Purushu's award winning fashion blog was founded in 2009 while studying fashion design at NIFT New Delhi. At the age of 19, he was invited by FDCI to write official show reviews at India Fashion Week, New Delhi. Following a stint as menswear designer at Future Group (Lee Cooper), Mumbai in 2013, he relocated to Chennai where he continued blogging and wrote guest columns for The Hindu. In 2017, Purush Arie launched India's first exclusive gender neutral fashion e-commerce. Purushu spoke about gender neutral revolution through fashion at TEDxChennai in March 2018.

Influence of Caste System in Clothing – Ancient India

 

PRE-VEDIC

Most studies point out that modern Homo Sapiens developed in Africa some 200,000 years ago. Dating the earliest human migration to Indian mainland remains a matter of dispute but the most significant Indo-African resettlements took place around 70,000 years ago.

 

While archaeological evidence indicates inhabitation in Andaman Islands for more than 2200 years, genetic and cultural studies suggest the Andaman natives – Australoid-Malanesian settlers may have been isolated from other populations during the Middle Paleolithic era up to even 26,000 years ago!

Photo: Maurice Vidal Portman (1861-1935) – Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

“An early (staged) photograph to show Great Andamanese women (and the odd male) with a wide variety of hairstyles and body painting patterns. Clearly visible are only the wide variety of hair cuts. Notable also on the extreme left and right two women with bands for carrying infants. The people to the left of the centre pole are said to be showing body paint signifying mourning, those on the right celebratory paint. The girl, second from the right, in the middle row is said to be painted in red ochre as a sign for rejoicing.” – Citation from Clothes, Clay and Beautycare (of Great Andamanese people), by George Weber

Palaeolithic Indian inhabitants worshipped idols and deities, sacred status of animals including cows, peacocks, cobras, elephants, and plants like pipal, thulasi, and neem. The aboriginal people of India traditionally lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and mostly wore little (or no) clothing, made of animal skin and vegetation. Ancient Indian Adivasis much like other Negrito, Australoid & Mongoloid natives wore elaborate jewellery in form of stones, animal claws, feathers etc.

 

INDUS VALLEY CIVILIZATION (3300–1500 BCE)

The Neolithic age marks the onset of urban Indus Valley Civilisation – one of the earliest sites with evidence of farming and herding in South Asia, which also meant access to fibres like cotton, flax, and linen. Archaeological remains of silk fibres from Harappan sites suggest people also wore silks textiles and knew silk farming techniques. Indus valley figurines wear elaborate jewellery including necklaces, anklets, earrings, and bangles in stone, terracotta, gold, copper/bronze. Bead jewellery was popularly traded in this era. An Indus Valley female skeleton on display at the National Museum, New Delhi, wears a bangle on left hand. People covered their lower body with a short rectangular wrap tied with waist bands/belts. Figurines of this era also feature intricately detailed hairstyles and headgear, including flower decorations and a female in a turban. Men left their hair long, at times tied into buns. Nudity was a natural and acceptable notion in Indus Valley. While Varna system itself didn’t exist in Harappa-Mohenjo Daro cultures, it’s noteworthy that the priest-king figurine is more decorative than other figurines which are chiefly unclothed. Clothing was clearly established as a medium to express social status.

Indus people worshipped idols including Shiva lingam and select animals and plants. The Pashupati seal from this era is viewed as a possible representation of a proto-Sivan figure. Inhabitants of Indus Valley Civilisation are widely regarded as proto-Dravidian due to cultural similarities and indications of genetic studies. Many linguists in particular propose that Adi Dravida or  Ancient Dravidians were spread throughout the Indian subcontinent before the influx of Indo-Aryan languages. Some historians alternatively hypothesise that Indus people along with migrants from Steppe grasslands form ANI (Ancestral North Indians) whereas Indus Valley people who moved South and mixed with hunter-gatherers make up ASI (Ancestral South Indians). The recent Keezhadi excavations in Thamizh Nadu has unearthed Harappa like urban sites dating to Sangam era, strengthening the Indus-Dravidian ties.

 

AUSTRO-ASIATIC & SINO-TIBETIAN

Late Neolithic period sees the fall of Indus Valley Civilisation and migrations of Austro-Asiatic populations in North Eastern India till around first millennium BCE. Crossovers in ethnicity and language are observed by studying ethnic origins and linguistic affiliations, for example, Nicobarese considered to be Mongoloid speak Austro-Asiatic language, and among Bhils, Gonds and Oraon Adivasis classified as Australoid groups, Bhil tribe speak Indo-European languages whereas Gondi and Oraon speak Dravidian languages.

 

The decline of Indus Valley Civilisation is followed with agrarian Indo-Aryan nomadic settlements in North-Western India referred as Arya Varna in Vedas. The religion & language of Vedic people had strong traces of Indo-Iranian cultures, especially in cases of Vedic Sanskrit’s relations with Avesta, and Soma cult and fire worship, both of which are preserved in Zoroastrianism. The Vedic religion comprises of Vedic Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and early Upanishads.

 

VEDIC PERIOD (1500-600 BCE)

The first literary trace of the word “Shudra” is found in Rig Veda.

11. When they divided Purusa how many portions did they make?
What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
12. The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made.
His thighs became the Vaishya, from his feet the Shudra was produced.

– Rig Veda 10.90.11–12

 

Note: The term Varna in Vedas may refer to any of colour, outward appearance, tribe, race, or classification, whereas it strictly refers to social hierarchy (based on labour) in Dharmashastras like Manusmriti which were written later.

 

Rig Veda structures a two-fold Varna system on basis of tribe and lineage  – Arya Varna and Dasa Varna. Vedic nomads, culturally and genetically different from Indus valley people regarded themselves as Arya and the non-Vedic indigenous people of India were labelled Dasa or Dasyu – translates to barbarians, demons or slave in Vedic hymns depending on contexts of usage. Rigveda describes the echos of the fight between Arya Varna and non-Aryans. The Aryans, who were superior in Iron-technology, defeated the indigenous settlers who still used copper. Several Rigveda hymns glorify white skinned Aryans defeating dark skinned Dasyus. Krishnam Vacham [Black skin: Vedic Sanskrit] was written off as impious.

 

“The mighty Thunderer with his fair-complexioned friends won the land, the sunlight, and the waters.”
– Rigveda, Book 1, Indra 100.18

“Indra in battles help his Āryan worshipper, he who hath hundred helps at hand in every fray, in frays that win the light of heaven.
Plaguing the lawless he gave up to Manu’s seed the black skin;”
-Rigveda, Book 1, Indra 130.8

Amar Chitra Katha depicting Aryan Indra fighting a dark-skinned mustached Dasyu – on back of a fair skinned elephant. Note: This image is a contemporary portrayal and Vedic people didn’t wear silk brocades. Silks gain prominence only after 1st century BCE.

 

While Rig Veda sanctions purity of fair-skinned lineage, later Vedic texts relate the notion of purity through hierarchy decided by profession. Evidence of clothing in this era comes only in form of Vedic knowledge which was verbally transferred to pupils by Brahmin teacher. Vedic people did not sew their clothes. Clothing was chiefly minimal and draped, however description of rich ornaments and jewellery are mentioned.

 

Some translations of references of clothing items in Rig Veda include:

  1. Adhivastra – Veil
  2. Kurlra – head-dress or head-ornaments
  3. Andpratidhi – (any) covering of body

 

Atarva Veda also mentions:

  1. Nivi – Innerwear
  2. Vavri – covering of body
  3. Upavasana – Veil
  4. Kumba, Usnlsa, Trilta – Head-dress
  5. Updnaha – Footwear
  6. Kambla – Blanket

 

BRAHMINISM (c. 600–200 BCE)

The Vedic religion flourished under the Kurus of Kurukshetra as acknowledged by Atarva Veda. Rig Vedic Varna system of Arya and Dasa is replaced with four-fold Verna system on basis of labour in this period. The Brahmin priesthood and Kshatriya aristocracy dominated the Arya commoners (now called Vaishyas) and the Dasa labourers (now called Shudras). By late Vedic period, the Brahmin literature subjected Shudras to social ostracism for being guilty of sins committed in a previous life and they could expect rebirth into one of the “pure” upper-caste by submitting themselves as the slaves of top three Verna hierarchies, thereby marking the onset of the longest surviving apartheid in world history – the Brahminical caste system comprising of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya, Shudra and Avarna/Outcaste (in order of hierarchy.)

 

By late Vedic period, Brahminical kingdoms control a significant portion of Northern India. Mahajanapadas arise from late Rigvedic kingdoms by 600-500 BCE. Some renowned Brahmin kingdoms of Iron Age era included Nanda Empire, Magadha, Pauravas, and Taxila. Brahminical migrations towards Deccan plateau in this period marks the beginning of Sanskritisation of India. The later Vedic literature refers to the three broad divisions – Brahmavarta or Aryavarta, Madhyadesha (central & Deccan), and Dakshinapatha (Southern). Post-Vedic literature the Aitereya Brahmana and Jaiminiya upanishad Brahmana refer to Vidharba, leading to the belief that it’s the first known Indo-Aryan province in South of Vindhya mountains. The aborigine people living in the Deccan have been referred to as Asuras and the Rakshasas in the Brahminical epic literature. Ramayana mentions Dandakaranya, indicating the Southern region of Vindhyas, as a home to many deadly creatures and demons. The migrations and settlements of Brahmins towards eastern and southern parts of India also leads to mixture of various races – Indo-Aryans, Indo-Dravidians, Pre-Dravidas of Negrito and proto-Austroloids origins, Austro-Asiatic, and Sino-Tibetians. This racial mix meant, it was no longer universal that an upper caste individual is of Arya Varna or the case of lower caste individual being of Dasyu Varna.

 

BUDDHISM & JAINISM

Mahavira (c. 549–477 BCE) and Buddha (c. 563-483 BCE), challenge the orthodoxy of the established Brahminical rituals, repudiated the authority of the Vedas, and rejected the Brahminical Varna system as well as Vedic rituals of animal sacrifice, thereby leading to the rise of two new religions Jainism and Buddhism.

 

MAURYAN EMPIRE – (300 BCE – 187 BCE)

Chandragupta Maurya establishes Mauryan Empire by overthrowing Nanda Empire with assistance of Chanakya. Megasthenes, the Greek diplomat upon his visit to India writes that there are no slaves in Mauryan empire. This could be a possible reference to ancient European style commercial slaves, since Arthashastra of this era otherwise mention slaves. Chanakya’s Arthashastra is probably among the first of shastras to provide some kind of rights to Dasas, the antithesis of Aryas. Verses of Arthashastra punishes prejudice towards Dasa including sexual exploitation, thereby adding light to the exploitation of Shudras in preceding Brahminical societies.

Employing a slave (dasa) to carry the dead or to sweep ordure, urine or the leavings of food; keeping a slave naked; hurting or abusing him; or violating the chastity of a female slave shall cause the forfeiture of the value paid for him or her. Violation of the chastity shall at once earn their liberty for them.

— Arthashastra, Translated by Shamasastry

A slave (dasa) shall be entitled to enjoy not only whatever he has earned without prejudice to his master’s work, but also the inheritance he has received from his father.

— Arthashastra, Translated by Shamasastry

 

A Mauryan statue depicting mauli (turban), kayabandh and loin cloth worn with coiled earrings.

Clothing in Mauryan era was primarily unstitched and comprised of two pieces. There’s no evidence of single long garment draped on both upper and lower body like the modern sari. The loin cloth worn in Vedic period was continued to be worn in this period. The Greek influence during the Mauryan era also contributes to the earliest Indian breast-covering garment – Pratidhi.

Mauryan Womens Costumes:
Uttariya: Upper cloth of printed cotton worn crosswise on the head.
Kayabandh: Embroidered flat cloth band, pattika style, worn in a looped knot with fringed ends.
Mekhala: Six-stringed hip belt of gold or silver beads.
Lambanam: long necklace made of chains held at intervals by flat bands, phalakahara style.
Kantha: Short necklace of five strings of beads in gold or silver.
Karnika: Trumpet-shaped earrings.
Kangan: Ten bracelets adorning each hand.
Baju Band: Decorative armlets worn on upper arms.
Kara: Anklets of twisted wire worn on both ankles.
Sitara: Star shaped forehead ornament of gold or silver with a stamped pattern.

 

Mauryan Mens Costumes:
Antariya: Kachcha style, both equal ends being taken between the legs after knotting the front; these ends are then held diagonally, fluted and tucked into the waist at the back to hang between the legs up to the ground
Uttariya: upavita fashion, worn across the chest and over the left shoulder
Kayalbandh: muraja style, drum-headed knobs at the ends, tied in a looped knot
Baju Band: armlets with elaborate incised pattern
Kangan: several bracelets on each wrist
Karnika: trumpet-shaped earring or karnaphul
Mauli: turban of printed cloth held by decorative bands wound over the top knot of hair and at the side of the head

 

Mauryan Warrior Costume:
Antariya: knee-length, worn in kachcha style with fluted end tucked in at centre front
Tunic : one of the earliest depictions of the cut and sewn garment; it has short sleeves and a round neck, full front opening with ties at the neck and waist, and is hip length
Boots : fitting to the knees Head band: tied at the back over short hair
A broad flat sword with cross straps on the sheath is suspended from the left shoulder.

 

Mauryan empire reached its prime at a time when Ashoka conquered (almost) entire India and converted to Buddhism after the Kalinga war in 236 CE. Chandragupta Maurya embraced Jainism after retiring. Buddhism becomes the Ashokan state religion. Vedic gods steadily lose relevance without patronage of the state in this period whereas the message of Buddha reaches off shores. Ashoka bans animal sacrifice rituals, which affected the influx of wealth and gifts for Brahmins in a new egalitarian social order in which they weren’t at top of hierarchy any more.

 

BRAHMIN COUNTER REVOLUTION – 187 BC

Pushyamitra, a Brahmin Mauryan general assassinates the last Mauryan Emperor Brihadratha Maurya to establish Shunga empire whose inscriptions would reach as far as Ayodhya. Pushyamitra orchestrated a remarkable Brahminical counter revolution by reestablishing the four-fold Varna system and animal sacrifice Yajnas prohibited by Ashoka. Pushyamitra not only revived Brahminical supremacy but also cruelly persecuted Buddhists. Vibhasa, a 2nd century Buddhist text, states that Pushyamitra burned Buddhist scriptures, killed Buddhist monks, and destroyed 500 monasteries in and around Kashmir.

Compilation of Ramayana and Mahabharata (as Itihasa/history) begins in this period with patronage of Brahmin kings and will be completed over approximately six centuries. Brahmins also responded with Dharmashastra (including Manusmriti) in this period to reclaim the authority of Vedas. Most of the basic ideas and practices of arising classical Brahminism will derive from the new Smriti literature.

 

SHUDRAS IN MANUSMRITI

“A Brahmana may confidently seize the goods of (his) Sudra (slave); for, as that (slave) can have no property, his master may take his possessions.” – Manusmriti 8.417

“Brahman men can marry Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaish and even Shudra women but Shudra men can marry only Shudra women.” – Manusmriti 3.12

“In case a Brahman man marries Shudra woman, their son will be called ‘Parshav’ or ‘Shudra’ because his social existence is like a dead body.” – Manusmriti 9.178

“Sudras who live according to the law, shall each month shave (their heads).” (Manusmriti 5.140)

 

 

Royal couple in Shunga period 100 BCE – The clothing of this period (along with Gupta costumes) is somewhat standardised in large-scale in depiction of Puranic gods.

 

EARLY PURANIC BRAHMINISM – (250 CE – 500 CE)

Compilation of Ramayana and Mahabharata are completed in this period. Ramayana and Mahabharata are compiled as Itihasa (Sanskrit: History) whereas Purnas narrate the interactions of Vedic gods with people and demons. Early Puranas were written in retaliation to popularity of Buddhism, with intent to reach out to the masses including tribals through simple story telling. However the Dharmashastra (treaties of Dharma) compiled in this period ordered the Vedic knowledge to be exclusively retained only within upper-caste community members, who will be allowed to marry only within upper-caste community.

 

The epics and Purnas weren’t written by a single author but many, and further edited and reedited by several other authors – however the authors were all Brahmins. While the non-Brahmins worshipped even Yakshas by late Vedic period (which made no intellectual sense to Indra-centric Vedic knowledge), Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva emerge as the new popular gods under the new Puranic religion.

 

KUSHANA EMPIRE (30 CE – 375CE)

The Kushanas bring in multicultural influences of Scythian, Hellenistic and Greek to Indian subcontinent. A headless statue of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka found in Bactria near Afghanistan shows him dressed in trousers, boots, tunics and overcoat. One of the most important costume development in this period was a rectangular cloth garment draped over both lower body and upper body – the sari drape, Roman influenced. Trade with China was directly established through silk route, providing access to exotic silks in colours of blues, gold, bronze, green, crimson, pink, red, yellow, yellow-green, and browns.

 

Kushan Royal Costume:
Chugha : calf-length overcoat with a wide richly embroidered border down the centre-front opening, hem and edge of long sleeves (probably ruched)
Tunic : Kurta-like long garment
Chalana : baggy trousers tucked into calf-length padded boots

 

Prince Siddhartha, Gandhara School of Art depicting the costumes of Brahmin priests and royal/court men.

 

Kushan men wore stitched calf length tunic. Owing to the Roman influence of Kushans Antariya in the era is worn sari-like, tied in front, while one end is passed between the legs, pleated and tucked in at the back, the other end is partly pleated and tucked in at the front, then wound around and worn over the left shoulder.

 

Mathura School of Art. Costumes of Kushan women include: Antariya (lehenga style) : simply wrapped around and tucked in at the left
Anatriya (sari style) : worn in the kachcha style, the other end being taken across the body and over the left shoulder
Uttariya : thrown casually over the shoulders
Tunic : with front opening, held at the neck by button; long ruched sleeves have ruching held by jewelled bands or buttons; tunic is form-fitting
Mekhala : four-stringed girdle with clasp and decorative leaf at the centre
Hara : one long pearl necklace worn between the breasts and one short one with a pendant
Kundala : large ring-type earrings
Head-dress : chaplet of leaves or turban with a central flower worn around the top knot of hair

 

 

SATAVAHANA DYNASTY (221 BCE -218 CE)

State-sponsored Brahminization of modern day Andhra and Karnataka begins in the reign of Satavahanas. The earliest Satavahana king overthrows Kanvayana (a Brahmin dynasty that replaced Shungas,) and ruled the area of modern day Maharashtra. The complex racial mix in pre-Satavahana Maharashtra makes it difficult to trace the exact origins of Satavahana rulers. Satavahana kings expand their territories further East and go on to exercise their rule over Andhra tribes. Ancient Andhra tribes existed in the period of Vedic Brahminism occupying the lower course of Godavari and Krishna river. It is likely that the vedic Indo-Aryan influences entered the non-Aryan Andhra tribal society during the Brahminical expansions around 500 BCE – 200 BCE. Archaeological evidences suggest heavy northern plough had reached the region and the development of agriculture took place with Indo-Aryans migrations to Andhra. Jainism, Buddhism along with other indigenous tribal customs were popular religions in Mauryan ruled Andhra. Satavahanas establish their political authority in Andhra region roughly half a century after the fall of Mauryan empire. The orthodox Indo-Aryan Brahmins of the North India viewed the Andhras as a mixed caste, indicating that the Andhras were probably a local tribe that was Brahminized later. Satavahana king Gautamiputra Satakarni adopted orthodox Brahmin religion and performed Rajasuya and Ashwamedha sacrifices, and introduced Varna divisions in Central-South India. Evidences from Satavahana period refer to Halikas (cultivators), Kularikas (potters), Kokilas (weavers), Kamaras (smiths), Sethis (merchants) etc, as the earliest social divisions on basis of occupation. The newly introduced class divisions of ancient Andhra appear somewhat different and fluid in comparison to the rigid Brahminical caste system observed in North India as inscriptions from this period suggests independence of occupation from hereditary. Satavahana dynasty disintegrates by 2nd century CE into several smaller kingdoms, such as Ikshvakus, Brihatpalayanas, Anandas, Salankayanas, Pitrubhaktas, Matharas, Vasishtas etc, who were all Orthodox Brahmin, Vaishnavite or Shivite rulers. Several copper-plate inscriptions of post-Satavahana period records gifts of tax-free lands for temples. The unprecedented activities of temple constructions marks the rise of Brahminism which in turn cements the authority of Brahminic four-fold Varna system over time.

 

Woman wearing Pratidhi (breastband) Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra. By this period, there was considerable influences from the West, the Greco-Roman notion of covering breasts finds popularity in Indian subcontinent.

 

Costume of Dancing Girl (Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra):
Cholaka: fitted choli-type blouse with an apron front; the long sleeves are of dark red brocade, while the middle is of white silk probably tied at the back with ribbons that are visible
Antariya: worn in Lehenga style, is of silk with purple, green and yellow stripes with lozenge patterns in white
Muktavali: three stringed pearl necklace
Hara: necklace of large beads
Valaya: two simple and one ornamental bangle on each wrist
Kancala Kundala: elaborate earrings with pendants
Mukuta: tiara of gold
Hairstyle: large bun at the nape with flowers and several strings of pearls or gold chain wound around and held by brooches

 

ARYA-DRAVIDA CULTURAL FUSION

SANGAM ERA

In southern India, Thamizh was already a full-blown language with its own writing system. According to Thamizh legends, there existed three Sangams (Academy of Thamizh poets) in ancient Thamizhakam. The first Sangam was held at then Madurai, and the second Sangam was held at Kapadapuram, however most literary works from the early Sangams have perished over time. The only surviving Sangam texts from third Sangam were compiled roughly between 400 BCE until 300 CE under the patronage of ancient Pandya kingdom. The Sangam works (which also included several women poets like Avvaiyar, Mudatamakkanniar, Kaakkaippaadiniyaar, Naachchellayaar, Naagaiyaar, Nanmullaiyaar, Ponmudiyaar, Ilaveyiniyaar and Nappasaliyaar,) had the knowledge of Aryans and their literary pursuits. In this period, Thamizh even lends loan words to Sanskrit: like mayura from mayil, phala from palam, mukta from muttu, and candana from cantu. Likewise, the influence of Vedic Sanskrit in Thamizh is evident in Tholkappiyam believed to be authored by Tholkappiyar, a disciple of sage Agastya. According to Brahmin literature, sage Agastya is said to have migrated from North & introduced Vedic culture to ancient Dravidian society. Brahmin legends regard Agathiyar as a form of Shiva who championed Thamizh learning – whose superiority was acknowledged even by his rival sage Vyasa (who championed Sanskrit). Other indigenous legends attribute the first Sangam to god Sivan and regard Agathiyam and Tholkappiyam as ancient Dravidian texts which were later modified with Brahminical persona to propagate Vedic social order in ancient Dravidian society. Dating of Tholkappiyam has been of much debates and dispute. Dating of Tholkappiyam is crucial since it carries the earliest evidence of Sanskrit influence in Thamizh literature. Some Brahmin myths date Tholkappiyar up to even 5000 BCE – very unlikely since it predates the origin of Sanskrit in Indian subcontinent. Brahmin scholars in particular often date Tholkappiyar’s works in pre-Christian era, and correspondingly, non-Brahmin scholars are likely to date Tholkappiyam in early Medieval era, around 5th or 6th century CE citing the contemporary nature of Tholkappiyam’s Thamizh in comparison to other Sangam texts. Historians widely accept the view that Tholkppaiyam was not compiled as a single entity but in parts and layers which are estimated as written between the 3rd century BCE to 5th century CE – leading to the assumption that Tholkappiyam wasn’t composed by one author but reworked, edited, and possibly distorted by several others. Tholkappiyam describes Murugun as the favoured god of Thamizh people and Sivan, who is regarded as the ancestor of Thamizh people, had the status of supreme god. Early iconography of Dravidian gods Murugan and Sivan and their association with native flora and fauna goes back to Indus Valley Civilization. It’s remarkable to note that Vedas find no reference of Dravidian deity Sivan but Vedic god Rudra evolves into Shiva in post-Vedic Brahminical texts. Thirumal, Kubera, Amman, Valli, Wanji-Ko & Kotravi are the other popular ancient Dravidian gods who eventually get absorbed into Brahminical religious texts. Tirumal is merged with Vishnu, Sivan with Vedic deity Rudra, Amman & Kotravi with Parvati and Wanji-Ko with Indra. This synthesis of religion is also widely criticised on grounds of Dravidian gods being hijacked or appropriated into Puranic and Vedic gods, and modification of Dravidian cultural knowledge and history. The architecture and style of Sangam period brick temple excavated at Salavanakuppam near Mahabalipuram, is different from the norms of Bhramnical Shilpa Shastra. Unlike Vedic people who burn their dead, ancient Thamizh people cremated the deceased in graves encircled by big pieces of stone – the ancient non-Vedic burial customs dating to Megalithic age continues to be preserved and practised till to-day by both Hindus and non-Hindus of South Indian origin.

 

Tholkappiyam classifies the ancient Dravidian society into four divisions on basis of profession – Anthanar, Arasar, Vaisyar and Vellalar. Another Sangam text Purananuru also states that one’s social status in ancient Thamizh society was based on merit not inherited. The early classification of society in Tholkappiyam denoted divisions on basis of profession and wasn’t same as the hereditary based Brahminical four-fold caste system. Purananuru also mentions the names of ancient Thamizh tribes such as Thudiyan, Pannan, and Kadamban.  The earliest reference of Paraiyar, drummers classified as Adi Dravida (Dalits) in modern India, occurs in a poem by the Sangam poet Mangudi Kilar in 2nd century CE, however any branding of social hierarchy or inheritance of profession itself does not occur until the reign of Rajaraja Chozha in 1100 CE.

 

COSTUMES OF SANGAM PERIOD

Owing to hot and humid climate, people of ancient South Indian kingdoms wore short and minimal clothing and left the body bare above their waists from early times. Nudity was a natural concept, and rules of modesty, nudity and clothing didn’t vary between genders. A short lower garment made of handspun cotton and silk was worn by people of wealthy communities. People from lower-economic communities dressed themselves with lower garments and accessories made of leaves, coconut fibres, and animal hair.

Chembakassery sculpture dating to 1st Chera Kingdom, Sangam era - depicts minimalist loin cloth draped on lower body.

Chembakassery sculpture dating to 1st Chera Kingdom, Sangam era – depicts minimalist loin cloth draped on lower body.

 

While ancient Dravidian clothing was primarily minimalist in nature, Sangam works refer to a variety of ornaments made of gold, silver, pearls, and precious stones. Jewellery described in Sangam texts include Pullakkam, Maharapakuvai, Valampuri, Punkulai, Thodaivamani Malai, Pulipal Thali, Thodi Valai, Kudaichchul, Silambu, Paivagan Padhagam, Sadangai, Arivegam and Kazhal. People paid much attention to their hairstyle. Ancient Dravidians wore flowers like Jasmine to decorate their plaits and tufts, and used perfumes made of sandal and flowers. Common people also wore ornaments made of shells and beads – customs dating all the way to Indus Valley civilisation.

 

An Indian silver coin (c. 1st century BCE) depicting the local Chera ruler wearing Roman-style helmet with bristles.

 

DARK AGES OF DRAVIDAN HISTORY (300 CE – 700 CE)

 

Indo-Aryan Kalabhra rulers invade and displace the three ancient Thamizh kingdoms (Pandyan, Chera & Chozha) by 300 CE – this period is described as Dark Age in Thamizh literature.  Though Kalabhras conquer Dravidian lands as Jains, they later preach Puranic religion, possibly influenced by the growing Brahminical influence in other parts of Indian subcontinent. Kalabhra coins dating to 600 CE employ both Prakrit and Thamizh in their inscriptions. Influence of Sanskrit appears much stronger in Thamizh texts written after the Kalabhra invasion like Silappathikaram authored by Ilango Adigal, a Jain Chera prince.

 

References from Silapathikaram, Kalithokai and other Sangam works confirm that even women (like Kannagi and Madhavi) wore only lower garments from the loins downwards to the ankles while the upper portion above the waist remained bare. Indo-Aryan influences on post-Sangam Dravidian clothing is visible in the two piece clothing worn by royals: Sirradai (worn on waist like antariya) and Meladai (draped on the torso like uttariya).

 

Depiction of Jain Chera prince Ilango in sirradai and meladai.

 

The rule of Kalabhras is ended by counter-invasions by Pallava, Pandya and Chozha kings. Pallava kings who succeeded the Satvahanas in Andhra, majorly fund Brahminical academies in South India. Thereafter, the Pallavas used Dravidian architecture to build some of the most important Puranic temples of South India. Shaivism, Shakthism and Vaishnavism emerge as the major religions of South India by the end of Kalabhra rule.

 

KADAMBA DYNASTY (345 CE – 525 CE)

The Kadambas who were initially subordinates to early Pallavas (an off-shoot of Satvahanas,) fight the armies of the Pallavas of Kanchi to establish Kadamba dynasty in 345 CE and ruled northern parts of Karnataka. Kadambas are Havyaka Brahmin, a classification of Pancha-Dravida Brahmins who were among the earliest set of Brahmins to have migrated to modern day Karnataka and settled in Shivamogga region. Though Kadamba dynasty was founded by Brahmin born Mayurasharma, his successors later changed their surname to Varma to indicate their new Kshatriya status. Kadamba kings preached Vedic Brahminism. Kadamba king Krishna Varma also performed the Ashwamedha (horse sacrifice). Right from the time of Mauryasharma, large colonies of Brahmins from North India were invited to settle in Tulu region and Kerala. Under the Kadamba rule, Karnataka region undergoes full-fledged Brahminization with state patronage for the first time. The earliest Brahminical temples of Karnataka dates to later Kadamba rule. Kadamba period temples also exist in modern day Goa region at Arvalem, Norva and Lampagaon. Halmidi inscriptions dating to Kadamba period is the earliest known epigraph that showed the usage of ancient Kannada script. Kadamba rule in Karnataka was succeeded by Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas who continued to preach Brahminism and accentuated the four-fold Varna system in medieval Karnataka.

GUPTA EMPIRE (240 CE – 590 CE)

The Dark Age of Dravdian history also coincides with the Golden age in Northern-Central India. Gupta kings who were orthodox Vaishnavas, funded both Buddhism and Brahminism in seek of legitimacy for their dynasty.  Gupta kings built Buddhist temples and monastic universities such as those at Nalanda. Ramayana and Mahabharata also take their final shape in this era. The Bhagavad Gita successfully manages to merge both Brhamanic as well as Sarmanic traditions of Buddhists and Jains into one scripture. The growth of ritualism in Mahanya Buddhism increasingly blurred the differences between Buddhism and Brahminism. Buddha eventually emerges as an avatar of Vishnu in Vaishnavism. Ancient Brahminism gets a complete makeover under the patronage of Gupta kings. Vaishnavism and Shaivism are the most popular religion. The decline of Gupta period in 5th century AD marks the end of Ancient Indian history timeline (and commencement of Medieval period.)

 

Classical Sanskrit flourished under Guptas kings who supported extensive literary works in topics ranging from medicine, veterinary science, mathematics, astrology, astronomy and astrophysics. The iconic Aryabhata made extraordinary academic contributions in the Buddhist heart land, Pataliputtra. The golden age of Brahminical resurgence also meant the worst for Shudras and Outcastes as Manusmriti was strictly enforced in this period. BR Ambedkar points to this period for orchestrating the menace of untouchability.

 

“Cow-killing was made a mortal sin or a capital offence by the Gupta kings who were champions of Hinduism,” notes Dr Ambedkar. He quotes historian D.R. Bhandarkar, who in his Some Aspects of Ancient Indian Culture cites a copper plate inscription, dated 465 AD and belonging to Skandagupta’s reign, which equates gau-hatya, or cow-slaughter, with brahma-hatya, or the slaying of a Brahmin. This equivalence is more or less echoed in an earlier inscription of 412 AD. It was from then on cow-slaughter began to be considered a mortal sin. – Firstpost

 

In response to vegetarianism preached by Buddha & Mahavir, Brahmin kings take it a notch up by banning the consumption of cow meat. Kamadenu, the sacred gaumata also emerges as a significant Puranic deity. In his book, The Untouchables, Dr. BR Ambekar also writes:

There is really no necessity to enter upon any speculation as to whether beef-eating was or was not the principal reason for the rise of Untouchability. This new theory receives support from the Hindu Shastras. The Veda Vyas Smriti contains the following verse which specifies the communities which are included in the category of Antyajas and the reasons why they were so included

L.12-13 “The Charmakars (Cobbler), the Bhatta (Soldier), the Bhilla, the Rajaka (washerman), the Puskara, the Nata (actor), the Vrata, the Meda, the Chandala, the Dasa, the Svapaka, and the Kolika- these are known as Antyajas as well as others who eat cow’s flesh.”

 

The Brahminical four-fold varna system takes its shape in North India as we see it in the present day, defined by the following characteristics:

  1. Caste is hierarchical
  2. Caste is hereditary
  3. Purity of bloodline (through established marital norms to marry within the caste)
  4. Occupations reserved only for specific caste on virtues of birth (and not merit)
  5. Social ostracism & untouchability on basis of caste hierarchy

 

The clothing in Gupta period comprised mostly of stitched styles which gained the status of royalty during Kushan periods. Since Kushans were much influenced with the Western Roman Empire therefore the coats, trousers
and boots were pre dominant dresses of royal family. Gupta people continued to wear the new fashion with indigenous styles – antariya, uttariya and kayabandh.

Mens Costume, Gupta period: A-King (Ajanta, Cave XVII), B-King, making an
offering of lotus flowers to Lord Buddha (Ajanta, Cave I), C- King and Queen (Gupta gold coin), D- Prince
(Ajanta, Cave XVII), E- Minister (Ajanta), F- Chamberlain (Ajanta, Cave XVII), G- Guard (Ajanta, Cave
II), H- GUARD (Ajanta, Cave XVII), I- Foot Soldier (Ajanta, Cave XVII), J- Bikkhu (Ajanta, Cave XVI),
K- Horse Man (Ajanta, Cave XVI)

 

Womens costume, Gupta period: Costumes of women. A- Queen (from Gupta gold coin), B- Votary (Ajanta, Cave II), CAttendant (Ajanta, Cave I), D- Maid Servant (Ajanta, Cave XVII), E- Court Lady (Ajanta, Cave I), FPrincess (Ajanta, Cave I), G- Court Lady (Gwalior Museum), H-Female Votary (Ajanta, Cave VI), I- Maid (Ajanta, Cave XVI)

POVERTY RIDDEN LOWER CASTE COMMUNITIES CONTINUED TO WEAR THE BASIC LOIN CLOTH.

 

Read: Influence of Caste System in Clothing – Medieval South India (Before Sultanates)

 

Images (Sculptures and Paintings): WIKICOMMONS

Costume Illustrations: 4to40.com

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  • June 23, 2018

    Such a wonderfully written post! I love how in-depth it was, and you quite literally covered all your bases.
    I’d love it if you’d check out my new post at https://wp.me/p7thtM-sJ . It’s actually about makeup brands like Lakmé that perpetuate colourism in India and how damaging it is to us as consumers. Let me know your thoughts x
    Khanak x

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