The word 'Bindi' is derived from the Sanskrit word 'bindu' or a drop and suggests the mystic third eye of a person. Since ancient times, Bindi is the most visually fascinating in all form of body decoration in India. The most astonishing factor about bindis besides the limited amount of literature that exists on it, is the attitude of people towards it. Here is an attempt to understand the history and significance of Bindi for Hindu community.
In ancient India, garlands were an important part of the evening dress of both men and women. This was often accompanied by 'Visesakachhedya', i.e., painting the forehead with a bindi or 'tilaka'. In those days, thin and tender leaves used to be cut into different shapes and pasted upon the forehead. These leafy bindis were also known by various names - 'Patrachhedya', 'Patralekha', 'Patrabhanga' or 'Patramanjari'. Such natural stuff and sandal paste was used for adorning not only the forehead but also on the chin, neck, palm, breast besides other parts of the body.
Scientifically speaking, the very positioning of the bindi in between the eyebrows is significant. Experts say the area between the eyebrows is the seat of latent wisdom and is known as the "Agna" (the 6th chakra) meaning "command". The area is called agna chakra because it is said to control various levels of concentration attained through meditation. The central point of this area is the "Bindu" wherein all experience is gathered in total concentration. Those knowledgeable in Tantric tradition say that during meditation, the "kundalini" or the latent energy that lies at the base of the spine is awakened and rises to the point of sahasrara (7th chakra) situated in the head or brain. The central point, the bindu, becomes therefore a possible outlet for this potent energy. It is believed that the red kumkum lies between the eyebrows to retain energy in the human body.
The most important and commonly used color of Bindi is red. Scholars say the color red is significant as it represents Shakti or strength. Other believe that red is most important in bindis as it symbolizes love. However, some scholars have seen the red colour as a symbolism for blood. We are told that in ancient times, in Aryan society, a groom used to apply his blood, on his bride's forehead as recognition of wedlock. The existing practice among Indian women of applying a round shaped red Tilaka called Bindiya or Kumkum could be a survival of this.
The other theory regarding red color bindi is that red colour symbolizes the far more ancient practice of offering blood sacrifices to propitiate the Gods - particularly the Goddess Shakti. In time, communities put an end to actual sacrifices and offered gifts instead, but the colour red remained.
The other logic given by some scholars is that Bindi, which is often described as Sindhura or Tilaka means red, and Gandha which is also a term for Tilaka means pleasant odour.
In North India, it is essential for a married woman to wear Bindi. Hence application of Bindi denotes the woman's married status. The decked North Indian bride steps over the threshold of her married home, resplendent with the red bindi on her forehead. The red color is supposed to augur prosperity for the home she is entering. However, the same does not hold true for women in South India, as here it is a prerogative of all girls to wear a bindi. Significantly when an Indian woman has the misfortune of becoming a widow she has to stop wearing this mark.
Among men, the Tilaka has been traditionally interpreted as a good luck charm. In several Hindu communities, the bridegroom's make-up is considered incomplete without the Tilaka.
Red kumkum and the yellow turmeric are placed side by side in temples or in any homes during a celebration. This is because the yellow of the turmeric has the power to influence the intellect. In several Hindu communities, red kumkum is offered to women with yellow turmeric at the time of leave-taking. The gesture is said to express goodwill and the host's prayers for the visitor's continued good fortune.
Tradition of applying Kumkum is said to be 5000 years old. Instance of the practice of placing kumkum is mentioned in ancient texts like the Puranas, Lalitha Sahasranamam, Soundarya Lahhari etc. Besides, it has been told that Radha turned the kumkum into a flame- like design on her forehead. Draupadi, in despair and disillusion, wiped the kumkum off her forehead on that dark day at Hastinapur.
The use of Kumkum attains special importance in temples dedicated to Shakti, Lakshmi and in other Vaishnavite temples. Kumkum is of special significance of Fridays and special occasions.
In the old days, materials like chandhanam, aguru, kasturi, kumkum and sindoor were used to make the tika. Women also ground saffron together with the kusumbha flower to create a paste to use on their foreheads.
Kumkum and sindoor are prepared from two different materials. While Kumkum is made of red turmeric, Sindoor, which is worn on the centre parting of the hair, is made of zinc oxide.
In Indian culture, both sindoor and kumkum are auspicious. Both stand for good fortune and signs of "Soubhagya" in the case of a married woman. Therefore, women who had lost their husbands did not wear kumkum. Many married women would use turmeric as a substitute merely to indicate, not widowhood, but a state of mourning in the family. In some communities, womenfolk refrained from wearing kumkum during menstruation.
Today, most men wear kumkum specifically during worship or religious ceremonies.