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Hindu Locks Keep Human Hair Trade Humming

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  • Hindu Locks Keep Human Hair Trade Humming


    Hindu Locks Keep Human Hair Trade Humming

    By Britta Sandberg
    February 19, 2008

    Halle Berry uses hair extensions. So does Angelina Jolie. Much of the hair they end up with comes from women who offer up their locks to Hindu gods in Indian temples. SPIEGEL followed one pilgrim's hair from Bangalore to Munich.

    It's a Tuesday in January, and Verena Franke is sitting in the Visage Hair salon in Munich's trendy Schwabing neighborhood. She wants longer hair because she is convinced that it's attractive and will make her look more feminine. Beyond that, she hasn't thought much about it.

    She has worked her way up to this day, saving €1,000 ($680) in tips. Having one's hair lengthened isn't cheap but, as Franke says, looks are important in her line of work.

    Franke is a bartender at a trendy Schwabing bar called the "Roxy." She is 27, her hair is of medium length and dyed black, she wears fake fingernails and has permanent make-up eyebrows. She is sitting in front of a box of 150 skeins of real black hair, known as extensions. The 45-centimeter (18-inch) extensions, color tone No. 01, arrived in today's mail. What Franke doesn't know is that her new hair extensions are now exactly 7,698 kilometers (4,781 miles) away from where they started their journey -- and that they used to belong to a woman named Manibhen Yashwanthpur. In fact, she doesn't even know that this woman exists.

    Soon the hair will be hers, when Ms. Klingspor, the owner of the salon, attaches the extensions to Franke's hair, and for a brief time the lives of these two women -- Yashwanthpur, who sacrificed her hair as an offering to the gods, and Franke, who just wanted longer hair -- will be linked in an unusual way. It's a global exchange that is being completed in this Munich salon -- between women who need more hair to feel more attractive, and other women who can supply the hair they need.

    In the past, the hair Indian women offered to the gods was used to make oil filters and fill mattresses, but all that has changed since extensions came into vogue. The hair extension business is growing at the phenomenal rate of 40 percent annually, creating a network of dealers on all continents and air shipments around the globe. And the sole purpose of all this effort is to transfer hair from one head to another.

    Many of the world's most glamorous women, including Angelina Jolie, Christina Aguilera, Cameron Diaz, Gisele Bündchen and Victoria Beckham, routinely augment their own hair with extensions. Céline Dion spends $6,000 (€4,080) each month to have fresh extensions flown in.

    In one world, simply having one's own hair is no longer enough. Hair has to be shiny, smooth, long and perfect. But in another world there are more important things than hair. Globalization brings these two worlds together.

    Hair for Lord Venkateshwara

    It's a humid day in the state of Karnataka in southern India. Manibhen Yashwanthpur was up early this morning, and after waking her husband and their two boys, she packed an orange sari into a red plastic bag. Yashwanthpur is 30 years old, a thin, serious woman who looks 40. Her hair is long and dark brown. It is beautiful hair, and today is the day she plans to offer it to Lord Venkateshwara.

    She stands in front of the shaving room in the temple of Chikkatirupathy, a small village temple with colorful figures on the roof. Her husband and their two children have accompanied her there from their home village.

    The name of the village is the same as hers, Yashwanthpur. She grew up there, met her husband there and married him 15 years ago. At some point he began drinking brandy, lots of it. He also beat her, for years, even in front of their sons. He routinely drank away the money the couple earned working at the local cement factory.

    A year ago Manibhen prayed to Lord Venkateshwara, asking him to remove the scourge of her husband's alcoholism from her family once and for all. Her husband stopped drinking a month ago. "Now if that isn't a miracle," she says, smiling for the first time.

    The temple barber wets Manibhen's hair, ties it together with rubber bands on both sides and applies his razor, exposing her scalp, bit by bit, making a scraping sound as he works. Manibhen sits in front of the barber, her legs crossed and her face unmoving. The procedure takes four minutes, and then Manibhen is bald. It will take her years to grow back the hair she had only a few minutes ago. She wraps a scarf around her shaved head.

    Shaving the head is an age-old Hindu ritual. Babies are shaved for good luck. Adults allow themselves to be shaved to thank the gods. It is a ritual about vanity, but about abandoning it, not encouraging it. Hair represents the difference between male and female, between beautiful and ugly, and hair protects and conceals. Those who sacrifice their hair are giving the gods a piece of themselves.

    Manibhen receives no compensation for her offering. "This is a tradition, not a business," says the temple manager. She doesn't know what will happen to her hair, or that, after 29 days, a depigmentation process and a color bath, it will arrive in a salon in Munich's Schwabing neighborhood. She has never heard of extensions, not to mention Schwabing.

    After the ritual, she will wash herself, put on her fresh, orange sari and pray that her children will receive a good education.

    The Chikkatirupathy village temple and modern Bangalore, where a company called SDTC Exports is based, are separated by a two-hour drive and at least a century. The road to SDTC's offices leads past flat-screen billboards and construction sites the size of soccer fields, where Bangalore's new apartment and office buildings are being built. The city grows by several square kilometers each year, swallowing up the surrounding countryside.

    Mayoor Balsara is standing in a large room holding a dark, knotted bundle in between his shoulder and his elbow, measuring it. "No gray strands, 51 centimeters, very good quality," he says. "This hair has never been chemically treated." He has purchased the hair for approximately $100 (€68). Balsara, 33, is India's biggest exporter of high-quality temple hair.

    On SDTC's factory floor, Indian women wearing white coats and masks sit in front of mountains of dark hair arranged on the floor, sorting the hair by color tone. Other women sit on low blue stools, at tables that look like small children's desks, pulling bundles of hair across something that looks like a bed of nails. Balsara will not combine Manibhen's hair with that of other women -- the normal procedure -- but will package and label it separately.

    Depending on length and thickness, a woman has an average of 200 to 300 grams (7-14 oz.) of hair on her head. In Balsara's plant, hair is arranged in bundles and laid out on the concrete floor by the kilo -- one biography next to another. Manibhen's hair, which she never had cut by more than a few centimeters, is the hair she had when she gave birth to her second son -- and the hair she had when her husband beat her. Men were seduced with the hair lying on Balsara's factory floor. Some women fell in love while wearing it, others suffered. Seen mathematically, the five tons of hair stored in the basement correspond to the fates of 20,000 different women.

    A Holy Business

    Balsara hasn't been in the business long. He studied business management in London, and eight years ago a friend came up with the idea of exporting hair. At that time, Indian temple hair was being sold at $30 (€20) a kilo. Today the going price ranges from $300 (€205) to $600 (€410). "Hair has become one of the most expensive commodities in the world," says Balsara, who exports more than three tons to Europe each month, sending it there by airfreight. Sea freight would be cheaper, but it's too slow.

    There are 300 employees at SDTC, and Balsara plans to hire another 100 this year. When the hair arrives from temples, it is washed, brushed on the nail-studded boards, sorted by length and packaged. The Indian women remove their shoes while working at SDTC, something they would normally do only in temples. Before the product is taken to the airport, the women line up in front of the crates and say a prayer of farewell. "It is a holy business," says their boss.

    Balsara recently bought a 300-square-meter (3,230-square-foot) condominium in a building that boasts a doorman, a pool, a gardener and pale marble floors in one of Bangalore's best locations. A couple from New York lives in the apartment below him, while India's best-known racecar driver lives across the hall. Balsara wears a faded green T-shirt with the Heineken logo, torn jeans and a goatee, mirroring the understated look of fashionable young Indians. When he launched his company, he was concerned that he wouldn't survive the first year. Today, he says, his only problem is: "How do I get more hair?"

    With a population of more than one billion, India offers plenty of potential suppliers of hair as a raw material. Nevertheless, the competition for temple hair is fierce. Temples now hold hair auctions, and even the right to bid at these auctions must be purchased. Prices have exploded in response to rising global demand, a fact that has not gone unnoticed among temple managers. Very few are interested in fixed agreements to sell hair at previously arranged prices anymore.

    The Largest Barbershop in the World

    Balsara sends agents around the country to search for new sources in even the smallest villages. Sometimes Balsara himself approaches bald-headed women on the street to find out where their heads were shaved -- after all, it could be a temple he hasn't heard of yet.

    Forty of his employees work directly in temples. They monitor the temples' procedures to ensure that the hair is kept properly stored, and they arrange for timely shipment of the product. The temples are permitted to spend no more than one third of their revenues from hair sales on temple expansion and renovation. The rest goes to charities, schools, orphanages and hospitals. A government agency monitors temples to ensure compliance with this quota.

    The Balati Institute for Surgery near the southern Indian city of Tirupati, for example, receives funding from temple hair sales -- revenue that is reflected in an abundance of Western high-tech equipment throughout the hospital. Balati offers operations for free that the average Indian wage earner would be unable to afford. "We are part of one of the world's biggest charitable projects," says the hospital's director. "Normally a single operation would cost €1,000 ($1,470)."

    Balati receives its donations from the country's richest temple, Tirumala-Tirupati in southern India. The temple is organized like a holding company, with a foundation managing its annual revenues of roughly €250 million ($170 million). "What else should we do with the hair, other than sell it?" the temple director asks.

    Fifty thousand pilgrims come to Tirupati each day, and about half of them, including men, have their heads shaved. Most of the hair is exported to China, where keratin is extracted from it for use in cosmetic products. There are 600 barbers working at the Tirupati temple, making it the world's largest barbershop.

    After landing at Rome's Fiumicino Airport on board a UPS flight, Manibhen's hair is loaded onto a van and driven 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the town of Nepi, where it is delivered to a company called Great Lengths. The company, which controls 60 percent of the world market for real hair extensions, processes five tons of hair each month. It recently opened a branch in China.

    "We are the Bentley of hair extensions," says David Gold, 55, the owner and founder of Great Lengths. Gold wears his own hair like a young Rudolph Valentino, together with a plaid shirt, Clarks shoes and jeans. He looks more like an obsessed inventor than a millionaire. "The best way to get a first impression," he says, walking over to one of the three helicopter landing pads on his 10-hectare (25-acre) lakeside property, "is to take a look at the entire operation from the air."

    He rolls his panorama helicopter out of the hangar, gets in and takes off. He flies over his olive grove, the main house, the guesthouse and pool, and heads across a volcanic landscape dotted with lakes toward an industrial zone. He has built three large factories on the sparse Nepi plain, the third of which was just completed. Because Gold likes to see things from the air, the name of his company is also printed on the roofs of his factories.

    An hour later he is sitting in his office, with its tiled floor and nondescript gray furniture, looking through a large glass window into the adjacent production hall. Today is a blonde day, color tone No. 9, at Great Lengths.

    Manibhen's hair is floating in a depigmentation bath in a plastic tub. The hair looked oddly lifeless when it arrived in Nepi in a cookie box lined with white paper. Tomorrow it will be dyed three shades darker, from its natural, hazelnut brown to color tone No. 1, deep black, the color the customer from Munich has requested. Only Gold, his daughter and his son know the secret formula of the osmosis bath used to remove the pigments from hair. "It's a bit like the Coca-Cola formula," he says.

    'H.B. Curly'

    The computer beeps, indicating that Gold has received an e-mail, from Los Angeles. "Halle Berry desperately needs hair by Friday," the message reads. "We know it's impossible, but please try to make it." It is already Wednesday, but the actress will get her hair, marked "H.B. curly."

    Celebrities are the company's best advertisement. When a 2005 report on American television revealed how many extensions were worn on the red carpet at that year's Oscars, the company's US sales jumped by 110 percent, to more than $20 million (€13.6 million).

    Brown cardboard boxes are lined up against the wall in the shipping area, next to Halle Berry's new hair. Each box represents a country, and the boxes contain hair for the entire world. Bosnia is next to South Africa, Venezuela is next to the United Arab Emirates, Australia is paired with Latvia and Japan with Thailand. The Chinese receive hair from Kashmir, the Indian state on China's southern border. Kashmiri hair is too thick for European heads, but just right for the Chinese. Some hair is flown back to India. Even Delhi now has a few salons that offer extensions.

    "This is happy hair," says Gold. "The people who donate it are happy to sacrifice it; the hairdressers who buy it are happy to be able to work with it; and the women who receive it are happy because they look better with it than without it. What could possibly be wrong about that?"

    Yes, what? He is talking about hair, not organs, and the vast majority of the donors have it cut off voluntarily. But there are shadier ways of obtaining human hair, and there is even something called the hair mafia. Dubious dealers sell real Ukrainian hair on the Internet, providing no information about its source, for $1,200 (€816) per kilo. Investigators have identified the Ukrainian town of Tores as a hub of the illegal hair trade.

    In Brazil, the police have noticed a growing and unsettling trend of "hair attacks" by "scalp hunters." In England, reports of forcibly shaved Russian prisoners created a scandal, mostly because Victoria Beckham said that she could not rule out that she might have been wearing the hair of Russian female inmates in her asymmetrical ponytail. "I've got Russian cell-block H on my head," the wife of famed footballer David Beckham sighed after the story appeared in the Sunday Times.

    Of course there is an illegal trade in human hair, says Gold, but his company will have no part of it. "We wouldn't be able to buy up the quantities we need from those sources." The company maintains 45 distribution offices in 53 countries. The last offer Gold received to buy his company amounted to roughly €150 million ($220 million).

    "Without Margarita," says Gold, a native Englishman, "we would never have come this far." Gold met Margarita, a hairdresser, in a salon in London's Camden Town in the 1990s. She was offering her customers hair extensions, but they wouldn't stick. Gold fell in love with Margarita and decided to search for a solution to Margarita's hair adhesion problem.

    Together with scientists, he developed a system that connects hair extensions to a person's own hair using keratin platelets, and he had it patented. The system remains the basis of his success to this day. Before long women were practically breaking down his doors, but after four weeks they returned, furiously pointing at tennis ball-like shapes on their heads. People who knew more about hair than he did explained to Gold that he had made a critical mistake: He had not accounted for the hair's direction of growth.

    Each individual hair is structured like a pinecone. If the direction of this scale-like structure is ignored, the individual hairs rub together on the head and become entangled and angled in unwanted directions. After Gold's initial mistakes, the direction of hair growth was marked: with rubber bands, in India, indicating where the tips of the hairs are located; and, in Italy, with bands of white material to which the roots are sewed.

    Despite these precautions, some of the hair still gets mixed up during the production process. It is filled into plastic bags and flown to North Africa, where 260 workers sort it, one strand at a time, so that the roots and tips are pointing in the same direction once again, and then flown back to Rome. Globalization, as it turns out, can be very hands-on.

    'An Honor to Wear this Woman's Hair'

    Verena Franke has spent the last four hours undergoing an ultrasound treatment that presses Manibhen Yashwanthpur's hair into her own hair. When the process is complete she sports a substantial mane of hair, German at the top and Indian at the bottom.

    "Super," says salon owner Renate Klingspor, "you don't see any color difference, no transition at all. That's exactly the way it should be." Klingspor wears a T-shirt with the name of her salon in rhinestones, jeans with a rhinestone belt, and blonde hair -- with extensions, of course. She describes herself as a "pioneer in the German hair extension world." She says that she discovered the ultrasound device used to attach the hair extensions in 2000. "That's when I realized that this was the machine we needed," she says, sounding like an aid worker who has discovered a new method of water purification.

    Her customer, Verena Franke, now looks a bit like Pocahontas. "It's really hot," she says, pulling on the foreign hairs. 138 of the 150 skeins have already been attached. The extensions last for six months. By then a person's own hair will have grown so that the hair extensions no longer sit properly in place. The foreign hair is removed and discarded. It could, of course, be reused, but the used-car principle doesn't exist in this industry. "Nevertheless, it's definitely worth it," says Verena. "Somehow it makes you more feminine."

    Women with hair extensions normally never discover where the hair actually comes from. But it's different in this case. When Franke hears the story of Manibhen, she gazes at the photos of the Indian woman for a long time, photos depicting her with a full head of hair and shaved bald, alone and with her family. Then she utters an astonishing sentence: "Strictly speaking, it's really an honor to be wearing this woman's hair."

    Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan,00.html
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