Over thousands of years, Indians perfected the art of looping, knotting, and twisting fabric into elaborate and elegant outfits. They applied similar techniques to their hair, twisting and tying their hair into a variety of styles too numerous to count. Hair arrangement became an art form in India. Terra-cotta, or clay, figurines and sculptures from the Indus Valley civilization dating back as far as 2500 B.C.E. depict intricate hairstyles for both men and women that reveal differences between regions and time periods. Literature from the earliest times in India also describes the importance of hairstyles.
Having long, clean, untangled hair was important to Indians. From the earliest years of Indian civilization, both men and women wore their hair long. Indians took great pride in caring for their hair. Shampooed with a type of juice and dried in the sun, hair was scented with fragrant flowers, herbs, spices, or oils. To style their hair perfectly, Indians used mirrors and combs.
In general, the hair of both men and women was combed upward into a large bun and held in place on top of the head with a cord. But this generalization reflects only the basic shape of the styled hair. The variety of styles found on sculptures is astounding and includes corkscrew curls, ponytails, chignons (a knot of hair tied at the back of the head), long single braids, and even hairstyles with rows of upturned curls piled on top of the head that made it look like a tower of flames.
To hold hair in place, Indians coated their hair with bee's wax, castor oil, and other sticky substances, or used ornaments. While the sticky substances could hold hair in styles as different as large cone-shaped buns and tight forehead curls, ornaments added sparkle as well as held the hair in place. Indian hair ornaments were as simple as an unadorned cord or as elaborate as an expertly crafted golden crown. Ribbons and strings of pearls, golden hairpins, forehead ornaments, nets, jeweled medallions, and clips are a few of the decorative accessories Indians added to their hair. Typically Indians wore several types of ornaments together. Tied with a cord on top of the head, hair could be styled with a series of pearl strings or ribbons and secured with a medallion. Then a forehead ornament could be attached.
Shaving was practiced in ancient Indian society. Most men used razor blades to shave their faces clean, although some religious men did wear full beards and long mustaches. Few men shaved their entire head bald. Those with clean-shaven heads were usually religious teachers or students. Aside from shaving all the hair off the head, some would leave a tuft of hair for tying into a knot. Fragrant flowers were occasionally secured in this knot.
Although some practices changed in India after Muslim civilizations began invading the mostly Hindu-dominated region in the sixteenth century C.E. , hair care remained important in Indian society into the twenty-first century. Modern Indians wear their hair styled in traditional ways, such as a long single braid for women, or in styles that reflect the influence of Western culture, such as a short, cropped cut for men.
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.