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Social Life in Medieval Karnataka
by Jyotsna Kamat

Vanity Fair

In this century, Indians have become more conscious of fashions, and the trend is to imitate the West, without consideration of our climate and social heritage. In medieval India, specially in Karnataka, people were in no way less fashionable than today. The only difference was that they used indigenous products to enhance their looks and personality. The attention and care they paid to daily baths, cosmetics, decoration, dress and ornaments were aimed at appearing more presentable and more attractive.


The science of cosmetics (gandha sastra) and the art of applying it (gandha yuktikrama) were widely studied and practiced. This art fulfilled three necessities of human life, namely, religious merit, worldly prosperity and sensual enjoyment [1]. It provided employment, heightened the pleasure of accomplished ladies, besides being helpful in the worship of the gods [2]. Thus, it serves spiritual and material ends.


In other parts of the world, scents were used to suppress bad body odor. But Indians deodorized the body by bath, keeping it clean. Bathing is an integral part of gandha sastra. One or more baths a day lent grace and suppleness to the body; this was followed by embellishment.

The king's bath-house was artistically constructed; it's ceiling, walls and pillars were decorated with variegated colors. Prior to bathing, sesame (til) oil, scented with ketaki, punnaga and champaka flowers was rubbed all over the body. Athletes (mallas) well-versed in the art of massage (samvaha) were employed for the purpose. After the massage, a particular unguent medicated with various herbs, leaves, roots and flowers was applied [3].

The greasy application was removed by the use of soap-cake prepared from a mixture of fine wheat-flour, fermented rice gruel (aranala) and saffron (pisuna). For the bath, holy water from different places was agreeably heated and perfumed. Trained beautiful attendants poured the water on the king from gold and silver pitchers. Later, a perfumed unguent prepared from the pulp of amalaka (myrobalan) was applied to the hair, and scented turmeric to the body [4].

The commoners could not afford oil-bath every day and had it once a week. In the Talagunda agrahara, provision was made for a weekly oil-bath for students [5]. An inscription of 1034 A.D. registers the gift of an oil-mill (ghanaka) by Mahamandalesvara Chamundaraya for a mathika (seminary) in Samyana for smearing oil on the feet of Svadhyayikas (scholars) [6]. The Padmaraja Purana describes the bridal decoration of Madevi, which followed the massage with scented oil (kammenne) and bath (abhyanga snana)[7].

Sculptures of the period record that bathing was common to all strata of society. In one sculpture, a man, probably the head of the family, is sitting on a stool (Fig.18) and seems to enjoy the bath administered by two ladies. In another, a bathing housewife is being helped by a maid servant with a towel (Fig. 19). A child (Fig.20) and a daughter (Fig.21) being given a bath are also sculpted.


According to the Agni Purana, deodorization could be achieved in eight ways by (i) cleansing and washing, (ii) gargling, (iii) vomiting, (iv) decorating the body with flowers and garlands, (v) heating, (vi) burning incense, (vii) fumigation, and (vii) using scents and perfumes. Perfumery was developed to the point of finesse, and different unguents were used for different seasons [8].

A highly concentrated odoriferous mixture of sandalwood paste, musk, camphor, saffron, fragrant flowers and roots was used by kings [9]. The unguent used for removal of the smell of sweat was called sandhya [10]. The paste of srigandha (sandalwood) could be added to the extract of any flower of one's liking which transmitted the perfume of that particular flower [11].

In summer, saffron (harichandana) from Kashmir was mixed with srigandha which gave a cool feeling like that of ice [12]. During the rainy season, unctuous, soft, tawny-coloured musk produced from the navel of a ruttish young mush-deer was applied [13]. Pullinga, the special ointment for winter, was prepared by an elaborate method; civet and seeds of nisachurna were mixed and dried in shade; these were then boiled with seeds and sprouts of holy basil (tulasi), sandal tree (srivriksha), mango (amra) and rose-apple tree (jambu). After boiling these with peels of citron (bijapura), oil was extracted. There was another method of extracting oil by grinding seeds. The oil was then well incensed with light camphor and mixed with the requisite perfume. In both cases, the oil was slowly removed with a shell, 'untouched by hand'. In autumn, the vermilion produced from fresh filaments of a lotus was used to lend a touch of glow to the body [14].

Literary works of the period such as the Gandhasara and the Lokopakara borrowed many formulae for perfumes from the earlier works like the Brihatsamhita of Varahamihira. For most preparations, the commonly used ingredients were leaves (like those of the holy basil), flowers (like jasmine, champaka, kedige), fruits (like pepper, nutmeg, cardamom), barks (like those of camphor and clove trees), wood (such as sandalwood), roots, nuts, grass (like lemon grass), exudation from trees (like basil, camphor), organic products ( such as musk, honey, lacquer, ghee, civet, etc.) [15].

Civet, musk and saffron came from outside, were expensive and beyond the reach of the common man. Therefore techniques to prepare inexpensive perfumes from indigenous ingredients were developed. Such ersatz perfumes were prepared from seeds, roots, flowers, barks and leaves to which a little camphor or musk had been added. These local unguents called sadu were of six kinds as described in the Lokopakara [16].

Other Aids: The tooth-brushes of medieval times were prepared by soaking the twigs of medicinal plants like anile, tare, etc, in the juices of different medicinal barks; the ends of these twigs were chewed till they formed a kind of brush and were then used to clean the teeth. The teeth got strengthened by the use of these sticks [17]. Even today neem twigs are chewed into brushes and used.

To remove bad breath, a mouth-wash was prepared by mixing powder of ginger, pepper, hippali, nutgrass (bhadramuste), sprouted cloves and cardamom with honey and water and used for rinsing [18].

Camphor, bora (jujube), saffron, musk, cloves, koshtha (a tree product) and takkola (a fragrant drug) were taken in a fixed ratio and ground with sandalwood paste. The mixture was stuffed into a madala fruit (citron) whose contents were first removed and then sealed with the mixture and dried. After this processing, the dried face powder (mukha-vasa) would waft a pleasing fragrance [19]. Thus it served the process of modern talcum powder. From the Vikramankadevacharita, it is known that the powder of camphor was used for removing body odor [20].

The people were fond of wearing clothes redolent of their favorite scents, either by fumigating them or keeping flowers in the folds of their dress [21]. Fumigation with black aloe (krishnagaru) was used to render hair soft and fragrant. Various scented oils in use were prepared from teel-oil (sesame oil) and extracts of different flowers [22].

According to a famous inscription, the merchant guilds of Karnataka traveled far and wide and traded in camphor, musk, saffron, malegaja (ichor exuded from the temples of elephants), cardamom, cloves and other perfumes and drugs [24]. Harihara says that merchants seeking incense moved from island to island [25]. Perfume dealers (sougandhikas) had their stalls along with those of garland-sellers [26]. Such stalls (gandhavana-vasara) and perfumeries (gandhavanigara angadi) at the trade emporium of Belgaum find mention in an inscription [27].

Imports of saffron from Kasmir and musk from the Himalayan regions indicate that there were regular trade links between Karnataka and far-off regions. Convoys of horses, camels and bullock-carts were moving back and forth with these merchants. Some such convoys are seen in sculptures. Sometimes families moved with these caravans.

Make-up (Prasadhana)

Literature, inscriptions and sculptures of the period indicate that men and women attached great importance to their looks, tidiness and make-up. Women painted beautiful designs on their cheeks, forearms and breasts with sandal paste. Religious orders of different castes indicated their distinctive marks on the forehead and other parts of the body, above the navel.

There were different mechanical appliances to spray sandal preparations and apply unguents. A device in the form of a female figure (yantra-stri) which could be filled with liquid sandal and on pressing a knob could spray is mentioned in the Yasastilaka [28]. Sandal paste and its by-products, besides beautifying the face, served to cool and refresh the body like modern snows. Eyelids and lashes were darkened with collyrium (kadige or anjana), a fashion later introduced by king Harsha in Kashmir. The forehead was decorated with tilaka of variegated colors and designs (Fig. 22). On the basis of a stone inscription from Rewa, G.S Gai has come to the conclusion that in the Kalachuri kingdom, at any rate, the color mark or tilaka on the forehead of women indicated soubhagya or non-widowhood, and its absence showed widowhood, as long ago as the eleventh century [29]. But the use of tilaka appears much earlier, as is evident from earlier sculptures as also from the Adi Purana [30] and the Yasastilaka [31]. In the asthanabhoga of Manasollasa, the women attending the court are vividly described. Besides make-up and designs of musk, they vaunted tilaka marks of variegated colors on the forehead [32]. Nowadays, ladies are fond of placing on the forehead marks matching the color of their saris and outfit. It is clear that the use of multi-hued tilakas is more than nine hundred years old.

Sculptures depict various poses of women engaged in make-up. It started with draping a sari after bath (Fig.23). A busy housewife (Fig. 24) with only a few minutes to spare could finish it standing. A lady, having more leisure, could sit and attend to elaborate make-up (Fig. 25). A teenager of a well-to-do family could command a servant's assistance in her decoration (Fig. 26). Applying the tilaka, an ancient practice signifying good fortune, seems to have been a favorite motif of sculptors. There were mirrors of different shapes and sizes. Some were small (Fig. 27), some were plain, and others convex (Fig. 28). The make-up of the affluent (Fig. 29) and that of the humble (Fig. 30) are faithfully sculpted.

Hair-Styles and Hair-Decorations

© K. L. Kamat
Medieval Hair Styles
Fig. 34 - 39: Hair Styles

Hair was cleaned, washed, dried and fumigated with special incense and then combed and arranged in different styles. Pigtails were popular among young girls and on special occasions, these were interwoven with flowers (Fig. 31). Different devices were used to keep the hair in the particular slant desired; such a device or stay held to hold up a loose knot (sormudi) [33] in position (Fig. 32). Long hair was arranged in a knot and the left-over locks were plaited into a pigtail (Fig. 33). A mudi or bun was decorated with a pearl net and sometimes with a ribbon. Short hair was neatly combed and held by a small conical ring (Fig. 34). Nicolo Conti had noticed that men and women twisted the hair on the top of the head like a pyramid, sticking a golden bodkin (Fig. 35) in the center. People with less hair but craving elaborate coiffure went in for artificial switch and wigs (Fig. 36). Such make-shifts cannot be easily made out in sculptures. However, many strings, clips and abnormally large buns suggest the use of artificial devices (Fig. 37). Hair balls helped shape nicely groomed buns vertically (balalmudi) (Fig. 38). Hair-knots were arranged on the left (Fig. 39) and right (Fig. 40) upon the head. Sometimes hair curls (bambal kural) were employed (Fig. 41). At times, hair would be arranged in two buns (Fig. 42).

Other Embellishments

In the Adi Purana, we find references to trimmed eyebrows (samarida puruvu) [34]. Besides trimming, they were brightened [35]. Chewing of pan rendered the lips red; red lacquer (alaktaka) was used for decorating feet, a practice still prevalent in North India and Bengal.

The Parsvanatha Purana describes the radiant beauty of a Beda (hunter) woman with no embellishment: 'With no varied designs of sandal-paste on her cheeks, or alaktaka on her feet, with brows which lacked shining and trimming, her eyes without collyrium, the breasts without necklace, the woman looked enchanting [36].' Obviously, only the sophisticated class could indulge in the elaborate process of make-up. Widowhood signified absence of tilaka, ornaments, sandal-wood paste and chewing of tambula [ 37].

Men were equally fond of embellishment. They used to display a tilaka of musk on the forehead and marks of sandal-paste and sadu on the body. Sometimes civet was applied on the cheeks. Invariably, they used to wear ornaments and flowers, albeit with a difference, and chew pan [38].

In an inscription of 1184 A.D., invocation to Brahmeya reads: 'With the perfume of musk, a hand dagger, a golden sheath, a small rattle, necklace of pearls, armlets, a water lily on his hair-parting, a thick sacrificial string, tasseled cane, creaking ivory sandals and earrings of talc, the Brahmeya who wanders at night, may he grant our desires [39].' The description could fit any young man of means of that time.

While on tour, elegant men carried a toilet-box, which contained a betel-satchel, a gold vessel, a napkin, or face-towel (mogadukula), a mirror, golden sandals, a jar of scented water, a tray of powdered musk, an unguent jar (sadu-kuppi), a vermilion-case, a curved box of civet, a shell of sandal-paste and a tube of camphor [40]. This almost sounds like the keep-up-to-date kit of a modern business executive!


'They wore their hair in long braids with golden ketaka leaf interlaced with them, and with bows of strings woven with gold fastened at the ends of the plaits. They wore ornamental pendants on the forehead which rendered the tilaka mark on it unsteady. Over the hair, no veil was worn. The long tail-ends of their garments kissed the ground. Their breasts were tightly confined in bodices, which covered half the length of their beautiful arms [41]'.

Thus did Kalhana describe the elegant fashions from Karnataka introduced by the Kashmir king Harsha during the latter part of the eleventh century A.D. Harsha, who was a connoisseur of things beautiful, was attracted by the choice apparel and becoming ornaments which heightened the shapely figure of Karnataka ladies.

The variety in the manufacture and use of clothes suited to the occasion, season, age and sex shows a high sense of sophistication. Garments were made from cotton, silk and wool. Fine cloth came from Poddalapura, Chirapalli, Nagapattana, the Chola country (Tamilnad), Allikala, Sri Lanka, Anahilwada (in Gujarat), Mulastana (Multan), the Tondai country and Panchapattana (the five great cities) [42]. Silk cloth of different varieties was brought from greater China, Kalinga (Orissa), Vanga (Bengal) and Kosala (Oudh) [43]. Patte (silk)of Gujarat, gold-cloth of Benares and indigenous chinamsuka (superfine silk) were famous. Locally prepared vegetable and mineral dyes were in use. Most common colours were white, blood-red, yellow, green, black, indigo and blue. Some were light or dark, and others became deeply set after a wash, being coloured with the help of a machine (ranjitani yantrakaihi) [44]. Some clothes were plain, others had variegated designs, some had circles, checks, lines, dots and patterns of animals and flowers [45], in silver and gold. Gold embroidery was quite common. The ceiling paintings of Lepakshi give a very good idea of different designs on garments of the period.

The Sari

The sari (sire) of medieval Karnataka connoted a unisex apparel, like the dhoti in North India. Uniformity was in name only; in practice, diversities were legion, in material, texture, color, ornamentation and borders (different for men and women) and in the methods of draping. This is clearly brought out in inscriptions and literature. In the agrahara of Talagunda, provision was made for sire for students [46]. We do not have positive evidence so far, that girl students studied in agraharas, who could wear these sires. Presumably, it meant cloth for male students. Sire is used in the sense of cloth by Pampa and Harihara [47].

Different styles of wearing saris of different lengths have been preserved in sculptures. A sari running to three-fourths way down the legs was tightly draped and the pleats in front waved gracefully from the waist (Fig. 43). Women with broad waists and thighs wore the sari loose, which covered the legs completely (Fig. 44). A sari, on draping, was folded neatly; the vertical pleats (Fig. 45) would have admirably suited a bow-legged lady. A semi-transparent lungi type sari (Fig. 46) gave glimpses of the shapely contours of a youthful girl. A pattern of mini-sari (Fig. 47), most suitable for models, also finds place in sculptures. It is not uncommon to find one end of the sari pulled on the left shoulder (Fig. 48). This arrangement was helpful to modest housewives, who covered their breasts and shoulders from the public gaze. The dancers, acrobats and entertainers developed a technique of wearing the sari like a pair of trousers (Fig. 49). Wearing the sari well below the navel, which is considered 'mod', was known in medieval times (Fig. 50). The tight-fitting fan-like pendulous pleats (Fig. 51) helped easy movement of limbs.

Saris with different designs are not uncommon in carved figures. Delicate floral designs (Fig. 52) presented an artistic appearance; those with broad designs drew attention (Fig. 53); and both must have been popular as they are today. Some carvings give an impression that pearls and beads were woven or studded on the sari (Fig. 54). Some figures exhibit embossed (Fig. 55), printed (Fig. 56) and embroidered (Fig. 57) saris. There used to be variegated designs on saris, like those of creepers (latavali) and flowers (pushpavali) [48].

Nicolo Conti, the Italian traveler, observed that the women of Karnataka wore the sari, keeping their heads uncovered [49]. The seragu (upper portion of the sari), when drawn over the head, was adjusted so deftly that the coiffure with the ornaments and flowers over the hair-do were partially visible. Ibn Batuta had noticed that coastal women (Muslims) wore the sari, with one end forming the girdle and the other end covering their breasts and head [50]. Bilhana of Kasmir observed that ladies of Karnataka tugged at the free end of the sari (seragu) so frequently to keep in place the ear ornament and the slippery sari that their eyes must have travelled a yojana (8 miles) [51]. The Gujarati and Andhra damsels attending king Somesvara's court drew the pallu or seragu over the right shoulder [52]. Sometimes, the shoulders were covered with a dukula (finely woven silk shawl), especially by dancers [53]. This was more for embellishment, as it was transparent.

The Blouse

Bilhana, while describing Vikramaditya's entry in the city of Kalyana, gives a pen-portrait of a damsel, who was about to wear a blouse (kanchuka) running to see the king, holding it in her hand, forgetting to wear it in her excitement [54]. The blouse was a common wear of the women in Karnataka for centuries and has remained unchanged to this day. It has been referred to as kanchuka, chola, ravake, kanchulike and kuppasa. We have seen that among the sartorial fashions of Karnataka introduced in Kashmir by King Harsha, the half-sleeved tight bodice or kanchuka figured prominently [55]. The Somanathacharitra speaks of an aged harlot who used a special blouse (ravake) to hold up her drooping breasts [56]. From the Basavapurana, we learn that the ravake was worn by young girls as well [57]. In all probability, the ravake covered the upper part of the body, in the case of old women and children, while the kanchulike required less cloth and rendered the upper part of young women shapelier and more conspicuous. According to the Manasollasa, the women from the Dravida country were bare-breasted, while those from Gujarat had full-sleeved blouses (apanikrita kanchuka) [58]. The majority of female figures in sculpture are devoid of blouse. A dancer is shown with a sleeveless blouse of floral design (Fig.114)

Other Garments

Wearing skin-fit dresses is not a fashion of the twentieth century alone. Sculptures of those times attempt to reveal the body beautiful by the close-drawn sari or tight breeches with fitting kanchuka; they would only body forth the fashions current then. An inscription of 1053 A.D. describes Queen Gojjikambika as wearing clothes tightly draping her slender belly (krisodara nibida nibaddha patturam agi) [59]. Harihara also refers to wearing of white clothes tight (bigidudisi) and throwing over the shoulders a shawl embroidered with gold [60]. Sewn clothes were very much in vogue and the cities brimmed with tailors (chippiga), who displayed their skill in decorating and fashioning the clothes in the latest style, and at the same time, economically utilized the left-over pieces from trousers to make beautiful checkered garments (vichitra vastrakhandith sringara chitrodbhavaru) [61].

The Lilavati Prabandha mentions a kind of brassiere (kuchavastra) prevalent in those days. And where inscriptions and literature do not throw light on the varieties of brassiere, sculptures may fill the bill. In one, the deity has just a narrow strip to hide the nipples only (Fig.58). In another, a broader cloth is depicted (Fig.59). Regular sewn brassieres of cup-like shape are also found (Fig. 60); others appear to be propped up by ornaments (Fig. 61).

Mini-dresses, under-garments and other sewn clothes were not uncommon among women. A pleated mini-skirt (Fig.62) facilitated free movements to a dancer. Elaborately embroidered skirts were a special wear. Huntresses used to put on a tight short dress. Shorts, resembling modern nylon panties of the west, are seen in sculptures (Fig. 63). At times, the dancers' challana or breeches were decorated with pleated cloth and pendants (Fig. 64). Saris were tucked tight to appear like trousers (Fig. 65) to permit easy movements of limbs. Occasionally, they secured the sari at the waist with belts (Figs. 66 & 67). Panties had additional ribbons, other decorations and tassels (Fig.68). Ready-to-wear stitched mini-saris (Fig.69) were also in vogue. Many of these sartorial fashions have described a full circle now.

Children's Dress

Whether an expectant mother wore a special dress is not known. A sculpture depicting child-birth shows the lady assisted by three female attendants (Fig.70). A raised stool, a soft pillow, consoling word, and a soothing touch alleviated the lady's travail. Literary sources do not throw much light on children's wear, except to mention that they were dressed in small garments draped to the waist (nadusire) [62] (Fig.71). In the cradle, warm blankets and accessories were provided (Fig. 72). In a modest family, where there were frequent births, a simpler couch and clothes were used (Fig. 73). A child with minimum dress (Fig. 74) is constantly consoled by the mother. In cold weather, a 'monkey cap' (Fig. 75) protected the child from draughts. Festive occasions were celebrated with new outfits for children (Fig. 76).

Teenagers wore clothes of different colors. Girls wore saris of short width (kirige) and blouse [63]. Boys used to dress like young men.

Men's Dress

Generally, men's dress consisted of lengths of silk or cotton (sire or dhoti) and uttariya or pravara to cover the upper part of the body (Fig. 77), the quality of which depended on the economic status of the wearer. Men's wear specified their vocation. Nobles wore well-pressed dhotis, shawls and turbans (ushnisha) [64]. A monk wore a small piece of cloth around his waist (Fig. 78). Gentlemen wore the dhoti with meticulous care (Fig. 79) which attracted the attention of King Harsha, who had an eye for the aesthetic (susobhadayini bhangi). The graceful pleats of the dhoti have been compared to swaying palm leaves (ladat-talidalah) by poet Kalhana [65]. The Sultan of Hinavr (Honavar) wore silk and a fine linen apron round his waist, besides wrapping himself with shawls [66]. Watchmen (Fig. 80), who had to be specially vigilant during cold nights, were provided with overcoats or angikas. Woollen angikas were worn by courtiers during winter [67].

According to the Yasastilaka, the soldiers of Karnataka had their thick loin-cloth upto the knee-joints to serve like shorts (Fig. 81); their hair was secured with cloth bands around their foreheads [68]. Sculptures on hero-stones (virgals) corroborate this description. Compared to western over-dressed soldiers, John or Monte Carveno (1292-93 A.D.) thought of these fighters in virgachche or tightly-worn piece of dhoti as almost 'naked' [69]. In contrast to Kannada soldiers, their counterparts from Gujarat wore garments up to their knees and the cloaks of the soldiers of Tirhut reached up to their ankles [70].

A priest wore a loose-pleated dhoti (Fig. 82), almost identical with today's dress. A clown's dress (Fig. 83) provides a good illustration of sewn clothes of those times. Skin-fit clothes give him a funny look. Lungis or short dhotis used by nobles (Fig. 84) were fastened with belts (pattika) of varied thicknesses.

From the Vikramankadevacharita we learn that, while on a hunting expedition, the king used to wear a jacket (kanchuka) [71], a long coat, which must have fitted the upper part of the body rather closely, but was not fastened in the lower part. Nayasena refers to the black jacket of a hunter (kariya kuppasa) [72]. According to the Manasollasa, black wrappers (upadhana) and green trousers (dvipadi) formed a hunter's uniform [73], which helped camouflage. In sculpture, different jackets, long coat, top coat, double-breasted coat are carved (Fig. 85).

The musician's dress depended upon the type of instruments he specialized in. The single-string (ektari) instrument-player wore a narrow piece of cloth, becoming his humble profession (Fig. 86). A drummer (Fig. 87) wore a pair of dvipadi with belt, which helped him get additional support for the waist and his drum. A flute-player (Fig. 87B) had a broad belt or pattika which fastened his dress and kept it intact, even when he was lost in the world of music.

Nobles and kings wore their dress to suit the seasons. Garments of a finer and lighter variety or silk or cotton were reserved for spring; red, reddish, pink, dark-red clothes for the rainy season; and soft, attractive and light ones for summer. During autumn, thin clothes dyed with saffron or lacquer were used. In winter, woolen shawls and overcoats were worn, as seen before [74].

Generally, the lower garment was of white or pink color with borders of variegated colors [75]. According to Somesvara, the menfolk wore garments of red, bright red, madder, saffron, dark green, parrot green, dark as night, peacock-hued or glistening white like the swan or kunda flowers [76].

The Headgear

The head-dress (ushnishaka) had different shapes and sizes (vividhakritih) [77]. Sculptural studies bring out these amazing variations. A villager had a cap-like turban to which a horn-like decoration was attached (Fig. 88). Men with long hair used to tie them in a bun and the turban displayed the bulge (Fig. 89). A headgear, with a ring at one end and beads at the other, was used by men from rural areas (Fig. 90). The soldiers used to wear a turban, with the hair-buns protruding behind (Fig. 91). Men with less hair tied them in a loop, kept intact by a ring (Fig. 92). On ceremonial days, men used to don special types of caps (Fig. 93), out of which hair-buns hung the way one liked. Men did not lag behind women in having artificial curls (Fig. 94). Some wore the turban in such a way as to give the impression of carrying a huge heavy load (Fig. 95). Courtiers used to flaunt expensive towering caps (Fig. 96). Dancers and other entertainers used supporting material to keep their turbans in place (Fig. 97). The hunter's turban was simple (Fig. 98) but with raised series of knots. Certain sculptures give an impression that the ready-made turban was in vogue (Fig. 99). The equestrians wore thick, soft and tall caps called kulavis (Fig. 100). People who got their heads clean shaven for different religious and social reasons used to put on their parabolic caps (Fig. 101). An asymmetrical cap (Fig. 102) protected the wearer from burning sun. A cap with two conical projections (Fig. 103) seems more for show than for utility.

Other Kinds of Wear

Over the centuries, men have used fewer clothes because of climatic reasons. They were also functional. We are beholden to the sculptures which have preserved the memory of a large number of garments and mini-dresses of the time. A wood-cutter or a carpenter used a shorter piece of cloth which resembles the modern underwear (Fig. 104). Sewn half-pants (Fig. 105) were worn by sophisticated people. Bikini type of underwear (Fig. 106) was used by men also. Fighting clans carried a long piece of cloth (Fig. 107) which also served as towel, napkin and bed-sheet. Saints and sanyasis (recluses) used minimum of cloth (Fig. 108). A horizontally pleated dress (Fig. 109) was characteristic of an acrobat. The man in the street (Fig. 110) wore a dhoti with pleats waving in front gracefully. Distinguished people, with an aesthetic sense, used to have decorations on their clothing. A male dancer had a fan-like decoration (Fig. 111) and the rich had embroidered garments (Fig. 112).

On special occasions, men and women used to put on hoods. During a performance, a female dancer used to wear a thin decorated hood (Fig. 113) to enhance her attractiveness. A young girl performing a spring dance used a hood embellished with buds and flowers (Fig. 114). A cowherd made a hood of a thick rough woollen blanket (Fig. 115), which protected him from pouring rain and biting cold. The hood for summer (Fig. 116) was lighter and kept off the sun.

Stitching and Maintenance

The majority of the population managed with home-made clothes. However, the affluent and the sophisticated city fold availed themselves of the services of tailors (chippigar). Reference is already made to their fashioning men's trousers and other garments [78]. Guilds of tailors (chippigagottali) are mentioned, testifying to their functioning in good numbers. There was the inevitable agasa (washerman) who kept the clothes clean and trim. After drying the clothes, he starched (ganji ittu), pressed (ghattisutta), shined (holahinoppavanittu) and folded them (madisi galige madi) [79].

Parasols and Umbrellas

In order to have protection from a scorching sum and pouring rain, different types of umbrellas were used. In addition, an umbrella was a symbol of status, besides being a thing of fashion. The poet Parsva speaks of umbrellas of peacock feathers used by the entourage of the emperor Vajranabhi [80]. The Manasollasa refers to picturesquely designed umbrellas (vichitra-chhatra-sanchhanna) [81]. An inscription of 1169 A.D. mentions that in the doorway of the palace of the Kadamba king Sivachitta, the rows of umbrellas of his pundits rivaled the moon [82].

© K. L. Kamat
Medieval Umbrellas
Parasols and Umbrellas

In sculptures, both foldable and non-foldable umbrellas can be recognized. A monk, probably on his way to a neighboring town, used a simple umbrella (Fig. 117) to protect himself from the sun and rain. Big umbrellas with long handles were held over nobles and kings (Fig. 118). Heavy non-foldable umbrellas, with designs, were used to protect several people meeting at a spot (Fig. 119). An attractively designed, probably jointed umbrella (Fig. 120) must have resembled the one described in the Manasollasa.

The kings honored their subordinates, noted pundits and poets by presenting them with decorated umbrellas. They were marks of eminence and formed part of the paraphernalia. Kalhana narrates that the poet Bilhana was honored by king Permadi Vikramaditya with a blue parasol, which when hoisted could be seen only by the elephants of the army [83].


Men and women used to wear ornaments since time immemorial. Foreign travelers have left detailed descriptions of our love for ornaments. Abu Zaid has written that Indian kings wore earrings of precious stones mounted on gold and necklaces fitted with rubies, emeralds and pearls. Pearls served as royal treasure and fiscal reserve [84]. An inscription of 1150 A.D. speaks highly of the guild of merchants and their trade in such precious commodities [85]. Jewellers were a flourishing community and inscriptions refer to their guilds [86]. Bilhana speaks of the appraiser of jewels (ratna parikshaka). Ratna pariksha or evaluation of jewels was one of the subjects studied by princes [87].

Kannada classics also speak of the great love the people had for ornaments which found its way into ornate language. Preceptor Srikantha was like a pearl necklace on the throat of Saraswati [88]. To the lady of Konkana, Hayve was like her bracelet (kankana) [89]. Even the gods are described as elegantly adorned with ornaments.

Silver and gold were the chief metals used in preparing ornaments, with sapphires, diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls. According to Somesvara, true sapphires were red like pomegranate seeds and had the glow of the red lotus or the rising sun. The blue sapphires resembled the shining neck of Siva; other gems had the colour of the rainbow. The emerald (marakata) was compared to the feathers of a parrot and shone like the stalk of a lotus [90].

Diamonds were considered invaluable, and found in hexagonal and slab shapes. White, red, yellow and black diamonds are compared to Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. The best diamonds were found in Vairakara mines [91].

Among gems were dark-tinged lapis lazuli (vaidurya), yellow-tinged topaz (pushparaga), red coral (pravala) and the precious suryakanta which seemed to ooze fire in the sun and chandrakanta which was supposed to give out nectar-like water in moonlight. Somesvara, while classifying gems, seems to have relied on earlier texts, which sometimes contained mythical information. He says that pearls were found in the temples of elephants, bamboo reeds or born of the shower from clouds. But he also confirms that the pearls from Simhala (Sri Lanka) and those found in the Indian Ocean were of good quality [92]. This is as true now as it then was. The Yasastilaka, an earlier work, refers to pearls coming from the Pandya country [93]. Marco Polo noticed that big and fine pearls were found in the land of the Pandyas [94] and he describes pearl fishery in detail. Pearls were of different kinds and those having the luster of clear water were deemed excellent (varani).

Women's Ornaments

Women of Karnataka wore ornaments on all exposed parts of the body, from top to toe. The weight of ornaments sometimes exceeded their body weight. The Manasollasa describes at length head, ear, neck, shoulder, wrist, finger, waist, leg and toe ornaments, then in vogue; this is confirmed from other literary texts. Nose ornaments are conspicuous by their absence; they find rare mention only in the fourteenth century. Following is a brief summary of the ornaments.

Head Ornaments

At the parting of the hair, the hamsatilaka was worn, which was in the shape of an asvattha (holy fig) leaf made of gold and set with precious stones (Fig. 121). It had pendants on either side. Interwoven pearl strings (dandaka) lent a majestic look to the hair-do, glistening on dark hair (Fig.122). The upper portion of the dandaka was worked in bright gold, which resembled petals of ketaki (Fig. 123). In chudamandana (Fig.124), precious stones were arranged in ascending order, and its back part was known as bhushana [95].

Conspicuous earrings were in vogue. Depending on the economic status of the wearer, they were prepared in gold or silver and set with sapphires, moon-stones, pearls, rubies, diamonds, lapis lazuli, onyx, carbuncles, topaz, corals, emeralds, etc., as the case may be. In muktatadaka, the pearls were arranged in two rows (Fig. 125).

Muktaphala was completely studded with pearls. Strings of small pearls (koppu) used to link the earrings (Fig. 126) with the hair and very much resembled modern bugudi. In dvirajaka and trirajaka, jewels were arranged in two or three concentric circles (Fig. 127). In kundala, six or eight diamonds were arranged stepwise (sopanakramavinyasta) (Fig. 128). Vajragarbha had diamonds embedded in the center (Fig. 129). In samjnaka, a variety of stones were used. In literature, we find mention of golden flowers (honnapugal) also used as earrings (Fig. 130). The Vikramankadevacharita refers to earrings of ivory [96]. Pendulous earrings of gold (Fig. 131) and broad golden ones (Fig. 132) are still used in the countryside; those which were large and circular (Fig.133) can be seen in contemporary sculpture. Large circular earrings now common in the countryside of some parts of coastal Karnataka can be observed in contemporary sculptures.

Neck and Shoulder Ornaments

A great variety in the form of necklaces, pearl strings and pendants were in use. A single string of big pearls (ekavali) was worn either tight (Fig. 134) or loose around the neck. Multiple pearl strings in three (trivali), five (panchavali) (Fig.135), seven (saptavali) or nine tiers were in use. Any of these could have a big pearl (muktaphala) fixed in the middle as a pendant. In some necklaces pearls were tiered smaller and smaller at the extremities (Fig. 136). Sometimes, they were arranged in a cluster to form a lotus. In place of pearls, other precious stones were also used.

Sapphires, rubies and pearls were decoratively fitted in a necklace, in a pendant form (Fig. 137) or in semi-circular rings. These pendants or padakas would hold a large shining beautiful jewel in the center. Sometimes, a single muktaphala (pearl) was worn close to the neck (Fig. 138). Some necklaces had pendants set with jewels (Fig. 139), in the shape of a lion's face, supported by an erect chain and were called bandhura. Brahmasutra was a very long necklace extending to the navel (Fig. 140) made of gold mrinali (lotus stalks). At times, the brahmasutra consisted of five to ten strings of pearls (Fig. 141).

The shoulders were decorated with small strings of pearls (Fig. 142) or pendants of pearls known as keyura or bhujabhushana. Intricate keyuras were prepared by employing a network of pearls and gold beads (angada) (Fig. 143). On occasion, it was decorated with peacock feathers and different jewels as pendants [98]. This ornament stood as a symbol of status. In literature, it is mentioned that the royal bride wore keyura, with the help of her maids [99]. Bahuvalaya was an armlet that could be fixed on the jacket (kanchuke kilita); when constructed broader with halves that could be fixed with a screw (kilaka), it was called bahuveshtana [100] (Fig. 144).

Arm and Hand Ornaments: Wrists were decorated with bracelets (chudaka) [101] which were made of gold and other precious stones. A great variety of these could be noticed in sculptures. A village woman wore a simple serpentine bracelet (Fig. 145), whereas richer ladies, dancers and musicians would wear more elaborate types. Three or four rows of pearls (Fig. 146) or a single row of big pearls or semi-precious stones with a leaf-shaped locket were common. Decorative golden armlets in the form of a lotus, trisula (trident) or pepal leaf, set with precious or semi-precious stones were in vogue. Semi-circular bracelets and armlets (ardhachudaka) were fancied by women [102].

The wrists were decorated with numerous bangles (bale). Wearing of bale was considered auspicious by women. All girls and married women wore bangles. The bangle-maker (balegar) community subsisted on this profession. The great poet Ranna belonged to this caste.

A great variety of bangles can be identified in sculpture. Some were worn tight on the wrist (Fig. 147), some loose which jingled, some flat, some tube-like, some bearing heads, coniform (Fig. 148), ridged, wavy, etc. Different patterns were worked out by embedding different precious stones.

Silver, gold and other allied metals were employed in the manufacture of bangles (bale). Pampa poetically describes Bhima as crushing Kichaka, like an elephant trampling a load of bangles (baleya peru) into smithereens, thus vouching for their brittleness [103]. In the Dharmamrita, we find the expression 'kankanamanollade baleyam tuduva' [104], which means leaving kankana for bale (discarding costly things for cheaper); this signifies that kankana was prepared from metals and cost more than bale. In the Yasastilaka, glass bangles (sphatikavalaya) are mentioned [105]. The Lilavatiprabandham refers to the expression, 'Selling beads to glass', the Kannada equivalent of 'carrying coals to Newcastle'. This evidence proves that glass bangles were in use from the tenth century; these were considered tokens of mangalya (coverture which is considered auspicious). Therefore, H.D. Sankalia's contention that the existence of glass bangles prior to the fourteenth century cannot be proved archaeologically from literature, sculpture and painting [106] does not seem to be correct.

Rings of different shapes and designs were worn on the fingers. A diamond ring (dvihiraka) was angular or circular, with a jewel in the center, and diamonds embedded like spokes in the extremities were put on by kings. Similarly, rings with diamonds arranged in the shape of the sun's rays (ravimandala) or with gems arranged in rectangular in an ascending order (nandyavarta) were popular with royalty. Rings set with three diamonds, fully with diamonds, with different jewels and with nine types of gems were known, respectively, as trihiraka vajraveshtaka, veshtaka and navagraha [107]. One or more rings were worn on the same finger (Fig. 148). Sometimes, rings on all fingers and toes were joined by chains (ungutada elegal). These can be identified in sculptures.

Waist Ornaments

A golden belt (kanchidama) [108] held up the pleats of the sari gracefully and lent ease to the movements of the body, while keeping the waist-line in control. The sculptures exhibit a great variety of kanchidama. It used to be of various widths, with a hook or locking device. From it dangled beads or strings of pearls (Fig. 149) and sometimes rubies, emeralds, diamonds and other precious or semi-precious stones (Fig. 150). Many kinds of decorative accessories, essentially kept very light, were attached to the belt. Strings of pearls formed loops (Fig. 151) or served as pendants. Their free extremities were tied with decorative beads. Rings, chains and sometimes ribbons (Fig. 152) dangled from the belt. Small jingling bells fixed to the belt gave musical notes while one moved about. With animal faces and broad plates, these gave a majestic look to the wearer (Fig. 153). A simpler prototype of belt of silver or gold is still used in villages and was quite popular till recently.

Foot Ornaments: The anklets (Fig. 154) had jewels to match with those on armlets. To these, jewels could be fixed on the joints with screws [109] (Fig. 155); in some cases, six or eight bulbs (budbuda) or tinkling bells in gold could be strung (Fig. 156). In radhakas (Fig. 157), there were no loose parts which could produce jingling music. Andukas (anduge in Kannada) were broad and circular ornaments for the feet (Fig. 158). Heavy katakas (kadaga in Kannada) were also in use (Fig. 159). Small rings with various patterns known as mantige and pille were worn on different toes (Fig. 161). Yamala [110] was worn on the second toe, which jingled while walking. Usually, all these foot ornaments were made of silver. Dancers used belts or anklets (nupura or gejje) of jingling bells (Fig. 165) to produce sonorous sound (nadavatyah).

Footwear: Foreign travelers have indicated that the majority of the population walked barefoot. Nicolo Conti had noticed that the people had less clothing on account of the hot climate but that they wore sandals. According to him, sandals were usually purple or golden in color, as in ancient statues. At some places women wore leather shoes decorated with gold and silk threads [111].

Commoners and working people used the sturdy ekkada (leather sandals) which stood well the wear and tear of work-a-day life. Madara Dulayya, a Virasaiva cobbler devotee, has left a beautiful description of the shoes he used to sew. "I got the leather soles sewn to the upper pieces, fixed toes of different sizes; after sewing up the great toe, I passed over the thong to secure fast the foot strap [112]." The Manasollasa mentions that sandals were made of leather, dyed in different colors, and inlaid with ivory and gold. They had different designs; one of these with stronger soles and lighter support jingled sweetly while the wearer walked [113]. In stone sculptures, shoes with pointed toes, half shoes (Fig. 162) and some resembling gum-boots or galoshes of a horse-rider (Fig.164) can be recognized.

Inscriptions and literary sources indicate that footwear was common. According to an inscription of 1066 A.D., the leather workers (samagarar) community had to contribute to divine services a fixed amount from the sale proceeds of their wares [114]. The word madiga (cobbler) appears in the same inscription.

Monks, saints and orthodox people used padukas (sandals); they were either decorated (Fig. 160) or simple (Fig. 163), depending on the status or liking of the wearer. These were made of silk-cotton wood (sriparni), teak or wild jasmine wood. The fore parts of these padukas were sometimes decked with peacock feathers [115].

Men's Ornaments

Most of the ornaments were common to both sexes, except hamsatilaka, koppu and mukuti (nose ornaments), which were the symbols of mangalya (coverture) and exclusively worn by the fair sex. Men also gloried in the embellishment of their person and outfit. Somesvara advises the king to put on ornaments, after a thorough wash, so that the presiding deities of the different jewels may be pleased to bestow their benedictions. The king should be well-groomed in keeping with his own tastes and cut a figure to the delight of his ladies [116].

© K. L. Kamat
Hoysala Ornametation
Hoysala Ornametation
Detail from a Jain sculpture

This brief survey acquaints us with the fastidious taste of the higher classes in dress, ornaments and make-up. This land, rightly referred to as ratnagarbha, provided a great variety of jewels. Skilled artisans produced innumerable patterns for ornaments. In respect of cosmetics, our ancestors had achieved full mastery; there is practically nothing new that we can claim, except extraction of essences like scents (attar) and preservatives like spirit. As for dress and ornaments, we have become poorer in taste and materials; a study of this particular aspect would give us a glimpse of the glory of bygone days.


  1. SICH, I. p. 3.
  2. Ibid., p. 4.
  3. MS, II, pp 81-82, vv. 937-41.
  4. Ibid., p. 82, vv, 941-43.
  5. EC, VII, Sk. 185 (1034 A.D.)
  6. EI, p. 63 ff.
  7. PRP (ii), V, 44 ff.
  8. Ag.P., CCXXIV, p. 802.
  9. MS, II, p. 85, v. 982.
  10. Ibid., v. 984.
  11. LK, VII, p. 102.
  12. MS, II, pp. 85-86, vv. 983-85.
  13. Ibid., p. 86, vv. 993-95.
  14. Ibid., pp. 86-87, vv. 997-1004.
  15. SICH, I, p. 6; LK. VII, vv. 40-60.
  16. LK, VII, vv. 65-66.
  17. Ibid., v. 3.
  18. Ibid., v. 4.
  19. Ibid., vv. 7-8.
  20. VC, IX, v. 90.
  21. HR, p. 172.
  22. Ibid.
  23. AP, II, vv. 22-23.
  24. EC, VII, SK. 118.
  25. HR, p. 208.
  26. YAIC, p. 33.
  27. EI, XIII, p. 18.
  28. YAIC, loc. cit.
  29. BDCRI, XX, p. 301.
  30. AP, XI, v. 93.
  31. YAIC, p. 82.
  32. MS, II, p. 101, vv. 1175-76.
  33. IFC, p. 22.
  34. AP, IV, 42.
  35. PP, XII, 73.
  36. Ibid.
  37. EC, II, Sb. 253.
  38. EC, II, 17.
  39. EC, V, Ak. 88.
  40. PRP, VIII, v. 2.
  41. RT, VII, vv. 925-30. Dr. G.S. Ghurye has convincingly translated the word 'nir-nirangi' as 'uncovered head' (BDCRI, VII, p. 117).
  42. MS, II, p. 88,, vv. 1017-20.
  43. YAIC, p. 92.
  44. BP, III, v. 160.
  45. MS, II, p. 89, vv. 1021-26.
  46. EC, VII, Sk. 185.
  47. PB, III, v. 33;HR, p. 117.
  48. HR, p. 72; MAR, 1926, No. 120.
  49. IFC, p. 22.
  50. IB, p. 179.
  51. VC, XII, v. 33.
  52. MS, II, p. 102, v. 1187.
  53. HR, p. 167.
  54. VC, XIII, v. 24.
  55. RT, VIII, vv. 925-30.
  56. SC, II, v. 34.
  57. BP, XIII, v. 4.
  58. MS, loc. cit.
  59. EI, XVI, p. 55.
  60. HR, p. 226.
  61. EC, V (i), Ak. 236, Sup.
  62. LP, II, v. 105.
  63. BP, loc. cit.
  64. MS, II, P. 106, v. 1230.
  65. RT, VII, v. 927.
  66. IB, p. 181.
  67. MS, II, p. 105, v. 1224.
  68. YAIC, p. 59.
  69. FNSI, p. 189.
  70. YAIC, loc. cit.; PP. XI, vv. 51-53.
  71. VC, XVI, vv. 18-19.
  72. DA, VII, p. 312.
  73. MS, II, p. 279, vv. 1468-71.
  74. Ibid., p. 90, vv. 1034-38.
  75. Ibid., p. 89, vv. 1021-23.
  76. Ibid., p. 89, vv. 1028-31
  77. Ibid., p. 109, vv. 1271-74.
  78. EC, V (i), Ak. 236
  79. HR, p. 117.
  80. PP, VIII, v. 96.
  81. MS, II, p. 100, v. 1164.
  82. JBBRAS, IX, p. 273.
  83. RT, VII, p. 936.
  84. FNSI, p. 129.
  85. EC, VIII, Sk. 180.
  86. Ibid.
  87. VC, III, v. 58.
  88. EC, VII, Sk. 100.
  89. Ibid., 99.
  90. MS, II, p. 91, vv. 1049-56.
  91. Ibid., pp. 91-92, vv. 1057-59.
  92. Ibid., p. 91, vv. 1050-51.
  93. YAIC, p. 92.
  94. FNSI, p. 162.
  95. MS, II, p. 95, vv. 1102-05.
  96. VC, I, v. 103.
  97. MS, II, pp. 92-93, vv. 1066-76.
  98. PP, VIII, v. 130; MS, II, p. 93, vv. 1077-78
  99. NC, p. 73
  100. MS, II, p. 96, vv. 1111-113.
  101. Ibid., p. 96, vv. 1114-15.
  102. Ibid.
  103. PB, VIII, v. 76.
  104. DA, II (x), v. 83.
  105. YAIC, p. 122.
  106. BDCRI, VIII, p. 252 ff.
  107. MS, II, p. 94, vv. 1082-90.
  108. Ibid., p. 96, vv. 1116-17.
  109. Ibid, p. 97, vv. 1119-26.
  110. BP, II, vv 35-37; PP, III, vv, 46-47.
  111. IFC, p. 23.
  112. VDS, p. 222.
  113. MS, II, p. 83, v. 957.
  114. EI, XIX, p. 38.
  115. MS, II, p. 83, v. 955.
  116. Ibid., pp. 97-98, vv. 1130-31.


Full Text of Social Life in Medieval KarnatakaSocial Life in Medieval Karnataka
Foreword | Introduction  | Abbreviations
Food & Drinks | Leisure & Pleasure | Vanity Fair | Status of Women
Bibliography | Illustrations


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