Name-dropped in the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata, Tirumala is holy ground for 50,000 pilgrims who arrive daily from across South Asia to seek favors from their god. In addition to monetary donations, about one in four offer their hair, which will then be offered to the gods of the marketplace, reaping a reported $10 million to $15 million each year. Including donations, the temple boasts that it takes in more money than the Vatican -- a dubious claim. In any case, temple leaders announced a plan last October to plate the walls of the sanctum sanctorum with gold. (Profits from the hair, according to the temple website, are used to support temple programs and feed the needy.)Indian hair is sold to two distinct markets. The bulk of it, some 500 tons per year from short-haired men like me, is purchased by chemical companies that use it to make fertilizer or L-cysteine, an amino acid that gives hair its strength and is used in baked goods and other products. The more lucrative hair of female pilgrims—temple employees call it "black gold"—is tied in individual bundles and brought to the tonsuring center's top floor, where women in cheap flower-print saris labor over small heaps of the stuff, sorting it by length. An armed guard frisks all who exit. There's no way anyone is going to get past him with a single precious strand.Human hair contains all sorts of secretions, including sweat and blood, plus food particles, lice, and the coconut oil many Indians use as a conditioner. Put 21 tons of the stuff in a room blooming with mildew and fungus and the stench is overpowering. One volunteer, her own long hair bound in a tight braid, appears to smile at me, but she's wearing a scrap of cloth over her nose and mouth, so she might be grimacing. It's difficult to imagine that bits of this foul-smelling heap may one day adorn the heads of American pop stars.
The export of the long hair from India was very big business in the 1960's and the demand was so much so that the prices kept on climbing to a very high level since the quantity of supply was limited. In 1970 the Japanese found out the Synthetic Hair which was much cheaper and which can be manufactured to any length you desire. With the result the entire market for Natural Human Hair collapsed for the next 10 years.In the Mid 80's people after using the Synthetic Hair for a long time came to realize that the Natural Human Hair even though expensive is far better in quality and in comfort for wigs and extensions etc. So the demand for natural hair started picking up.