The people of India have expended
limitless energy and creativity in the invention
of ornaments that celebrate the human body. Adorning
the visible, material body, they feel, satisfies
a universal longing for the embellishment of its
intangible counterpart, namely the human spirit.
Indeed rarely is a traditional
Indian ornament simply decorative and devoid of
inherent meaning or symbolic value. Symbols found
in Indian jewelry act as a metaphorical language
communicated from the wearer to the viewer. Such
a jewelry is created from an infinite reserve
of symbolically significant forms and images,
some obvious, some subtle, and some whose meaning
Complementary to such thought
is the conventional view where the graceful form
of a woman is said to epitomize the ideal beauty
and mystery inherent in nature. Thus befittingly
each and every part of the feminine physique including
the head, torso, limbs, and between the appended
parts - have consistently been used to support
ornaments, often in ingenious ways. The Indian
idea being that only things covered with ornaments
are beautiful. Poetry must overflow with rhetorical
ornaments (alamkara), metaphors, alliterations,
and other musical effects. The verb alam-kara,
"to adorn, to decorate," means literally
"to make enough": for the simple appearance
without ornament is "not enough"; it
is poor, disgraceful, shocking, except in the
case of an ascetic. Hence the stress on adornment
of the women, who are but the poetry of nature.
Ornamentation not only serves
to please the eyes of the beholder but also fulfils
an auspicious purpose. The impulse to adorn stems
from a deep rooted sensibility to mark every occasion
of life with auspicious symbols, designs and figures
to obtain good fortune and protection from evil.
Thus a fully bedecked woman evokes in the viewer
a deep and ingratiating feeling of tranquil contentment,
springing from an intuitive realization that evolving
before him is an image of perfect beauty, symbolically
conveying the richness and completeness which
is but natural to nature.
The ancients who translated
the abstract nuances of Indian philosophy into
images of everyday reality went even further and
canonized the adornment of the female form into
sixteen different ornaments (solah shringar),
covering her entire being from the head to toe.
The choice of the number sixteen too is not without
significance. It is a significant number among
the Hindus, and corresponds to the sixteen phases
of the life of the moon, which in turn is connected
with a woman's menstrual cycle. This is another
pointer to the feminine physiognomy being a microcosm
of the rhythms of natural processes. Further a
woman of sixteen is considered at the peak of
physical perfection in her life. At this stage
of her life the aspect of delight is most pronounced.
Her nature is to play, seek new experiences, and
to charm others to her. Her innocence attracts
to her all that is true and good. Indeed it is
common for deities to be described as eternally
sixteen years old, which is considered the most
beautiful and vigorous human age. In fact an important
goddess is named after the Sanskrit name for sixteen
(Shodashi), and is visualized as having all the
above mentioned qualities.
The sixteen ornaments said
to make up the standard repertoire of feminine
The bindi is a small ornamental
dot placed at the center of the forehead, between
The word itself is derived
from the Sanskrit bindu, meaning dot. Metaphysically
speaking, it is the dimensionless point of infinite
potential from which has originated all manifested
existence. It is further said to signify the mystical
third eye, an invisible organ of spiritual perception
and second sight, traditionally said to be situated
at a point little above the place where the eyebrows
meet. It is regarded as the channel of supreme
wisdom and sublime intuition, and is said to confer
divine knowledge. Here it is relevant to note
that the two eyes are often likened to the sun
and moon. The third symbolic eye is then said
to represent fire. The two eyes are capable of
seeing only the past and the present, but the
third eye gives a potency to the perceptive powers
making them see the future also.
Interestingly at some places
men too adorn their foreheads with this 'third
eye', but predominantly it remains a feminine
Sindoor is a deep, rich blood-red
powder applied in the parting between the hair.
Exclusively used by married women it represents
their marital status. Significantly this same
powder is an essential ingredient in Hindu rituals
(puja). In relation to women the notable characteristic
is the color of this powder. A vital red it is
symbolic of fertility and the regenerative power
inherent in women. At a practical level (especially
in India where marriages are said to be made in
heaven), it proclaims in loud terms the status
of a woman committed irrevocably, and as passionately
as the color of her sindoor, to a single individual,
and thus being out of bounds for any other.
The hook holds the tika at
the hair end, while the pendant falls on the exact
center of the forehead. This place is believed
to house the 'ajna' chakra. This chakra stands
for preservation. Thus by adorning herself with
this mark, a woman reiterates her status as the
preservator of the order of the human race. Significantly
this chakra is visualized as having two petals,
and its presiding deity is Ardhanarishvara, the
half-male, half-female androgyne. This represents
the ultimate union where no dualities exist. In
Tantric terms this signifies the union of the
male and female elements in nature, at all levels,
including the physical. Hence this ornament is
specifically associated with women about to undertake
the vows of matrimony, uniting with her mate,
and holding within herself the potential to perpetuate
the genealogy of the new clan she is thus becoming
a part of.
"The eye could
never have beheld the beautiful had it not been
made beautiful first"
Ordinarily the eye is
a comparatively neutral and receptive organ, but
when intent is added to the look it can charge
the glance with irresistible power. Every feeling
of the heart is transmitted through the eye. The
eye can communicate feelings of reverence and
sympathy, or love and lust.
The Indian poet usually
longed to sink "in the depths below depths
of the eyes of his beloved." Most poetic
similes about eyes in Indian poetry are drawn
from nature. Eyes are like the narcissus, the
almond, the lily, or "like fishes with their
long, flashing glide."
morning bath is a popular habit in India, and
sprinkling the eyes with cold water is a necessity
on account of the tropical climate. But there
exists a popular powder kohl (technically the
sulfide of antimony), also known as kajal, which
has been used from time immemorial both to brighten
and strengthen the eyes, and to darken the eyelashes.
A silver or ivory pencil, or
a fine camel's hair brush is dipped in the kohl
and passed along the borders of the lids with
a light and gentle hand, taking care to carry
the line of shading a trifle beyond the angle
of the eyes. This will cleanse the eyes and give
them a large, almond shape, delightful to look
"A fair maiden's transformation
into lovely womanhood, when she comes of age,
is indicated by the transfer of restlessness of
her feet to her eyes, the orbs whereof keep always
on the move," says an Indian sage. "When
the slow music of time begins to sing a sad song
into a woman's ears towards her prime, the flashing
of the eyes is then a very good exercise, winking
an excellent one."
Thus the highlighting of the
eye is an acknowledgement of the maturing of a
young girl in all her aspects, though the symbolism
remains primary physical. Often a poet would address
a heroine's eyes 'as deep as the sea'. Outlining
with kajal establishes two discernable banks to
these fathomless oceanic streams.
The erotic sentiment dominates
the adorning of the eye. Large eyelashes, it is
believed, make large eyes.
the Indian artist drew long spears of hair for
the eyelashes he painted.
Also kohl, freely applied,
will make each lash not only dark and bright but
also so long that it is seen in full even when
the face is turned aside.
The eyes' size is increased
by drawing a short, fine pencil mark outwards
from the corner of the lids where they join. Thus
is created that sharpness in the glance that can
let an Indian poetess say with pride to her lover:
'My eyes are not eyes, beloved,
but arrows of light;
My eyebrows are not eyebrows, but swords for your
The easiest way of preparing
kohl at home is by burning a cotton wick soaked
in mustard oil and then collecting the smoke that
arises in a silver spoon. A silver pencil is then
dipped into it and passed along the eyelids. This
is said to blacken the eyes and preserve them
against the sun and air. The eyes change to moonstones,
brilliant, glinting and flashing fire, as, in
the words of Kalidasa, "they are weighted
over by the eyelids and half closed under the
deeps of their palaces."
The nose was once believed
to be exclusively concerned with smell, but is
now established to be connected with emotional
responsivity also. In fact occultists go further,
believing it to be the 'seat' of the sixth sense.
Thus the Indian aesthetic befittingly
adorns the female nose with an inspired ornament,
which highlights its amorous connotations. Indeed
amongst the many jewels with which the Indian
woman adorns herself, the nose ornament (nath)
is the perhaps the most seductive. Ornaments
for the nose take on a variety of shapes ranging
from tiny jeweled studs resting on the curve of
the nostril, to large gold hoops that encircle
the cheek with graceful pendant pearls dangling
provocatively just above the upper lip.
can imagine the ornament making a very soft, sighing
sound, like breeze moving over pipal leaves, as
the head moves.
The length and position of
nose ornaments often came in the way of comfortable
eating, prompting the Abbe Dubois, a Christian
missionary who lived in south India in the 19th
century, to observe in amazement: "The right
nostril and the division between the two nostrils
are sometimes weighted with an ornament that hangs
down as far as the under lip. When the wearers
are at meals, they are obliged to hold up this
pendant with one hand, while feeding themselves
with the other. At first this strange ornament,
which varies with different castes, has a hideous
effect in the eyes of Europeans, but after a time,
when one becomes accustomed to it, gradually seem
less unbecoming, and at last one ends by thinking
it quite an ornament to the face."
An integral part of traditional
bridal jewelry, many aristocratic families have
a special nath brought out at weddings to be worn
by the bride. This is now perhaps the only occasion
on which today's urban woman wears the nath, evoking
its powerful seductive charm.
neck is an important occult center. Because necklaces
are often worn near the heart, they can be used
to work on emotions, or to attract or strengthen
love. By wearing a necklace of stones for example,
it is believed that we are binding ourselves with
their powers. From earliest times protective pendants,
necklaces and strings of beads, as well as elaborate
ornamental collars, were worn around the neck
to bring good luck and avert the evil eye.
Indeed among all the kinds
of jewelry, necklaces have had the maximum number
of magical properties assigned to them. In some
cases, they were designed as amulets or charms
to insure good health or wealth to the wearer.
Such necklaces could be very simple, with a gem
or carving carrying the burden of the charm, or
they could be very elaborate, glittering with
gold and gems.
In all probability the form
of the necklace was visualized with the explicit
purpose of distracting the eyes of the viewer
from the wearer's face and eyes - and thus protecting
the wearer from the dangers of the mysterious
Wicked Eye. The necklace hence also served as
a protection against any attempt at hypnotizing,
since such an effort would have had to start with
a concentrated gaze at the wearer's face, an attempt
which the necklace effectively undermined. A necklace
in this manner acted as a powerful restraint against
undesirable gentlemen trying out their charms
on virtuous maidens.
likely, the predecessor of the necklace in India
was a fresh flower garland, to which there are
a number of references in literature. One of the
more important designs of the necklace is known
as champakali, i.e. 'buds of the champa (Michelia
champaca) flower'. Many others derive inspiration
from the jasmine flower, the fragrance of which
has strong erotic connotations.
Even today, despite the emergence
of paper and plastic flower garlands, the custom
of offering fresh flower garlands has retained
earliest times long ear lobes have been regarded
as a sign of spiritual development and superior
status. Among the distinguishing marks of the
Buddha, and a sign of his greatness, were his
large ear lobes. Homer (d.c. 800 BC) and Aristotle
(d. 322 BC) reputedly also had the same characteristic.
is believed to be a close connection between the
ears and the sexual reflexes. The fleshy ear lobes,
absent in all other primates, are not, as they
appear to be, useless appendages, but erogenous
zones which in sexual excitement become swollen
and hypersensitive. In ancient times severed ears
were offered to the Mother Goddess as a substitute
for the male organs. In Egypt devotees offered
their ears to the goddess Isis, and till the early
decades of the Christian era, sculpted ears were
offered at the shrine of the Great Mother in other
parts of the Middle East.
The boring of ear lobes has
been widely practiced in all parts of the world
from early times. The purpose of this operation
is not only to facilitate the wearing of earrings
for beauty, but to protect the wearer from evil
influences, the adornments serving as talismans.
The practice was also thought to have some therapeutic
value. In certain places, ear piercing was believed
to be good for the eyes; it also sharpened the
mind and drew off 'bad humors'.
One historian attributes the
piercing to the desire to punish the ears for
overhearing what they should not hear. The earrings,
in turn, were the consolation for the pain and
suffering. It was believed that the more decorative
and expensive the earrings, the greater the consolation.
Early sculptures demonstrate
that ear ornaments were an important constituent
of Indian female attire. To the married woman,
the ear ornament was (and is) auspicious. Additionally
a woman's wealth was conspicuously visible and
the ear ornament became a statement of her status
and power; elongated ear lobes were considered
a sign of beauty and wealth - the longer the lobe,
the greater the woman's wealth. By appending ornaments
to almost every part of the ear, the woman also
ensured a continuous state of mental and physical
well being. Indeed recent studies have identified
the ear as a microcosm of the entire body - "the
point of vision in acupuncture is situated in
the center of the lobe."
The Indian woman's bejeweled
ear offers a sight that prompted the exclamation:
"European ladies are content with one appendage
to each ear, while the females of Hindustan think
it impossible to have too many."
Ancient Prakrit and Sanskrit
literature describe girls wearing fresh flowers
in their ears. A range of floral earrings of gold,
silver or precious stones that have been popular
over the centuries in India suggest that the forms
of flowers were, almost literally, translated
into precious jewelry. Most ear ornaments are
virtually bunches (jhumka) of fruits and flowers.
A particular type, known as the karnphul, i.e.
'ear-flowers' is considered particularly auspicious.
These are an important, universal, large, round
metal flower-form earring, with a central stud
at the back being the equivalent of a flower stem.
The choice of the flower as
the inspiring shape behind this conception is
not without significance. Flowers in addition
to being natural erotic stimulants, by virtue
of their association with Kama, the god of love,
are also essentially a concise symbol of nature,
condensing into a brief span of time the cycle
of birth, life, death and rebirth. In addition
it also reflects gentleness, youth, spiritual
perfection and artless innocence, qualities which
are but the fundamental attributes of feminine
Often they are so heavy that
the ear lobe dilates to the extent that the long-hanging
earrings worn in the widened orifices touch the
Foreign travelers were fascinated
by the sight of elongated ear lobes and have recorded
their astonishment. Travelling in Kerala, Edward
Terry commented on this practice among 'gentile'
women: "The flaps or nether part of their
ears are bored, when they are young, which hole
daily stretched and made wider by things kept
in it for that purpose, at last becomes so large,
that it will hold a Ring (I dare boldly say, as
a large as a little saucer) made hollow on the
sides for the flesh to rest in." Amusing
stories of ear holes the size of large eggs and
plates, through which many a bold individual attempted
to pass his arms abound.
'When she puts henna on
and dives in the river
One would think one saw fire twisting
and Running in the water.'
-- Dilsoz, 18th century AD
Unlike real tattoo, which is
permanent, some decorative patterns created on
the skin with stain or dye are not immediately
removable but, depending on the dye strength,
can last for three or four weeks. Mehndi, the
Hindi term for "henna," is one such
Men agree that mehndi patterns
on a woman evoke thrilling, erotic sensations,
perhaps because they associate mehndi with a maiden's
initiation into mature womanhood.
The custom of applying elaborate
mehndi patterns to the hands and feet is a symbol
of satisfaction and happiness in marriage among
the Hindus. This belief derives partly from the
dye's red color, universally considered to be
auspicious; and which is also the color of a bride's
dress. Mehndi is commonly applied to propitiate
Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, son of Shiva,
who overcomes obstacles and is always invoked
to attend a Hindu marriage ceremony. It is also
considered very dear to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth
and fortune. Indeed if ever there was a plant
associated with luck and prosperity, it is the
Mehndi has a great significance
in all Eastern wedding traditions, and no wedding
is complete without the decoration of the bride's
hands and feet - in many cultures on both the
front and back of the hands right up to the elbow,
and on the bottom half of the legs.
Mehndi is carried out on a
bride's hands and feet the night before the marriage
celebrations begin, often known as the 'mehndi
ki raat' or night of henna, raat meaning night.
A party of the bride's women relatives spend several
hours at this joyful task, during which they sing
appropriate songs, teasing her about her future:
"Oh, how sleep is hard
to come by, once her hands have been adorned with
the mehndi of her beloved."
"Oh, friends, come and decorate my hands
with mehndi, write my beloved's name. Just see
how auspicious this occasion is."
"Everyone's fate is held within the lines
on our palms, it is on these palms that mehndi
paints such beautiful pictures."
The mehndi night is something
like a hen night in the West, with all the bride's
female friends and relatives getting together
For the bride, the process
is therapeutic in calming and preparing her for
Mehndi signifies the strength
of love in a marriage. The darker the mehndi,
the stronger the love. The color of henna specifically
has symbolic significance because red is the color
of power and fertility. Many brides believe that
the deeper the color of the mehndi, the more passionate
the marriage. The design itself is important,
too. Sometimes the groom's name is incorporated
into the bride's complex mehndi tattoos, and it
is a delightful task to try finding it - often
taking up hours to accomplish.
After marriage, mehndi may
be applied to a woman on any auspicious occasion,
such as the birth or naming of a child.
Mehndi designs are an aspect
of folk art requiring a well-developed decorative
sense. Though the community perpetuates old patterns,
innovative designs may also be introduced, which
gradually enter the communal design repertoire.
But an interesting aspect is that whatever be
the innovation or tradition, only vegetative motifs
are used. Thus henna is an attempt to symbolically
link women with the vegetative and organic nature
of Nature, along with its associated concepts
of birth, nourishment, growth, regeneration etc.
Additionally, the purpose of
tattooing is mainly apotropaic: to it is credited
an evil-averting, magical function. Especially
in animist societies, the tattoo acts to repel
the forces of evil believed to be constantly active
and attempting to gain advantage over the unwary,
unprotected individual, causing misfortune, illness,
or even death. In India, it is believed that an
auspicious occasion like a marriage requires an
extra protection against evil forces. This is
because such occasions are celebrated with much
pomp and show, amidst a high profile, making the
probability of their being noticed by negative
forces very high. The application of henna is
thus an attempted safeguard against any such dark
As well as being a lavishly
colorful cosmetic, Mehndi is also supposed to
have many healing qualities, many herbal doctors
still recommend the use of Mehndi for some ailments,
such as dry skin and to hasten the healing of
cuts and scratches. It also acts a hair conditioner
when applied on the head and is also said to stop
hair loss by strengthening the roots of the hair.
According to Loretta Roome,
a henna expert, in societies where mehndi is traditionally
practiced, marriages are often scheduled to coincide
with ovulation. "That's part of the intention,"
she said. "It's a fertility rite. The
henna is the color of blood, representing the
breaking of the hymen. In fact, Muslims call mehndi
we who bear
Our shining loads to the temple fair.
Who will buy these delicate,
bright Rainbow-tinted circles of light?
Lustrous tokens of radiant lives
For happy daughters and happy wives."
-- Sarojini Naidu
One of the oldest art objects
in India, the bronze statuette of a dancing girl
excavated at Mohenjo Daro epitomizes the antiquity
and the universality of wrist ornaments in India.
She stands in the nude with one arm at her hip,
the other arm completely weighed down with a collection
of bangles. From then on the variety and shape
of wrist ornaments spanned the gamut of nature'
s materials and human creativity.
more than any other single jewelry form in India,
the bangle has been crafted from the widest variety
of materials. Ancient fragments testify that bangles
were made from terracotta, stone, shell, copper,
bronze, gold, silver and almost any material that
lent itself to craftsmanship. Lac and glass bangles
in a plethora of colors are a common sight in
India even today. From simple plain circlets of
metal, to ones decorated with etched and repousse
designs, to fabulous examples with bird and animal-head
terminals and studded with gems, these circlets
symbolize the potent energy of the sun.
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