Hinduism: Dresscode | 11



Every region and every community in India has its own code of dress. Historically, most Hindu communities celebrated the body and wore clothes to enhance and adorn it.

After the arrival of Islam in Northern India in the 12th century C.E., the covering of the body initially became fashionable and then a way of depicting one’s modesty, especially in Northern India.

In the South there was less covering, and even now on ritual occasions men in the Brāhmanic communities may not wear much on the upper part of their bodies. In the North, however, women cover their heads, a custom that is completely avoided in the South.

Most women wear the Sari; they wrap a piece of cloth (varying between 6-9 yards) around the waist, and a piece of it is then draped over the breasts and over one shoulder.

While the 6-yard sari has become standard in post-independence India, there are many variations in the way it is tied. Many urban Hindu women have adopted Western clothes.

In the Hindu tradition the human body is a carrier of a person’s cosmology and worldviews:

The way Hindus care for it, adorn it, carry and move it, and dispose of it all reflect something about their engagement with the world, the universe, and the divine.

The most common, yet ambiguous, manifestation of Hindu religion and culture is the forehead mark worn by many adherents:

Traditionally women most often wear the mark, but in many parts of India male ascetics, temple priests, and devotees also put on the marks in a prominent manner:

While women wear it every day, many men wear it only for religious rituals.
These marks have several meanings:

How the mark is interpreted depends upon factors such as the gender and marital status of the person wearing it,

the occasion for which the mark is worn, the shape and materials with which it is made, the particular sectarian community from which the person comes, and occasionally a person’s caste.

At the simplest level the mark, known as a tilāka (meaning “small, like a tila” [sesame seed]), is a form of adornment with decorative value, part of a large repertoire of ornamentation used to enhance appearance.

Over the centuries men and women in India have painted different parts of their bodies and faces; the drawing of the tilāka was one central piece in this decorative exercise.

In this spirit most of the marks worn by women today are stickers in different colours and shapes with little theological value. As such, many people dismiss it as not being a “religious” mark because it seems more distinctive of a geographic region than of a religious tradition.

Kumkum, a red powder made from turmeric, is frequently dabbed onto the image of the Goddess in a temple and then distributed among the devotees. Hindus regularly use this Kumkum, which is blessed by the deity, to make their forehead marks.

Even women who wear plastic stickers often pause to put a hint of this sacred powder on their foreheads to proclaim that their husbands are alive.

The marks are not always merely decorative.
Many also denote sectarian or religious affiliation:

When worn correctly in ritual situations, the shape and colour not only indicate which god or goddess the person worships but also to which socio-religious community he or she belongs.

It also specifies which theologian or philosopher is important in the religious community from which the person hails.

Some texts and images portray the god Shiva as having a third eye in the centre of his forehead.

While most Hindus believe that this eye is unique to Shiva, occasionally, in folklore and meditative practice, it is held that all human beings have a nascent “eye” of wisdom in their foreheads.

This eye is said to generate spiritual heat and will be opened at a time of intense religious experience. Thus, the forehead mark is said to represent this third eye of wisdom.

Some interpreters say that the use of herbal powders on the skin of the forehead regulates this spiritual energy for the devotee.

A round, decorative, forehead mark is seen as a symbol of Saubhāgya (good fortune) in many texts and in popular practice in India.

Androcentric (male-centred) texts interpret good fortune for a woman as the state of being married and having her husband alive. Thus, married women often wear the mark as a symbol of their married status and as a sign of the role that they play in society.

In many communities of Hinduism, it is mandatory for the woman to remove this symbol of good fortune if she is widowed. Such practices display a long tradition of customs that belittle and objectify some women.

In certain traditions, such as the Vaishnava (followers of Vishnu), however, marital status does not affect the wearing of the sectarian mark:

A woman who belongs to any of these communities would consider herself to be in a state of “good fortune” in being a devotee of Lakshmi and Vishnu and would always wear it.