Makeup in Ancient India

Men and women wear bindis to enhance beauty and spiritual vitality.
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Ancient Indians of both genders applied a number of different makeup products. While makeup is generally seen as merely superficial, to Indians, cosmetics were a means of practicing their religion and culture. In some cases, products were reserved for special occasions; in others, they were used regularly to enhance the wearer's luck, beauty, spirituality and status.

1 Kajal-Rimmed Eyes

To this day, Indian women use kajal to enhance their eyes, applying it to the waterline, eyelashes and outer rims of their eyes. Unlike the kohl of Africa and the Middle East, Indian kajal contains no lead components. Instead, they would prepare the kajal by dipping a clean muslin rag in a paste made of sandalwood, used for its perceived medicinal properties. When the rag was dry, the women would burn it in a lamp of castor oil. Next, they would combine the carbon remains with castor oil or ghee (clarified butter) for easier application. Indians applied the resulting kajal regardless of their gender or age. Women would even apply eyeliner to their babies', believing it would strengthen and protect the eyes.

2 Fair as Snow

The caste, or class, system in India is based on birth and wealth. However, because the members of higher castes often, but don't always, have paler skin, many Indians still consider fair skin a hallmark of beauty due to its association with status. In ancient times, Indians would create a skin-bleaching cosmetic by mixing together costus root, sesame seeds, lebbeck leaves, pongamia pea plant leaves, cedar wood and barberry wood together. They would then roast the mixture and crush it to a fine powder. Another brightening agent consisted of powdered lentils mixed with honey. Some would apply one or both mixtures regularly to create and maintain a paler complexion.

3 The Art of Marriage

Indians would crush the leaves of the henna to yield a thick paste that results in semi-permanent, reddish-brown stains. While this paste may be also be used to dye hair and fingernails, due to its association with luck, it plays a particular role in rites of passage. Before weddings, skilled artists applied henna paste to brides' hands and feet, creating intricate patterns known as mehndi. Women may also wear mehndi on other special occasions and religious holidays.

4 The Chakra of Beauty

While many believe the bindi, or red dot between the eyebrows, is worn only by married women, this is not the case. Because the color red is associated with love and honor, married women apply a red ochre paste to their scalps, where their hair is parted. The area between the eyebrows is known as the "third eye," a chakra that Indians believe to be the center of a person's spiritual power. While in modern times, a bindi may be a simple fashion statement, during previous eras Indians of both genders would mark themselves with bindi to augment their beauty and spiritual vitality.

Since 2003, Momi Awana's writing has been featured in "The Hawaii Independent," "Tradewinds" and "Eternal Portraits." She served as a communications specialist at the Hawaii State Legislature and currently teaches writing classes at her library. Awana holds a Master of Arts in English from University of Hawaii, Mānoa.