Sanskrit, Ancient Indian Scriptures and its Effect on Indian Costumes

Arora, Vishu is a Lecturer in Fashion Designing at GNG College, Ludhiana, Punjab

August 2013, Craft Revival Trust
Hindu religion and scriptures have inspired human beings to live a spiritual life. These scriptures were predominately composed in Sanskrit with the Vedas being the oldest Sanskrit literature. The hymns or mantras, Sanskrit phrases, sacred symbols, Hindu Gods and historical epics of Hindu religion have always enlightened human minds. Since historical times, these hymns were recited on every occasion, be it joyous or sad. These sacred symbols were used to energize the universe with positivity. Now days, these hymns and sacred symbols are incorporated into the modern attire. The motifs inspired from historical epics and ethnic drapes of sari and dhoti are very much in fashion in present times. Sanskrit was part of our lives centuries back and even today in some or the other way, it is connected with us.

Costumes of early times
The term costume can be referred to as a dress in general or a particular class or period with distinguishing characteristics. Costume is one of the most visible signs of civilization. It provides the visual evidence of the life style of the wearers. Each community had different costumes. It was the community that used to decide what to wear, how to wear, the distinctions to be made in the costumes on the basis of sex and age, class and castes, religion and region, occasion and occupation. There used to be a community sanction as to which part of the body was covered or what was to be left bare, how to conceal and how to reveal. National costumes or regional costumes expressed the local identity and emphasized uniqueness.

In early times, the attire of Indian men included unstitched garments like the dhoti, the scarf or the uttariya and the turban. On the other hand, women used to wear the dhoti or the sari as the lower garment in combination with the Stanapatta (the breast band). The whole ensemble was of unstitched garments.

The bindi and its symbolism
Bindi, sindoor, tikka, pottu are the synonyms of the holy dot that was worn on the forehead. It was either a small dot or a big large round, sometimes shaped like a long straight vertical line, sometimes in a miniature alpana with a fine-tipped stick in triangles and circles to work out a complicated artistic design.

The word bindi is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘bindu’ or ‘drop’. It signifies the third eye of a person. It is a symbol of auspiciousness, good fortune and festivity. In older days, a small circular disc or a hollow coin was used to make a perfect round on the forehead. The conservative woman still uses kumkum or sindoor for making a bindi.

The jewel on the nose
Traditional Indian women always wore a nose-ring. In India the outside of the left nostril is the preferred for piercing as this is supposed to make childbirth easier. This is because Ayurvedic medicine associates this location with the female reproductive organs. In the old days, the bride’s nose was pierced and the auspicious nose-ring was worn during the pooja or prayer of Goddess Parvati.

The story of the sari
The origin of sari is obscure. But, Indian sari is the oldest existing draped garment as it has been mentioned in Vedas (the oldest existing manuscript since 3000 BC). Sari can be called a versatile cloth because it could be worn as shorts, trousers, flowing gown-like or skirt-like.

The word sari is derived from the Sanskrit words ‘Sati’ and ‘Chira’ meaning ‘a wearable length of cloth’. It is a long length of cloth measuring from 4 to 8 meters tied loosely, folded and pleated. It could be turned up into a working dress or a party-wear dress with manual skills. A woman’s ethnicity, class or caste background and the social norms influenced her choice of fabrics, colors and pattern. For instance, in North India a widow was expected to wear white, the color of mourning while red was considered the color of joy and marital bliss worn by the brides. These differences are noticeable even today especially in rural areas and traditional tribesWoman usually tucked the sari till the ankles, while the women who had to work in water or fields could tuck the front pleats between the legs to the back and tie the upper portion round the waist for free movement of hands and legs. At the same time it was as safe a dress as trousers. A nine yard sari was embellished with embroidery and gold designing. A gold, silver or cloth belt was fastened which kept pallu/ the end piece, pleats and folds in position. Rani Lakshmi Bai fought enemy troops on horse back wearing sari in the form of trousers and fastening the pallu with the silver or cloth belt. Tight tucking of the front pleats in the back was called Veeragacche (soldier’s tuck).

Varieties of saris
The sari is divided into 3 areas-
  • The longitudinal border

  • The end piece

  • The field

Each area of the sari used to communicate woman’s social and family status and regional identity. Its size and elaboration also indicated a family’s wealth because added ornamentation added to the cost of the sari. In spite of its long length, the sari has never been cumbersome to working women. They could carry head-load, waist-load (child) and walk with ease. The pallu was used to cover their head. Women of affluent class could fasten a golden belt and matching jewelry to keep the folds and pleats in position. Poor women used to wear sari without the blouse but they cover their feminine part securely. Sari worn like breeches made movement easy. In ancient times women fought battles riding horses, by folding and fastening the sari in this breech-like fashion.

Attire across genders and castes
Dhoti was the male counter part of sari. Men used to wear colorful dhotis with brocaded borders in a number of styles.

Sari or dhoti has always been the most flexible dress for both men and women. Being an un-sewn cloth length, it could be worn parted and tucked breech-like for horse-riding, for swimming and other sports, it can be tightly worn and for martial sports and battle it can be draped in a short length. It gives an elegant appearance to men when the embroidered and fully pleated saris with big borders swayed as they walked majestically towards the durbar hall (royal senates).

Commoners wore saris without undergarments. A few of them could cover upper parts of their bodies with another piece of cloth.

Ancient brassieres
Majority of female figures in ancient Indian scriptures are devoid of a blouse, but there are some evidences depicting Indian women wearing brassieres. The first evidence of brassieres in India is found during the rule of king Harshavardhana (1st century) in Kashmir. Sewn brassieres and blouses were also worn during the Vijayanagara Empire.

Impact of ancient Indian scriptures on modern attire
“The language of Sanskrit is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either.”

- Sir William Jones

Sanskrit had once been an official language of India. Various measures have been taken to uplift the position of Sanskrit by Government as well as private bodies. For instance, the National Anthem of India is 90% Sanskrit, Sri and Srimati are the official forms of addressing an individual, the motto of Lok Sabha is Dharma chakra (“The Wheel of Law”), the All India Radio has adopted as its guiding principle and motto the Sanskrit expression Bahujana-hitaya bahujana-sukhaya (“For the good of the many and for the happiness of the many”), The Life Insurance Corporation’s motto is Yogaksemam vahamy aham, which is a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita, meaning “I take responsibility for access and security”, the great principle of India’s foreign policy is expressed by the Sanskrit term ‘Panca Sila’( means five principles).

Now-a-days, Sanskrit hymns and scripts are seen printed on costumes and painted on body.

Bhartiya scriptures include the Vedas, the Upvedas, and the Vedangas, the Smritis, the Darsh, the Shastras, the Upnishads, the Puranas, the Mahabharat, the Ramayan, the Gita, the Bhagwadgita and the writings of the jagadgurus, acharyas and saints. All this scriptures are composed in Sanskrit- the language of religion and culture. These scriptures talk about energy, universe and creation. Spiritual and intellectual efforts of hundreds and millions of people over millennia have graced India with a rich and complex culture. In present era also, those spiritual efforts are inspiring human beings to live a spiritual life. Their preachings have also inspired the designers to incorporate the holy Sanskrit ‘shlokas’ and sacred symbols into the modern attire.

Visualizing increases awareness and memorizing. The historical epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, murals of Hindu Gods, sacred symbols like Swastika and Aum have become an eminent part of fashion and are creating awareness and spreading message of spirituality across the globe. These are painted not only on fabric but also on body in the form of tattoos. Huge canopies, wall panels, carpets, prayer mats, dress materials and jewelry are designed using the ethnic mantras or symbols.

Tattooing and body painting is common amongst youth and these sacred symbols and hindu deities are the preferred tattoos by youth.

The word swastika in Sanskrit means "well-being." This symbol has been an ancient and noble symbol of cosmic order and stability. In the Vedas, India's most ancient scriptures, the swastika is called "the sun's wheel" and is associated with astrological ritual and flourishing cosmic periods. In modern times, swastika is painted on t-shirts, kurtis, body and used in making jewellery.

Interesting pendants are designed taking these sacred symbols as an inspiration. Pendants and rings with inscriptions of Lord Ganesha, swastika designs, Lord Shiva and Krishna, Aum, Sanskrit words and phrases.

Sanskrit is slowly coming up and it must be respected and regarded across the globe. This language is a repository of valuable knowledge of ancient Indian heritage. Though it’s use in day to day life has reduced but it has always been a part of our lives centuries back and even today in some or the other way, it is connected to us.


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  • Flynn Dorris, “costumes of India”, Oxford and IBH Publishing Company, New Delhi

  • Ghurey G.S, “Indian Costumes”, Humanities Press, New York

  • Gupta S.P, “Costumes textiles cosmetics and coiffure in ancient and mediaeval India”(1973), Oriental Publishers, Delhi

  • Kumar Ritu, “Costumes and Textiles of Royal India”, Christies’s book, London


  • www.costumes.org

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  • http://theviewspaper.net/sanskrit-%E2%80%93-importance-as-national-heritage/

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu_texts

  • http://www.theancientweb.com/explore/content.aspx?content_id=14

  • http://www.hindunet.org/scriptures/

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika

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