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On the dot .

December 22, 2013
Updated Dec 14, 2014: Always wondered why none wrote ‘on the dot’ – good to see this today:

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-sheer-power-of-the-dot/article6689635.ece?homepage=true

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Now to the original post:

that perky defiant dot of  mine …

There are many proud ways to proclaim to the world our ethnic allegiance and distinctive cultural identity under this limitless sky and one fascinating way for us Hindu women is via sporting the small dot called ‘bindhi’ or ‘sindhoor’ or ‘kumkum’ or ‘kumkuma’ or whatever in the midpoint of our foreheads.  Ideally it is placed just in between or a little above where the two eyebrows arch to meet.  There are bedazzling varieties of bindhis available in sticker forms today from the glitzy stoned designer kinds to simple, plain and casual colours.  Bindhis also come in all sizes and shapes, the most common one being the round or the typical dot.  However i am habituated to the ‘thilak’  (drop shape) right from the start. Until my 10th year or so, my mother used ‘kajal’ to draw the tilak in my forehead.  It was a black ‘thilak’ always and at that age we little girls were called ‘kanyas’ (chaste girls) who mostly sported a black thilak.  (Otherwise a black dot is allowed only as a symbol of mourning).  But once i crossed my 13th year, black was banished out of my life as inauspicious. Eversince it is maroon for me and red for most others.  Its not just with the bindhis. For us Hindus, both white and black are colours of mourning, the opposite of Arab culture! Married ladies hence never wear these colours but we do take to wearing mixed colours with splashes of black or white because black is simply irresistible! Pure black or pure white is a strict no-no but no regrets.  Saffron/Maroon/Red is our colour.

The ‘kumkum’ or vermilion is originally a turmeric compound,  saffron/red/maroon in colour mostly, credited with medicinal properties.   (Colour kumkums are also available but these are chemicals nothing more).   So as per Ayurveda, the ancient Indian school of medicine, kumkum by tradition and practice is an antiseptic first that supposedly helps in warding off infections and prevents skin irritations and allergies (and also evil eyes and mesmerism).  The dot or kumkum is seen as our ‘third eye’ (if anyone can get that!) That spot between our eyebrows or a little higher up in our forehead is the focul point of our complete concentration which is deemed a very holy and powerful point in human body in our culture.   Its the exact mid point between our temples.  The kumkum is anointed right here as a sacred symbol.  More than a religious connotation, i would say this is a holistic twist.  (refer to the link down the page.  i am not an expert but someone explains it all very nice).

(I am reminded here of my ninth standard class teacher Mrs. MAP.  (nick name).  She used to anoint the same colour of kumkum matching her sari and pearls and bangles everyday to school.  For a month she would not repeat the dress!  It was a time when sticker bindhi was not yet in vogue.  I think she used an ‘aasha’ (a base) (like my mother) first over which she would shape her kumkum so that it stuck all day long.  She is the only one in my memory to have used such a range of coloured kumkums. Everyday in my school life was made interesting by her sense of dressing!  We girls still fondly remember her for that).

But like everything else in our lives the ‘kumkum’ too has evolved with a drastic change in its appearance, texture and with its very composition in recent times.  Earlier, the red vermilion used to be in powdery form.   This is the only kumkum my mother and mother-in-law and granny and aunts ever sported.  The synthetic kumkum of today’s world was not a big hit then, and even otherwise they are traditional to the core and would never give up the turmeric kumkum for something so cheap and plastic.

The turmeric-vermilion part is now history except for in some old ‘desi’ shops and very ancient temples that get their own stuff done.   Once sported by even our menfolk, kumkum is slowly losing its appeal with youngsters today.

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tradition gives way to modernity:  traditional and trendy, the new mantra.

But for those of us caught between the two worlds – we have the present avatar of the ‘kumkum’ – in its synthetic plastic sticker form, easy and hassle-free to anoint and remove and mostly free of skin allergies except with very few rare exceptional cases.  This is less cumbersome and strips of synthetic sticker kumkum can easily fit into even our very small purses.   The innovation defeats the purpose but then for a generation torn between tradition and modernity, the present avatar of bindhi comes like a restored balance.   So we women in 30s, 40s, 50s take to the chic modern version of bindhi/kumkum/sindhoor with an eager relish as it serves us double purpose:  it means we are keeping our cultural values yet we are flexible where we need to be.

why to make the ‘Vastra Dhaanam’ (gifting of clothes or offering of new clothes to holyfires in homams/yagnas)

Reminds me of my aunt who chastises me and advises me to anoint the original traditional kumkum atleast on fridays and tuesdays and on other auspicious days in the top of my forehead where we usually part our hair upto the scalp.  Northern Indian ladies always anoint kumkum in this point, almost at the top of our heads.  ‘Its good for the woman and auspicious for the family’  insists my aunt.  ‘Once a week atleast touch the kumkum and turmeric with your hands!’ is what she keeps telling us younger women always and i try to follow her advice prudently when at home.  I know these are our precious customs, our identity and not just rituals and relics.  Frequent visits to temples also serves the purpose.  Besides, to all ‘sumanglis’ who visit my home as guests, i give away haldi-kumkum plus a blouse bit as it is family tradition in south India.  I always wondered about the significance of gifting someone with a blouse bit (a piece of cloth usually 1 meter x 1 meter,  for stitching blouses to go with saris).  I keep in stock the maroon or red blouse pieces always at home.  Last month in ‘Kala Bhairava’ homam in the Shiva temple in our street, the priest seemed to clarify my doubts finally.  He said, ‘vastra dhaanam’ (giving away of new clothes) is important because, it helps us in upping our good karma so that we might not end up clothes-less or naked in the street someday with onset of dementia for instance or owing to poverty or whatever.  Who knows, we might be able to live in dignity until our fag end, clothed decent in our senility which is not something that everyone can take for granted. No guarantee but what a fine meaning to every single religious custom of ours.  ‘So why the blouse bit’ i wondered and he said, because saris are expensive but blouse bits are something that we can also financially afford gifting someone, many people for that matter.  So the point is not that we must gift only blouse bits.    Let our hearts be large enough to gift more and more.  And again gifting a sumangli means gifting an entire family – because she is supposedly a complete woman.  Gifting/donating the poor is what is more important.

I have never heard of a better explanation for ‘vastra dhaanam.’  My temple priest is young and single, but is an ocean of wisdom. Because of him, the number of devotees in our temple has soared like never before.  In everything he seems to find something good and positive.

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The dot is one thing that has always attracted attention wherever i have been outside India (not that i have been to more than 2-3 countries).  As a sumangli or married woman, i feel incomplete or even superstitiously scared if i am not sporting my ‘bindhi’ in my preferred colour maroon.  That’s the indoctrination i have had from very early age.  May be again we are the last generation to think this way because we all have chiding mothers and aunts and grannies who still control us and reprimand us even if we are wives and mothers ourselves today!  The other day i was leaving home in a short kurthi without dupatta.  Married for over 20 years now, my MIL called me and asked me to don the dupatta first.  Said she to me, ‘the older women are not setting good examples for the young ones!’  Hahaha, here i am in my 40s!  Look at the hold of oldies on us even today!  Hi-tech Bindhis with their chumkies and stones are fancied by youngsters in present age for festive occasions.  Other than that i clearly see the interest waning in our girls in adorning the bindhi.  One reason is, our young women feel bindhis are out of place with western wear like jeans and t-shirts.  No psychological pressure works on this GenNext like it does on us from our elders in the family.  ‘Devil may care!’ is the attitude!

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Bindhi is a big diversion!

A friend once told me how she was asked to remove the dot from her forehead by her American lecturer because he found it distracting and could not concentrate around the room on every attendee!  Later after the session got over, he called her aside and sought apology.  Looks like the bindhi drew all his attention!  My friend took no offence and was amused by this little drama.

That’s the dot impact!  One has come across ‘dot busters’ a hate cult or group who were pitched against those women sporting their bindhis in public in America but there’s been no news of hostility from this end for long time now.

In my experience i found that the bindhi was readily acceptable in south east Asian countries that have exposure to Indian culture. It is even available in shop counters run by Indians.

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‘THE DOT’ IN THE MIDDLE-EAST

In the middle-east also there is a sizable Hindu/Indian population so one might think the bindhi can pass off without notice.  It does usually but it draws also skeptical glances at times from certain quarters.

Whenever one comes across Arab women, its impossible to miss a slight hint of hostility that flashes in their eyes – their only unveiled part of their physique – at the sight of the bindhi.  Indian men escape such a close scrutiny and scathing animosity flaring up in local women for the reason they don plain shirt and trousers conforming with the majority of men.  So in the physical sense, they don’t stand out but seem to merge with the ocean.  Arab men seem to be more genial than their women.   I learn from friends that many respect following of traditions even if its alien culture. Surprise here.  Not to imply that arab women are mean but women being women we are the kind of human race whose faces are mirrors of our heart barely masking the depth of our true feelings. Hindu women sporting the traditional and religious symbol – the bindhi is a statement by itself.  The bindhi alienates us, excludes us totally from them all because we are living proof in this make-believe world of theirs where they like to pretend that other cultures DO NOT exist.

Well, well, the sky and the horizon stretch to the eternity so this universe is simply too very vast for our imagination and can  accommodate Ram and Allah and Christ all at the same time, why not?  I may be a conservative vegetarian Hindu but I believe in all Gods of all faiths.  Sanatan Dharma (hindu faith) has its foundations on INCLUSION principally.  There is no word called ‘kafir’ or ‘infidel’ in our dictionary, there never will be.  So i am at ease and peace in a temple, masjid and church alike.

But a bindhi still unfriends you the very first instance you come across face to face with an arab woman of any nationality who seems to find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that this world is full of contrasting and varied people who are different and who might not agree with you on anything even an iota.  I have this to tell these people:  God made us different because SHE wanted us to be different.  (My god is a ‘She’ to me first, well, a combination of She and He 50-50 who we call ‘Ardhanaari’ – 50% Shiva and 50% Shakthi, how about that!  So i have deliberately referred to God as a ‘She’ here).

In most Arab countries including Qatar, there is honestly a good level of tolerance.  In UAE and in Oman, public practice and preaching of other cultures/faiths is allowed. There are churches and hindu temples.  In Qatar, there is freedom of worship within the privacy of one’s dwelling unit and there are no temples, but there is a single church established to cater to the US air base staff probably.  However all nationalities are welcome in this place of worship.

In general thus, Arabs do not disturb others from practising their faith in PRIVATE.   Native clothes are not frowned upon generally be it sari, salwar kameez or jeans or t-shirt or shorts from east and west as is your orientation.  Only in Saudi are the rules more stringent.   I think we cannot help the way their women seem to ‘feel’ about the bold and ‘staring’ bindhi for its daring defiance.  Anything ‘anti’ is like ‘haraam’ or sin in this part of the world.  I am relieved and happy to the extent they are broadminded and accommodating enough given their background.

I decided to include my experience as well as most of my friends here to give a perspective that’s all and not to judge anybody.  I am drawing at this conclusion after I have had this ‘hostile’ look experience with a variety of arab women ranging from Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon besides other Gulf states.  Its  not fair to generalize though and there are exceptional cases everywhere.

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the dot of curiosity!

Here is the other curious angle to the story :

Strangely and interestingly whenever i come across caucasian women in middle-east be it in malls or beaches or restaurants, i get a courteous nod with a smile from them.   I have been analyzing the reason for this pleasant acknowledgement by them for a while.  My friends tell me that these europeans and americans are curious about the dot, the bindhi, in this uniformly boring Arab world because a bindhi in this part of the world makes a quiet and defiant statement that ‘we are kafirs and proudly so!’  That we don’t conform.  That we are different.  That we are bold to announce to the world what we are!  Because these westeners are generally clad in short or long skirts and trousers and shirts or tops.  They stand out of the crowd naturally (and are our silent allies in this non-conforming fashion!).   (but why is that when westerners wear sleeveless clothes or shorts, none gives them a second look but when its the brown indian skin that is exposed, everyone unabashedly turns to give us an indecent stare?!  (by everyone i meant south Asian men in specific! don’t get their psychology!)  generally we Indian women avoid skirts (keeping with sensitivity of the natives but sleeveless kurthi is our preferred summer attire.  the fairer you are, the lesser glances you invite, but the tanner you are in your sleeveless clothes, its like the whole world wants to turn and give you a close, uncomfortable look!  hey Ram!)

A friend said she was approached by a very inquisitive German woman in a mall last week here.  The woman first time in Asia told her, when she noticed the dot in the center of a woman’s forehead in airport, she assumed it to be a mole.  Later when she saw many more in the city, she was convinced it was a different  culture, following a different belief system.  My friend affirmed to her, yes we are different, we are Hindus from India.  The woman wanted to examine bindhi and my friend felt bad for sporting a plastic sticker for the first time in her life instead of the traditional original vermilion or kumkum (which is not practical in foreign countries and which she has never even tried up until now in anycase!).  ‘What do you wear instead of (wedding) ring’ the German asked next and my friend showed her her gold ‘Mangalsutra’ worn in a gold chain around the neck.  The foreigner inspected it closely taking it in hands and was impressed.  She was even more taken in that we women are following our tradition and native culture in a distant Arab land.  My friend plaits her hair (she being a very simple soul like most south Indians although is comfortably off) and as usual she was wearing the salwar-kameez dupatta with her mother clad in a silk sari accompanying her.  Together the duo made a pretty picture 🙂  Says my friend ever since, she is respecting and valuing our culture even more now.  Looks like as a parting shot the German said, ‘don’t change anything, don’t give up, let be!’   To those of us who are like ‘cat on the wall’ questioning everything ancient and disrespecting and hating everything familial (some of us), the German seems to rub in a good moral lesson.

So what a strong statement our bindhi is really!  What an identity it gives us Hindu women?  Its the symbol of our unique culture and faith and also our marital status.  A bindhi challenges others face to face and as I confessed i have felt the wrath of some women in this part of the world for taking them on ‘psychologically’ in their own terrain.  A bindhi means no threat in truth – just a symbolic representation of wholesome Hindustani self.   But  it has come to mean the defiant women in us here in middle-east and foreign shores in general.  Back in our desi soil, its a part of us that’s all.  Its not to challenge to anyone but it is regrettable some seem to interpret it with a narrow vision.  A ‘bindhi’ is also by no means any propaganda.  Imagine in  a nation of 800 million Hindus, why do we need to advertise the bindhi.  A part of our being, its something most of us cannot do without.  So only in the middle-east i feel my bindhi is viewed like a challenge.  NOT always let me add. I feel a thousand times reassured sporting my bindhi here and every time i anoint it i reconnect with my roots and desi culture.   This is also important for me in this sea of black and white robes.  Women are like faceless here, in the sense with their faces veiled mostly.  So I need this orientation with my culture and heritage in this desert.  The bindhi seems to declare: That I am different.  I am not what you are.  I do not believe what you believe in.  Yet i am here just like you.  And why not?

In our life and culture, a woman’s wish is always that she should leave this mortal world a ‘sumangli’ with her bindhi and ‘mangalsutra’ and fresh flowers in her hair, intact.  Because these gifted to her by her father stand to be snatched from her if she loses her spouse although this kind of mentality is changing for the better.  Tamil novelist Anuradha Ramanan and Carnatic music vocalist Nithyashree Mahadevan have set precedent moving away from this cruel custom.  Why should a woman sporting sindhoor from her birth lose it when she becomes a widow?  A bindhi signifies much more than our married life.  With or without a married life, a woman is still a woman.  The bindhi thus signifies our womanhood in all forms.  Dying as a ‘sumangli’ is deemed a great honour and blessing no doubt, but a bindhi must not be mark of a woman’s marital status alone.  For all our traditional values and conservative outlook, Indian women are changing for better and they do not associate and confine bindhi to someone’s marital status.  .  A bindhi today  is a pronunciation that you are a complete woman, a reflection of how we are changing in a delightful way, traditional at heart still bold and open-minded in our ways.  So you can be a married woman, widow, with or without children, divorcee or an old maid or spinster or even a lesbian, you are still a complete woman and you DESERVE a bindhi!

So my Bindhi is Me Complete.  Period.

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Signing off now with  beautiful link :

http://www.revivaloftrueindia.com/2012/12/wear-a-bindi.html

Wear a Bindhi, Wear your Attitude!  Proudly a Hindu, Proudly an Indian!

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From → Bharatiya Naari

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