Usually, hairdressing is an art synonymous with women. Historically though, it has been associated with both men and women. A considerable amount of thought, care and artistry was applied to dressing one’s hair in ancient India.
Hair is symbolic of grace, elegance and power and arrangement of hair was considered an art form. Though hairdressing was a daily routine, special occasions such as social gatherings and functions saw both men and women adorning elaborate hairstyles. Natya Shastra, an ancient treatise on performing arts, mentions that geographical regions influenced hairstyles. For example, women of Malwa (Madhya Pradesh) wore curled locks whereas women from Gauda (Bengal) were known to tie their hair in a knot or leave it braided. In this article we’ll take a look at hairstyles spanning different periods.
Numerous pictorial references of ancient Indian hairstyles can be found in stone and terracotta sculptures, paintings and coins. Sculptures unearthed at various Harappan sites including Mohenjo-daro, Kalibangan and Harappa depict elaborate and detailed coiffure that dates back to the Indus Valley civilisation. Further proof is a wide variety of combs as well as copper mirrors that have been excavated at these sites. Women were illustrated with their hair arranged as curls or knotted at the back. Some even decorated their knots with flowers or floral ornaments. Men too were shown sporting distinct hairstyles. Either their hair was cut short or coiled in a knot at the back and supported with a fillet (headband). Sometimes, a part of the hair was knotted while the rest hung freely. In some depictions, men were seen with one part hair knotted and the other curled. Another style sported by men was their hair knotted in a bun or coiled in a ring on top of the head. So much for hair styling being perceived as a woman’s domain!
Terracotta figures from the Mauryan period depict men with hair brushed back in streaks, with a fillet on the head. Detailing also reveals a horn-like arrangement on the head and a knot on the right. A particular Mauryan stone sculpture from Didarganj, Bihar depicts a yakshi – the female attendee of a deity – with a beautiful hairstyle in which her mane is combed and knotted with a loop at the back. Two distinct hairstyles prevalent among women also find mention in Kautilya’s Arthashashtra. Interestingly, while the first was braided hair, the second was a shaven head!
Stupas in Sanchi, Bharat and Amravati as well as the rock cut caves of Ajanta and Kanheri are symbolic of Sunga art. The women in these sculptures are shown as wearing a turban with their hair tied in a topknot. Another particular coiffure adorned by some women shows looped hair that is loosely knotted and embellished with floral wreaths. In some references, women are seen with their hair knotted in a spherical shape over their head. The Kushan era saw women comb back their hair with tiaras into a loose knot, allowing locks of hair to dangle on the nape of the neck. An exceptional piece of Kushan art from Sringaverapura, UP depicts Lord Shiv with vertical jatas of 12 bands that are tied round by 4 bands of hair.
The Gupta period, from the 4th to 7th century AD, marked the emergence of 2 distinct hairstyles. One was of foreign influence that saw the emergence of short hair that was formed into crisp curls in the front and ringlets at the back. The other, of indigenous flavour, involved long hair worn as either a high or low bun, knotted at the side of the head or coiled on the left on top of the head. One of the most famous terracotta figures of this era is that of Devi Parvati, shown as wearing her hair in curls, tied behind her neck and adorned with a round jewel.
The above are a few references of distinct hairstyles worn by men and women over the centuries. The variety of styles found on sculptures is astounding and includes corkscrew curls, ponytails, chignons i.e. a knot of hair tied at the back of the head, long braids and rows of upturned curls piled on top of the head such that the hairstyle resembled a tower of flames! Such elaborate and extensive hairstyles involved the use of ornaments not only for decorative purposes but also to hold the hair in place. Indians have been known to coat their hair with bee’s wax and castor oil to retain the style and prevent hair from falling loose. Hair ornaments ranged from simple cords to ribbons, golden hairpins, nets, tiaras and even jewelled medallions.
A look at the ever-changing fashion and film industries will reveal that they draw their inspiration from references of the ancient past. The man buns and topknots that are in vogue today aren’t new age hairstyles, but have existed and adorned by Indian men centuries ago…we find that the old styles keep coming back. People who sport them have no idea that they were in vogue centuries ago indicative of memories of past life and a rebirth with those memories. Such people would very easily go into their past lives if they attempt under a proper Guru.