Jewelry has occupied an important part of life in India from ancient times to the present day. Evidence from the earliest Indus Valley civilizations, which flourished along the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan and which date back to 2500 B.C.E. , indicates that early Indians adorned themselves from head to toe with many varied ornaments. Although traditions have changed over the thousands of years since the beginning of Indian culture, jewelry remains an integral part of religious, regional, and social life.
The earliest forms of jewelry were amulets, or ornaments worn to protect or empower the wearer. Ornaments worn by men symbolized their power over adversaries. Some ornaments, such as a specific headdress, could be worn only by certain members of a social group: those who inherited the right or earned it. The earliest forms of jewelry were made with flowers, especially orchids, which were inserted as ornaments in a hole in the earlobe of men and boys. Metal, ivory, or crystal ornaments also adorned the earlobes. Human hair taken from the decapitated head of an enemy was also a prized ornament for men. It symbolized a boy's rise to the status of warrior. The hair was often dyed red to symbolize the blood spurting from its victim. Tiger claws and those of the Indian anteater along with animal horns were also used to adorn the body. The Naga people of northeastern India continue to practice the ancient customs that archeologists, or scientists who study past cultures, believe ancient Indians began many thousands of years ago.
As societies grew and developed throughout India, jewelry styles became more elaborate. Jewelry continued to be worn as amulets, but the materials used became quite complex. Stones were polished into beads that were worn around the neck. Strings of red coral beads began to be worn by women and children to protect them from evil. Beads of amber, a fossilized clear or yellowish substance from a cone-bearing tree, were worn to protect the health of the wearer. Traditional Indian medical practices suggest that amber will protect against sore throats and that yellow amber prevents jaundice, a deficiency of vitamin D that causes the skin to turn yellow. More elaborate amulets began to be made of metal and jewels. These amulets took many forms, including intricately engraved plates with symbols of gods and weapon-shaped amulets in the form of arrow-heads and knives.
The Mogul Empire, Indian Muslims who ruled India from 1500 to 1700 C.E. , greatly influenced Indian jewelry styles. Under Mogul rule Indian goldsmiths developed the technical skill to create beautiful jewels for the body, and Indians wore an almost infinite variety of jewelry that literally covered the wearer from head to toe.
Indian men typically wore less jewelry than women, but the varieties available to men were plentiful. Upon their heads men could adorn their turbans with pearl-tipped heron bird feathers, a fan of jewels, or an ornament shaped like a bird with a strand of pearls in its beak. Around their necks, men hung pendants, strands of pearls, or amulets made of precious metal inlaid with gemstones. Hinged armbands and bracelets adorned their upper arms and wrists.
Indians wore many rings on their fingers. Especially prized were signet rings, small circular rings with unique marks on them which were worn on the little finger or the middle finger of the right hand, and archer's thumb rings. Worn by Hindus since ancient times, signet rings were considered good luck amulets by Buddhists from the first to the tenth centuries, and prized by Muslims from the twelfth century. The archer's thumb ring was used to increase the accuracy and distance of an arrow and became popular in India during the Mogul Empire. A curved ring made of stone, especially jade, the archer's ring is worn with the curved tip pointing toward the wrist between the thumb and the forefinger. Wealthier men wore archer's rings made of gold and inlaid with gems, including diamonds and rubies.
The lower part of the body was also ornamented. A baldric, or a special belt worn diagonally across the chest from the left shoulder, supported a sword but was also a beautiful ornament made of gold brocade with enameled pieces and gemstones. Men's ankles were circled with chain bracelets. Although only the wealthiest Indian men wore this type of jewelry, they represent the extent of jewelry styles that were popular during the Mogul Empire. These styles continue to be worn in India, especially in rural areas of the north.
Women wore more jewelry than men. During the Mogul Empire women adorned their heads with coins, chains worn over their foreheads, strands of pearls, and ornaments made to look like flowers. They also had hair ornaments made of gold and jewels that covered the long braids that reached their waist. Multiple piercings in their noses as well as their ears allowed for more jewelry to be worn. Bracelets and armbands were worn in groups. Some women covered their entire upper and lower arm in bangles, wearing fifty or more at a time to signify their marriage. For ceremonies, each finger was covered with a ring attached to a chain that covered the back of the wearer's hand and attached to a bracelet with more chains. Women's waists were circled with gold belts, some with bells strung on them. Women's feet were adorned with elaborate jewelry, including toe rings and anklets.
Women wore jewelry daily, but wedding ceremonies required the most decoration. Jewelry signifying a woman's married status is very important in Indian culture. Rather than using a wedding ring as Western cultures do, Indians use a variety of regional types of ornament. In northern India women wear specific ornaments on the head, nose, wrist, and toes, while in southern India ornaments called thali signify marriage. Many other regional variations also exist. Some wear silver anklets and toe rings. Women often wear special jewelry during their wedding ceremonies and some continue to wear this jewelry during the first year of their marriage for luck.
Many traditional Indian jewelry styles continue to be worn by modern Indian women, but those living in cities have adopted Western styles as well.
Untracht, Oppi. Traditional Jewelry of India. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.