From Ancient Rituals To Modern Identity: The Cultural Significance Of Piercings In India

From ancient customs to modern self-expression, piercings have adapted alongside the shifting currents of society
From ancient customs to modern self-expression, piercings have adapted alongside the shifting currents of societyL: Devesh Baheti R: Painting by Raja Ravi Verma

Growing up in a Tamil household, I never really found nose rings appealing, despite my mother's persistent encouragement for me to get one. However, as I matured, I began to appreciate the idea and decided to pleasantly surprise her by getting my nose pierced. Her joy was palpable; she even shared the news with my grandmother, though she couldn't resist subtly remarking that she wished I had pierced the right side instead of the left. When I asked about her preference, she explained that it symbolises our South Indian heritage and fosters cultural unity, mentioning that some South Indian women even opt for both sides.

At 16, cultural significance didn't weigh heavily on my mind, but now, at 21, as I have embraced our traditions more earnestly, I decided to pierce the right side along with some additional ear piercings. While jewellery trends undoubtedly influenced my decision, a part of me also felt more connected to my roots. Being an Ayurveda connoisseur, my mother had a chat with me about the acupressure points associated with each piercing and their potential health benefits. It's an appealing combination — looking cool while potentially improving my health, right? This conversation sparked my curiosity about the significance of piercings, particularly within Indian culture. So, let's delve into the history and cultural connotations of piercings across India.

Piercings and adornments are not just a fashion statement but a profound expression of our rich cultural heritage. They intertwine tradition, spirituality, and self-expression with roots that stretch back through centuries. Adornments have been pivotal in diverse cultural customs; embodying rites of passage, religion, or societal standing. Across India's myriad of regions and communities, people adorn themselves with intricate jewellery and each piece resonates with its own distinctive story and prominence. From nose piercings believed to enhance femininity and fertility, to intricate ear piercings signifying marital status and familial heritage, these embellishments act as tangible symbols of one's identity and ancestral legacy while painting a vivid picture of the diversity and depth of our culture.

Interestingly, the tradition of piercings, found in ancient cultures of the Middle East, South and Central America and Central Asia, has some of its earliest documented references. The journey of this tradition to India is speculated to have occurred during the 16th century with the influx of the Mughals from Central Asia. However, others argue that its presence in ancient Ayurvedic texts dating as far back as the 1st to 8th century BCE indicates a much older lineage; adding a layer of historical intrigue to the cultural significance of piercings in India.

Mentions of rituals such as Karnavedha, documented in ancient Ayurvedic texts tracing back to the 6th century B.C., indicate that the art of piercing has deep roots in Indian culture. Traditions like piercing a baby's ears carry far more significance than mere aesthetics; they represent sacred ceremonies signifying the child's incorporation into the societal fabric and an embrace cultural conventions. Ancestors believed that adorning a baby's ears with delicate ornaments not only offered protection against evil but also symbolised blessings and prosperity. This symbolic tradition also extends to nose piercings, as evidenced by depictions of nose jewellery gracing the images of deities in paintings and sculptures across the nation.

Each region of India, along with their adornments, offers a unique perspective on the ancient practice of piercings. In the North, Karnavedha signifies the start of a child's educational and spiritual journey. In the scenic South, rituals like Kadhani Vizha honour ear piercings to promote well-being and repel negativity. The Western regions infuse their own essence into the tradition, linking Karnavedha with the blossoming of wisdom and prosperity. Amidst the Eastern peaks, Khuti marks the passage from infancy to childhood. Even the selection of nostrils for nose piercings varies: the left nostril is favoured in the North, West, and Central regions, while the South prefers the right.

As we can witness in the captivating artworks of the esteemed painter Raja Ravi Verma, women are often draped in opulent Indian attire adorned with jewellery, flowers, and other intricate details. Though Verma's masterpieces may not overtly showcase piercings, the jewellery adorning the women in his canvases holds profound cultural and symbolic significance. Through his brushstrokes, the presence or absence of nose rings subtly communicates the marital status and social standing of his female subjects. Similarly, earrings are recurrent motifs in Verma's portrayals, carrying significant symbolic weight beyond their ornamental purpose. These earrings, associated with femininity, beauty, and auspiciousness, vary in size, shape, and design, reflecting regional customs, social hierarchy, and ceremonial significance. Through his intricate portrayal of elaborate jewellery, Raja Ravi Verma glorified the timeless allure and grace of Indian femininity; ensuring the perpetuation of traditional attire and adornments in the records of art history.

Beyond their cultural significance and aesthetics, piercings potentially offer various health benefits, according to ancient scriptures and scientific theories. Ayurveda and Chinese acupuncture practices propose that piercings, particularly nose and ears, can reduce menstrual discomfort, help with childbirth, support cognitive growth, and even regulate menstrual cycles. These ancient insights harmonise seamlessly with contemporary notions of holistic wellness, emphasising the enduring relevance of ancient practices in promoting health and vitality.

In modern India, piercings have transformed, transitioning from cultural insignias to symbols of personal style and self-expression. While their traditional significance remains profound, piercings have evolved into manifestations of individuality, seamlessly merging age-old customs with contemporary trends. They serve as a bridge between people and their cultural roots; fostering a sense of connection to heritage while simultaneously distinguishing the individuals who have them as distinct markers of their personalitiy in a multicultural milieu.

Within the ornate loops of nose rings and the graceful silhouettes of earrings, unfolds the narrative of India's past, present, and future—a tale interwoven with tradition, spirituality, and the timeless allure of cultural expression. Through piercings, the past resonates with the present, offering a glimpse into a future where heritage and individuality harmonise in a celebration of India's eternal splendour.