Amongst the many jewels with which the Indian woman adorns herself, the nose ornament (mzt/J) is perhaps the most seductive. (ornament's for the nose take on a variety of shapes ranging from tiny jewelled studs resting on the curve of the nostril, to large gold hoops that encircle the cheek with graceful pendant pearls dangling provocatively just above the upper lip. As one of the symbols of .mul1Im_gya (marital felicity), the nose ornament crossed regional and communal boundaries, and wearing a math became mandatory for married women. In Maharashtra in particular the nut}; became an elaborate and popular jewel, with pearls ingeniously clustered into auspicious fish and mango shapes (267). The Tamil term mukkuththi (268), or the pierced nose, was the generic term used to refer to a nose stud. Women in the south usually pierce the right nostril. It was also customary until quite recently to wear nose studs on both nostrils the delicate pendant form set with gems and pearls was suspended from the septum.
The length and position of nose ornaments often came in the way of comfortable eating, prompting the Abbe Dubois, a Christian Missionary who lived in south India in the 19"‘ century, to observe in amazement: “The right nostril and the division between the two nostrils are sometimes weighted with an ornament that hangs down as far as the under lip. When the wearers are at meals, they are obliged to hold up this pendant with one hand, while feeding them with the other. At first this strange ornament, which varies with different castes, has a hideous effect in the eyes of Europeans, but after a time, when one becomes accustomed to it, gradually seems less unbecoming, and at last one ends by thinking it quite an ornament to the face.3' Historians believe that the math was introduced to India around the 8th century during the Arab invasion of Sind. The Indian custom of boring the septum of the nose, still prevailing, in the interior areas of the country which are less exposed to urban l influence, is distinctly Arabic. The term math possibly comes from the Prakrit word matha meaning a rope passed through the nose of a draft animal. The Hindi word also means lord, master and husband, which explains, or at least adds to the significance as a symbol of marriage. The far less romantic but unmistakable connection here is that the one wearing the m was now owned by her to whom she owed absolute obedience. Sanskrit words coined later to denote the nose ring were nasamuktaphul, deriving from the pearl (muktaphul) characteristically-' dangling from the circular gold wire that is passed through the nostril and the more literal nasubhusana, or nose (nasa) ornament (bhusana).
Earliest visual representations of the ornament occur in south India in a mural depicting a party of women musicians on the walls of the 14th century Tiruvambadi shrine at Trivandrum. The earliest European reference to the jewel is by Duarte Barbosa, who, in his description of the women of Vijayanagar writes that: “In the side of one of the nostrils they make a small hole, through which they put a fine gold wire with a pearl, sapphire or ruby pendant. Its frequent renderings in art and literature indicate the mztlfs growing popularity among Indian women. By the 16"‘century, wearing a was firmly entrenched convention. In the Ain-i-Alebari the author mentions four different types in his account of the slarirzgara of Indian women - [mar (‘nose bangle), (a flower shaped nose stud), lazing (a clove-shaped nose ornament) and the math (a golden circle with a ruby between two pearls, or other jewels)? Wearing a nose ring acquired a variety of interesting connotations in different communities, apart from its indication of marital status. It was considered a mark of beauty in south India, and many mothers-in-law to-be make it a condition to the selection of-.1 bride for their sons! In some Muslim families, the nose of a child was pierced and a small (nose ring) inserted in the name of a renowned saint. Amongst prostitutes, the ceremonial removal of the Math is symbolic of the loss of virginity.
The amazing range of styles and sizes of math: that are seen on special festive occasions testify the nose ornament’s immense popularity not so far back in time. An integral part of traditional bridal jewellery, many aristocratic families have a special nath brought out at weddings to be worn by the bride. This is now perhaps the only occasion on which today’s urban woman wears the nath, evoking its powerful seductive charm.
Elaborate coiffures have been the hallmark of women through every era in Indian liislvry. The ritual of a weekly oil bath and the preference for long black tresses still survives in India. Oiled, combed and plaited, the hair is adorned with garlands of jasmine buds that bloom in the hair, radiating 9 their lieady perfume in a mesmeric spell of seduction. According to g'thology, the three strands of a wom.1n’s plant are intended to symbolize the eonfluenee of India’s three most venerated rivers the Ganga, the Yainuna and the Saraswati or the Trinity, Brahma, 'isl1i1u and Shiva; yet another legend states that one strand represents the f.1ther’s house, one, the in~I-aws and the third is the woman who unites the two. Classical literature is replete with analogies of the swinging, lithe, snake like form of a long plait. Chandi Dasa, the poet, describes R-.1d hair like stilled lightning fair Face I saw her by the river. Her hair dressed with jasmine Plaited like a coiled snake.
As a symbol of fertility, the snake form has been incorporated into Ornaments in south India, the jadai- magma being the most distinct. Ornaments like the jadai-nagam, mleodi and the tlJaltzi.ramm1 are believed to harness the potent energies resident in the sirtzmcbakra located on top of the head. Such ornaments were crafted from sheet gold or set with gems using the unit system of construction, and strung to take the shape of the plate. Design motifs usually comprise flowers such as the lucre or the screwpine and mullai-pu, or jasmine - all commonly worn on the hair and also favoured by snakes, who reside in their vicinity. The jadai-nag/an; (27717) is a composite jewel made up of several elements. Right on top is the nagar, a large cobra-head form, under whose canopLord Krishna is often rendered dancing in victory over Kaliya, the snake that he vanquished.
Below this is the long, jadai in the shape of a tapering plait, ending, in a kunjalam or tassel tied at the lower end, which prevents the plait from un travelling. Other pieces in the form of a veni or garland of flowers, the sun and moon shapes, are sometimes interspersed within this basic arrangement. While flowers are the most popular design motifs for the jadai, others include such popular south Indian design motifs drawn from nature such as the w1lz' (a composite creature), the kirtimukha (the grotesque mask ), the hansa (swan) or the mayil (peacock).
The rakodi ((280)), a round ornament worn on the top of the head, has its origins in the large halo that used to decorate the heads of metal images of deities, also referred to as the sirasachakra. In the Gupta and Vakataka periods, the halo became elaborate, with lotus petal decorations, visible from the front in sculptures in the north as well as the Deccan. By the Pallava period, the 5z'm.racIml: cm became quite small, and was confined to the rear of the head. Clearly visible in bronze images of the Chola and Vijayanagar dynasty, the sirasachakra evolved into the rakodi.
Jewels such as the chutti or talaisaman (282) were worn along the parting of the hair together with emblems of the sun and moon on either side. Such ornaments were simplifications of the elaborate crowns worn by deities, and were purely decorative. In other parts of India a variety of forehead ornaments were once popular. Abu’l Fazl, in his list of jewels worn by Indian women, describes the sis-phul, an ornament for the head resembling a marigold; mang, worn along the parting of the hair; kotbiladar, comprising five bands and a long central drop; and sekrah, strings of pearls hung from the forehead and veiling the face.“ Head ornaments are a category of Indian jewels that are fast vanishing, the first to fall prey to‘ the goldsmith’s melting crucible. They are now popular largely as part of bridal attire and the traditional ornamentation of classical dancers.
Writer-Usha R. Bala Krishnan & Meera Sushil Kumar