On a typically hot day on West Mahal Road in a town called Tirupati, South India, a thin woman with big brown eyes named Amrita Mayekar is walking purposefully – making her long pilgrimage to Lord Venkateswara at one of the many temples. Today, not unlike every other day she is wearing a bright fuscia Shalwar and matching kameez in the tradional manner. Her offering to Lord Venkateswara today will be her crowning glory; her long lustrous hair that has been freshly washed this morning with gooseberry oil and is braided neatly. Little does she know that this simple religious act will reverberate around the world.
We follow Amrita Mayekar’s journey to one of the many temples in the area and watch her take a dip in a tank called Swami Pushkarani, located outside the temple. Legend has it that Swami Pushkarani was the tank of Lord Vishnu and is a sacred tank in which visitors must bathe before being allowed in the temple. Now freshly washed, she is ready to take part in a religious ceremony called 'Tonsuring', where women must shave off their hair as a sacrifice to the God Vishnu. The woman named Amrita Mayekar, wearing her bright fuchsia Shalwar and matching kameez believes that taking part in this ceremony is a symbol that she is willing to give up her pride and vanity, and to ask the Gods for health and happiness in the future.
Amrita Mayekar sits cross-legged on the ground and bows her head before Mr. Ravi Shankar seated on a small plastic chair. He is one of the 600 official barbers who work for the temple and it’s administration, Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanamsand (or TTD as it’s known locally). He earns R10,000 (£140) a month shaving up to 35 men, women and children’s heads each day. He is also entitled to free accommodation for his family, free food cooked at the temple, and a bus pass to travel up to the hill upon which the temple is located. Mr. Ravi Shankar wets her hair and ties the strands into bunches. He then makes brisk work out of shaving Amrita Mayekar’s hair. Occasionally pausing, the barber dips his razor into a cold soapy bucket to remove the fine strands of hair then goes back to the business of shaving. Even the tiny hairs on her nape are clean, hair-free and glistening. The whole ceremony takes five minutes.
Amrita Mayekar’s hair is collected by various temple workers who bundle it into big burlap sacks, which are already filled with other hair, and is taken to a hut-shaped warehouse just behind the temple's main office – a short walk away. These sacks containing Amrita Mayekar’s wet hair are placed next to hundreds of over flowing sacks with similar contents. Then, young temple workers go about their daily business by placing thousands of these bundled wet hair sacks on the rooftop where all the hair is laid out side by side and sun-dried.
Once all the hair is dry, it is sold to a well spoken young man with a goatee called Mr. Balsara of SDTC Exports. The exact amount is uncertain, but it is estimated that Mr. Balsara buys a burlap sack for 4,200 Rupee (£60), filled to the brim with the ceremonial offering. One of these sacks containing Amrita Mayekar’s hair is taken to a factory in Bungladore, where Indian woman in white lab coats and face masks sit and have the daunting task of sorting the tonnes of hair into colour tones. In another part of the factory young women are sorting hair into different lengths.
From here the hair is boiled in 120-degree water, dried again and loaded onto ships destined for another factory in the city of Zhaoyuan, China, where Amrita Mayekar’s hair is mixed in with Chinese hair. It is then sorted and chemically coloured into 54 different shades of red, blonde and brunette. Some of this pre-coloured hair goes to a company called Hangzhou Starshine Pharmaceutical in China, where the hair is mixed with animal parts to be broken down into an amino acid, which is then used in some bakery goods.
From China, some of Amrita Mayekar’s hair is packaged into long plastic bags and sold to a well-groomed Englishman called Mr. Gold, who owns a company called Great Lengths. Mr. Gold ships some of Amrita Mayekar’s hair along with millions of other wefts of hair in various lengths and colours to all parts of the world, including the U. S. A., Canada, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, the Caribbean, Japan, Mexico and most of Europe. Some of Mr. Gold’s friends say he deals with a product called “black gold” or virgin untreated hair.
Mr. Gold Sells Amrita Mayekar’s hair to a wholesale shop called ‘Hair Development’ situated on the Mile End Road in Stepney Green in East London, where some of her hair is shelved and displayed. A charming hairdressing salon owner called Simon Forbes of ‘Antenna Hair Salon’ buys the hair and expertly places strands into some of his celebrity clientele coifs. Today a woman named Tamsin Williams proudly steps out of ‘Antenna Hair Salon’ after her hair is cut, styled and colored, a thicker, shinier and healthier mane of hair than she walked in with. A huge smile is on her face as she sees her own reflection in a shop window with the dream hair she always wanted. One thousand pounds well spent for her upcoming wedding day.
The rest of Amrita Mayekar’s hair is whisked away to the other side of the world, to 245 West 18th Street, New York, to a place called ‘Picture Ray Studios’ by legendary hairdresser Guido Palau, sporting his trademark five-day-growth beard. He will curl, crimp, tease and colour match the wefts of hair, then bind them into the hair of a svelte model in a whimsical outfit, who goes by the name of Daria Werbowy. Her new hair is piled high and wide into a modern day Elizabethan hairdo with high drama. A giant fan is moved in closer to Daria, to create a gentle breeze, the effect on her hair and blouse has a fluid graceful movement, all in front of the sharp eye and camera of a photographer named David Sims. With every flash that pops and whistles, Daria Werbowy moves into a different pose, staring straight into the barrel of David Sims’ camera as he makes rapid-fire suggestions to Daria while a song called “VCR” by the band XX is blaring on the sound system. At a later date, at a building called Conde` Naste, near Times Square New York, seated at a sleek desk, a rather stern woman with dark glasses, sharp bobbed hair and a stoic expression will approve these photos and the elegant hair that Guido Palau has created. They will be a part of fashion spread in a magazine called Vogue.
Back to Amrita Mayekar in Tirupati, India – she made a pilgrimage to a temple to perform a ceremony to put aside her own pride and vanity, and to ask the Gods for health and happiness in the future. As it turns out not only her health and happiness is achieved. At T.T.D, auctions of human hair fetched revenue of $25 million for the temple in 2007. TTD in turn gives free accommodation in Tirumala and Tirupati to pilgrims. It also provides free meals. The canteen has a capacity to feed 20,000 pilgrims a day. TTD also has more than 12 colleges and schools, as well as two hospitals.
And what of the estimated circulation of 1.2 million Vogue magazines distributed monthly around the world. The fashion industry it inspires and supports makes $400 billion a year and creates millions of jobs for young creative’s such as make-up artists, fashion designers, hairdressers, illustrators, fashion writers, magazine editors, fashion buyers, advertising agencies, and fashion bloggers, to name a few. The American cosmetics and beauty industry alone totals over $20 billion in sales and is dominated by hair and skin care products that are heavily advertised in print and on television, creating even more jobs.
Little does Amrita Mayekar know how much happiness she has given, and financial benefit to the town of Tirupati and the rest of the world. Her simple selfless act has and will reverberate around the world.
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