A trip to Rajasthan is never complete without bejewelled souvenirs —be it silver, kundan, beads or clay. Interestingly though, the state’s association with beautiful and ornate jewellery traditions is as much a male domain as a female one. As social and political hierarchies evolved, shaped by competing monarchs of princely states and desert-driven nomadism, ornaments became part of its expansive language of visual symbols. In this context, "jewellery provides an easy clue in identifying the caste, social and marital status of the wearer," says author Tripti Pandey.
Jewellery is not only ornamental but has "amuletic" properties too. Believed to boost health in Ayurvedic and Hindu astrological traditions, jewellery and piercings are used by people to stimulate acupressure points. Gemstones are chosen according to astrological charts, as is the metal used—silver, embodying the moon, or gold, the sun.
Today, the practice of wearing jewellery by men is mostly confined to special occasions and festivals, although there are some daily-wear pieces. Certain ornaments, however, have been forgotten and are now found only in museums. But here we look at some of the most common jewellery pieces worn by men across Rajasthan which are integral to the state’s visual traditions.
The form and function of 'amuletic' jewellery arose from the primal need to protect the self against the harmful effects of the many evil spirits and evil “eye”. “Amulets…deflect danger, protect from evil and even have the power to attract good," opines scholar Usha Balakrishnan. These—worn as necklaces or bracelets—sometimes were containers called patri to carry the actual amulet.
One striking example of this is the Sher-nakh-jantr—an amulet curved akin to the claw of a tiger—or in some cases, actual tiger teeth are set in gold and silver. Here, ‘claws and teeth of certain animals signify power’ and, therefore, those of a tiger are seen as particularly powerful.
The sarpech is a fusion of the Mughal kalgi (feathered ornament) and the Rajput sarpatti (turban band), a feather-shaped brooch flanked by a band on either side. It is a symbol of royalty, or royal favour, historically worn only by the prince and his entourage. Culturally, it signalled sovereignty, and was favoured by many princes by the early twentieth century, evolving into a more intricate piece. Today, many Rajput grooms wear a sarpech as it is a contemporary wedding trend.
Ornamenting the ear
Piercing the ear is often celebrated as an event in many parts of India, including Rajasthan, as it is believed that the ear has the most pressure points that keep the body healthy and fit. Hence, till date, earrings remain a common piercing and form of jewellery adornment.
In Earrings: Ornamental Identity and Beauty in India, Waltraud Ganguly mentions piercing earlobes as a prophylactic stimulation. Children’s ears were pierced under the age of three, with the male child’s right earlobe pierced first.
There are different kinds of earrings worn across Rajasthan. There are the murki and jhela—small six-petal flower-shaped studs with enamel colours. Then the jhumka, gold or silver hollow hoops worn among all classes in Rajasthani society. Gokhru earrings, worn by men from the Bhil community, stretch from the helix to the lobe. These often feature ‘babul’ or thorn goldwork.
For Rajput Princes, balas—gold wire hoops strung with precious stones—are common.
Men from Rajasthan often wear a variety of necklaces at one time. The largest and most impressive is the kanthi, on which ‘the finest gems in an Indian treasury were mounted into impressive jewellery for a ruler to wear in a durbar, a ceremonial public gathering’. Royal or wealthy men also usually wore strings of diamonds, emeralds and pearls, called malas, in contrast to heavy kundan jewellery of the women. Men of all communities are also commonly seen to wear the hansli, a collar-like necklace. Its name was derived from the clavicle, which is where this ornament rests.
In colonial India, Rajput Princes also wore livery collars, also known as chains of office, which are commonly seen in the UK, to communicate their loyalty to the crown by wearing prominent jewellery with British insignia.
Arm and Hand Jewellery
The popular and well-known kada is a bracelet commonly worn by men across North India. Among royalty, they are made of silver or gold with an enamelled inner plate, featuring animal and floral motifs. Tripti Pandey, though, says, ‘silver thick bangle or kadas are popular with village men.’
Other ornaments include the bajubands/bazubands, or upper-arm armlets and the beenti (or, binti), a ring worn by men across India, set with a gemstone in accordance with the wearer’s astrological chart. It’s believed that the soft part of the fingers is an acupressure point and beneficial for physical and spiritual health.
Dastband Almas, or anklets, were an important indicator of status in Rajput royal court as they were awarded by the ruler as princely recognition and were worn on the right ankle of the recipient in a custom known as ‘Ta’zim’, or honour. The investiture of the anklet entitled the recipient to a position at durbars and to certain legal privileges and exemptions.
So, while this list attempts to be comprehensive, it cannot hope to cover the complexities of centuries-old jewellery traditions of Rajasthan, and how men continue to wear jewellery. These ornaments are interwoven into the fabric of everyday life – not only for decoration, but health benefits, and as a social and political indicator of a man, and his relationship to his community, religion and self.
This article is part of Saha Sutra [www.sahapedia.org/saha-sutra] on www.sahapedia.org, an online resource of Indian arts, culture and heritage.