Many people of India, especially those who follow the Hindu religion, wear colored markings on their foreheads and other parts of their bodies. In general, forehead markings identify a person's third eye, or what Hindus believe is the center of a person's nervous system, the area in which a person can see spiritual truths. These markings usually take the form of red, white, and black dots or lines, or combinations of dots and lines, which have either social or religious meanings. The practice of marking the body, especially the forehead, with these symbols dates back to ancient people who lived in southern Asia around 2500 B.C.E.
Many historians believe that ancient ancestors of the modern residents of India began the custom of placing symbolic marks on their foreheads. Although the exact reasons and time forehead marks began has yet to be determined, some think the red markings had their roots in an ancient practice of blood sacrifice, that is, killing animals or people as an offering to the gods. Perhaps red marks were placed on the body as a symbol of the blood offering. Other experts have uncovered ancient religious rituals where worshippers wore garlands of leaves and cut symbols and shapes out of leaves to place on their foreheads.
The modern forehead markings worn by Indian people and those of Indian descent have different names, depending on the type of marking and what the marking is made of. Red dots are called bindi or pottu. They are usually made of a paste called kumkum, which is made of turmeric powder, a yellow spice, which is common in India. The yellow turmeric is mixed with lime juice, which turns it bright red. White lines are called tilak, which is the name of the sacred white ash that is used to make them. In addition to the forehead, tilak are often placed on the chin, neck, palms, and other parts of the body.
There are two basic types of forehead markings. Religious tilak and bindi are worn by both Hindu women and men and indicate which sect, or branch, of Hinduism the wearer belongs to. There are four major sects of the Hindu religion, depending on which gods are worshipped most devoutly, and each sect is recognized by different types of forehead markings. For example, those of the Vaishnav sect honor Lords Vishnu and Krishna and mark their heads with white lines in the shape of a "v." Followers of Lord Shiva are in the Saiv sect and mark their foreheads with three horizontal lines. Many Hindus believe that people have a "third eye," which sees spiritual truths, and that this third eye is located on the forehead above and between the eyes. Many Hindu temples keep kumkum paste at the entrance, and all who visit place a dot of it on their foreheads.
The second type of forehead marking is the bindi, or dot, worn over the third eye by many Indian women, which shows whether they are married. Young, unmarried women wear a black bindi, and married women wear a bright red bindi. Widows, whose husbands have died, either wear no bindi, or wear a white dot made of ash. Mothers sometimes place black bindi on the foreheads of babies and small children for protection against evil spirits. During the late twentieth century the bindi became a fashionable form of decoration, and rather than using the traditional powder women could buy red felt bindi that stuck on the forehead. Women began to use bindi of different decorative shapes and even use gemstones, like rhinestones and pearls, for a glamorous look.
Gunda, Kavita, and Sangita Baruah. What Is That? Ann Arbor, MI: Proctor Publications, 1999.