Integral to the Indian 'way of life', jewellery was worn by men, women and children, and served a purpose beyond the gratification of the visual senses. In its design, its motifs, and the very act of wearing, jewellery expresses the essence of Indian spirituality and emits metaphorical signals in a code that is immediately comprehensible to the initiated. In a country that is historically ancient, geographically vast and culturally diverse, jewellery has perhaps been one of the great unifying factors. Meanings and forms, symbols and expressions that form part of the language of ornament, flow freely past barriers of caste and religion.
As in other human cultures of the world, in India too, jewellery was the earliest art form fashioned by man. The skin and bones of h tinted animals were intended not solely to clothe, but as a form of adornment symbolizing valour and courage. The tooth of the tiger that man killed hung around his neck to signify his triumph over the beast, and thereby ensured him a position within the community. In the course of time, jewellery communicated messages of love, hate, power, hierarchy, aggression, pride, birth, virginity, maleness, femaleness, marriage, widowhood and so on. Magic and powers of healing, good and bad luck came to be associated with gemstones and jewellery forms. Jewels functioned as a barometer of the wealth and status of the individual. The royals wore many magnificent ornaments as emblems of their rank. Specific firms such as head fillets and crowns were exclusively identified as signs of authority and omnipotence, their use limited to those who governed. More than any other material product, gold and jewels became associated with the four aspects of life that most intimately concerned mankind power, wealth, religion and health.
In classical Indian literature, individual items of jewellery were integral to the development of a plot or served as links in the story line. In the Ramayana, for example, on Sita's wedding day, her father King Janaka presented her with the head ornament (chudamani) that he himself had received from Kubera, the God of Wealth. The jewel became a symbol of herself, which she later sent to Rama, through Hallman, to conlitan their meeting. The story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta revolves around a signet ring, its loss causing Dushyanta to lose his memory, and its reappearance resulting in total recall. In the Shilappadikaram, it is the golden anklet, and in the Manimekkalai, it is the jewelled girdle which plays a key role. In the Mahabharata, in the famous gambling session between the Pandavas and Kauravas at Hastinapur, the first loss that Yuddhisthira suffered was a pearl, and then many more ornaments and gems, until the final loss of the kingdom.
The Incorruptible Metal
Irrespective of social standing or wealth, gold is coveted and worn by all in India. Even amongst the poor, who usually wear ornaments of silver, brass and bronze, a pair of simple earrings, a bangle, an amulet or the marriage tali of gold is mandatory. As a symbol of the goddess Lakshmi, who is said to preside over the "jewels and precious metals in the womb of the earth," gold personifies wealth.
The ancients referred to gold by many names. The Amarakosha, for example, lists no less than eighteen synonyms for gold;' suvarnam, that which has a beautiful colour, and hiranyam, that which is deer-coloured, were the most frequently used terms. The Sanskrit word for semen is also hiranyam. By inference therefore, gold was synonymous with life, and wearing some gold at all times was believed to ensure long life. Endowed with the properties of tejas or energy, varchas or brilliance and satyam or truth, the metal was an important prerequisite in the ritualistic context of Hindu religion.
Gold proffered as offering (dakshina) could obtain for the giver amritatvam, "the state of durability and security in which one is free from death." The purificatory potency of gold is enumerated in the Dharma Shastras, which state that penance could be performed by 'eating' gold.' Texts prescribing rituals provide that "a man who regularly performs his agnihotra ( rituals) may, when his wife comes to die, remain a widower and perform that rite by having a golden effigy of his wife or one made of kusa grass. Here gold which is regarded as a symbol of life takes the place of a person who is no longer alive."
Specific ornaments came to be associated with rituals in India. Rosaries (japa malas) made of rudraksha beads (the seeds from the fruit of the Elaeocarpus angustifolius tree) and those strung with the nine planetary gems (navaratna malas) were used for the repetition of mantras. The wearing of the gowrishankaram necklace was obligatory in the performance of rituals among followers of Shiva in Tamil Nadu. The pavitri, a purificatory ring made of kusa grass or of gold set with the nine planetary gems, was compulsorily worn by men when performing rituals. In the Harshacharita, Rajyavardhana "wore a pavitri in place of an earring inlaid with a sapphire. It seems that on account of grief at the demise of his father, Prabhakaravardhana, he gave up wearing precious ornaments but for the performance of ritual he wore ordinary ear ornaments purified by the recitation of Vedic hymns."
The Rites of Passage
In each of the sacraments (samskaras) that mark the stages in an individual's journey through life, there are specific ceremonies to invoke the blessings of the gods. The ceremonial wearing of a prescribed ornament played an integral role in these rites of passage. The presence or absence of the ornament is essential either as a statement of entry into the stage of life or as an emblem marking the transition from one stage to the next. The origin of such prescriptions lay in the belief that every person goes through uncertain times as he travels through life, when he requires the aid of something powerful to deflect the negative vibrations of the planets and his environment, and above all, to counteract the evil eye.
In the sixth or seventh month of a woman's first pregnancy, the expectant mother undergoes the simantonnayana rite or the parting of her hair. She is bedecked with jewels and special charms and lockets to protect her and the unborn child. In south India, protective bangles (valai kappu) made of gold intended to "set positive power in motion"' arc placed on her arms. Black beads and elephant hair, specially recommended for their evil-repelling qualities, are often incorporated into these bangles.
The Sankbayana Gribya Sutra prescribes that seven days after the birth of a child, a gold spoon should be used to feed the infant a mixture of butter, honey, milk, curd and water. A tiny piece of gold is tied around the right hand to confer intelligence and longevity. Bangles of gold, silver and copper arc placed on the small arm, while a simple black thread, the arai sbalangai or aranal (378, 380b), with amuletic leaf-shaped pendants and lockets, is tied around the waist. Among many communities, the dried umbilical cord of the newborn child is encased in one of these lockets, thereby re-establishing a lifeline with the mother in the early months after birth.
Nothing less than a gold spoon is prescribed to feed a young child with rice for the first time, in the annaprasana ceremony; the girl child in particular is adorned with special ornaments commemorating the weaning process. Around this time, within the first twelve months of birth, the karnaredha or ear-piercing ceremony is pertbrmed. The practice of piercing the ears of both males and females was intended to denote entry into this world and as protection against disease. The ceremony itself was a late addition to the prescribed list of Hindu sacraments, with religious sanctions attached to non-compliance. Devala, a mediaeval Smrti writer says, "All the accumulated merits disappear at the sight of a Brahmana, through whose ear-lobes do not pass the rays of the Sun." The simple single-stone ear-studs (kadukkan) worn by men of the south, were intended to illuminate their path on the arduous journey through life.
The entry of a young male into the period of learning and instruction in the Vedas is consecrated in the upanayanam or sacred thread ceremony. lit ancient India, both men and women went through the rites and were invested with the sacred thread (yagnopavita), which consisted of one or more sets of three cotton cords, tied together by a knot called the brahmagranthi, symbolic of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Amulets housing written mantras, plaques with inscriptions and elaborate terminals often decorate the sacred thread. While the divine and royal wore a gold yagnopavita, the common man wore one fashioned from cotton threads. Among royalty, the yagnopavita was in the form of several gold chains, and its presence is nconspicuous in early Indian sculptures. When the period of study was completed, the individual was given two earrings, forbidden during the period of studentship, fashioned from perfbrated pellets of sandalwood or of badari wood overlaid with gold,") embodying long life, wealth and success.
If upanayana is the most important ritual in the life of a male, vivant or marriage is the principal sacrament for a woman. On this occasion, a woman received her stridhan, mostly in the form of gold and jewels her personal property to use in times of need. Numerous ceremonies associated with the wearing of ornaments are performed, both for men and women, in the course of the many rituals related to marriage. The functions commence with the tying of golden-coloured threads around the wrists of the bride and groom, and end with the placing of toe-rings on the feet of the bride. But of the many ornaments associated with a woman's married status, the tirumangalyam, or the mangalasutra, the auspicious marriage necklace, is undoubtedly the most important. It is also the only ornament that an unmarried woman is not permitted to wear.
When the Indian reaches the twilight of his life, the ancient texts recommend simplicity and austerity, in preparation for the journey to rebirth. Ornaments take the form of rudraksha and tulsi beads, or simple items made of gold. Finally, in the funeral ceremonies (antyesti samskara), little pieces of gold are placed "on all seven openings of the head of a deceased person." Gold, which heralded new life, now transports the departed soul. The Vedas regarded gold as equivalent to prana, the vital breath.
Writer – Usha R Bala Krishnan and Meera Sushil Kumar