CHENNAI // Strong religious belief and spirituality, coupled with sky-rocketing demand from western women, have made India the world leader in the hair extension trade.
The country has long been the world's biggest exporter of human hair, and companies involved in the sector estimate that the business is worth up to 8.5 billion rupees (Dh735 million) a year.
Hair is offered as a sacrifice to the hundreds of thousands of gods in the Hindu pantheon for reasons as diverse as seeking to ward off ill-health to wanting to bring luck and fortune.
The practice is common in southern India, especially at temples in Tamil Nadu state, where people from all over the country come to be shaved.
But those in the hair trade that feed off the ritual fear for the future, as modern India changes on the back of its recent economic boom, opening up the vast country to more secular, consumerist pursuits and outside influences.
George Cherian, the chief executive of Raj Hair International in the state capital, Chennai, said: "There has been a change or trend in the reduction of the younger generation going to the temple and tonsuring their hair. They might cut their hair length half-way through but not necessarily fully shave their hair."
For now though, business remains brisk. On a religious festival day, up to 1,000 people, including 50 to 60 women, undergo the ritual at the Tiruttani temple north of Chennai.
Indian women like Anandi Perumalswamy are the mainstay of the industry, even if their lives are a world away from the fancy salons in the United States and Europe, where demand for hair extensions is highest.
"Our favourite god is Lord Muruga. We had lots of problems, like debt, many types of problems," said Perumalswamy, a 45-year-old mother of two.
"I had prayed for my son to get married. I had promised that if he gets married, then I would offer my hair."
The marriage took place a few months ago and so she came to Tiruttani to uphold her part of the bargain.
Tonnes of tresses are cut every day and mostly sold at auction to wholesalers, which then prepare and export them for use across the world.
The practice has even become a lucrative sideline for temples, who use the money raised for charitable activities. Some suppliers have also gone into business themselves, cutting out the need for wholesalers.
The vogue for hair extensions among Hollywood actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow and other celebrities has pushed up demand. Cheaper synthetic hair was popular in the 1990s and caused a slump in business for Indian firms but human hair is now favoured, adding to its market value.
One kilogram of Indian hair fetches on average $250 (Dh900); 15 years ago the cost was $20 a kilo, Mr Cherian said.
The most expensive type is "remy" hair, which is shaved directly from the scalp. It makes up 25 per cent of the market; "non-remy" hair, which accounts for the rest, comes from comb waste.
"Indian hair is the most sought after for the only reason that it belongs to the Caucasian race to start with," said Mr Cherian said.
"And the natural colour, black, matches the hair colour of the Africans as well as, when bleached, the colour of the Europeans or the Americans."
The end product is supplied to women such as Fereena West, who goes to the ColourNation salon in central London, where a full head of natural Indian hair can cost more than $3,000 and take up to four hours to put in.
Ms West, a 25-year-old part-time model, said: "The hair extensions that I get, they're quality. They're 100 per cent human hair and they are quite expensive but you have to pay for what you get."