Hindu facial markings

[b]Above:[/b] From an image taken at the Kumbh Mela by Paul Anand in 2001[br][b]Below left:[/b] Collected for the Museum by Linda Mowat in 1989; 1990.2.29[br][b]Below right:[/b] Collected by Griffith Evans in 1880, donated by him in 1930; 1930.35.6–.22Above: From an image taken at the Kumbh Mela by Paul Anand in 2001
Below left: Collected for the Museum by Linda Mowat in 1989; 1990.2.29
Below right: Collected by Griffith Evans in 1880, donated by him in 1930; 1930.35.6–.22
Pilgrims at the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India, 2001

White paint cake made of refined cowdung, Dharwad, India, 1980s

Brass stamp, Varanasi, India, before 1880

Colours, signs, shapes and numbers are imbued with symbolism in both the Hindu and non-Hindu populations of India. For those who have devoted their life to religion, clothing and bodily markings are particularly important.

Hindus regard the forehead as an especially pure part of the body. Hindu men and women wear markings on the forehead, women often adopting a red dot or small decoration known as a 'bindi'. The marks worn by holy men (ascetics) on the forehead are usually applied with the fingers although in the past they might have been burned into the skin. Alternatively they may be applied with a stamp. This one, in the shape of 'Lotus Feet' in honour of Lord Krishna, would be used to apply marks to a devotee's body after their morning ablutions.

Men wear a number of specific forehead markings known as tilaka, which show their particular religious beliefs. The marks are not indicative of social status and on special occasions, lay followers of the religious communities may also adopt them. Red marks are usually made with chandan (sandalwood paste), yellow with turmeric, and white from chalk, rice powder or cow dung, although holy men though will usually use white earth from the banks of the River Ganges or bhasma (sacred ash). They also wear clothes in warm colours such as red, pink, brown and orange which are emblematic of fire, the sun, blood and earth.

These men are followers of Vaishnavism, one of the four major sects of Hunduism (the others being Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism). They worship Vishnu (and his associated incarnations, principally Rama and Krishna) as the original and supreme God. They are identifiable by the Vaishnava tilak, a U-shaped mark extending to the bridge of the nose – a reference to Vishnu's footprint – and a central stripe that symbolizes Lakshmi, Vishnu's wife.

These men were photographed at the Maha Kumbh Mela, or Grand Pitcher Festival, in 2001. The festival is held near Allahabad where the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers converge. In Hindu mythology, gods and demons fought a celestial war over a pitcher (kumbh) of divine nectar and Allahabad was one of the four places where nectar fell during the battle. The battle lasted 12 days so the festival takes place every 12 years and sees millions of devotees bathe in the Ganges to purify their sins. It is estimated that that over 60 million pilgrims attended the 2001 Mela, making it the largest mass gathering in the world to date.

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