The devilish connotations of red in the west are amusingly juxtaposed by the traditional bearings of red in the east.
The color red has played an instrumental role in Hindu customs and beliefs, perhaps the most ceremonious one being in the life of a married woman.
A girl’s arrival into her role as the married woman is symbolized by the almost red henna on her hands and is sealed with the pinch of red powder sindoor on her head.
Matrimonial bliss and a promise of togetherness are all sealed by the warmth and binding power of the red drape and red accessories. The bride’s first step into her new home is characterized by the ritual of her having to dip her feet in red water and walk bare feet on the floor of the house to symbolize the beginning of her new role.
Cinema in India reflects this home grown custom of Indian brides bedecked in red bangles and saris, and the ceremonial kiosk showered with red roses. It’s almost the most powerful symbol of leaving behind one’s adolescence and stepping into womanhood and, eventually, motherhood.
The red vermillion is also used as a ritual mark while greeting guests or family members at a festival or simply into your home. The red tilak while sometimes used as a symbol of ‘blessing’ from an elderly to a youngster is also used in many customary functions. The customs include traditional Indian festivals such as Raksha Bandhan (the festival that celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters) and Durga Puja.
The tilak, in theory, has to do with the third eye of Lord Shiva, the destroyer, one of the most revered Indian gods and part of the Trinity. The third eye is in tandem with Lord Shiva’s third eye opening to beckon the end of the world. However its customary significance is that of the all-seeing, all-pervading power that protects the inner wisdom of those that it’s applied on.
The red tilak is replaced by a tiny red dot on the foreheads of married women who place this ‘bindi’ between the brows to symbolize spirituality. The bindi in particular is a symbol of feminine energy and supposed to protect both the wife and the husband. Although bindis have gone far from the traditional red circle, tradition and customs keep it alive at many places.
It is also a part of Indian custom to tie a long red string around the wrist of loved ones during prayer as a mark of protection and to safeguard against the evil eye. Individuals wear it for a month till the thread wears off.
Red in mythology denotes bravery, protection and strength. Red powder is often showered on deities at temples during prayer. The colored powder therefore has become a hugely intrinsic part of Indian culture.
Indian customs and culture are often described as riots of colors with almost every desirable color thrown in for good measure. But red truly remains the core symbol of power and spirituality, of protection and commitment. It is a color that has not faded the trials of time and stands alone as the most powerful.
The sexual denotations of the red in the West are replaced by the simplicity, purity and ritualistic candor of the color in the east. The dynamism of red has always led it to command power and awe. It’s interesting however to see how different cultures utilized the color in their daily lives.
Red in India is considered holy and is symbolic of a certain time, place and action in one’s personal life. While castes, beliefs and rituals may differ across religious sects in India, the overall implications of the color are universal.