Kumkuma is a powder used for social and religious markings in India. It is either made from turmeric or saffron. The turmeric is dried and powdered with a bit of slaked lime, which turns the rich yellow powder into a red color.
In India, it is known by various names including kuṅkumam (Sanskrit कुङ्कुमम्), kumkuma (Telugu కుంకుమ, kunku (Marathi कुंकू), kumkum (Bengali কুমকুম, Hindi कुमकुम), kunkumam (Tamil குங்குமம்), Kannada ಕುಂಕುಮ ), Kungkumam (Malayalam കുങ്കുമം).
Application of kumkuma
Kumkuma is most often applied by Indians to the forehead. The reason for this particular location has to do with the ancient Indian belief that "the human body is divided into seven vortices of energy, called chakras, beginning at the base of the spine and ending at the top of the head. The sixth chakra, also known as the third eye, is centered in the forehead directly between the eyebrows and is believed to be the channel through which humankind opens spiritually to the Divine". Thus the kumkuma is placed at the location of the body which is believed by Indians to be the most holy.
Common forehead marks using kumkuma
- Saivites: Followers of Siva usually apply three white horizontal lines with a dot of kumkuma at the center.
- Vaisnavas: Followers of Vishnu make use of "white clay to apply two vertical lines joined at the base and intersected by a bright red streak." Many times the white clay is applied in a U-shape.
- Swaminarayana: Followers of the Swaminarayan faith apply kumkuma at the center of the forehead and in between a U-shaped tilaka. The tilaka is normally yellow and made from sandalwood.
Significance of kumkuma
In the Vaishnava tradition, the "white lines represent the footprint of their God, while the red refers to his consort, Lakshmi". The Swaminarayana tradition holds that the tilaka (yellow U-shaped mark) "is a symbol of the lotus feet of Paramatma" and the kumkuma "represents the bhakta" (devotee). In both of these traditions, the forehead mark serves as a reminder that a devotee of God should always remain as a servant at the feet of God.
Kumkuma and women
When a girl or a married woman visits a house, it is a sign of respect (in case of an elderly lady) or blessings (in case of a young girl) to offer kumkuma to them when they leave. However, it is not offered to widows. When visiting a temple, married women from southern India usually dip their ring finger in yellow turmeric powder, and apply a dot on their neck. Men, women, girls, and boys apply a dot on their forehead of red turmeric powder, also when visiting a temple or during a pooja. Kumkuma in temples is found in heaps. People dip their thumb into the heap and apply it on the forehead or between the eyebrows. In most of India, married women apply red kumkuma to the parting of their hair above their forehead every day as a symbol of marriage. This is called vermilion, or in Hindi, sindoor. In southern India, many unmarried girls will wear a bindi every day unlike northern India where it is only worn as a symbol of marriage.
Kumkum may be made from synthetic pigment and there are toxicity concerns with this, especially because kumkum is repeatedly applied directly to the skin. Kumkum is said to be made from turmeric by treating with alkali. It is certain that no saffron is sold for use as kumkum. Saffron is extremely costly. Also it gives an orangey-yellow dye, not the bright red of commercial kumkum.
Saffron for kumkuma is made from the flower Crocus sativus, in the family Iridaceae. The plant has many names in Sanskrit: Ghusruna, Rakta, Kashmira, Balhika, Kesara, Kashmiraja, Kumkuma, Agneeshekhara, Asrugvara, Shatha, Shonita, Pitaka, or Rudhira. The saffron contains a dye consisting of 8 to 13.4% of the volatile oils crocin and picrococin.
Kumkuma is also widely used for worshiping the Hindu goddesses, especially Shakti and Lakshmi, and a kumkuma powder is thrown (along with other mixtures) into the air during Holi (the Festival of Colours), a popular Hindu spring festival.
- Huyler, Steven. "The Experience: Approaching God". In The Life of Indians , ed. Vasudha Narayanan and John Stratton Hawley. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.
- Sadhu Mukundcharandas. "Indian Rites and Rituals".1st Edition. Amdavad: Swaminarayana Aksharpitha, 2007
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