Why It's Time India Reclaims Its Forehead Markings From Forces of Hate & Intolerance

The tilaka in India often symbolises one's religious sect and belief system.
The tilaka in India often symbolises one's religious sect and belief system.Wikimedia Commons

In early 2019, Siddaramaiah — the former Chief Minister of Karnataka — roused a stir on social media for his disparaging comments about those who wear long tikas, pointing out a contractor among the inaugural crowd at the Agastya lake rejuvenation project in Badami, Karnataka. He went on to say that he’s scared of people who apply such marks on their foreheads. This stimulated the 'selfie-with-tilak' trend on Twitter in India, whereupon believers were spiritedly sporting the vermillion dab of the tilak encrusted with rice and curdled milk after a puja (ceremonial prayer) or the vibhuti (white ash) you might anoint yourself with to embrace celestial energy before stepping out of the house. Bereft of its spiritual connotations, the tilak was momentarily the third eye of a political storm, and the ex CM’s invective tapped into unfortunate stereotypes perpetuated by entities who happened to be smeared with this sacred symbol while indulging in acts of violence and discrimination.

While principally associated with Hinduism in the collective consciousness, forehead markings have also found acceptance among other South Asian communities practicing different religions, such as Buddhism and Jainism. Millions of Catholic Christians around the world too, particularly in the Philippines, commemorate the beginning of Lent by sketching a cross with ash between the brows. To brandish the seal of divinity so overtly upon your appearance is a visual representation of affiliation to a sect or ideology that is not very different from donning a hijab or a rosary. Being persecuted for wearing your faith on your sleeve, which happens to be a steadfast component of your identity, can make you feel alienated and misunderstood. Although the symbology of the tilak is the confluence of several ancient legends and concepts, it has shape shifted eternally across different hues and patterns, however, the original intention of inviting the power of tranquility to tame the restlessness of the monkey mind seems to be an overarching theme for most wearers of the holy mark.

Ash Wednesday is often commemorated with a forehead marking among Christians in South Asia.
Ash Wednesday is often commemorated with a forehead marking among Christians in South Asia.Adrees Latif (Angelus News)

Produced from burnt dried sandalwood in Hindu fire rituals, the three lines of vibhuti are also called tripundra, and these signify Lord Shiva’s threefold virtues of will, knowledge, and action. Generally ordained with a vibrant red dot in the middle, the ring finger is used to draw this symbol and bear a strong resonance with the Shaivite sect of the Hindu pantheon. Another avatar of this mark is the Urdhva pundra, imprinted with sandalwood paste or clay as two lines that form a ‘U’ character, with a third vertical line in the middle denoting an association with the Vaishnava sect or worshippers of Lord Vishnu. According to the holy epic, Shiva Purana, adherents of all varnas or castes can wear the tripundra on their bodies. Needless to say, there are also tilaks worn to diacritically illustrate the caste one belongs to, often differentiated by the shade of the pigment used — white for Brahmins, red for Kshatriyas, yellow for Vaishyas and black for Shudras — but it must be noted that this is an archaic practice and is dying out slowly. 

The 'tripundra' can be worn by believers from all castes.
The 'tripundra' can be worn by believers from all castes.Wikipedia

Each of the two major sects in Hinduism comprising those following Shiva and Vishnu respectively, branch out into numerous minor orders, each offshoot adopting its own version of the tilak encompassing diverse forms of linework and tints. The Vallabhacharyas, for example, bear a sect-mark that resembles a tuning fork with a white dot resting at the bottom in the space between the two prongs while the Hale Karnatikas of Mysuru adorn their foreheads with the holy trident.

Chandrakor or the crescent moon tika in Shaivite iconography is also widely popular, especially among the Bhonsle Maratha clan, and betokens how the mind changes like the different phases of the Moon. One should be prepared to traverse these realms of consciousness, illusion, and sound sleep to salvage what lies in the bedrock of the human psyche.

Such nuanced variations between doctrines and emblems have been woven into our socio-cultural fabric to contrive a beguiling narrative of polytheism and intricate philosophical denominations.

While unravelling the threads of this theosophical tapestry would require several dissertations, one can easily appreciate the notion that India’s religious infrastructure allows for an amplitude of deities and myths to co-exist, an allegory for the communal harmony and secularism our country’s forefathers aspired to foster among the citizenry.

Forehead markings in India can be multifarious and laden with connotations.
Forehead markings in India can be multifarious and laden with connotations.globalsecurity.org

The sindoor, on the other hand, is a tradition followed predominantly by married women dating back over 5000 years or more. First bedaubed with kumkum (turmeric or saffron powder) on a woman’s forehead by her groom on the wedding day and then self applied every day after that, the sindoor has a tenuous relationship with the ajna chakra or the third eye in Hindu folklore, meant to regulate her energies towards being in spiritual communion with the husband. Frequently the focal point for feminist discourse, the sindoor is more than just a token of patriarchal fealty and in its contemporary revival, has emerged to empower divorcees and trans women who had been heretofore excluded from wielding this tilak.

A film poster exploring the relevance of sindoor in popular culture.
A film poster exploring the relevance of sindoor in popular culture.dazeddigital.com

In an attempt to build an egalitarian society, there are many modernists who vilify and misrepresent the customs of tilak or sindoor as outmoded vestiges of a theocratic or parochial legacy, which has no place in the intellectual climate of the day and age. But if one were to recoup the damage done by those who weaponise religion and hark back at the fundamental right and free will to practice one's faith, we shall find that more often than not, most people stick to their heritage out of a sense of well intentioned pride and to feel belongingness. Moreover, as society evolves, it is also imperative that we disabuse some of the more problematic inferences and substitute them with narratives of power and inclusivity. After all, a symbol is a construct of man's invention and can be anything we choose to make of it.

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