Every Woman Needs a Saree

Every woman deserves to be wrapped in nine yards of fabulous. The saree is iconic, symbolic, powerful, ageless, timeless and inexhaustibly versatile. There are hundreds of ways to wear a saree, you can show as much or as little flesh as you like and your saree will never make you feel guilty for piling on a couple of pounds. A symbol of feminine beauty and grace, I don’t think many people could disagree with the fact that the saree is the most enchanting and elegant garment of all time. Thank you, India!

Sarees have been mentioned in the ancient and sacred Vedic scriptures, and to this day remain on trend! A saree is woven with its own unique history, tradition and culture of India. The delicate silk and cotton mix of Chanderi sarees inspired by Mughal palaces and ancient royalty from Madhya Pradesh. The wide borders of Kanjivaram silk from Tamil Nadu. The rich floral details of a Banarasi from Varanasi. The natural colours of a Sambalpuri woven in Orissa. The tie-dyed designs of a Bandhani made across Northern India. The Baluchari sarees from Bengal, which literally have a story to tell as they are embroidered with scenes from famous tales…

It felt almost like a privilege but when I was draped in my bridal saree for the first time, I was wearing two thousand years of history (a Paithani from Maharashtra)! My mum was really nervous at the prospect of wearing a saree when she came to India. She thought she would look awful, she didn’t think she would be able to pull it off. Mum was dreading it. The magic of the saree didn’t fail though, when the shopkeeper draped that pure silk around her, she burst into tears because she had never worn something so beautiful. She felt gorgeous and found that wearing a saree boosted her confidence!

Mum wearing her silk! bridal saree

Mum wearing her silk!

mother and daughter wedding saree

Wearing a saree can be confusing and overwhelming at first, all of those pleats and pins. Someone else will probably have to help you drape the it and you might find yourself feeling odd at first but it won’t take long to find your saree groove!

A beautiful saree has the power to invoke so many emotions and feelings, I feel almost majestic when I am draped in silk. A saree changes the way I walk, the way I hold myself and even the way I see myself. I feel at my most beautiful when I wear a saree. The saree doesn’t have an expiry date, an age limit, or a body shape preference, and what it does have is the power to make you feel gorgeous and confident.

silk paithani marathi saree

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Who is “Allowed” to Wear a Bindi?

There has been a torrent of online attacks on non-Indian women who wear the bindi. As a non-Indian woman wearing a bindi with a colourful experience of online attacks, I wanted to write about this topic. Cultural appropriation is a very sensitive subject, many people fear that the deep significance of a tradition or symbol will be lost or misused if others start to use it. The bindi is an iconic South Asian symbol, so should women who do not originate from South Asia be allowed to wear one?

haldi kumkum thali navdurga Durga

Our world is shrinking, people are mixing, cultures are merging (our marriage is one example of that) and therefore cultural appropriation is inevitable, but is it always a bad thing? Many think it is. 

I personally feel we should all attempt to understand and acknowledge the significance of the symbols we adorn ourselves with. We should learn what our wardrobes represent and assess whether that conflicts with our personal ethos. We should learn the history and try to understand the sacred significance of the things we wear so we are able to respect them.  If we all took more time to understand the cultures of the people who live among us, surely it would go beyond dressing appropriately and dissolve some poisonous prejudices.

My experience, as a non-Indian woman married to an Indian man living in India, has been the opposite. If I don’t wear a bindi, people get upset! On the days I have forgotten to wear a bindi, aunties have offered me a bindi from their handbags, my grandmother-in-law has been deeply hurt and a priest appeared from nowhere whilst I was waiting in a restaurant and poked me between the eyes with a stick covered in vermillion.

As someone who will not do something just because someone has told me to, I had to make a choice whether or not to wear a bindi. I asked Indian women what the bindi meant to them and tried to uncover the ancient symbolism. Afterwards I thought long and hard about what the bindi means to me.

I wear a bindi as a reminder that I am more than this body, I am a soul. When I notice the small red dot in the mirror, I find focus. I am conscious that there is more to me than this reflection! I also didn’t want to upset my husband’s grandmother.

Obviously you don’t need to have a spiritual connection with the bindi to respect it, many Indian women wear a bindi as a fashion accessory. We do, however, need to respect that the symbol is sacred to some if we choose to wear it. Unfortunately, even if you do respect the bindi but are not South Asian, you may still be subjected to those online attacks if you chose to wear one. I feel like those who make this malicious attacks are disrespecting the bindi themselves by being so cruel and hateful. 

We must remember that whilst the cultural appropriation police are busy behind their computer screens attacking young women for wearing a bindi, there are many more South Asians who feel honoured that the world finds the bindi beautiful. Not only should we be respectful to cultural and sacred symbols, we should  also respect each other.

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Sindoor: Empowering or Oppressive?

Recently I met a girl who stared at me for a while before asking, “why do you wear sindoor? For me it is mandatory, but why do you apply it when you don’t have to?” The word mandatory made me stop and think as I noticed a recurring theme. I had met another girl, several months back, and she said to me something similar, “we hate having to wear these marriage symbols, but we have to, why do you wear them?”

When my husband applied sindoor to my hairline for the first time, I knew nothing of it’s significance. I had no history with sindoor, no background, no experience. As a child I didn’t see my mother apply it to her hairline every morning, I wasn’t told that once I became a wife it’s mandatory for me to wear it. I only saw the love behind my husband’s eyes and the fact we were now married. Sindoor became part of my personal journey and when I had to move back to England for a while after our marriage, wearing sindoor became a source of great comfort.

applying sindoor english wife indian life

Applying sindoor at our wedding.

The ancient tradition of sindoor is said to symbolise the love and devotion a wife has for her husband, the red symbolising his life force. I didn’t consider that for some women (however much they may love their husbands), sindoor could be seen as an oppressive symbol which they “hate having to wear” . When you don’t have a choice, when something is mandatory, forced upon you against your will, you probably won’t be happy about it. I strongly feel no adornment should be mandatory. Sucks the romance right out of it doesn’t it…

I must admit that when I first moved to India I felt a lot safer when I wore sindoor, it’s perfectly visible that I am married and I don’t want anyone flirting with me. Yes, I felt a lot safer, but am I actually safer when I wear sindoor? What about the widows and unmarried women who are not “allowed” to wear sindoor? Sadly we cannot deny it, for various reasons, in India a woman’s status largely depends on having a husband.

I started to think about what sindoor means to me. I have never been pressurised to wear sindoor, so why do I continue to apply it? I actually feel powerful when I apply sindoor, I feel like a warrior applying war paint, but where is that coming from? 

I thought about it for a long time and same image kept appearing in my mind, the image of Goddess Kali, the Goddess of revolution, change, creation and power. I thought about the colour of blood-red sindoor, always seen on this powerful Goddess, which to me symbolises the life force in all of us as well as woman’s ability to menstruate, give birth and create new life. I started to see sindoor as a symbol of the sacred feminine that dwells within all of us, shakti. In this patriarchal world, it’s important for women to remember their power and divinity (with or without applying sindoor).

The sindoor is a 5000 year old and sacred symbol, but like all symbols there is a certain degree of subjectivity depending on our experiences and opinions.

kali empowering menstration goddess sindoor red life creation

I wrote this post several months ago but felt compelled to publish it tonight, the night of the new moon and the annual festival dedicated to Goddess Kali. Goddess Kali is a symbol of power, freedom and equality, she is Mother Earth and the destroyer of egos. 

Happy Kali Puja!

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My Unusual Necklace, My Mangalsutra

During my visit to England, several people admired my very “unusual necklace”. This unusual necklace, which I guess does look pretty unusual compared to jewellery from the West, is my mangalsutra. For those who are not familiar, a mangalsutra is one of the many symbols of marriage a Hindu woman might wear.  

The style of mangalsutra varies across India and mine is in the style usually (definitely not unusual around these parts) seen on a Maharashtrian woman…Marathi Mangalsutra Mehendi Henna Palm

The word mangalsutra is a combination of two Sanskrit words, mangal meaning ‘auspicious’ and sutra meaning ‘thread’. During the marriage ceremony the husband puts this auspicious thread around his bride’s neck, and traditionally she will wear this sacred necklace for the rest of his life. The black beads are thought to protect the couple from the evil eye, and sadly if a woman becomes a widow she will be expected to either removes her mangalsutra completely or remove these black beads so she can continue to wear it.

mangalsutra

It felt a little strange in England, I was married but wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, maybe I will get one someday, but my “unusual necklace” started conversations (but not as many as my sindoor did) so people soon knew it was an Indian marriage symbol.  At first I was a little unsure about how it looked myself and when British people describe something as unusual, they are most likely not totally sure if they like it or not (I am extremely sorry if I have ever described someone’s taste as unusual, that could be awkward).

That is my unusual necklace, which I now, after becoming very fond of it, like to call my beautiful mangalsutra

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Times are changing, not all married women are wearing their mangalsutra for various practical and personal reasons. Do you have a mangalsutra? Do you think it’s unusual or beautiful?  Do you enjoy wearing it?

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