Byline: Katherine Zoepf
The hair-extensions industry has made it easy to get lush tresses. Answering the moral questions it raises is more complicated.
There's just no way around itthe bald women are alarming-looking. In this small city in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, they're also everywhere: grandmothers and gawky teenagers and pretty young matrons by the hairless hundreds, walking along the road or squashed into the backs of minibuses or waiting cross-legged in the shade in front of the municipal train station. It's impossible to look directly at them, at first. Despite their gold jewelry and bright saris, their palely gleaming scalps call to mind prisoners, cancer patients, inmates of a 19th-century insane asylum.
The womenand men, too, though the sight of men with freshly shaved heads is far less startlingare religious pilgrims visiting Tirumala, a temple of the Vaishnava sect of Hinduism high in the red granite hills above the town of Tirupati. Since the ninth century, devout Hindus have been coming here to pay their respects to the resident deity, Lord Venkateswara, one of the forms of the god Vishnu. And for many of these pilgrims, a visit to the temple is not complete without tonsuringa ritual shaving off of all their hair as a gesture of devotion and gratitude to the god. These devotees believe that if they give up their hair, the god will grant them any wish. But in recent years, the practice of tonsuringaided by the implacable forces of globalizationhas also helped to make Tirumala into one of the richest religious pilgrimage sites in the world.
For the reason, look no further than the pages of the nearest celebrity gossip weekly. The lush, high-quality hair extensions beloved by celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Britney Spears, and Jessica Simpson have helped create a soaring Western demand for "temple hair," as it is often called. Temple hair most often comes from Tirumala, by far …