Jewellery, Body and Adornment: Exploring Maithili Literature

November 16, 2022 Mithila Mandavi Chaudhary
Jewellery, Body and Adornment: Exploring  Maithili Literature

“The adornment of the body is a human need.”

(David LaChapelle- American photographer, music video director and film director)

Love for beauty and adornment is an integral part of human life and has existed for over centuries. The spiritual concepts of beauty are intimately connected with the physical and formal concepts in history and aesthetic symbols find their origin in the beauty of actuality and substance alike. The human body is constantly in need of some love which is showered upon it in the form of adornments. To cite an example, Rabindranath Tagore’s heroine, Mani in The last jewels would constantly pine for jewellery and could not give up on this excessive love even in a crucial hour when her husband needed them. The narrator describes,

“From what she knew of humanity she thought that this was not only possible but likely. Her anxiety became keener than ever. She had no children to love, and though she had a husband she was almost unable to realize his very existence…So her blood froze at the very thought that her only object of love, the wealth which like a child had grown from year to year, was to be in a moment thrown into the bottomless abyss of trade?” …. Mani had spent the whole night covering every part of her body with ornaments….”

Mani’s excessive love for jewellery illustrates the immense love that humans inherently nurtures for a thing that one desires the most, which here is represented as jewellery. This love is nothing new to mankind and there is enough evidence to substantiate the argument, in both History and literature. Another story that echoes the same idea can be found in the French writer Guy De Maupassant’s short story titled as The Diamond Necklace. Mathilde’s yearning to possess extraordinary jewellery finally results in her financial devastation with her living a life duller than before: “She had no gowns, no jewels, nothing. And she loved nothing but that.”
A human body longs to be adorned, as already stated and a thing of glitter and color catches its attention like nothing else. Jewellery is an aid that allows beauty to grow and thrive and it exists everywhere around us. If one looks around, nature comes across as a heavily decorated space that has adorned its creations so skillfully. The beautiful birds are adorned with wings that let them fly while flowers are adorned with vibrant petals blooming. All things in the world including the Gods and Goddesses are carefully adorned with precious jewels and gems. Primitive man found jewellery in whatever that was present in front of him, which meant his surroundings. Grass twigs and plants were utilized as jewellery items in the beginning. Even today, Tribal jewellery is mainly inspired by the natural products that nature has to offer. After the initial stage, people started with copper and iron and as they progressed, they went on to turn to ivory and agate for adornment. With advancements taking place, gold and silver along with other precious gems and stones started being used for the purpose of adornment. In the current scenario, all kinds of modern ornaments have evolved with newer designs coming into being.

Jewellery is something that is an inherent and urgent need of humans. Rebecca Ross Russell explains, “Jewellery responds to our most primitive urges, for control, for honor and sex. It is at once the most ancient and most immediate of art forms, one that is defined by its connection and interaction with the body it lies on.” In the Indian context, studying jewellery leads to fascinating explorations. The people of India and jewellery share a deeply engaging relationship right from the ancient times and all important religious texts make mention of it. In the Vedic age, the term ratna was accepted as the meaning of jewel. In the first two hymns of the Rig-Veda, Agni and Rudra are portrayed as two important figures because they were the possessors of seven treasures. The mythical fire priest, Atri remarks,

“Bestow the seven treasures in every house,
Be a blessing to one two Footed
And a blessing to one four footed.”iv

From the ancient Harappa women to Mughal and Rajput princesses and majestic Kings with beautiful crowns to the common Indian folk of the present day, jewellery has worked as a common space shared by all. In simpler words, jewellery and the desire to adorn the body are as old as human life itself.

The Folk Jewellery of Mithila

The land of Mithila as a culturally rich realm has given to the world some very wise minds remembered and celebrated till date. These were the people who not only garnered an ardent love for their culture but also celebrated them through their work. Jewellery being an inseparable aspect of Maithili culture secures a place in excellent works produced by some great Maithili scholars such as Chandeshwar Thakur who dedicated some part of his work to the description of jewellery.

The Vedic sage, Yajnavalkya in his Yajnavalkya Smriti gives a description of jewellery traditions of Mithila. He, it is said to have lived in the 8th BCE or 7th BCE penned his remarkable work titled as Yajnavalakyasmriti in which he mentions the various materials such as chaani (silver), sona (gold), stones and metals used in making jewellery. Through his work, he is able to recreate a picture of Ancient Maithili society that wore jewellery made of different materials.

In Ancient Maithili literature, Charyageet, Buddhist songs sung by Buddhist monks were popular among people who could preach their teachings through the songs. One of the lines from one of the songs is: “hath re kanganma leu dapan” (When you have bangles to adorn your hand, why would you need a mirror). The authority of bangle over the mirror is highly suggestive of the relevant space that as the poetry articulates jewellery acquires. This means that one need not be afraid of facing the mirror because jewellery enhances beauty. Different types of jewellery items have also been introduced through the songs, one of which is kanaet, a word that was previously used for karnphool but is no longer in use. The line says, “Kanaetchaureleladhrati” (The karnphool got stolen by a thief at night).

Jyotishwar Thakur is yet another important name in the history of Maithili literature who in his play DhurtaSamagama, Varnaratnakara and many other scholarly works comment upon jewellery and its uses. Jyotishwara in his work Pancasayaka mentions the ornaments for various parts of the body like nupur (payal, foot ornament), khuti(ear ornament) and suta (neck ornament, also called hansuli). His Dhurtasamagam describes the hermit as Kankan bah, gararudraksh, chaandanbinda lay sullat. (The hermit is wearing an armlet on his arm, a rudrakash in his neck and applied chandan on his forehead).

Vidyapati who is known as one of the most significant promoters of Maithili literature cites the types of jewellery in his writings. Through his writings, he explains the role and importance of jewellery in the life of the Maithili folk. For the married women, use of ornaments all over her body is essential while the widows are expected to throw away all her ornaments and jewellery along with rubbing off the sindoor(vermillion). Radhakrishna Chaudhary mentions in his book Mithila in the age of Vidyapati that flowers were used as an ornament for decorating hair. Sankha (shells) and moti (pearl), he identifies as two important materials used in making jewellery items in this region.

Jewellery items of Mithila

1. Nose ornaments nathiya, nath, nathuni, chak, laung, thop, butta, mareech, bulki
2. Ear ornaments karnphul, lori, maakri, kanausi, paasha, veer jhummak, top, Jhumka (2
Mahla& 3 mahla)
3. Neck ornaments hansuli, kaant, dholna, guamala, mangalsutra, kanthi, matar mala, asarfi
4. Arm ornaments baankh, jaisan, baaju, lapet, pahunchi, thek, keyur
5. Waist ornaments darkas, kochban
6. Foot ornaments kara, chara, pajeb, payal, bicchua ,nupur
7. Hand ornaments lahthi, kangan, shanka-pola,haathshankar, katri, kada,aaunthi (ring)
8. Other ornaments godna (traditional tattoo art form)

Many of the names of ornaments given in the table above are no longer in use which suggests that there have been changes made in the existing jewellery traditions which can also be found in the kind of language and vocabulary used by Modern Maithili writers. Modern Maithili literature begins with Chanda Jha. Maithili literature witnessed an all-round development during the period of his writing. Looking at the structure of vocabulary, it gets clear that while in traditional learning, Sankritized vocabulary prevailed; in the developing modern knowledge; easily understandable vocabulary has been getting increasingly important. Chanda Jha in his Ramayana uses traditional Sanskritized vocabulary as well. Harimohan Jha’s writings offer examples of both traditional and modern vocabulary.

Chanda Jha’s Maithili version of The Ramayana makes many references to jewellery. As soon as Rama was born, his mother, Kaushalaya came to know of his supernatural qualities. His appearance has been described as:

He was dark, like the petals of blue-lotus
And had four hands, and wrappings of gold-colour.
His eyes were red like lotus and he was bedecked with ear-rings.


Ram’s ears that are bedecked with earrings add glory to his beauty that enthrals his mother who has realised that her son is extraordinary. In the Baalkand (childhood) section, Rama who is an avatar of Lord Vishnu is depicted with jewellery such as keyur (ornament for the arm) and gemstones. Chanda Jha has deliberately chosen to describe Rama wearing jewellery in order to comment upon his beauty by decorating his character.

Jha has also taken care while describing the character of Sita, the daughter of Mithila with providing details focusing on her beauty through the mention of adornments. The writer writes, “Ang alankritshobhitbhal.” (Her body is adorned with ornaments, adding charm to her beauty). Sunaina, Sita’s mother is so fascinated with her daughter’s beauty that she buys her ornaments and decorates her with them with her hands. Jha writes, “Sita kebujhidharmakbeti, hunakhetusringarkpeti.” (Considering her as an ideal daughter, Sunaina decides to buy Sita a jewellery box). Sunaina lavishly spends on her daughter and buys her expensive presents, one of which is jewellery. She would enjoy admiring the beauty of her daughter and would continue looking at her, unable to believe what she saw before her. Adorned with all her ornaments, she looked as though she were made of gold.

While describing the duraguwan ceremony, Chanda Jha writes that while Sita is about to depart from Mithila to settle down in Ayodhya with her husband, an arrangement is made to send along with her a huge box filled with smaller boxes. Inside these smaller boxes can be found jewellery items such as ratna (gems),lahthi and choori of many kinds. Even the palanquin that she is traveling in is made of gold and adorned with expensive clothes and decorations. When Sita reaches Ayodhya, Dasrath felt overjoyed to see his beautiful daughter-in-law whom he gifted expensive gems and jewels as presents.

The tradition of making Gods and Goddesses wear jewellery is an essential part of the Maithili culture. Moreover, through the mention of jewellery items; Jha is also able to comment upon the folklife of Mithila that holds high regard for jewellery items. One extremely important jewellery item that Jha has mentioned is lahthi which was significant as he suggests in Sita’s time and continues to remain the same till the present day. Lahthi, a compulsory hand ornament for Hindu married women is one of the most popular ornaments used in Mithila. Upendra Thakur comments,

“Making lac bangles is yet another popular craft in Mithila. The bangles have numerous types such as lahthi (simple bangles), tisiphula(bangles of marriage), chagotava (having six dots), kangana (specially of Baidyanath Dham, Deoghar), sukhapuri (thin), mathapa, motiya, bijulichata, phulavari, sahana, etc.”vi

Products made of lacquer are very popular with the Maithils. During every Hindu wedding ceremony, the bride is given a sindoordani (vermilion box) made of lacquer which is filled with a nose ring (a sign of being married) as a form of a present in the box by her parents.

Hari Mohan Jha, a professor of philosopher and author of several novels depicting philosophical churning in Mithila, has played a vital role in the growth of Modern Maithili literature. Unlike Chanda Jha who depended upon Sanskritized and old Maithili vocabulary for jewellery, Hari Mohan Jha blends both traditional Sanskrit and new Maithili influenced by English and Hindi vocabulary in his writings. His intent of doing so is very deliberate as one can find that through his writings, he attempts to comment and reflect upon the various changes in jewellery traditions. In his renowned work ‘KhattarkakakTarang’, he compares the jewellery of the previous times with that of the modern. Jewellery has been popular among people in Mithila right from the initial days and he proves it by stating that earlier, they would look for flowers to adorn themselves. He explains that chandan (sandal) has been replaced with cream, ash has been replaced with powder and thread ornaments worn on the waist have been replaced with belts. He writes, “Fashion badlai chai paruntamanushyakevaasnananaibadlai chai.” (Fashion trends may change but the human yearning for ornaments remains unchanged). Through the character of Khattar Kaka, he manages to discuss the various social and cultural changes in details. He expresses his opinion that what has to come shall come which is why nail polish, snow powder, new ornaments are being used by people in the current time. Citing an example of a pundit, he describes him wearing English shoes under the influence of western culture. Then, it would be right, he argues for the pundit’s wife to give up her lahthi and start wearing plastic bangles.

Umanath Jha is yet another writer to have talked about changes in jewellery traditions through his story titled as Aadha Ghanta. The changes include the incorporation of skirts and wrist watches. Describing a young girl, he writes that she wore gold bangles and earrings of a new design in her ears. She also adorned a flower ornament in her hair. Yoganand Jha in his story Bisralnaichailaik introduces the character of a young boy with a metal locket tied to a thick black thread. An eighteen-year-old girl wears adornments all over her body, with two-layered chain in the neck, nathuni/nathni(nose ring) in the nose, anguthi (ring) made of stone in her finger.


The Modern Maithili writers mention the newer kinds of jewellery items and comment upon the social and cultural changes that have taken place in the region. While some jewellery items are still very much in use, many others are no longer available in the markets or found in the vocabulary used by the locals and writers. It is important to connect literature with jewellery for literature through the ages has tried to be true to social reality. Great social and cultural changes are often included in literature so as to portray the real picture of society to readers. The influence of Bollywood and changing trends is immense on Maithili folklife which has greatly affected folk jewellery.

Dr Makhan Jha in his Folklore, Magic and Legends of Mithila mentions mangtikas(forehead ornaments), khutis (ear ornaments), chandrahar, haikals, sikris(three kinds of necklaces), bajus and baks (two kinds of armlets) and other ornaments. Many of the words used by him in his work along with that of the ancient words used by Jyotiswara Thakur and other writers in their works are not a part of the current social reality. It has been noticed that many of the ancient words like chuli which was earlier used for bangle, valya which was used for bala (hand ornament), saakha which was used for shankha ,meshla used for darkas (waist ornament), kakna used for kangan, trika used for teeka and mundri used for authi (ring) do not enter the vocabulary of the current day Mithila, thus highlighting the changes in folklife.

Jewellery, it must be noted has remained a constant and crucial object in Maithili literature right from Jyotiswara’s time till the current days, meaning that jewellery is one such important aspect of Maithili folklife which cannot be ignored. The people of Mithila who are very proud of their merits and culture are also extremely proud of their jewellery items, some of which that can only be found in Mithila while some are those which can be found in other Indian regions as well. The jhumkas and the bali are common in many of the other Indian states while guamala and dholna which are neck ornaments are typical to Maithili folk jewellery. Maanteeka (maangteeka) and spiritual jewellery items such as rudrakash and tulsimala are worn by people in other parts of India as well. The Folk jewellery of Mithila is like a box that Chanda Jha mentions while describing Sita’s departure from Mithila. The Folk jewellery of Mithila is like a large box filled with smaller boxes, some which are common across Indian cultures and some which are only found in Mithila. Hansuli, a neck ornament, for instance, is another jewellery item that is found in many other regions like Rajasthan and Uttrakhand while darkas (waist ornament) is a local term used for waist ornaments found in other states. Asarfi (neck ornament made of coins) is popular across India but known by different names in the particular regions where it is worn. Bholanath Bhattacharya defines folk ornaments as primitive ornaments which have not been touched by modern techniques and embedded in old beliefs. However, the folk jewellery of Mithila cannot be put under such a stringent definition and seeks to challenge the notion of what folk jewellery is made of. Folk Jewellery of Mithila is a blend of traditional and modern cultural elements, of past melting down in the present. Like the folklife of Mithila, the jewellery of Mithila too cannot be fixed at one point, for it is persistently in a state of flux.

Endnotes :

i) Tagore, Rabindranath. Selected Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore. New Delhi:
BPI India Pvt Ltd., 2013.

ii) Maupassant, Guy De. “The Diamond Necklace”

iii) Russell, Rebecca Ross. Gender and Jewelry: A Feminist Analysis. 2010. p.1.

iv) Bhushan, Jamila Brij. Indian jewellery, Ornaments and Decorative Designs. 1964. p. 1

v) Misra, Jayadeva.Makers of Indian literature, Chanda Jha.1981.p.49.

vi) Thakur, Upendra. “Madhubani Painting”. 2003. p. 109

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इसमाद – First EPaper in Maithili

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migrated from south India to Mithilā and established Karnat dynasty. He was a musicologist himself and
author of Bharat Bhashya (a.k.a. SaraswatiHridyalankara)
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A kind of practice in which blessings are given along with chanting in Sanskrit, with some rice and grass bit in hand.
Followers of Saint Kabir
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Lumbinī, the birthplace of Buddha, was situated in Nepal very close to (and previously a part of) Mithilā. Besides, Magadha and Vikramshila, strongholds of Buddhism were also adjacent to Mithilā. Another popular opinion in Mithilā is that Buddha could have born in Lumbini somewhere in Orissa. See— Das, Prafulla. ‘Orissa’s treasures’. Frontline. Volume 22. Issue 4. February 12-25, 2005.
Thakur, J., translated by Chatterjee, S. Varna-Ratnakara. Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. Calcutta. 1940. p. 1.
Similar to Christian traditions of Birth, Confirmation, Marriage and Death.
A pushtimargi tradition was popular also as Haveli Sangeet. See— Das, Alokparna. Haveli Sangeet. Goya publishing. 2019. p. 1-4.
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This Jharni is different from the Jharni sung during rainy seasons.
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Mishra, S. Vidhi Vyavahār. PadmamuktaPrakashan. SarisabPahi. 2014 is an example of compilation of ritual songs.
Heritage audio-visual archive is an initiative by the government under the supervision of Indira Gandhi National centre for performing arts.

(Copyright Madba , CSTS)

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