The Disappearance of Hindu Symbols of Marriage: What Does it Mean for Hindu Culture?

Winner of The Politica's Research Essay Prize 2021

Symbols of Hindu marriage have been around for centuries and the meanings behind them have been commonly accepted in Hindu society – these symbols have even been carried across the world by Indian emigrants. However, these symbols of marriage have noticeably started fading away – how will this combined with the ongoing shift in the perception of Hindu marriage affect Hindu culture as a whole? The decline in the prevalence of these symbols of marriage is particularly evident in other parts of the world that Indian emigrants have settled in and this leads to a conflict where we face the loss of Hindu culture when letting go of negative values associated with certain aspects of culture.

A few symbols of marriage I’ll be looking at are the mangalsutra, sindoor, and bindi. A mangalsutra is a necklace that the groom ties around the bride’s neck which identifies her as a married woman. [1] It’s also considered to protect the married couple from the evil eye and symbolize the longevity of the husband’s life, which is why it is inauspicious if the mangalsutra is lost or breaks. [2] Women tend to wear it every day as a constant reminder of their duty to their husbands. Sindoor is a traditionally red powder that is worn by married women along the part of their hair and stopping to wear it usually means widowhood. [3] The first time sindoor is applied to the part of a woman’s hair is by her husband after their marriage but after that, a woman tends to apply sindoor on her own. A bindi is a type of forehead decoration that is mostly worn by wives – it is thought of as a “third eye” and is said to ward off bad luck. [4]

These symbols have been embedded into Hindu culture and history since the days of the gods. A painting of the Hindu god and goddess Rama and Sita’s marriage shows Sita wearing sindoor, which is particularly significant as Rama and Sita are symbols of marital devotion and their love story is one that Hindu children hear growing up as part of historical education. [5] Many of the items of clothing and jewelry worn in India today are ancient, with some like mangalsutras and bindis surviving British occupation in India. [6] Evidently, these symbols have been represented, produced, and consumed for centuries, making them a part of the “circuit of culture,” which looks at five characteristics: representation, identity, production, consumption, and regulation of cultural artifacts. [7]

Despite these symbols being heavily associated with Hindu marriage, they have started being adopted by other cultures and religions as well, going back to the “consumption” aspect of the “circuit of culture”. [8] Maria Akram sets forth the story of a Muslim woman who is doing just that, mixing Hindu symbols of marriage with Muslim articles of clothing by wearing a mangalsutra underneath her burqa, a one-piece Islamic veil. [9] In this article, Akram mentions that mangalsutras are being bought in Pakistan. [10] This is revolutionary since India and Pakistan have had years of animosity between them, with the Hindu-Muslim conflict reaching new heights with every passing year. Akram also talks about another symbol of marriage, sindoor – while both Muslim and Hindu women wear sindoor, Muslim women opt for orange sindoor despite it traditionally being red. [11]

Although there is deep historical significance behind these Hindu symbols, the use of these symbols as a representation of marriage is on the decline – if we look at this in the context of the “circuit of culture,” it presents the threat of losing a significant aspect of Hindu culture. [12] In earlier times, wearing a mangalsutra was the duty of a wife – nowadays, wearing a mangalsutra is perceived as a choice, and more women are choosing not to wear it. Some women are putting their own twist on the mangalsutra, viewing it as more of a fashion accessory instead of a symbol of the longevity of their husband’s life. [13] As time goes on, women are voicing their opinions to take control of the narrative surrounding these symbols but more importantly, surrounding their marriages. Anshula Revo, who designed her own mangalsutra, is one of the women who chose to wear an untraditional mangalsutra, saying, “A mangalsutra is supposed to show that you are married. But I didn't want my mangalsutra to give that away. When men don't have to wear any such symbol of marriage, then why should I”. [14]

Equality of choice and freedom surrounding marriage is a relatively new concept for women in India. In earlier times, women were seen as someone else’s property and it was thought that unmarried women couldn’t be kept at home – this belief is still held by some. [15] It was – and in some places, still is – thought that one’s daughter was only temporary, she was always meant to be her husband’s, and her parents’ main duty was to arrange her marriage. In India, the main duty of a woman is seen as serving her husband and family, and several Hindu festivals reflect this perception of a wife’s duties by reinforcing the tradition of a woman fasting or performing other rituals to pray for her husband’s long life. [16] As the roles of women continue to evolve in India, with increasing numbers of women joining the workforce and taking up space alongside men, more families are starting to accept their daughters as their own.

The slow push for reform of this perception of married women is exhibited throughout the history of the Indian legal system. Sati was an “Indian custom of a wife immolating herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband” soon after his death. [17] It was a common practice in India until the Bengal Sati Regulation was established under the British in 1829, by which sati was declared illegal and punishable. [18] Dowry, the practice of a bride gifting property or money to

her husband, was and in some places, still is prevalent despite the enactment of the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. [19] Dowry is seen as the duty of the bride’s family to the groom’s family – a “gift” from her family, a symbol to thank the groom’s family for taking care of their daughter. In some cases and especially in earlier years, if the amount of dowry was seen as insufficient, the groom’s family would take it as an insult and harass the new bride to ask her family for more dowry. Thankfully, this is becoming less and less common as the years go by, but the practice of dowry is far from extinct.

It seems as though the tide is turning, with views of Hindu marriage becoming more progressive and a little more control being given to women. In 2014, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court ruled that not wearing a mangalsutra wouldn’t be considered grounds for divorce when a husband asked for a divorce because his wife wouldn’t wear a mangalsutra or sindoor sometimes. [20] However, there are several occasions in which conflict has arisen over the use of marriage symbols by Hindu women. In spite of this court ruling in one area of India, in another case, the Gauhati High Court ruled that a woman who refused to wear sindoor had refused to accept her marriage and therefore granted her husband’s request for divorce. [21] After the controversial ruling on June 19, 2020, there was an outpouring of support on Twitter under the hashtag #WithoutSymbolsOfMarriage, with couples posting pictures of themselves without Hindu symbols of marriage. [22] There are clearly opposing views present, with husbands in these court cases having more of the traditional mindset where a woman “has” to wear these Hindu symbols of marriage, but it is evident that views of marriage in India are changing, with women questioning traditions that have been blindly followed for centuries. [23]

These traditions have been carried to different countries by Indian emigrants, one of which is the United States of America. Indians immigrated to the U.S. primarily in three waves, with the largest wave occurring in the early 21st century. [24] These immigrants brought with them the various cultures and religions from their part of India, but soon, they were met with opposition. In 1905, an organization called the Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL) formed with the purpose of opposing Asian immigration to the United States of America. [25] They succeeded, with the Immigration Act of 1917 imposing restrictions on Asian immigration and the ruling in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind in 1923 by which Indians weren’t given the right to citizenship and were stripped of their existing citizenship. [26]

Bhagat Singh Thind and his wife Vivian Thind

Courtesy of David Thind and the South Asian American Digital Archive

Things changed with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which “lifted the quota system and issued visas on the basis of preferred skills or family reunification”. [27] Regardless of this change, Indian immigrants would have felt unwanted and unwelcome, and perhaps that is when they started moving away from the culture they brought with them. Some symbols such as bindis have been maintained, even in the U.S. This is reflected in the images of many couples who got married in recent years, with pictures of the brides wearing bindis, but no sindoor or mangalsutras in sight. [28] Clearly, bindis have managed to remain a part of the “circuit of culture” due to their repeated production and consumption. [29] Perhaps the symbols that aren’t as prevalent as in earlier years have decreased in popularity partially due to their longevity. Sindoor, being a powder in the parting of the hair, is quite difficult to wash out completely as it can stain the scalp on some occasions. A mangalsutra made of solid gold would typically be more of an investment than a bindi, a sticker that one could remove at a moment’s notice.

This is where Stuart Hall’s concept of the “circuit of culture” comes into play – it brings up the question of just how these representations of marriage slowly decline in use? [30] His emphasis on cultural practices and participants leads us to think of whether it’s because of the lack of participation that these symbols are disappearing. [31] Hall says that “culture is about ‘shared meanings’,” not just about similar practices or beliefs, but if these symbols of marriage no longer mean the same thing to people, will their significance completely fade away from Hindu culture? [32] Hall mentions that everyone interprets culture differently and that there is a wide range of emotions associated with each interpretation. [33] Culture is a large part of our identities and losing culture would mean that we would lose a piece of the puzzle that makes us who we are and gives us insight into why we do the things we do. We feel connected to the symbols we grew up around, but as we learn more about our culture over the years, we may see that these symbols are deeply entrenched in sexism. If losing these symbols of marriage is giving women more autonomy over their lives, it should be encouraged despite the nostalgia we may feel at seeing some of the symbols from our childhood fade away.

Decisions surrounding wearing or accepting Hindu symbols of marriage affect duties associated with Hindu marriage. With women being given more freedom and India’s slow progression away from a patriarchal society, the use of Hindu symbols of marriage is becoming more optional instead of being a duty that a wife must fulfill, but the court cases discussed in this essay indicate that India has a long way to go. Change in India will change the culture surrounding Hindu marriage – the culture Indian emigrants take with them when they leave the country they once called home. It’s clear that emigration can result in people moving away from their own cultures for various reasons – to try and fit in with those around them, because they see flaws in the traditions, or perhaps because traditions of another culture may seem more appealing to their interpretation of culture. Can we hold on to culture while moving towards a better life for all? When people from different cultures interact, will the overlap of their cultures mean that each of their cultures will slowly be chipped away at?

[1] Das, Subhamoy. “Why Do Hindu Women Wear Mangalsutra Necklaces?” Learn Religions, February 24, 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Significance of Indian Women's Adornments - Sindoor, Bindi, Toe Rings and Bangles.”, January 16, 2017.

[4] Ibid.

[5] "Hampi-Vijayanagar: Virupaksha Temple Int.: Ceiling Painting of the Mandapa: Rama's Marriage." 16th C. Artstor. 6.

[6] Mayer, Tara. “From Craft to Couture: Contemporary Indian Fashion in Historical Perspective.” South Asian Popular Culture: Designing (Post) Colonial Knowledge: Imagining South Asia, Vol.16 (2-3), p.183-198.

[7] Hall, Stuart. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Sage in association with the Open University, 1997.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Akram, Maria. “Beneath Burqa, a Mangalsutra and Chooda.” The Times of India.!?&_suid=16015732637020908310 6209683041.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Hall, Stuart. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Sage in association with the Open University, 1997.

[13] Das, Subhamoy. Why Do Hindu Women Wear Mangalsutra Necklaces? Learn Religions, February 24, 2019. 14.

[14] Dhar, Shobita. “Mangalsutra on Your Wrist.” The Times of India.!?&_suid=16015737207510659264 3614073959.

[15] Sharma, Indira et al. “Hinduism, marriage and mental illness.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 55, Suppl 2 (2013): S243-9. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.105544

[16] Ibid.

[17] Doniger, Wendy. “Suttee.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., May 8, 2019.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Sharma, Indira et al. Hinduism, marriage and mental illness. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 55, Suppl 2 (2013): S243-9. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.105544.

[20] Ganjapure, Vaibhav. "Not Wearing Mangalsutra No Ground for Divorce, Says HC." The Times of India (Bombay, India) [New Delhi] 2017: The Times of India (Bombay, India), 2017-04-04.

[21] Jain, Sanya. “#WithoutSymbolsOfMarriage: Twitter Shares Pics With No 'Sindoor' Or 'Mangalsutra'.” NDTV, July 2, 2020. -mangalsutra-2256033.

[22] Ibid.

[23] McCarthy, Joe. “Women Weigh In On The Changing Face of Marriage In India.” Global Citizen, March 10, 2016.

[24] Valentine, Tamara M. “Asian Indian Immigrants.” Immigration to the United States,

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Indian Weddings in America: Real Weddings in USA.” WeddingSutra,

[29] Hall, Stuart. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Sage in association with the Open University, 1997.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.