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Hairstyles from ancient and medieval India

An exhibition at the Red Fort in New Delhi showcases elaborate coiffure worn by both men and women through the ages in the subcontinent’s history

  • A panel shows women with a particular coiffure around the Bodhi treeImage Credit:
  • Women depicted in the Khajuraho temples preferred wearing their hair in buns and chignonsImage Credit: Supplied
Gulf News

The Red Fort in Delhi, once the residence of Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan, now draws crowds of tourists from all over the world. The massive monument, constructed with red sandstone, also houses a number of museums. Given the popularity of the Red Fort, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) decided to take advantage of the footfall here to showcase something rather unique — coiffure in India through the centuries.

The photo-exhibition, “Kesavinyas” (Sanskrit for arrangement of the hair), has been organised at the Quarters Guard section of Red Fort until the end of January. Thereafter, it will travel to different pats of India.

The rare photographs of sculptures and paintings from the Harappan to the medieval era show men and women sporting different hairstyles.

“Historically, hair is associated with charm and power. Probably nowhere in the world has so much imagination, thought and artistry been applied to hairdressing as in India. Not only the common man or woman, but also the deities are identified with their unique hairstyles. While Shiva and Parvati wore their hair in matted locks or jata, early art shows Buddha’s hair as curly,” said an ASI official, speaking on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Since sculptures and paintings portray such interesting hairstyles that the global fashion fraternity still takes inspiration from, the ASI gathered 80 sculptures from various museums across the country, including the National Museum, New Delhi; Allahabad Museum, Lucknow Museum, Mathura’s State Museum and Patna’s State Museum. Besides, many were sourced from sites such as Ahichhatra, Ajanta, Amravati, Khajuraho and Vellore, and from a private collector from Tamil Nadu.

“Hairdressing was part of daily life. On special occasions such as social gatherings and functions, both men and women wore elaborate hairstyles. Ancient texts enumerate exuberant hairstyles and elaborate coiffure. The hair was also adorned with a variety of jewels, tiaras and fillets,” the official said.

Similarly, “Natya Shastra”, an ancient Indian treatise on the performing arts, also mentions that women adopted hairstyles according to geographical regions. While young women of Malwa wore curled locks, women from Gauda tied their hair in a top knot, or plaited the hair.

Hairstyles are well-delineated in stone and terracotta sculptures, paintings and coins. Though hairstyling was common among both elite and the peasants, some scholars believe only the elite class arranged their hair in different styles to distinguish themselves from others. The exhibition highlights important hairstyles from different periods.

 

Protohistoric period

Hairstyling was much in vogue during the Harappan civilisation, as is evident from the antiquities unearthed at various Harappan sites, including Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Kalibangan, Dholavira, Rakhigarhi and Banawali. The Harappans used combs, a variety of which was unearthed from Kalibangan and Mohenjo-daro. An oval-shaped tanged copper mirror was reportedly excavated from Kalibangan and Rakhigarhi.

Women in the olden times took as much care of their hair as they do now. Some terracotta items show women arranged their hair in a curl or knotted at the back, or it was decorated with flowers or flower-shaped ornaments. Men are shown with their hair combed back. It was either cut short or coiled in a knot at the back with a fillet for support. Sometimes, a part was knotted and another part hung freely. In some cases, one part was knotted and another curled. Another form was to gather the hair up in a bun or coil it in a ring form on top of the head.

 

Mauryan period

The Mauryan terracotta figures provide a better picture for study than the stone sculptures of the period. In the terracotta male figurine from Patna, the hair is brushed back, in apparent streaks, with a fillet on the head. There is a horn-like arrangement on the head and a knot on the right.

“Arthashastra”, an ancient thesis on economic policy and military strategy written in Sanskrit by Chanakya, a philosopher, mentions two hairstyles prevalent among women. In one, the hair was arranged in braids while in the other the head was shaven.

The zenith of Mauryan art can be seen in stone sculptures. A “yakshi” — the female attendee of a Hindu deity — from Didarganj in Bihar is one of the finest pieces with a beautiful hairdo. Her hair is combed and tied in a knot with a loop at the back.

 

Sunga-Satavahana period

Sunga art is characterised by simplicity and indigenous character. The sculptures are especially associated with massive structures such as the stupas in Sanchi, Bharhut and Amravati, and the rock-cut caves in Ajanta, Karla, Bhaja and Kanheri. The women in the Bharhut sculptures are shown with hair arranged in a top knot when women wore a turban. A panel illustrates reverence of the Bodhi tree by a group of women with a particular coiffure. The hair is looped and knotted loosely. It is further embellished with flower wreaths and in another case, the hair has a spherical knot over the head.

 

Kushan period

The Kushan period saw the emergence of different sculptural art traditions, such as the Mathura and Gandhara schools of art, which spread over particular areas. Mathura was a flourishing art centre in north India from the beginning of the Christian era up to the seventh century. A fine piece of Kushan art from Sringaverapura, Allahabad district in Uttar Pradesh, shows the head of Shiva with the third eye. It is depicted with artistically delineated vertical jatas of 12 bands, tied round by four bands of hair.

Generally, women’s hair was combed back and tied into a loose knot forming into a loop at the top. In some cases, the hair is combed back with tiaras into a loose knot, allowing locks of hair dangling on the back from the nape.

 

Gupta period

The Gupta-Vakataka rule in north India from the fourth century to seventh century AD is possibly the best phase of Indian art, marked by artistic genius with an indigenous flavour. Some excellent examples of hairstyles are seen in the terracotta and stucco figures produced during this period. A terracotta head of Parvati wears curls, tied behind and decked with a round jewel.

The hairstyles of those times can be classified into two — of foreign origin and indigenous, which became extremely popular. Of foreign origin was the short hair, which sometimes was frizzed in front with luxuriant ringlets. In the indigenous style, long hair was worn in a bun either high or low on the neck or knotted at the side of the head or with the coil on the left on top of the head.

 

Medieval period

It witnessed great sculptural resurgence with numerous regional idioms of highly ornate workmanship. Most of the hairstyles of these times are found in various art centres in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The women during the Chandela period, depicted in the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh, preferred making buns and chignons. In most cases, the elaboration was done near the nape. With the hair neatly combed back, they made a short tail resting at the back of the neck.

Tamil women divided their hair into five parts, twisted or plaited separately, and tied up the tufts allowing the ends to hang down the back in a graceful manner.

“The art of coiffure almost vanished in the coming three-four centuries. But it is being revived. Hopefully, this exhibition will rekindle interest and start new trends in hairstyles, with old hairdos inspiring women in modern times,” the ASI official said.

Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.

“Kesavinyas” is running at the Quarters Guard section of Red Fort, New Delhi, until January 31.

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