I have been writing about tilaks and bindis of late. These are marks on the forehead of men and women that denote different things. And they are not exclusive to Hindus. Even Jains and Buddhists have their own versions, denoting a whole range of things – divinity, sectarian affiliation or marital status. The last one is signified by what is called sindoor. Sindoor is a powder, deep red in colour, that is smeared on the forehead and along the line where the hair is parted on a woman’s head. It symbolizes her married status. Application of sindoor is especially prevalent in the West, North and East (regions of India). Women in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal seem to use generous amounts of the powder.

Widows are not supposed to apply sindoor to their foreheads among the orthodox, part of the litany of injunctions passed against widowed women in Hindu society. Certain regions have special rituals associated with the announcement of widowhood.  This involves the mother-in-law wiping off the sindoor smeared on her daughter-in-law’s forehead, followed by the bereaved woman breaking off her glass bangles as a sign of mourning. Indian movies and soap operas, especially the older ones, have cringeworthy sequences portraying such moments. The application of sindoor is not that common down south but it still pops up in films (like the Telugu ‘Rakta Sindooram’ of 1985, which neatly translates as the ‘Sindoor of Blood’).

Just as the wiping off of sindoor by the mother-in-law signifies widowhood, the application of sindoor by the (about-to-be) husband marks the moment of marriage. This too became a favorite (and often amusing) trope of Indian cinema. Quite often, a romance or adventure would end with the dashing hero overcoming all odds to rescue the damsel in distress, beating entire hordes of villainous opponents black and blue, all by himself.  He would then walk over to the trembling lady, take a sword, run his thumb over the cutting edge to produce a tiny spurt of blood with which to anoint her forehead. This meant that they were man and wife. Here, blood (instead of the usual cinnabar, a naturally occurring compound of mercury) substituted for vermilion. That kind of explains the name of the Telugu film I had mentioned (Rakta Sindooram or Sindoor of Blood).

Here’s a charming tale about the use of sindoor and its role in marriage by the Oraon or Kurukh tribe (a North Dravidian people) of Eastern India:

Four Oraons were fast friends from boyhood. They used to dance together on the same dance floor and had sworn mutual friendship. When growing up they took to different professions. One of them hawked vermilion, another became a weaver, the third took to wood carving and the fourth became a goldsmith. Once they came upon the idea of going and seeing new places while earning their livelihood. They took their tools and started walking. They visited many places. Once they had to spend a night in a mango orchard. After having their meal they decided that as it was an unknown place they had better take turns in keeping watch overnight. The wood-carver was the first to keep the vigil while the other three slept. After some time the wood-carver got tired of sitting idle and, taking up a piece of dry wood, he chiseled it into a female figure. He put the woman thus shaped on her feet and woke up the goldsmith to take his turn.

The goldsmith got up and after a while spotted the wooden figure. He thought, “She is a lovely girl but she needs an ornament”. So he made a gold chain and put it around her neck. He also made a pair of earrings and bangles and put them on her. He then woke up the weaver and went to sleep. During his vigil the weaver saw the wooden woman, admired her figure and ornaments and started thinking, “Something is missing. Ah, she should have a sari”. That very minute he counted up the threads for a sari and wove a garment. Very fondly he wrapped her in it. He then woke up the vermilion-hawker and saying, “Your turn has come, brother, please be on the watch,” he retired.

The hawker, while on the watch, saw the wooden woman and anointed her forehead with vermilion just at daybreak. The wooden woman came alive and stood there, a coy and beautiful damsel. The four friends started quarreling as to who should marry the girl. The wood carver said that if he had not given her a shape she would have remained a log. The goldsmith claimed her for the ornaments he had given her. The weaver said, “I gave her clothes so she is mine”. The hawker insisted that he had the best claim.
While the four friends were quarreling they saw a holy man coming. They made him their arbiter. The holy man heard the claims of the four friends and said, “He that made her is her father; he that clothed her is her elder brother; he that gave ornaments is her uncle; but he that brought her to life and put vermilion on her forehead is her husband.” The four friends bowed to the decision and the woman became the wife of the hawker.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and has been taken from a book, ‘The People of India’, an eight-volume series compiled by John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye between 1868 and 1875. This ethnographic study was conducted at the behest of the then Governor General of India, Lord Canning and is a treasure trove of information (especially the photographs of different communities across the length and breadth of the subcontinent).

Reference: Sun Worship in India: A Study of Deo Sun-Shrine by Anirudha Behari Saran, Gaya Pandey