Natalie Savelyeva

Costumes and decorations depicted in sculptures of South Indian temples

Since the ancient times dance was the important part of temple ritual, royal court and even village life. It is interesting to see how dance costume evolved through the ages.

Majestic South Indian temples, like ancient books, share with us their sacred memories of those times when they were erected and decorated by the hands of architects sculptors and artists.

Figures of celestial dancers(apsaras) and musicians (gandharvas), female attendants of deities or dvarapalas of Goddesses, and the figures of the Goddesses themselves, decorated and dressed profusely, sculptures of female devotees and servants holding camara (whisk), lamps (velakku nachiyar), or different musical instruments, and of course, the figurines and bas-reliefs ofdancing girls give us wide picture of costumes and style of decorations.

This is wonderful canon, ever changing, but ever young and elegant.

Ancient (Sangam) costume

Madurai minakshi temple - ivory collection

Sangam literature contains many descriptions of women wearing shell bangles (valai, thodi), bangles or spirals around the upper arm (called thoizh, which now refers to the shoulders), golden ear ornaments (kuzhai), golden leg ornaments (silambu), and an ornament on the forehead (suravu vaai amaitha surumbu soozh sudar nuthal). Women are described as wearing a thin cloth at the waist (nun tuhil). Women used to decorate their waist with leaves, picked up from the jungle. Maid-servants attending on queens used to wear a breast-band (vambu).

The ornaments gifted to men (minstrels) are generally referred to as poon. The minstrel was presented with a costume made of fine thread (aavi anna avir nool kalingam). Young men used to wear flowers above the ears as part of their self-adornment.

Both men and women are described as wearing flowers on their hair and used to paint their bodies with sandalwood paste.

Pallavas (600-900 AD)

The earliest examples of temples in the Dravidian style belong to the Pallava period. The temple architecture of the Pallavas is divided into two groups: rock-cut (610-690 AD) and structural (690-900 AD). The greatest accomplishments of the Pallava architecture are the rock-cut temples at Mamallapuram.The famous Kailasanatha and the Vanikunthaperumal temples at Kanchipuram are the best specimens of the structural temples of the Pallavas.

The veshti is shown on many figures, both male and female. Vesthi was worn in different styles. Shorts are depicted on both male and female figures and the Tamil words soorai and vattudai refer to some such costume.

A common women costume is like a bikini tied at the back with ends let down at the back. Even male figures are sometimes shown in such a costume, but the most common undergarment for men is the loin-cloth.

In the early Pallava works women are often shown with breast-bands without any shoulder straps which were invented in the days of Rajasimha. The queens and many deities at Mahabalipuram are represented without breast-bands. Women are shown with long sashes tied round the waist.

In the same period, men started wearing the sacred thread (yagnopavitram) along with the thick garland which goes over left shoulder and then over the right hand in the typical Pallava fashion (throught yagnopavitram does not always go over the right arm). In contrast to later day sculptures there are no ornaments on the shoulders. Men also wore an ornamental stomach-band, hip belts with simple buckles, and sashes called uttariya going over the shoulder.

Both men and all women wore bangles on the wrist and the forearm. More than five varieties of upper arm-bands are depicted. The simplest is a circular band called tholvalai (the bangle of the fore-arm and not of the shoulder).

Before Pallavas and during the reign of Pallava kings Mahendravarman and Narasimhan, it was only women who wore anklets. In the works of Rajasimhan, however, men are also depicted with leg ornaments, as can be seen from the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchi and the Shore temple. The number of anklets of women increased from one to four in Rajasimhan period.

Many kinds of necklaces can be seen on the sculptures and bas-reliefs, some of them with pretty pendants. Necklaces with huge pearls are often mistaken for rudraksha maalai by many observers.

Six different makutas and many different ear-ornaments can be seen at Mahabalipuram sculptures as well.

Gandharvas, Arjuna penance, Mamallapuram

Gandharvas, Arjuna penance, Mamallapuram

Left Dvarapala, Draupadi Ratha, Mamallapuram

Goddess, Draupadi Ratha, Mamallapuram

Right Dvarapala, Draupadi Ratha, Mamallapuram

A fashionable lady of the Pallava period wore a crown with garlands, two different kinds of ear-ornaments on the long lobes, one or two necklaces of precious stones, bands on arms and hands, and a pair of large anklets on legs. She went about bare-footed. Her body was painted attractively in three colors with sandalwood paste, chunnam and red kunkum, and her eye-lids with anjanam. She often wore a narrow breast-band for outdoor activities, a brief garment at the waist and a narrow girdle. She did not wear any nose-ornament, which ornament was introduced several centuries later.

A fashionable young man was clean-shaven and he wore a crown with garlands, ear-ornaments similar to those worn by women, a necklace or two of precious stones, arm-bands and bangles. An ornamental band on the lower chest, a simple narrow belt on the waist and occasionally a dagger hanging from a special belt were worn. A thick string or garment was worn over the left shoulder and another round the waist. These were worn over a brief garment. He went about bare-footed.

Mahendra-Narasimha Period (600 to 670 AD)

The characteristic costumes and jewellery of the period are the large patra kuntalas (with an average diameter of 8 angulas compared to 12 angulas height of the face), moderately high makutas (less than 24 angulas).

Both male and female figures are depicted often with a makara kundala on one ear and a patra kundala on the other.

There are about six different kinds of crowns or makutas depicted in this period.

The short kirita makuta found on Mahendra and Narasimha in the Adivaraha cave is also found on the maids-in-waiting of Gajalakshmi in the same temple.

Usually Vishnu is decked with the cylindrical kirita makuta, but the reclining Vishnu in the Shore Temple complex appears to be unique in having jata makuta (as if sleeping after having removed his krita makuta).

Siva and the rishis (Arjuna penance) are shown with jata makuta.

One also finds karanda makuta in the shape of inverted pots depicted on many figures in the Arjuna penance and Krishna mandapa.

On the kritas are tied side plaques (purimam) studded with pearls and colored stones. The crowns, especially the kirita makuta, are kept secure on the head with a patta (going over the forehead) tightened at the back with a circular buckle called the siras chakra (found, among other places, on the figures of the Dharmaraja ratha).

Many varieties of kundalas (ear rings) can be noted in Mahabalipuram. Some of the varieties such as those found on the royal portraits in the Adivaraha cave are not met with outside of Mahabalipuram. There are also other tiny ear ornaments worn on parts of the upper ear. On the Dharmaraja ratha there are figures of men (gods) with flowers tucked above the ears.

Some people must have worn leaves and flowers in the place of kundalas of precious metals, as can be seen from the pastoral scene in the Krishnamandapa.

Necklaces and garlands went under the name of maalai in Tamil. Necklaces often without a pendant (thooku) are depicted on both male and female figures. The necklace with large globular pieces found on the royal portrait on the southern side of the Dharmaraja ratha must be identified as a necklace of large pearls and not as a rudraksha mala. The short necklace worn high up on the neck is absent.

Flower garlands are worn across the chest as a diagonal band by the dvarapalakas and ganas. The yagnopavitra, or the diagonal band, is thick, and it may or may not go over the right arm. A long maalai going diagonally across the chest in both directions is called the veera sangili, or swarnakshaka, and is found on many figures.

Men wore thick single diagonal band across the chest. Men, especially the dvarapalakas and chauri-bearers, are often shown with a stomach belt called the udarabandhanam, worn above the navel. However, many of the deities are shown without udarabandhanam.

There are three main types of decorations worn on the upper arm, viz. the arm bangle (thoizh valai), the simple spiral (the early form of paapu surul) and the keyura (with elaborate decorations of pearls and gems).

Women wore no diagonal band. For women, the breast band (kachu) is broad. These breast-bands were without any shoulder straps. Neither Parvati nor Lakshmi nor Bhudevi is depicted with the breast-band. But the female guardians, Durga, and the celestial nymphs (Arjuna penance panel) are shown wearing such breast-bands. The queens of Mahendra and Narasimha are depicted bare above the waist; their bodies would have been painted with kunkum, sandal paste and chunnam.

Women also wore a brief bikini-like garment (often without any other dress). Most of the female figures are shown with just a single piece of garment worn in the shape of a panty. It must have been a Y-shaped piece of cloth tied at the back with the loose ends hanging down for a couple of feet or so. In the bathing Lakshmi scene (Varaha II cave) it is shown transparent to show the effect of wet cloth. This short garment for women is very typical of this period. There are two examples where a woman is shown with the veshti without any folds. Women are not shown with any other kind of long garment. Occasionally women are also shown in shorts (vattudai). One is the queen of Mahendra.

The sash is also shown worn around the waist on female figures. In a few cases strings of pearls (mekala) are shown on the waist, but this is not common. In general, no elaborate belt is shown either on the male or female figures.

The long veshti is found mainly on Vishnu and the rishis. Some men are shown wearing a garment which resembles a pair of modern shorts, and some much shorter briefs, and some others with a narrow loin cloth (koivana aadai).

Many male figures are shown with a long sash which is often worn around the waist with a semi-circular loop hanging in front. The sash (uttariya) is also shown as tied across the stomach in the case of some ganas and the royal figures of Mahendra and Narasimha.

Men are shown without leg ornaments. Women are shown with a single anklet on each leg (silambu, and some times kinkini). Some of the shepherd women depicted in the Krishna mandapa are shown without any leg ornament.

There were different kinds of bangles. Women are occasionally depicted with a large number of bangles, but men always with only a few on each arm.

Gopi, Krisna Cave, Mamallapuram

Durga, Mahisasuramardini Cave, Mamallapuram

Female warrior, Mahisasuramardini Cave, Mamallapuram

Goddess, Varaha Cave, Mamallapuram

Rajasimha Period (690-725)

Sculptures of the Rajasimha period are well-preserved in the Kailasanatha temple, Kanchi, and in some portions of the Shore temple, Mahabalipuram.

The makutas of this period are very tall (more than 24 angulas, twice the face height) for men. For women a peculiar garland-like hair style, pinched in the middle, is found at the base of the tall crown-like portion.

People tend to wear the kundala on both ears, and the size of the patra kundala is reduced to a diameter of about 3 angulas.

Women are represented with a diagonal band of pearls which may or may not go between the breasts. The tight necklace high up on the neck (choker or kandigai) appears for the first time.

The diagonal band for men divides into three strands: one goes down vertically through the veshti, another which is broad drops vertically then passes around the right side of the body, and the third (composed of threads) goes round the lower chest on the right. This arrangement of the diagonal band becomes very common in the Chola period.

The breast-band shown on Durga and maids-in-waiting has vertical shoulder straps (those vertical straps disappear in the late Vijayanagar period.) The tight-fitting saree (without the upper portion), going round each leg with a central long fan, comes into fashion.

On the ankles many anklets of different types are worn at the same time. Men are depicted with anklets for the first time, though these anklets are found mainly on the dvarapalakas and the dancing forms of Siva. Such anklets are made up of small globular bells.

Rings are shown on fingers and toes.

Somascanda, side wall niche, Kailasanatha temple, Kanchipuram

Durga on the lion, side wall niche, Kailasanatha temple, Kanchipuram

Siva and Parvati as a loving couple, Kailasanatha temple, Kanchipuram

Fighters with weapons, side wall niche, Kailasanatha temple, Kanchipuram

Female attendant or servant, Siva image, Kailasanatha temple, Kanchipuram

Late Pallava Period (750-900)

This period may be treated as a time of decadence for the Pallavas. The crowns get shorter, and the figures become more formalized. Most of the sculptures must have been based on a canon and a formula. The kundalas are relatively small. The patra kundala is often turned so as to show the full circle.

The diagonal band for women continues. The shoulder strap for the breast-band sometimes has the shape of an inverted Y where it joins the breast-band. The lion-face buckle for the belt appears. Perhaps the earliest example of this buckle can be seen at the Vaikunthaperumal temple, Kanchi.

The brief bikini-like garment gradually disappears and is replaced by the saree (without the top). Depiction of a single leg ornament becomes common. For men the leg ornament is found on practically every figure towards the end of this period.

Colas (900-1150 AD)

The Cola architecture achieved its peak at Thanjavur, the capital established by the Cola ruler Rajaraja I. The Brihadeshwara temple at Thanjavur, temples of Chidambaram, Sri Rangam, Gangaikonda Colapuram, Darasuram and Tribhuvanam illustrate the style of architecture of Cola period.

The post-Pallava period exhibited a mixture of the different influences of kingdoms of the powerful neighboring kings who ruled over Thondainadu, and the Pallava influence disappeared.

The depiction of the long diagonal band going over the right arm (nivitha fashion) became rare. In the Cola period a small band of pearls becomes common on the upper arm below the keyura and near the elbow. The udarabandha generally used by men was also worn by women occasionally.

Karanas, Chidambaram

Karanas, Chidambaram

Karanas, Chidambaram

Karanas, Chidambaram

Karanas, Chidambaram

Cola sculptures of dancers are dressed up in vesthi. The length of vesthi varies. The first variation is a short and tight vesthi, with some decorative details such as a fan in the middle or hanging pieces on the sides. It seems that such kind of vesthiwas characteristic for dancers, as all bas-reliefs and sculptures of dancing females (like Karanas of Chidambaram or bas-reliefs of Darasuram) are dressed up in this way.

Karanas, Chidambaram

Karanas, Chidambaram

Karanas, Chidambaram

Karanas, Chidambaram

Karanas, Chidambaram

Central fan (it seems) was mandatory element of this type of vesthi. This fan would hang down as detached piece in front (like on Karanas) or back (like on image from Amrikateswarar temple and some images from Darasuram, where this back fastened fan reminds a tail). Otherwise, this central fan could be fastened to thighs and open in very elegant manner in movement, as we can see on bas-reliefs of Nritta Sabha (Chidambaram), for example.

Bas-relief on Nritta sabha, Chidambaram

Bas-relief on Nritta sabha, Chidambaram

Bas-relief on Nritta sabha, Chidambaram

Sculptures of dancers, Amritakateshwarar Temple (Melakadambur)

Above the vesthi they wore several belts, used to fasten the cloth and give accent to beautiful lines of the hips. Those belts, probably, were of two kinds, made of cloth (kind of wide triple sash) and made of metals (gold or silver), pearls decorated with precious stones.

Difference between contemporary and ancient costume is very visible on example of this belt. Now a days we put belts on waist to make ascent on the most slim part of our body.

Bas-relief, Darasuram

Bas-relief, Darasuram

Bas-relief, Darasuram

Bas-relief, Darasuram

As we know from physics and geometry, center of gravity and geometrical center of human figure is 5-6 cm below the navel. The belt fastened on hips divided body in two proportionate parts. Curved shape of the beltemphasized naturally graceful curvature of the hips.

Central part of the belt was usually made more heavy and wide, decorated with some bright stones or golden works.

Several strings or tiers of the belt outline horizontal lines of hips and thighs in perfect balance with heavy chest decorations and large head dressing styles or head gears.

Bas-relief, Darasuram

Bas-relief, Darasuram

Bas-relief, Darasuram

Bas-relief, Darasuram

From the practical point of view, this belt fastened the cloth and help it in proper position. It also gave way for the body to move freely, turn and bent from waist to any side without any constraint.

As we know, in any movement, and specially in dance, the thigh-bone should remain immovable, as the center of balance. Upper body and legs can fly and twirl. There is no outer point of rest in dance. But we have to keep balance and control the movement. To do it, we need to feel inner point of reference, inner center of balance. Which is exactly in the centerof the thigh-bone.

Thus, i would say, the hip belt is the center of composition comprising costume and all decorations. That is why so much attention was given to this part of human decorum by ancient artists (the utmost elaborated hip belts, mekhalai, we can find in Nayak and Hoysala sculptures of later ages).

Bas-relief, Darasuram

Bas-relief, Darasuram

Bas-relief, Darasuram

Bas-relief, Darasuram

The second type of vesthi was put on in form of long vesthi, covering all leg. Probably, this type of cloth was considered appropriate for ladies other then dancers. We can see that images of Goddesses are dressed in such dhoti made of fine silk and put on in many pleads. The attendants of the deities (which was consider as a great honor, of course) and dvarapalas (keepers on entrance to sanctum or hall) are also dressed like that.

Female attendant Nageswarar temple, Kumbakonam

Female attendant Nageswarar temple, Kumbakonam

Female attendant- detail, Nageswarar temple, Kumbakonam

Female attendant Nageswarar temple, Kumbakonam

Female attendant- detail, Nageswarar temple, Kumbakonam

This kind of long vesthi was fastened with a triple belt or sash, which we can see on sculptures from Nageswarar temple, sculptures of goddesses from Gangaikonda and Darasuram temples. Besides this triple belt, they also wore decorative belts (mekalai) made of gold and decorated with precious stones.

Female servant holding camara, Gangaikonda Colapuram

Female attendants, Siva Sundareswarar image, Gangaikonda Colapuram

Female attendant, Siva leaning on Risabha, Gangaikonda Colapuram

The chests and breasts of all Cola female sculpture are open and bare. It seems they did not cover this part of the body ever, but considered the breasts themselves as the best decoration of the female. They wore several necklaces emphasizing the lines and curves of the neck, chest and breasts.

Devi sculpture, Darasuram

Devi sculpture, Darasuram

Dvarapala sculpture, Darasuram

Attendant with camara, Darasuram

Two dancers, Darasuram

Vijayanagara period (1336-1565)

Of the numerous Vijayanagar complexes in southern India, the most magnificent are those at Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai and Vellore. Construction of several mandapas, the Kalyana mandapa being the most conspicuous among them, was a notable feature of this period.

During the Vijayanagar and the Nayak periods pearl-fishery had developed rapidly in the Tirunelveli area around Kayal Patinam. This increase in pearl-trade is reflected in the increased use of pearls in ornaments. A typical ear-ornament for men in this period consisted of four large pearls arranged in the form of a cube with a pearl at each corner. It is also shown on Manmatha as well as Krishna but not on female figures.

During the earlier Pallava and Chola periods both men and women had long ear lobes but this fashion declined during the Vijayanagar period as can be seen from the donor-figures (in the worshipping posture) represented on pillars.

Pearl necklaces are commonly found on Vijayanagar and Nayak sculptures. Necklaces made of large pearls should not be confused with the rudraksha malai. Pearls were used not only in earrings and necklaces but also in bangles and anklets.

Two peculiar leg ornaments of the Nayak period are of two kinds. The fist is an anklet in the shape of a wavy line (found on images in 1000 pillar hall of Madurai temple). The second peculiar ornament is a large hollow anklet which we would call the silambu (can be seen in Madurai and Vellore). It is found in some form or other from the Pallava period but during the Nayak period it is shown tied to the second toe so that it may not come off the foot while walking.

Vijayanagar kings normally went bare-footed. Domingos Paes, a Portuguese travelerwho visited Vijayanagar at the beginning of the sixteenth century has recorded two kinds of footwear, shoes with pointed ends, and sandals with soles and straps.

Bas-relief on entrance pillar of Rayagopuram, Mamallapuram

Bas-relief on entrance pillar of Rayagopuram, Mamallapuram

Bas-relief on entrance pillar of Rayagopuram, Mamallapuram

Bas-relief on entrance pillar of Rayagopuram, Mamallapuram

Bas-relief on pillar, Kalyana Mandapa, Varadaraja temple, Kancipuram

Bas-relief on pillar, Kalyana Mandapa, Varadaraja temple, Kancipuram

Sculpture on pillar, Kalyana Mandapa, Varadaraja temple, Kancipuram

Sculpture on pillar, Kalyana Mandapa, Varadaraja temple, Kancipuram

Sculpture on pillar, Kalyana Mandapa, Varadaraja temple, Kancipuram

Sculpture on pillar, Kalyana Mandapa, Varadaraja temple, Kancipuram

Sculpture on pillar, Kalyana Mandapa, Varadaraja temple, Kancipuram

Sculpture of Daikini, the dancer, Varadaraja temple, Kancipuram

Bas-reliefs inside Kalyana mandapa, Jalagandeeswarar Temple, Vellore

Bas-reliefs inside Kalyana mandapa, Jalagandeeswarar Temple, Vellore

Bas-reliefs inside Kalyana mandapa, Jalagandeeswarar Temple, Vellore

Bas-reliefs inside Kalyana mandapa, Jalagandeeswarar Temple, Vellore

Nayak period (circa 1600 AD)

The Dravidian style of architecture assumed its final form under the Nayaks. Meenakshi temple at Madurai is the most excellent example of the art of Madurai Nayaks. Temples of Rameswaram, Srirangam and Kumbakonam are another examples of Thanjavur Nayaks.

There were three types of neck ornaments, upagriva, hara and kanmala. The ornament on the upper arm was called keyura. The forearm was adorned with kataka valaya near the wrist, which had to be circular in shape, the girth of the little finger in thickness. Finger rings and earrings were also very popular.

The women of this period wore several ornaments. The belt was called mekhala. Especially the queens wore this mekhala which had a square golden center piece with large precious stone embedded and smaller stones set in star-shaped golden ornaments. Two or three golden girdles hang down to knee level.

Ornaments of men and women were nearly the same.

All the inhabitants of the country, whether high or low, wore golden ornaments, earrings, neck chains, bangles on upper and fore arms, rings on the fingers. Jewels were decorated with pearls and precious stones. Interesting feature is, that nose rings are not seen on the sculptures.

The costume of Vijayanagara and Nayak women were described by a traveler Barbose, who visited the country in 1504. He mentions different types of women, queens, wives of nobles, common women and dancing girls. The women wore a cloth of very fine cotton or silk of pretty color which may be about six cubits long, they gird themselves with part of this cloth from the waist below, and the other end of the cloth they cast over shoulder and the breast, and one arm, and the other should remain uncovered. The costumes of dancing girls were sensuous. They wore nothing above the waist. The limbs below the waist they covered with something like pajama and a skirt over it (i suppose, the traveller referes to long vesthi, drapped round the legs, and the wide central fan which he could mistake for a skirt, as the cloth depicted in bronze umage of the quieen at Thiruvidaimarudur temple).

The size and shape of head gears was not uniform. The women generally wore a flattened cap, its top was pressed at the back. Head gears worn by dancing girls was shorter one, with three feather like projections on the sides. A similar cap was worn by the common folk like the floated horn blower. Coiffures of the ladies were elaborate. Their hair were tied in a knot behind the head or gathered at the top.

The foot wear is also seen on some sculptures. It is like thick wooden platform with ties on fingers.

Dancers on four pillars, Pasupateswarar temple, Pandanallur

Dancers on four pillars, Pasupateswarar temple, Pandanallur

Dancers on four pillars, Pasupateswarar temple, Pandanallur

Dancers on four pillars, Pasupateswarar temple, Pandanallur

Dancers on four pillars, Pasupateswarar temple, Pandanallur

Sculptures on the pillars inside Maha mandapa of Ramaswani temple (Kumbakonam) give detailed account of fashion and costumes of Raghunatha Nayak court. There we can see traditional costumes of court and temple dancers, long vesthi drapped roung the legs in many pleads with rich central piece put in tiny elegant folds, which opens like a fan in movement.

Some ladies are depicted with bare breasts, including the images of Sita and other goddesses. Court ladies and queens wear traditional sari, drapped round the waist in pleads and put across the chest, on the left shoulder. Eleborate hip belts (mekalai) comprising many strings or tiers, are put above vesthi or sari, in elegant harmoni with carefully pleaded central fan.

Dancer, Ramaswami temple, Kumbakonam

Lady with Lotus, Ramaswami temple, Kumbakonam

Lady with Lilac flower, Ramaswami temple, Kumbakonam

Lady with a parrot, Ramaswami temple, Kumbakonam

Female temple servant, Ramaswami temple, Kumbakonam

Lady holding veena, Ramaswami temple, Kumbakonam

Lady with a parrot, Ramaswami temple, Kumbakonam

Dancer holding Lotus, Ramaswami temple, Kumbakonam

Bronze image of the queen, as velakku nachiyar, Thiruvidaimarudur temple

Bronze image of the queen, back view, Thiruvidaimarudur temple

References

  1. Costumes and Jewellery in Mahabalipuram Sculptures by Gift Siromoney, The Weekly Mail, January 16,1971
  2. Kalyana Mandapas of the Sixteenth Century by Gift Siromoney, Madras Christian College Magazine, Vol. 46, 1977: 1-6
  3. Thondaimandalam: Costumes and Jewellery by Gift Siromoney
  4. Changing fashions in Pallava art by Gift Siromoney, The Sunday Standard, February 28, 1971
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