The red, braided string bracelet traditionally worn by Hindus is known as kalava. In most cases, wearing kavala simply symbolizes an allegiance to the Hindu faith. However, the meaning of this iconic red thread -- which plays a part in many Hindu rituals and may even be worn in day-to-day life -- goes well beyond its status as a simple symbol of commonality.
Hindu priests often adorn the faithful with kalava at the beginning of religious ceremonies and puja, which are regular rituals ranging from daily offerings to large festivals. Puja illustrate reverence to the divine, often through prayer or song. Traditionally, men wear kalava on their right wrist while women wear it on the left. Sometimes, Hindus remove kalava right after worship, while others only remove the symbolic bracelet when replacing it with a new one. Typically, kalava is burned, recycled or consigned to running water rather than discarded in the trash.
When used as part of a ceremony or puja, kalava chiefly symbolizes unity, helping to unite the congregation as one symbolic body during worship. In his book “My Hindu Faith and Periscope,” Satish C. Bhatnagar interprets the modern usage of kalava -- which he says has been on the upswing in generations following the 1950s -- as a symbol of solidarity. “It may be showing emerging Hindu unity that collectively is rarely seen,” he writes. Bhatnagar notes that the wearing of kalava defies the economic and caste barriers present in Hindu culture.
Kalava sometimes symbolizes support for those of Hindu faith, such as when British Prime Minister Tony Blair wore the sacred string before the House of Commons in 2006. In some cases, Hindus interpret kalava as a symbol of protection, thought to defend the wearer against everything from enemies to natural disasters. The color red is extremely significant in the Hindu faith, symbolizing both purity and, as the color of the deity, Shakti, prowess. Other Hindu deities that wear red often represent bravery, generosity or security.
Oftentimes, the mostly red kavala features white or yellow braids or accents. The similar rakhi, a bracelet made from interwoven red and gold threads, plays a major role in the Hindu festival Raksha Bandhan. Like kalava, rakhis are sometimes given by priests to congregation members or presented as gifts among friends. Sometimes, citizens give rakhis to soldiers. In one tradition, a woman ties a rakhi around a man's wrist to request his honor and protection.