Why you should care
The Tirupati temple sees tens of thousands of pilgrims shave their heads daily.
There are many legends of how Lord Balaji, one face of the Hindu deity Vishnu, lost a portion of his hair. But while the details vary, they agree on a few things: Lord Balaji was hit on the head, and the hair ceased to grow from that spot. A woman, hoping to help, offered up some of her own flowing hair to cover the god’s bald patch.
This legend is why every day as many as 75,000 devotees visit the Tirupati Balaji temple dedicated to Lord Balaji. Pilgrims travel into the hills of Andhra Pradesh specifically to cut off their hair and offer it up in exchange for blessings. It’s the most visited temple in the world, according to the Guinness World Records book, and it’s also the richest. Every month, temple authorities auction off tons of human hair. In fact:
Barbers at the salon managed by the temple shave as many as 80 heads per day each.
That’s on holy days with a lot of traffic, but the temple’s 1,320 barbers, who work in shifts around the clock all year round, shave an average of 40 heads even on regular days. It’s estimated that they shave one head every 10 minutes, a service for which they don’t charge — and hundreds of barbers were fired in 2017 for accepting tips from believers.
Once the temple collects the hair — the most collected by any entity on the planet — it’s separated into grades. If it is longer than 31 inches, it is considered grade 1 hair. “If it is above 15 and below 30 inches, it is grade 2, and if it is shorter than 15 inches, it is grade 3. Different grade hair goes by a different price on e-auctions,” says Talari Ravi, a spokesperson for the temple.
The next step is an e-auction, which is how the temple profits from the hair. In February of this year, the temple sold at least 157 tons of hair, raking in more than $1.6 million.
The tradition has continued since Lord Balaji sustained his head injury, according to temple officials. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for change. In 2006, Tirupati changed its prohibition on female barbers and hired women to cater to female devotees who weren’t comfortable having their hair cut by a man. Now, Ravi says, there are 274 female barbers employed by the temple — though, as mandated by scripture, they can’t enter if they’re menstruating.
The custom is that once you visit the temple to ask Lord Balaji for favors, you offer your hair. Once your wish is fulfilled, you return to offer your hair again as a thank you. Head shaving is part of a more general tradition of pilgrimage — Hindu worshippers often shave their heads before undertaking such a journey as a symbolic way to shed past wrongs. Tonsuring is also seen as an abandonment of vanity. Still, only about 40 percent of pilgrims to Tirupati shave their heads.
The hair auctioned off is used for wigs and extensions around the world, but also for some unexpected purposes. Nitin Gadkari, an Indian politician and former president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, last year crowed that amino acids extracted from waste hair produced by Tirupati were such an impressive fertilizer for his garden that he established a factory to extract them on a large scale. “If there is appropriate leadership, then one can even turn waste into gold,” he told crowds.
Pilgrims might or might not get their wishes fulfilled — but the temple, at least, is cashing in on them.