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On Beauty: the human, the divine – II

In the first post in this series I introduced the concept of alaṅkāra – ‘ornamentation’ – an extremely wide-ranging social category which remains tremendously important in Indian culture to this day. Ornamentation is intensely communicative and relational – it is as much about looking good in order to be seen in a particular way as it is about feeling good about oneself.

It is through ornamentation, for example, that the character of Indian deities is expressed and magnified. When deities’ narratives fuse or flow together, or some aspect of their relationship changes – this is frequently expressed by one deity displaying or bearing the ornamentation (i.e. weapons) strongly associated with another – Lalita bearing Kama’s sugarcane bow, for example.

Parvati Chola Dynasty 13th CenturyAdornment was an important part of royal life and ritual. The Arthaśāstra, for example, not only has sections on how a ruler should maintain mines of precious jewels (and use them strategically in state policy) but also the uses and regulation of ornamentation. Given that the act of a state subject viewing a king or queen was considered to be a form of darshan – Indian royalty adorned themselves with the material substances associated with the gods – gold and precious gems – which have a long association in India, not only with beauty, but also with strength, goodness and wisdom. As Angma Dey Jhala comments (2015) “jewels and gems were not merely illustrative of power, but also quite literally gave power and authority, sacred, political and economic, to those they came in contact with.”

In the fourth act of Kālidāsa’s Shakuntala the importance of ornamentation is stressed. At this stage of the play, Shakuntala is preparing to leave the hermitage of the sage Kanva for the palace of King Dusyanta. Shakuntala’s two female friends, Anusuya and Priyamvada, have adorned her with such simple items as can be had in the ashram, and are somewhat regretful, as Shakuntala’s beauty is worthy of more precious ornaments. At this point, a youth who lives at the ashram enters, bearing gifts for Shakuntala’s ornamentation – gifts from the trees around the ashram:

“One tree bore fruit, a silken marriage dress,
That shamed the Moon in its white loveliness;
Another gave us lac-dye for the feet;
From others, fairy hands extended sweet
Like flowering twigs, as far as to the wrist,
And gave us gems, to adorn her as we list.” 1

As Daud Ali (2009, p165) points out, the naked, unadorned human body had little aesthetic appeal in courtly culture – and the absence of ornamentation was invariably seen as indicating grief or a calamity.

Clothing is an integral part of alaṅkāra as can be seen in sculpture or painting. Western viewers of classical Indian sculpture tend to assume that figures are naked, but a closer inspection will show the hints of fine drapery – at ankles, waist, neck and arms – although sculptors often added artistic flourishes so that the curves of the body are accentuated, rather than concealed by clothing. The importance of fine, diaphanous clothing is widely encountered in Indian literature. Another of Kālidāsa’s poems Meghadūta (‘The Cloud Messenger’) describes the pleasures of the city of the Yakshas, Alaka:

“Where the linen garments of the women with lips like bimba fruit are loosened by the unbinding of the cloth ties of their undergarments which are removed by lovers with hands emboldened by lust” 2

Representations of bodily beauty in language and sculpture were highly stylised, and comparisons with natural phenomena frequent. It is common to find faces (and feet) compared to lotuses, or human limbs compared to flower buds.

The following passage from the ninth-century Tamil Tirukkailāya-nāṉa-ulā (‘Procession of the Lord of Kailasa’) 3 describes a mature woman with stylised natural comparisons:

Her soft fingers have fine burnished nails
shining like mirrored spheres,
her pubic delta flares like the hood of a frightened serpent
her slight waist trembles like choice rattan,
like two auspicious water pots made of everlasting gold,
crowned with gems, verdant, uplifted, proportioned,
spread with pale streaks and beauty marks,
arising as the ambrosia which torments all who see,
her breasts rub against each other in rhythm.
She is the best of women
a beauty without peer among beauties;
her lissome arms are like young bambo
with her lovely hands she shames the family of the glory lily
she is the passion of Kamavel
her breast shines like sandalwood.
Sumptuous, balanced, rounded and full,
both corners upturned, glossy, trembling, red as coral,
bearing honey and glittering pearls,
her crimson mouth demands tribute even from the
throughts of hermits.
Streaked with even lines, accented with kohl,
shaped like gems at their centre,
the semblance of the cool fringed carp and the mythic
her piercing eyes are like the gleaming sea.

It is notable that both women and men are described in terms of having having faces that ‘put the moon to shame’, of lotus-like feet and hands, full red lips, and shining toenails. To western eyes this sometimes is mistaken for androgyny (or, as was often the case during the colonial period, “effeminacy”). Daud Ali gives an example – a fifth-century description of a courtier, Mayūraśaka, described as ‘having eyes stretching to the tips of his ears’, ‘skin like that of a tender-aged girl’, and a ‘body scarred with battle-wounds’. 4

Royal Beauty and Power
Both literary sources and inscriptions attest to the importance of beauty for a monarch. Beauty was considered to be one of the essential virtues (gunas) for a monarch – for the power of a King or Queen to captivate the hearts of their subjects. A 10th-century inscription for example, describes king Jagattunga as “one who surpassed the beauty of Madana” and also as “the ravisher of the hearts of beautiful women”. 5 The beauty of a monarch, enhanced by alaṅkāra was considered to enhance the prosperity and welfare of the kingdom. A striking example of such descriptions of monarchs can be found in Oṭṭakkūttar’s 12th century Vikramacholan Ulā (“The Procession of Vikrama Chola”) 6 which describes the procession of the king before his subjects:

“The goddess of the Arts, Saraswathi
who has a beautiful face like lotus,
swarming with bees, stays with him.
His ears are decorated fish shaped ear rings.

The goddess of earth, Bhudevi with round breasts
stays on his arms decorated with
keyuram ornaments studded with bright jewels.

The goddess of fame
whose undiminished glory spreads everywhere
stays on his hand adorned
with bracelets studded with diamonds.

The goddess of wealth, Lakshmi,
who was born in the milky ocean
embracing him stays on his chest
ornamented with lovely, shining diamonds.

The goddess of victory, Durga
giving endless success,
stays on his waist together
with its heroic sword.”

These verses show that such is the power and splendour of the king and his adornments that various goddesses reside in them – thus his power is supported – and completed by these goddesses. Each goddess represents a particular royal virtue and thus resides in the requisite object of ornamentation. Again, as Ali points out: “Ornament was thus used to denote the complete relationship of two elements of any kind which was thought to be proper and good, whether it be ornaments and the body, virtue and self, an attendant and a lord, a prince and his house, or that house and the earth, to name some of the most common usages. The great chain of being which linked all the elements of the universe into a coherent set of relationships was thus typically represented in courtly sources as a vast ‘ornamental order’.” 7

“He wears on his radiant body shining ornaments
such that there is nothing that could add to his splendor.
He is as magnificent as the god of love was
when he bent his bow
to disturb the meditation of the three-eyed Siva.
Kama, the king of Spring
saw that the king was even more handsome than he
lowered his head decorated with garlands
before him.”

Again, the idea that the beauty of the monarch exceeds that of deities such as Kama is a common literary trope. A 12th century inscription dedicated to Maiḷaladēvi for her endowment to support a Śiva temple praises her beauty as surpassing that of celestial nymphs, and her grace as twice that of Parvati.

Later in the Ulā, the poet describes the reaction of women who gaze upon the king:

They say,
“The strength and excellence of his arms have no comparison.
Not even the earth created by Brahma
could measure his shoulders.

“Look, he is the lord of the earth.
How is it his chest is so humble
that the lovely Laksmi could reside on it?
He could not be the god Murugan
because he has only two hands.

He is surely the king of spring.”
And as they say these things,
they grow thin from desire.

Again, this notion of an all-conquering hero or monarch who, by virtue of the public display of his beauty and power, dazzles all who view him – particularly women – is a popular trope in Indian literature, dating back to Aśvaghoṣa’s first-century Buddhacarita (“The Tale of the Buddha”) and recalling, perhapd, the story of Śiva and the women of the Sages of the Deodar forest from the Puranas.

I was going to attempt to look at the idea of ornamentation in Indian poetics but that will have to wait for another time.

Daud Ali Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
Vidya Dehejia The Body Adorned: Dissolving Boundaries Between Sacred and Profane in Indian Art (Columbia University Press, 2009)
Meera Kachroo The Goddess and Her Powers: The Tantric Identities of the Saundarya Lahari (MA Thesis, McGill University, June 2005)
Angma Dey Jhala, Royal Patronage, Power and Aesthetics in Princely India (Routledge, 2015)
Kalidasa, A.W. Ryder (transl.) Shakuntala (In parentheses Publications, 1999)
Ottakkuthar, Kausalya Hart (transl.) Vikrama Cholan Ulaa (Dept. of South and South East Asian Studies, University of California, 2011)
Pravina Shukla, The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment and the Art of the Body in Modern India (Indiana University Press, 2016)
David Shulman More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India (Harvard University Press, 2012)
Blake Wentworth Yearning for a Dreamed Real: The Procession of the Lord in the Tamil Ulās (Ph.D Thesis, Chicago, 2011)
Annette Wilke, Oliver Moebius Sound and Communication: An Aesthetic Cultural History of Sanskrit Hinduism (Walter de Grutyer GmbH, 2011)


  1. quoted from Ryder, Shakuntala p44
  2. quoted from Dehejia, The Body Adorned p36
  3. quoted from Dehejia, The Body Adorned pp31-32
  4. Courtly Culture, p147
  5. Dehejia, The Body Adorned p56
  6. The Ulā is a genre of Tamil poetry.
  7. Courtly Culture, p177

One comment

  1. Crowess
    Posted December 7th 2016 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    As I reread this post, I’m also reminded of *implicit* parallels in western culture, including the correspondences for gems and metals, the symbolic significances of royal regalia, bestiary and heraldic associations for bestial adornments, and the attempted use of sumptuary laws to regulate who could adorn themselves and to what extent. Of course, the spiritual aspect comes through medieval and early modern political theology, but a parallel thread to what you address here runs through the western tradition.

    My mind goes to the description of Gawain’s arming and adornment in GGK:
    Then he took the helm and quickly kissed it. It was stoutly stapled and stuffed within; it was high on his head, hasped behind, with a light urison over the ventail, embroidered and bound with the best gems on a broad silken border; and birds on the seams like painted popinjays preening themselves here and there; turtle-doves and true-loves thickly interlaced. As many birds there were as had been in town for seven winters. The circlet that surrounded his crown was even more precious—a device of gleaming diamonds. Then they showed him the shield, that was of sheer gules, with the pentangle painted in pure gold. He took it by the baldric and cast it about his neck; and it became the hero passing fair. And why the pentangle pertains to that noble prince I mean to tell you, though it should delay me.
    The spiritual and religious associations are of course implicit in this passage (the pentangle itself, in turn, is explicit), but given the writings on image, eros, and correspondences in Europe, I think it’d be an interesting enterprise to attempt an examination of these parallels while seeking the western contexts that might point to similar processes as in southeast Asia. Although the western context is explicitly monotheistic and Christian, the underlying threads point to a, well, far more diverse undercurrent. Or so I’d suspect.

    I think my point lies towards an understanding of how political and spiritual authority & power operates through the deployed symbols, not only projected outwards to viewers but also to transform the bearer (which is really just some general ritual & dramaturgical theory).

    So, those are several words to say, “Thanks!”