Women and Jewelry - The Spiritual Dimensions of Ornamentation

Article of the Month - March 2002
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The sheer variety of wristlets of India is matchless anywhere in the world. Besides being a mark of a married woman, these have enormous romantic and amorous connotations. Often the Indian poet would indicate a woman pining for union with her husband or lover by bracelets slipping from her wrist due to her becoming thin in the agony of separation from him. The tinkling sound of women's bangles is full of significant messages expressing her presence, her wish for attention, her anger or desire to exchange glances.

An important concept associated with this feminine ornament has been responsible for its continuing popularity. It is a universally accepted idea that bangles identify the wearer as a married woman, reiterating her status as the beloved of her husband and the honored mother of a family. To the Indian woman, ornaments for the wrist have always been significant emblems of marriage. Even when changing bangles, a woman never allows her arm to be completely bare. A simple string or even the end of her sari is wrapped around the arm, until the new set is worn. Undoubtedly, the most popular bangles are those made of glass, worn by women of all classes of society, rich and poor. Girls may also wear them, but, for a married woman, their symbolism makes them a necessity. Generally between eight and twelve glass bangles are worn on each wrist, twenty-four in two matching sets.

Armbands (Baajuband)

The upper arm is the place where amulets strung on a black or red thread are often tied to keep the evil eye away.

Silver Armlet from Jharkhand




It is also the spot where richly decorated armlets are worn. Unlike wristlets, the armlets need to be shaped in such a way that they remain in position through pressure. For this structural requirement, most armlets are made by suspending one or more talismanic pendants on a string or attaching to a strap which can be tightened and knotted as per the wearer's requirement.






armbandsDepending upon her community and her marital status a woman could wear a single piece of ornament, or cover the entire upper arm, from the elbow to the shoulder, with armlets made up of a variety of materials including gold, silver, ivory or shellac.

Lady with HookahThe use of the armlet is consistent with the Indian aesthetic which believes that anything beautiful must be adorned, or in other words anything unadorned is devoid of beauty. In this view point, the physical form of the female by virtue of being one of nature's most spectacular creations is an ideal playing ground for ornamentation and adornment. Thus the region between the elbow and the shoulder is given a highlighted consequence, making it an important part of the whole which is composed of a fully bedecked woman, according to the canons of the solah shringar. A perfect example of a complete, flawless beauty, if there ever existed one.

Arsi (Thumb Ring with Mirror)

The simple ring was not ignored in the vast array of larger ornament forms. Fingers are believed to function as a medium between the physical body and the spiritual body. Rings thus are an important part of the physio-metaphysical value of jewelry.

Arsi - Thumb RingThe thumb is the king of the palmar kingdom. According to anthropologists, the development of the thumb marked an important step forward in the anatomical and cultural evolution of the human race. In Chinese palmistry the thumb is considered so important, that often the whole character, state of health and future are read from the thumb alone. In Western Classical world the thumb was regarded as sacred to Venus and in hand-gestures it still has a phallic significance.

This special ring with a round format has set in its center a small, usually round but sometimes heart-shaped mirror. The ring part, meant to fit snugly round a thumb, is broad so as to bear the weight of the rest of the piece.

Arsi - Thumb Ring



Among all the rings worn on the hand, the arsi occupies a special place in a woman's heart, not only because of its impressive size, but because of the function it performs. With the mirror set into it, the young maiden wearing it (most often a bride), can look and check, by just turning the thumb, if all that was adorning her head, or her hair, was in place. Thus this unique piece of jewelry acts as a sentinel over the other ornaments contributing their efforts towards the embellishment of both a woman's physique and psyche. Much delight is associated with this ornament. Understandably, therefore, it features in songs and proverbs; and one comes across it in paintings too.





Hair Style (Keshapasharachna)

Hair is regarded in occultism as one of the most extraordinary parts of the body. It belongs to the element of earth as it is solid and tangible; to the element of water since it is free and flowing; to the element of fire since it fed from the furnace of the brain; Bathing a Princessand to the element of air since it is light and can be blown by the wind. Hair is both living, since it grows, and dead since it is without sensibility. It has its own life, grows more rapidly than anything else, and continues to grow after the death of the body. As such it constitutes a link between this world and the next.

Hair is a source of vital strength and magic power. It forms a crown encircling the head, the most sacred part of the body and is full of personal mana. It was a substitute for the whole body, and its sacrifice to the deities was an acceptable surrogate for a human victim. In Byblos in Phoenicia women had the alternative of sacrificing their virginity to strangers in honor of the goddess Ashtart, or shaving the head and offering her their hair.

The hair of women differs from that of men and was supposed to have great attractive power over men and nature. It was a temptation to the male and women were enjoined to visit temples with their hair covered so as not to distract the devout men present in the same place. Indeed witches knew the power that lay in their hair, and tossed their loosened tresses in ritual dances as a love charm, or bent down and shook their hair while uttering a curse! In many places in Europe the bride used to go to her wedding with her hair hanging freely down, but after the ceremony it was either cut a little, to signify the curtailment of her power and independence, or was bound up to symbolize her new responsibility. Letting one's hair down still implies behaving in a free and unrestrained manner.

Elaborate coiffures have been the hallmark of women through every era in Indian history. The ritual of weekly oil bath and the preference for long black tresses still survives in India.

Jasmine Flowers in HairdoOiled, combed and plaited, the hair is adorned with garlands of jasmine buds that bloom in the hair, radiating their heady perfume in a mesmeric spell of seduction.

Arranging the hair in three strands is considered the most auspicious. According to mythology, these three strands of a woman's plait are intended to symbolize the confluence of India's three most venerated rivers - the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the Saraswati - or the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Yet another legend states that one strand represents the father's house, one, the in-laws', and the third is the woman herself who unites the two.

Classical literature is replete with analogies of the swinging, lithe, snake-like form of a long plait. Chandi Dasa, the poet, describes Radha's hair:

"Like stilled lightning fair face
I saw her by the river.
Her hair dressed with jasmine,
Plaited like a coiled snake.

Indian Bridal Headgear



Often the ornamentation is a simplification of the elaborate crown worn by the deities, a further reiteration of a divine association.

Head ornaments are a category of Indian jewels that are fast vanishing. The first to fall prey to the goldsmith's melting crucible, they are now popular largely as part of bridal attire and the traditional ornamentation of classical dancers.





Lady from Ajanta



Kamarband (Ornament That Binds the Waist)

'So tender is her slender waist
It bends when a girdle of flowers is placed
-- Tirrukural (South India)

The English word 'cummerbund' and the German 'Kummerband' for waist-band are derived from the Persian kamar, waist, and bandi, a band. The word is prevalent in most northern Indian languages. The immense popularity of waist ornaments is evidenced by a large number of temple sculptures, frescoes and miniature paintings ranging from the Indus valley civilization till today, in an unbroken tradition.


The Sadhika, or the Woman Dedicated to Practising Music



Indians have always found the middle region or midriff of the female sensationally tantalizing. The quintessential garment of the Indian female the sari is designed so as to give a scandalous view of the midriff while preventing from the vision any other significant part of the anatomy.


Thus befittingly there exists an impulse to adorn it with an ornament exquisite enough to highlight its seductive allure. Hence came about the waist belt, a graceful extension of the girdle, which serves a dual purpose; it restrains the lower garment in place and is yet another embellishment to the feminine form.

Dances Of India - Kuchipudi




Designed to be held on the hip, it holds together the folds of the sari, especially in situations where women engage themselves in heavy movements like dancing. Its presence is evident in almost every female image throughout Indian history.

The waist ornament is always made up in a manner so as to conveniently hold a bunch of keys. These signify the keys to a fresh bride's new home, and her assumption of a new position of authority, in a domain where her writ runs large. Often it is handed over by the mother in law to the daughter in law, symbolically delivering over the reins to the new generation.





Anklet (Payal) and Toe Rings

Vishnupada - the Foot of Vishnu"Hail to that foot of the lusty beloved
which hits the head of the lover, that foot which
is adorned with red paste and jingling anklets
is the banner of love and which is worthy
of adoration by inclining one's head.
-- From the 5th century drama, Padataditakam (Hit by the Foot)

Feet are the support of the entire body and therefore accorded great significance. Indeed the foot is the human pedestal, in direct contact with Mother Earth, absorbing vigor from her powerful emanations.

Paradoxically in the Indian tradition, the feet are considered the humblest, most impure, and polluting part of the body, and therefore command respect by those who surrender their ego to the venerable. Humbling oneself by touching the feet of one's elders or prostrating oneself before them or worshipping the feet or sandals of a deity or a holy man are expressions of respect.

It is mentioned in the Ramayana that when Lakshmana was asked if he recognized the jewels recovered in the forest as belonging to his brother's wife Sita, he replied that he recognized neither the armlets nor the earrings. Only the anklets were familiar to him, since his gaze with reverence appropriate to the times, never strayed above Sita's feet.

Krishna adorning Radha with a PayalBy the same token of expression of submissiveness, a lover is often portrayed in art or described in literature as falling at his beloved's feet or admiring them with gentle caresses:

"The hair of the lover, who has fallen at the
feet of his beloved, are entangled in her anklets, which
indicates that he has given up his pride.
-- Prakrit Pushkarini

The feet of a nayika, worthy of a lover's affection, are abundantly adorned with anklets. He admires her feet by caressing them as a demonstration of his ultimate devotion to her.

It was in this context that Indian painting, drama, and poetry referred to men treasuring the touch of the foot of their beloved, and women lavishing great cosmetic attention to their feet and adorning them with as much care as they would take to beautify their face. The tender foot then becomes the symbol of affection and sensual desire, and plays an effective role in love-play.

In Sanskrit, the anklet is known as 'nupura,' etymologically the word nupura is connected to antah pura, the female apartments in a palace, which in the ancient times was a mysterious place, holding within itself the promise of a thousand pleasures. Indeed poets imagined that with her every step, the heroine's tinkling anklets beckoned her lover.

The Courtesan



In a charming aside, it is worthwhile mentioning here that women in some tribes are given foot bells, chains, and tinkling anklets, not only to frighten snakes away when they move outside at night, but in order that their husbands may know where they are when they cannot be seen!

The charm of the heroine's rhythmic swinging of her body and wavy skirt is enhanced by the jingling sounds of the anklets (small tinkling bells are almost always attached to anklets). These sounds inspired Indian poets to describe the motion of a nayika, the heroine in romantic Indian literature, as bewitching and seductive. The association is that she has bedecked herself with the most wonderful jewelry in anticipation of a rendezvous with her lover in a secluded grove.

Dances Of India-Matka Dance (Rajasthan)



Classical Indian dance too is not untouched by the allure of the anklet. In most Indian dances, rhythmic footwork is one of the most important elements, in combination with gestures of the arms, hands, and eye movements. The various classical texts on dance, such as the Natyashastra, provide elaborate details on the positioning of the foot and its contact with the ground, the toe and ball of the foot touching the ground or only the heels or big toe doing so. The rhythmic stamping of the foot in its various positions generates forth a rich variety of charming harmonies from the anklet, contributing not a little to the overall dance performance, suggesting subtle erotic undertones. 'Music of the ankle bells" is often how the ancients described it.

On a practical level, Amongst tribal women, long tubular bands of brass encircle the ankle all the way up to the calf to protect them against snake bites while walking through long grass.

Anklet with Attached Toe Rings





Strictly speaking, golden anklets are forbidden. This is because gold symbolizes Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, and it is considered sacrilegious to wear it on one's feet.

Finally on the feet are worn toe rings. Often these may be attached to the payal itself, with chains linking them.






Perfume (Itra)

"Refine your soul,
Refresh your thoughts,
Recharge your emotions.

The legendary reputation of Indian perfumes is upheld if we contemplate the variety of scents manufactured and used throughout the country. All scents are ascribed to divine origin, and it is fairly certain that perfume was prepared in India, as early as the 15th century BC.

Traditionally perfumes made from flowers were preferred, their fragrance complimenting and accentuating the characteristic, sensuous body odor emanating naturally from the female persona. Through the developing centuries, the use of perfume has been raised to a fine art. There are perfumes for different hours of a day, perfumes to suit each dress, fragrances to reflect the personality of different types of women according to their color, build, character, age, and even the sexual drive. The use of certain fragrances is also supposed to heighten the spirit of certain seasons, thus reflecting the moods of nature. For example, there is the haunting, heavy scent which reproduces the smell of the earth after rain; a fecund, earthy, fleshy and carnal essence, confirming the identification of women with Mother Earth. Another known as kasturi is subtly conducive to rest in the tense, heavy Indian summer. It is believed to go with yellow and orange robes, and evokes the proper mood of love for a newly wedded couple. Similarly the scent of saffron (kesar) is intoxicating in the extreme and evokes an ecstatic response like that produced by the heady influence of wine.

The Indian woman applies her perfume discreetly and cunningly, to her clothes, the lobes of her ears, her eyebrows, the palms of her hands, and other parts of her body with an artful expedience. This exercise requiring ingenuity is one which gives expression to her true character.

The Bridal Dress

The Maiden


'When in your floating robe,
Woven with red silk and golden,
In your floating robe
Held around your hips
By a broidered belt,
Showing all curves
Of your reckless body
You pass me by,
I feel come to me
A wild and mad desire.
- - From the Burmese of Asmapur, 19th century, AD.

The ancient sculptures of Sanchi, Amravati, and Khajuraho show the Indian woman's robe to be light and falling in beautiful free folds from the hips, to below the knees. There are no unhealthy, restrictive collars, and nothing to impede the free circulation of blood. The dress facilitates free body movement. This dressing tradition continues to the present day.

The bridal dress has a quasi-sacred status. It is nearly always of a deep red color.

Red is considered auspicious because it has several emotional, sexual and fertility-related qualities, making it a suitable color for brides. It also signifies the virginal status of the bride. Indeed in some traditions, the nuptial bed is inspected after the first night for traces of blood, which confirm that the lady in question was a virgin before marriage. In India it is stressed that virginity should be a gift from a wife to her husband on their first night together.

Hand Woven Paisley Sari with Embroidery All Over from Banaras





Further highlighting its import is the weighty embroidery embellished with various motifs and metaphors all emphasizing the fertility symbolism and vegetative associations, linked to creation and growth.

Indian Bridal Dress




Sometimes minutely ornamented all over, the view of a new, bedecked bride draped in this garment, colored the color of passi on, is a breathtaking one.

The bridal garment is without exception extremely rich in all aspects, reiterating the significance of this momentous event in the life of an individual.






The MaidenOf a richly sensuous disposition, the ancient people of India insisted that their sensuality be refined with thought:

'In restless brow and twinkle of the eye,
In smiling modesty and gentle tones,
In graceful gait and posture, woman owns
A beauty parlor and an armory
- - Bhartihari (c. 600 AD)

Indeed woman is beauty at its active and sportive best. The ancients found in a woman's walk the same majestic yet lithe and graceful rhythm as in the steps of a peacock. In the playfulness of a young maiden was discovered the charm of a deer leaping across a jungle stream. An alert woman, with her necklaces resting on her full breasts, was compared to a sloping hill with a sunlit cascade coursing down its sides.

It was believed that just a woman beautifies her home so should she her body. Such a combination was supposed to invite blessings and prosperity from the gods.

If it is true for humans that to beautify the mind is to beautify the body, the converse is equally true: to beautify the body is to beautify the soul. Creative Indian psychology nurtured a positive attitude. The desire to cultivate physical beauty was not considered shameful and superficial. The philosophers of love, like Vatsyayana in the Kama Sutra, advise that the art of makeup be practiced as a ritual. Even the 'plainest' woman adorns herself, she doe not resign herself to her fate that either one is beautiful or not, and there is the end to it.

The essential significance of the above exegesis can be summed up in the fact that in the canons of Indian art, whenever a lady was represented in the nude, i.e. without any trace of clothing, her glorified physical form always carried the same weight of jewelry which she would have worn, when fully clothed.

Thus rightly said A.K. Coomarswamy, noted authority on Oriental Art:

"One needs to be an Indian woman,
born and bred in the great tradition,
to realize the sense of power that
such jewels as earrings and anklets
lend their wearers; she knows
the full delight of swinging jewels
touching her cheek at every step,
and the fascination of the
tinkling bells upon her anklets

It is reassuring and pleasurable to observe that these traditional values are still held valuable in the India of today.

References and Further Reading

  • Alamkara (5000 years of Indian Art); Published by National Heritage Board, Singapore, in association with Mapin Publishing, India, 1994.
  • Anand, Mulk Raj. The Book of Indian Beauty: New Delhi, 1993.
  • Bajpai, Rajendra. The Eye in Art: New Delhi, 1991.
  • Bala Krishnan, Usha R., and Kumar, Meera Sushil. Dance of the Peacocok (Jewellery Traditions of India): Bombay, 2001.
  • Cudlipp, Edythe. Jewelry: New York, 1980.
  • Goswamy, B.N. Piety and Splendour: The Sikh Heritage in Art (Exhibition catalogue): New Delhi, 2000.
  • Jain-Neubauer, Jutta. Chandrika (Silver Ornaments of India): New Delhi, 2001.
  • Jain-Neubauer, Jutta. Feet and Footwear in Indian Culture: The Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto in association with Mapin Publishing, India, 2000.
  • Lynton, Linda (Photographs by Sanjay K. Singh). The Sari: New York, 1995.
  • Paine, Sheila. Embroidered Textiles (Traditional Patterns from Five Continents): London, 1997.
  • Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997.
  • Untracht, Oppi. Traditional Jewelry of India: London, 1997.
  • Walker, Benjamin. Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man: London, 1977.
  • Zimmer, Heinrich. The Art of Indian Asia; Its Mythology and Transformation (two vols.): Delhi, 2001.

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