THE ASIAN AGE (DELHI, MUMBAI, BANGALORE, CALCUTTA, LONDON)
Sunday 22nd July, 2008
The bindi, which is symbolic of an Indian woman holds a special place in the hearts of the people. It has also been the theme of a variety of songs, which reflect the moods and traditions of Indians. The popular song, rendered beautifully by Lata Mangeshkar, Bindiya chamkegi, chudi khankegi, has been very popular. Meri bindiya, teri nindiya — a popular song of the 90s further strengthens the belief that women in India look more beautiful with the little dot on their foreheads. It is a seductive tool that is reflected in the many Bollywood songs. Who can forget the evergreen song Teri bindiya re from the ever popular movie Abhimaan?
Most Indian families make their children aware of the immense “strength” the bindi has and its auspiciousness. Women, all over, agree to shoulder this responsibility of carrying on the auspicious tradition. Indians take pride in their culture and are always eager to explain its significance to anyone who shows interest.
But symbolic of love and unity in a marriage, the bindi too, like any other object of reverence in the Hindu culture, has its share of stringent ideologies attached to it. It is common observation that in Indian customs, widows do not wear the pottu, or bindi. It is an unspoken law, which invites ostracisation and wrath of the people if broken. Wearing it after the death of a kin is perceived as insensitive and unholy by many. According to Ed Vishwanathan, author of the book, Am I a Hindu?, “In earlier times, people prayed to God, first thing in the morning after their ablutions. After the puja, a dot was marked on the forehead. A mark just above the place where the two eyebrows met. This is believed to be the seat of memory or thinking and people marked this place. This was primarily for retaining God in the memory. As people get on with their daily chores, the divine is not retained in active memory and many times man indulges in worldly pleasures. The pottu was meant to help men in those times. An act believed to help lead an honest life without driven by greed. This seat of memory, the bindu was decorated with a dot – the bindi. As everyone marked their foreheads, it acted well as a reminder. When people went out, they saw other people with marks and thus it helped them lead a humble and modest life.”
For most people today, it is more of a matter of “accessorising” than anything else. It doesn’t matter if it has many colours or if it is ornamental. It is more about a piece of ornament, used exclusively to enhance beauty. It is like a tattoo, which sticks to the forehead and if it falls off, it hardly ever gets another thought.
But, little is it realised that, this insignificant mark, was once significant, so much so, that it had a symbolic meaning.
The vibhuti is the sacred ash which is got by the performance of a homa. After the offerings are made, the fire embraces all the earthly offerings, it burns brightly reducing everything to ash. This ash is applied on the forehead to remind oneself of not just God, but also of the transience of man, the impermanence of everything and that after life man becomes one with God.
It also symbolises that the big, small and the mighty all reduce to ash and become one with the Divine. Vibhuti is also believed to absorb excess moisture from the body. Even today in many households, it is applied on the scalp of babies after their bath so that the young ones don’t catch a cold.
The sandalwood paste is popularly known for its fine fragrance. The sandalwood paste popularly called chandan is used especially by the worshippers of Vishnu. Sandalwood paste is considered to be very pure and therefore it is offered to God (signifying purity of God) and then applied. This was used by the Brahmanas. This paste is known to have cooling effect on the body and is applied on the forehead to cool the seat of memory which can heat up because of concentration.
This seat of memory is also called the Agya Chakra. It is also called the third eye. Today chandan/chandanam is used in many parts of Kerala perhaps because it helps them withstand the heat in that region.
The vermillion is used very widely. Women apply it on skin to make it glow and is also used to heal cuts and wounds. Vermillion is also a good insect repellent and so is also used in preserving old manuscripts too. Vermillion is made by adding lime/alum to turmeric.
Turmeric which is yellow then, turns red and so, becomes vermillion. Initially, it was used by men and women, but over the years women continued to use it. Kumkum or Vermillion is associated with prosperity and is applied by older women to younger women on special occasions and during the festive season of Navratri and Sankranti.
In many households in Southern India, Haldi-kumkum is offered to women who visit the house. It is a mark of respect and prayer to prosper. It is however not offered to widows.
It is believed that the colour of the kumkum comes from the colour of the blood. Animal sacrifice was rampant and the blood of the sacrifice was applied on the Goddess Kali and also all the devotees.
Thankfully, this has given way to kumkum. Traditionally it was made at home. Today, this has given way to the sophisticated sticker bindi. The sticker bindi came to existence about 20 years before and has gone through the whole process of evolution. But, what is interesting is that the kumkum which costs a few rupees has now taken the form of the bindi which boasts of even a small diamond on it and costs a lot.
That is quite a transformation to talk about. It comes in layers, shapes and colours and some of them look extremely sophisticated. There is a bindi for every mood, every season and every occasion available these days.
So, what does this mean to “today’s woman”? In today’s world, expecting the younger lot to learn about the significance is “Herculean”.
Perhaps, a better option would be to educate them and make them wear the bindi with pride. For most people it is exotic, for some, it is religious, for some others, it is ethnic or traditional but somehow, over the years, the bindi has been gradually getting ignored by masses.
It is the symbol of being Indian. The women of India should take pride in the fact that they are carrying on a tradition that was probably started by Aryans. By wearing a bindi, they respect not just the tradition, but also its history.