Ancient Bengal Dress and Ornaments

Literary evidence indicates that men and women in ancient Bengal generally wore a single piece of cloth as under-garment, and occasionally also an upper garment (uttariya and odna). They also used various ornaments such as ring, ear-ring or car-pendants (kundala), necklace (hara), armlet (keyura) and bracelet (Malaya), that made of conch-shell (sankha-Malaya) being a speciality for women.

A more precise idea of the dresses and ornaments and the mode of wearing them may be formed by a study of the sculptures, chiefly those of Paharpur.

Men wore dhoti which was generally shorter and narrower than that worn by the Bengalis of the present day. Ordinarily, it hardly reached below the knee, and in many cases, it was even shorter than that. The eases where the dhoti reached up to the ankle may be regarded as exceptional. The usual mode of wearing the dhoti was different from the present fashionable mode. The central part of the dhoti having covered the lower part of the body below the navel, both the ends of the cloth was drawn in and tucked up behind. It was held tight around the waist by a girdle, consisting of three or more bands, fastened together by means of a knob in the centre, just below the navel. Sometimes only the left end of the dhoti was tucked up behind, and the right end was allowed to hang in graceful folds in front. This mode of wearing dhoti exposes the contour of the legs as the cloth fits them closely, and the folds are often marked by incisions both vertical and horizontal.

The women also wore sadis in the same way, though they were much longer and generally reached the ankle. This mode appears, however, to have come into fashion during the Pala period, for in earlier sculptures at Paharpur, the ‘sadis’ went round the lower part of the body, one end falling vertically behind the left leg in graceful folds. This resembles the way in which modern Bengali ladies put on sadis to cover the lower part of the body. In ancient Bengal, the sadi, like the dhoti, never covered the upper part of the body which generally remained exposed, though sometimes it was partially covered by a long narrow scarf (uttariya or odna). In addition, in the cases of women, the breast was occasionally covered by a chilli or stanapatta, and in a few cases by a bodice, which covered the body above the navel and a portion of the upper arm. The sadis of the women and even the dhoti of the men were embroidered with various designs, composed of lines or floral and ornamental devices of various patterns.

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The above may be regarded as a normal dress. There must have been special dresses for special occasions, and Jimutavahana refers to the dress for assemblies. Although we have no definite idea of such a dress, some exceptional modes of dress are represented in the sculptures. Sometimes men dressed in something like shorts or lengths which covered only a small portion of the thigh, and women in a close-fitting tunic or pyjama reaching up to the ankle. This was undoubtedly the case with the dancing girls who wore, in addition, a long one, which was loosely thrown over the shoulder behind the head and passed under the arms so that its ends fluttered during a dance. The scanty length worn by an ascetic as well as by a drummer is curious; so are the short dresses put on by warriors.

The dress and ornaments of the boy Krishna in Paharpur reliefs probably represent those generally used by the children. The chief points of interest are the three tufts of hair on the crown, called kaka-paksha in literature, the torque with medallions around the neck which is in use even today, and the upper scarf tied around the middle of the body between the chest and the abdomen. The lower garment consisted either of a short dhoti or shorts.

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The ornaments worn by men and women, like their dresses, were very similar. The amorous couple in Paharpur relief has each large ear-pendants, two lines of necklaces, armlets, bracelets, elaborate girdles and anklet. These may be regarded as the ornaments generally used. Sometimes a woman puts on too many bracelets like the up-country ladies. Neither men nor women used any covering for the head, but the sculptures of Paharpur show that they elaborately dressed their hair.

“Men wore their hair long with thick tresses falling on the shoulder, tied a knot on the top and had curls or ringlets on the forehead kept in place by a neat fillet. Women had their hair gathered in a bench at the back or arranged it fan-wise behind the head.”

The ascetics had their braided hair arranged in two piles one above the other.

The literary evidence indicates that men used leather shoes and wooden foot-wears, and carried umbrellas and bamboo-sticks. No figure in Paharpur sculptures, except warriors, is, however, represented with any footwear, and it was probably not in common use. It appears, however, that the warriors were also often without shoes. The umbrella is represented in sculptures.

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Married women painted their forehead with a mark of vermilion, a custom that prevails even today. They also reddened their lower lips with vermilion, used saffron as a cosmetic, and painted their feet with lac.

As regards furniture we know little of the different articles in use. The bedstead, mirror, and lock with key are referred to in early Charya-padas. Various kinds of household furniture, made of gold with fine artistic designs, are mentioned in Ramacharita. Terracotta toys, bedsteads, flower-stands, caskets, and domestic utensils such as bowls, vases and pitchers, of which there are a large number of varieties, and earthenware, of all kinds and of various types, are represented in sculptures.