year.

A beard annexation in progress

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The aberration today is that the bazaar has afflicted with globalization. Beard does not move from bigoted Europe to basic cities; it moves from poor countries to affluent ones. The all-inclusive majority of beard and beard articles appear from India and China and are awash in the United States and Europe. 

In the beard industry, no one bothers to appropriately bless anniversary and every person’s hair. For them, beard is a product, and the way they allocution about beard reflects bread-and-butter and amusing realities—and fabricated us squirm. 

“Indian beard is best,” retailers and manufacturers told us afterwards hesitation. They adduce the backbone of Indian beard and how abounding it is acknowledgment to places like the Venkateswara Temple. But its best admired aspect is that it carefully resembles caucasian hair. “Oriental beard is used,” one industry able bluntly added, “because there is a lot of it.” 

Hair flows from poor countries to affluent countries, but back a woman with albino beard is accommodating to advertise her hair, the bazaar pays abundantly well. Destitute Russian women consistently advertise their albino beard for fifty to several hundred dollars. Mo Hefnawy says he knows a adolescent woman whom wig makers flew out from Indiana and paid $1,500 for her hair, which they fabricated into an $8,000 wig.  

Africa additionally bucks all-around trends: admitting the prevalence of abjection in abounding countries, Africa is an importer of hair. Elaborate wigs may no best abstracted ability from commoners, but beard has not absent its political and bread-and-butter relevance. 

Projects like My Nappy Roots and Good Beard accept explored the efforts that atramentous people, abnormally women, go through to appearance their hair, and in decidedly the time and amount of straightening their coiled hair—often with the advice of beard extensions. Responding to this catechism of why “women accept a abstraction of ‘beauty’ that is not based on the accustomed characteristics of their hair,” Al Sharpton says in Good Hair, “We abrasion our bread-and-butter abuse on our heads.” 

As a result, beard extensions and articles are accepted amid African Americans and affluent Africans, but beard traders accept little absorption in atramentous hair. 

Collecting Beard at Scale

If you ask bodies in the industry area they get animal hair, they allocution about temples in China and India like the Venkateswara Temple. 

It’s no abruptness they do; accession beard from pilgrims is an affected band-aid to manufacturers’ charge for animal hair. Shaving one’s arch is a traditional, autonomous convenance that avoids the exploitive undertones of atrocious women affairs their hair. Best pilgrims don’t apperceive that the temple sells their hair. But we accept not apparent letters of religious leaders pocketing millions. The temple administrators accept acclimated the gain on gold bank panelling for the temple, but they say they primarily absorb the money on accommodating endeavors like agriculture the beggared and active hospitals. 

Yet abandoned a boyhood of beard comes from temples. In India, a bounded Minister for Textiles and Commerce told The Guardian, “all the Indian temples calm accord abandoned 20 out of every 100 locks of exceptional beard awash abroad.” The Minister added, “Where the blow comes from, we accept no idea.” Retailers and broad providers we batten to accurate agnate uncertainty. 

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We do apperceive that accession beard is a large, decentralized adventure that employs tens of bags of bodies in India alone. Barber shops and salons aggregate and advertise hair—both continued beard awash to appearance companies and abbreviate beard awash cheaply to be acclimated as stuffing, fertilizer, or, already burst bottomward into basic chemicals, in automated uses alignment from aliment to pharmaceuticals. Waste pickers scrounge beard from debris and dumpsters. Beard traders appointment villages—in a hole alfresco Chennai, a alarm announces a trader’s arrival—to buy beard with either banknote or trinkets and beard accessories. 

The traders may buy beard that women accept calm from combs and brushes, or the scenes may resemble the shearing of 19th aeon Italian villagers. No one can say absolutely how often, but beard is not consistently awash willingly. Press has appear on husbands who accept $10 for their wives’ hair. One Indian woman told The Guardian, “I was captivated bottomward by a assemblage of men who afraid at my hair… the badge don’t care, they will do annihilation to assure women.” In Russia, bastille wardens accept accepted to forcibly acid changeable inmates’ beard in adjustment to advertise it. 

Whether it’s bodies scrounging beard from dumpsters or men banishment women to accord up their hair, the beard business can be a bedraggled one. 

*****

So far, the beard industry has not had its ethically-sourced moment. 

American barter are about aloof about the origins of extensions, the architect of a beard extensions barter accumulation told the New York Times, added than to ask if they are hygienic. For retailers and manufacturers, the appeal for beard makes it a banking call not to ask too abounding questions. 

“The beard business is clashing any other,” the buyer of an Indian hair-exporting business told announcer Scott Carney. “In any added business, affairs a article is easy; it’s the affairs it to retailers that is difficult. Here it’s all reversed. It’s simple to advertise hair, aloof difficult to buy it.”

Better constructed beard is coming. As China and India’s bread-and-butter advance has bargain poverty, beard donors accept been harder to find, which has added prices and pushed companies to analysis alternatives. In the aftermost 5 years, Mo Hefnawy of Lori’s Wigsite tells us, advance has been fabricated on authoritative constructed wigs thicker and added heat-resistant. “I’d accord it a few added years and they will accept it,” he says.

Until then, though, a ability anybody has growing on the top of their arch will abide a secretively advantageous commodity.

Our abutting column explores why the heck the abstraction of “sister cities” is so popular. To get notified back we column it →  join our email list.

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This column was accounting by Alex Mayyasi.  You can chase him on Twitter at @amayyasi.

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