Decorating and accessorizing the body plays an important part in ceremonial as well as everyday life in India, today as well as in the past. Sculptures trace the history of body decoration to the earliest civilizations in the Indus Valley, which flourished along the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan. Literature and paintings also document Indian body adornment traditions, many of which have been practiced in some form since 2500 B.C.E.
Indians use colors and patterns of makeup for various purposes. Married women signal their marital status by dyeing the center parting of their hair red. Mothers protect their babies from evil spirits by tracing their babies' eyes in black makeup and adding black decorations to their face. The color black is thought to repel harm from the delicate openings on the face. The many religious groups in India use makeup for religious purposes as well. Followers of several different religions indicate their religious devotions by wearing certain colors and patterns on their foreheads. For their wedding day, Hindu Indian women lighten their skin with rice powder, paint their face with red and black patterns, and redden the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet with henna, a reddish powder or paste made from the dried leaves of the henna bush.
Jewelry is another important decorative accessory in India. For as long as people have lived in the Indus Valley, Indians have worn beautiful rings, necklaces, and bracelets to adorn their bodies. Made of gold, silver, and bronze, decorated with carving, and imbedded with precious stones, jewelry serves to beautify all people, but especially women. Special jewelry is made to decorate every part of a woman's body, from the top of her forehead to the tips of her toes. Foreheads are draped with pearl strings; ears are pierced with long golden earrings; nostrils are pierced with studded gems; wrists and ankles are circled with jangling bracelets; and fingers and toes have rings.
Although modern Indian women who live in large cities may dress in Western styles during the twenty-first century, traditional styles of body decoration continue to be practiced in rural areas and for ceremonial occasions such as weddings.
Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. Munich, Germany: Vendome Press, 1997.
Mohapatra, R. P. Fashion Styles of Ancient India: A Study of Kalinga from Earliest Times to Sixteenth Century A.D. Delhi, India: B. R. Publishing, 1992.
Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: