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The Warm Ring of Bangles


Bangles, the decorative ornaments, have over the centuries acquired a cultural, social and religious significance. Literature has glorified this ornament and made it the epitome of feminine grace.

The world bangle originates from the Hindi bangri or bangali which the dictionary defines as a ring for arm or leg. This typically bland, banal meaning brings you no closer to your understanding of the bangle. Compare this to the almost lyrical Sanskrit description: that cylindrical ornament which adorns the arm.

This adornment or ornament, the bangle, was undoubtedly a purely decorative accessory in the pre-Vedic era and even in the post-Vedic times until the medieval period. Medieval India gave Hinduism a chauvinistic twist distorting Vedic concepts and introducing ritualistic beliefs and it was at this stage that he bangle was transformed from being a mere decoration to becoming a symbol of marriage. The bangle a ring for the arm, thus began to gain social significance and ritualistic relevance.

Hindu unmarried girls always wear some bangles round both their wrists as it is considered inauspicious to be bare armed. Bare hands are symbolically associated with widows who have been denied the right to wear bangles or any kind of adornment.

Even today in rural India, a wife breaks her glass bangles hen she is widowed. Urban India with its veneer of liberation shuns the barbaric ritual of bangle breaking but then even the city-bred woman, conditioned as she is by the traditional custom and culture, wears only gold bangles after widowhood and not kanch-ki-choodi (glass bangles).

Gold bangles per se have no significance. Almost any woman, regardless of caste, culture or community, age or marital status can wear gold bangles if she can afford them. Gold bangles form a part of the bride’s dowry and are more an investment or a loud statement of wealth.

The jewellery shops display some of the most exquisite gold bangles and bracelets filigreed, carved, gem encrusted and enameled in modern and traditional patterns. The newest addition is the gold kada (a hollow bangle) with silver engravings. Like gold bangles silver too is very popular with the younger generation.

In Bengal the Noah or commonly termed loha- the iron kada (bangle) is worn by the married woman as a symbol of her marriage. The bird is also given a beautifully crafted white conch bangle and a red lac bangle. But the conch and lac bangles are not as important as the loha. These days the loha is skillfully encased in gold.

Ivory bangles like the glass ones are an important item for brides of some communities. A bride from Punjab is traditionally given slender ivory choodas (bangles) in white and red. These bangles are given only in multiples of four. Over the years the expensive ivory has been replaced by lac and plastic but the custom continues. The bride wears these bangles for a period of three to six months and as long as the bangles are on she is generally pampered as the new bride and not given and kitchen duties to perform. The day she enters the kitchen to work she takes off her chooda and gifts them to a priest or to the local shrine.

Even the Gujarati and Rajasthani birds are gifted one ivory bangle by the mother’s family. Ivory here has not been replaced by the cheaper lac or plastic. So depending on the uncle’s financial standing he buys his nice either a slender bangle which costs about Rs.150/- to ones that cost over Rs.1000/-. The couple cannot perform the Saptapati (the seven rounds around the holy fire without which no Hindu marriage is completed) sans the ivory bangle. So if she has no uncle her parents buy it for her. A few weeks after her marriage the bride takes off the bangles.

When the Gujarati bride conceives, her sister-in-law gifts her a silver chain bracelet. In the seventh month she is also asked to wear a bracelet made of black thread and five kowdis (a kind of shell). This bracelet is unknotted only when the woman goes into labour pains to symbolically help in an easy delivery.

In the south they practice a similar ceremony called valaikapu when the woman is in her seventh month of pregnancy and comes to stay oat her mother’s home. All varieties and colours of glass bangles are literally stacked on her hands with 21 valay (bangles) on one hand and 22 on the other. She is also given a silver kapu, a thin silver bangle with clasps. This is unclasped only when the labour pains begin. The glass bangles are also taken off then.

The Maharashtrians give a woman green glass bangles when she is pregnant. But then green is the auspicious colour for a married woman in Maharashtra and they are given green bungles to mark all occasions. A couple of days before the wedding they perform a ceremony called the lagna chooda when a bangle seller comes home and firs stacks the bride’s hand with green bangles onto the wrists of every married woman present. The unmarried girls wear dozens of coloured glass bangles that match their clothes.

In fact, every Hindu girl in India possesses dozens of coloured glass bangles to match her clothes. Girls buy bangles for every festival or occasion-Teej, Navratri, a wedding or a birthday.

Even the devi (Goddess) is offered glass bangles. In the south she is offered black ones, in Maharashtra green and in Calcutta red. In the northern belt of India red glass bangles are considered auspicious for the married as green ones are in Maharashtra.

Glass bangles are generally made and sold by the Kasars, a caste that is solely employed in glass bangle making. They expertly slip wrist size bangles past heavy knuckles without breaking any. They expertly slip wrist size bangles past heavy knuckles without breaking any. The profession of glass bangle making and selling is almost dominated by Muslims, in fact Ferozabad, a Muslim stronghold, is renowned for its glass bangle manufacturing.

Besides glass, ivory, silver conch, loha and lac there are variety of other bangles worn by various tribes and communities.

The Ahirs of Rajasthan and Rabaris of Gujarat, the pastoral tribes cover their entire hand with broad plain bangles made of bone. The unmarried wear them only from the wrist to the elbow whereas the married wear them from the elbow upwards as far up as the underarm. Since these tribes are nomadic and they cannot keep their assets under safe keeping they wear their saving in the form of jewellery on their person.

When struck by any natural calamity like draught or famine, bands of the tribes flock to the closest town to sell their bone bangles. The Lambadis of Andhra Pradesh wear these graded bone bangles only upto their elbows.

The Bastar tribe of Madhya Pradesh wear bangles made of coconut shell. Intricate patterns designed on white metal are screwed firmly onto the coconut shell. The Gonds and Bhils wear bangles made out of brass or beads. The Kashmiris have the most exquisitely painted papier mache bangles.

Each area crafts bangles using the materials available locally. Wood in Kashmir, the rhino horn bangles in Assam, lac in Rajasthan. There are many fashionable bangle in metals, plastics, silk threads etc. the variety is seemingly endless.

Ornaments on the arms and wrists were worn in India from the days of the Indus Valley Civilization (2300-1000 B.C.) as is evident from the bronze figurine found in Mohenjodaro. Bangles cover the entire arm of this figures display bangles as do the cave paintings in the Ajanta and Ellora.

The armlet is rarely worn today. In the early era both men and women wore armlets designed to look like a coiled snake. All serpentine armlets were called angada. The peculiarity of the keyura. The peculiarity of the keyura was that it was worn on the right hand and was tightened with the help of a gonad (tassle). The armlets had forms like creepers, crocodiles, faces of animals like lions, elephants and peacocks at both ends.

In Banabhatt’s Kadambari we find mention of the Goddess Saraswati wearing kangan (bangle) made of conch. Many odes have been written in praise of the bungle with many folk songs woven round it. Kangana, Valaya, Kada, Gajulu, Choodla, Choodi, Bangri are just the different names for bangles.