The mangalsutra and the evolutionary symbolism of marriage
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
Last year when Shardul Kadam and Tanuja Patil began to plan their wedding, they decided that every aspect of their married life would be based on the concept of gender equality. The Pune-based couple was going to share the cost of their wedding, and Patil would not carry her husband’s last name. But since their wedding in December 2020, they have continued to practise this concept in everyday life, dividing household chores and duties, for instance, based on interest and skills instead of gender-defined roles. So, Kadam cooks and shops for the house and kitchen, while Patil, a chartered accountant, makes financial decisions and investments. “That’s because our interests lie there,” says Kadam, who works as a marketing consultant.
But as their wedding day approached last year, it occurred to Kadam, he says, that even marital traditions must be based on equality. So, at their wedding, while Kadam did tie the mangalsutra around Patil, she too tied one specifically designed for a male around his neck. Most of the women gathered were overjoyed by the gesture, Kadam recalls, while the men snickered behind his back.
Kadam owns two mangalsutras. One he wears daily, tied around his wrist. And the necklace, he wears along with traditional clothes on festive occasions like Diwali and Ganapati celebrations. “If you look at what the mangalsutra means, it is an auspicious thread, a mark of respect and love. Nowhere does it say men can’t wear it,” he says.
To some, the mangalsutra is a sacred thread that can never be removed for the duration of their marital lives. To others, it is an adornment they wear on their wedding days, which they then put in their cupboard drawers and forget till their mothers-in-law show up, or festive occasions beckon. And to some, it is even a mark of patriarchal oppression. For a vast many, the mangalsutra also serves a very utilitarian purpose. It allows Indian women to carry the necessary toolkit that allows them to meet almost all exigencies of daily life—safety pins.
To some, the mangalsutra is a sacred thread that can never be removed for the duration of their marital lives. To others, it is an adornment they wear on their wedding days, which they then put in their cupboard drawers and forget
Until recently, the mangalsutra, along with the bindi, the sindoor (vermillion), and other such traditional symbols of the married Hindu woman, was something hardly remarked upon. But in an era where questions are being asked of assumed gender roles, these markers of marital and religious identity are increasingly coming under scrutiny. Kadam may have decided to reinterpret the idea of the mangalsutra, but many now increasingly ask why should women be expected to wear it, along with the sindoor, bindi, toe rings, and other forms of marital adornment, when men are not bound to such a social convention? Last year, when the Gauhati High Court ruled in favour of divorce by accepting a husband’s contention that his wife’s refusal to wear sindoor and the shaakha pola (the shell and coral bangles worn by married Bengali women), along with other reasons, meant that she had refused to accept her marriage, it led to an outpouring of support on Twitter under the hashtag #WithoutSymbolsOfMarriage, with couples posting photos of themselves without items like the sindoor and the mangalsutra. Lately, these symbols came under an especially renewed focus. Mobs gathered online claiming offence at Diwali ads featuring women without a bindi, although otherwise impeccably dressed (leading to the #NoBindiNoBusiness campaign), and a week later, got Sabyasachi Mukherjee to pull down an ad that featured a woman in lingerie wearing the mangalsutra. Religious honour had once again been inextricably linked to a woman’s item. And yet, in one instance last year, such a symbol (in this case the bindi) wasn’t a site for protest but celebration. The Indian-American aerospace engineer and the Guidance and Controls Operations lead on the NASA Mars 2020 mission, Swati Mohan—forever to be remembered as the “Bindi woman”—created a stir online with the little black dot between her eyebrows as she announced, “Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking signs of past life.”
For all the talk of how ancient the practice of tying the mangalsutra around a bride’s neck is, historians believe it really isn’t that old. Usha Balakrishnan, a historian of Indian jewellery, points out that while one can find mentions of bridal jewellery as part of a woman’s stridhan (woman’s property) in old texts, there is no list of mandatory jewels, and certainly not that of a mangalsutra. “The whole concept of tying a mangalsutra to solemnise a marriage, of it being made of gold and set with gemstones, with a variety of designs, all of this is a modern concept,” she says.
The part of the forehead between the eyebrows where the bindi is traditionally worn is believed to be the space where the so-called hidden ‘third eye’ or ajna chakra is located. Although some have suggested that the bindi could also symbolise a drop of menstrual blood
Referring to its literal meaning (auspicious thread), Balakrishnan points out that in its earliest incarnation, it was in all likelihood tied on both men and women as part of their initiation into the period of life devoted to learning (Brahmacharya). After the custom of initiating women into this period of learning faded, over time, the thread, Balakrishnan speculates, began to be used to sanctify a woman’s marital status instead. According to her, such a sacred thread dipped in turmeric was probably used as a talisman to ward off evil. “Even today in some communities in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, on the wedding day, you see people tying a cord dipped in turmeric,” she says. “Turmeric is known to have antibiotic properties and is seen as being good for health. So, it’s like wearing a healing patch, in a way preparing the wife’s body for all the changes it will undergo, whether metaphorical or real; preparing the body for her period of fertility and that sort of thing.”
On the thread, different communities and caste groups tied different charms and amulets, she says, whether these were leaves from certain trees or plants, tiger claws, the lingam, or something else, and over time, these became stylised into the formal designs we see today among different groups. Some researchers have suggested the earliest references to the mangalsutra being tied around a bride’s neck can be found in Sangam literature, where mentions of men presenting garlands strung with either a tiger’s tooth or nail to women can be found. Balakrishnan isn’t sure of this but she points towards sculptures from the Chola period (the middle of the 9th century to the early part of the 13th century), and how many art historians speculate that what appears to be a cord tied around the neck of Goddess Parvati’s sculptures, with a little pendant-like carving in the middle, is probably the symbol of the mangalsutra.
“The custom of tying a mangalsutra on a woman probably started in the 4th or 5th century,” she says. “There’s no hard evidence really. But from an art historian’s point of view, that was the period when this big movement was going on [within Hinduism]. And it probably became compulsory around that time.”
Tracing the origins of other practices like wearing the sindoor and the bindi by married women is not easy. Many point to the findings of figurines at Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) sites, such as Nausharo, that show traces of red pigment at the parting of a woman’s hair to suggest that this practice probably originated there. But whether the people of the IVC were early Hindus or this practice was adopted by those from the later Vedic Age, is an entirely different matter.
Just like the mangalsutra, the bindi is originally believed to have been worn by both genders, too. The part of the forehead between the eyebrows where the bindi is traditionally worn is believed to be the space where the so-called hidden “third eye” or ajna chakra is located. Although some have suggested that the bindi could also symbolise a drop of menstrual blood.
In some Hindu communities, the practice of wearing a mangalsutra is entirely absent. Here, other forms of ornaments, such as the dejhoor for Kashmiris who wear it long and pierced in the cartilage of the ear, or the toe rings and glass bangles in north India, or the shaakha pola in Bengalis, Balakrishnan points out, have come to perform the same contemporary role of the mangalsutra as a signifier of a woman’s marital status.
The neck now is conspicuously empty. Above it, the forehead and the middle parting, bare. Even the mirrors on dressing tables carry just reflections and none of the telltale signs of the adhesive of a woman’s bindi. Everywhere one looks now—on crowded buses or in air-conditioned cars, inside worn-down government offices or modern office buildings built of glass and steel, on Instagram reels or inside homes—there is a noticeable absence of these traditional symbols, especially in urban areas. Women are reclaiming their necks and foreheads as their own and shedding the responsibility thrust upon them of being carriers of culture and tradition.
And with this liberation of choice has come style. The mangalsutra is going through a period of attempted reinvention. Designers such as Sabyasachi and Bvlgari (teaming up with Priyanka Chopra) have come out with new luxurious mangalsutras, pitching them as products for “modern Indian woman who takes charge of her own life.” While others have sought to reimagine it themselves, the likes of Sonam Kapoor have incorporated the zodiac signs of her husband and herself into her mangalsutra.
Amongst all these symbols, it is the bindi that has undergone the most noticeable transformation. An acquaintance, currently in her 70s, who started working at a bank in Mumbai in the late 1970s recalls how most women carried little containers of either vermillion or a liquid form of kumkum (a red turmeric powder) to touch up their bindis through the day. Some women even applied Vaseline or wax-like creams to stick the vermillion on. It wasn’t the perfect system, but they got by. In the late 1980s, when Shilpa Bindis, the first stick-on bindis punched from imported maroon felt hit the market, the bindi industry exploded. Within just years, a variety of shapes and designs came out, from matte and neon bindis to drop-shaped bindis and tiny to outrageously oversized bindis.
The founder of Shilpa Bindi, BD Topiwala, is believed to have got the idea of such a type of bindi when he observed his niece, who used to take hours to dress up, trying to apply small dots around her red bindi. “This encouraged him to do a market survey. He discovered that watercolours which were available in collapsible tubes were used as bindis. The red kumkum, though available, lacked quality. And voila, he realised there’s a huge market to be tapped,” reads the website of Paramount Cosmetics, of which Shilpa Bindi is a part.
The late 1980s and 1990s, with the explosion of the bindi market with the stick-on concept, were heady days for bindi manufacturers. Jagdish Shah, who moved from Saurashtra in Gujarat to work, like others from his village, in the hardware store business in Mumbai, found himself gravitating towards the bindi business in the late 1980s. He collaborated with a friend to establish Tanvi in 1991, among the largest bindi-manufacturing firms today. “A big market had suddenly come up. The bindi had overnight become a fashion accessory,” says Monal Shah, Jagdish’s son who now runs the bindi manufacturing part of Tanvi (they also manufacture diyas and imitation jewellery). “At first, bindis made of velvet material with simple colours were popular. But then by the mid-1990s, bindis made of plastic started coming out. And we started doing very fancy types of bindis.” By the 2000s, the computerised bindi emerged, allowing for more complex designs that were made digitally and cut by machines.
Everywhere one looks now, there is a noticeable absence of these traditional symbols (mangalsutra, bindi, sindoor) especially in urban areas. Women are reclaiming their necks and foreheads as their own and shedding the responsibility thrust upon them of being carriers of culture and tradition
The explosion of television soap operas from the 2000s, where female characters wore stylised bindis, further boosted the market. “We used to have to network with designers on TV shows to be ready for what new types of designs were going to hit the market,” Shah says. He estimates to have over 30,000 designs available. And he manufactures everything from inexpensive bindis that cost a couple of rupees to bespoke bindis, where he embeds Swarovski crystals and little diamonds that can cost over `1,500. Although over the years, inexpensive Chinese-made goods have made their way into many product categories, Shah says, the bindi market has had no such intrusion. “That’s because even if there are computerised bindis, it is still a job of skill, and no one anywhere can beat an Indian woman when she is making a bindi,” he says.
The bindi also serves to project an identity. So, while it becomes an integral component of the female BJP politicians’ physical appearance, communicating adherence to party ideals and discursive associations of the ‘good’ Hindu woman, the most conspicuous being the late BJP leader Sushma Swaraj whose trademark big red bindi and numerous bangles were paramount in the construction of her political subjectivity, according to the researcher Mary Grace Antony in her paper titled ‘On the Spot: Seeking Acceptance and Expressing Resistance through the Bindi’, Sonia Gandhi’s use of the bindi becomes a way to position herself as a desi bahu (daughter-in-law). “Gandhi utilises the bindi as a performative legitimizing symbol whereby she distances herself from her native Italian roots and alienating status as a ‘foreigner’ while communicating her strong ties to India,” Antony writes.
Not all Hindus wore the bindi. Those from Sindh did not, for instance. But when they developed a “quasi-Muslim” image after migrating to India following Partition, Chandni Doulatramani writes in Himal Southasian, Sindhis began to dilute or cloak their identity. One such practice was the adoption of the bindi. Referencing the book The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and the Partition of India by Nandita Bhavnani, Doulatramani writes, “Sindhi Hindus in Sindh practised a less Sanskritised form of Hinduism… Once they began to settle in different parts of India and restarted their lives, many were severely marginalised. The contemporary Sindhi language, for instance, mostly uses a script written from right to left in Perso-Arabic, derived from the Nastaliq script, which is visually very similar to Urdu. Sindhis have also typically been meat eaters. All this, in addition to the absence of bindis and saris in the larger Sindhi culture, gave Sindhis a ‘quasi-Muslim’ image.”
Back in 1994, Ambi Parameswaran, who was then working for the ad agency Ulka Advertising (now called DraftFCB Ulka), had already completed a new ad for the soap brand Santoor, when he realised he had broken a cardinal rule. Like many Santoor soap ads of the 1990s, the premise revolves around the protagonist—a young mother played by the model Priya Kakkar—being mistaken for a college girl.
When Parameswaran joined the ad industry in the late 1970s, he says, ads featuring married women always needed to check some boxes—that she appeared with a husband, and that she wore a sari, mangalsutra and bindi. But watching the rushes of his ad, he realised he had completely missed the absence of the bindi on his protagonist’s forehead. In his book For God’s Sake, Parameswaran recounts how he considered getting a bindi digitally inserted on his protagonist’s forehead, a process that was very expensive back then but eventually did not do it. Not only was there no flutter of discontentment, but the ad also went on to become a success, and all future iterations of the Santoor woman appeared sans bindis.
The absence of bindis, or other markers of married women like the mangalsutra, in the advertising landscape is a norm now. The portrayal of women may have rarely changed over the years, with women by and large performing the role of a housewife, but it is a rare ad, especially when selling FMCG (fast-moving consumer group) products, where one will be able to spot a mother wearing a bindi, mangalsutra or sari.
A few years ago, Parameswaran and his colleagues went through hundreds of commercials for FMCG products from 1987, 1997 and 2007, trying to find out if the ads had evolved from what he calls the “bindi–mangalsutra trap”. He found that from almost 75 per cent of the 1997 ads that showed women with a mangalsutra, the number had dropped to less than 35 per cent in 2007. The bindi reported a similar drop, too, from almost 75 per cent of women in ads in 1997 sporting a bindi to less than 30 per cent in 2007. They then turned their gaze to print advertising and analysed about 500 ads featuring women in the Femina magazine over a five-decade period starting from the 1960s. While they found the portrayal of working women in these ads went from 3 per cent of these ads in the 1960s to 16 per cent in the decade after the new millennium, the appearance of women in saris had gone from 55 per cent of the ads in the 1960s, to 9 per cent five decades later. The bindi had almost vanished in this time period from 45 per cent to 5 per cent.
Earlier this year, wondering how the trend was holding up, Parameswaran looked up a total of 100 ads for FMCG products that were featured on popular Hindi entertainment channels. He found just 10 per cent of these ads featured a woman in a sari. The bindi showed up at 17 per cent. But the mangalsutra has had the steepest fall. Just 3 per cent ads featured a woman wearing one.
In contrast, cinema and TV have done a great deal to obsess over them. Even when Ekta Kapoor broke television taboos back in 2012 when she had the protagonists of her show Bade Achhe Lagte Hain lock lips onscreen and sleep with each other, the female protagonist wakes up nude but with the mangalsutra intact. On TV soaps, in fact, entire character traits can be deduced from simply observing the bindis Kapoor’s characters sport. While the evil mother-in-law will appear in dramatic bindis that nearly stretch from the bridge of one’s nose to the hairline, her opposite number will be the docile daughter-in-law, her bindi expectedly small and timid.
Cinema, meanwhile, has moved on a bit. If in the 1997 film Chachi 420, the character of Kamal Haasan, in disguise as an elderly woman, convinces his estranged wife to wear the mangalsutra again, just about two decades later, the character of Sonam Kapoor in Veere Di Wedding (2018) is mouthing an expletive and complaining, “Jitna bhi padhlo, graduation, post-graduation. Par jab tak bench#d mangalsutra gale mein nahi lagta na, tab tak life complete nahi hoti (No matter how much you study, your life is incomplete until you have a mangalsutra around your neck).”
So, how does one account for the disappearance of these items from the advertising landscape when they continue to thrive on TV soaps, some of the ads popping up on the same time slot where TV’s bejewelled and decorated women appear? Parameswaran theorises that this could all boil down to the different roles ads and TV shows play, with ads catering to a viewer’s aspiration, and TV shows to evoke identification. “TV shows want to be part of your family, for you to sit down and watch it every day. Though dressed in expensive clothing, religious symbolism is always at play here. In ads, we know we are creating a suspension of disbelief and an aspirational appeal, so we take the liberty of showing a woman as she would like to be in five or 10 years from now,” he says.
The bindi might have once been worn only by married women, but that is changing with single women using them. Since last year, when festivals and weddings became low key as the pandemic stretched itself, many women stopped adorning themselves with the bindi
Even within a single category,Parameswaran points out, displays of these symbols vary. Advertisements for jewellery brands like Malabar Jewellers, whose promoters are a Muslim family from Kerala, he points out, will typically feature women wearing bindis. But in ads of jewellery brands like Reliance Jewels and Tanishq, one owned by a Hindu family and the other controlled by a Parsi group, typically the women featured will not be wearing a bindi. “It’s possible that you don’t want the bindi to distract the consumer’s attention. Or it’s because you are catering to a slightly ‘sophisticated’ consumer,” he says.
But even while the social conventions around these items are continuously evolving, how integral are they, from a legal perspective, in the sanctification of marriage? Can the refusal to wear these items result in the dissolution of the marriage? Courts have occasionally been drawn to decide these matters. In 1999, for instance, the Supreme Court got a case where a woman had removed her mangalsutra, and, according to her husband, even flung it at him. According to the woman, she had taken out the mangalsutra, although not flung it at him. She had grown up watching her mother and aunt remove the mangalsutra when they went to the bathroom, and that her husband, when they were alone, often asked her to remove it. There were other reasons, too, and while a lower court had granted a divorce, the Andhra High Court had reversed it.
Ruling against the divorce plea, the Supreme Court’s judgment read, “It is no doubt true that mangalsutra around the neck of a wife is a sacred thing for a Hindu wife as it symbolises continuance of married life. A Hindu wife removes her mangalsutra only after the death of her husband. But here we are not concerned with a case where a wife after tearing her mangalsutra threw at her husband and walked out of her husband’s house. Here is a case where a wife while in privacy, occasionally has been removing her mangalsutra and bangles on asking of her husband with a view to please him. If the removal of mangalsutra was something wrong amounting to mental cruelty, as submitted by learned counsel for the appellant, it was the husband who instigated his wife to commit that wrong and thus was an abettor.” In 2017, a husband approached the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court asking for a divorce because his wife never covered her head under her sari’s pallu and that she sometimes removed the vermilion from her forehead and her mangalsutra. Here, too, the court ruled against the divorce plea and held, “In the 21st century, a man would not be entitled to seek a divorce solely on the ground that his wife does not cover her head with the pallu of her saree and sometimes removes the mangalsutra and vermilion from her forehead. A woman cannot be expected to cover her head with a pallu in this century.”
And yet last year, in a decision that created quite a flutter, the Gauhati High Court ruled in favour of a divorce, as mentioned earlier, citing that she had refused to wear sindoor and shaakha pola (apart from other reasons, such as the alleged filing of false criminal cases by the wife against her husband and his family members). The decision was appealed to a larger bench. And here, too, the divorce was upheld. Making a distinction between a woman who never wore the sindoor after marriage and one who stopped wearing it since she did not consider the man her husband, the judgment read, “Surely, if the wife takes a plea on oath that she is not wearing ‘sindoor’ because she does not consider the husband as her husband, it does not indicate a surviving and happy marriage. Such a stand of the wife would hurt the husband’s feelings to a great extent. By making such a statement, the wife has repudiated the marriage.” The court also held that there were other reasons for granting the divorce, such as the cruelty inflicted by initiating false criminal proceedings.
The bindi, in comparison, has broken out of the straitjacket of tradition. It might have once been worn only by married women, but that is changing with single women using them. Since last year, when festivals and weddings became low key as the pandemic stretched itself and many women stopped adorning themselves with the bindi, Monal Shah recalls falling into a pall of gloom. “Everybody was telling me the bindi business is finished forever. Nobody is going to wear it anymore,” he says. The business has turned around in the last few months, he says, and pent-up demand has driven even higher than normal sales. “Call it tradition or fashion. But the bindi is never going away,” he says.