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A Hindu woman with ghoonghat veil.

Ghoonghat (ghunghat, ghunghta, laaj, chunni, jhund or Odhni) is a veil or headscarf worn by some married Hindu, Jain and Sikh women to cover their head, and often their face. Generally aanchal or pallu the loose end of a sari is pulled over the head and face to act as a ghunghat. A dupatta (long scarf) is also commonly used as a ghungat. Today, facial veiling by Hindu women as part of everyday attire is now mostly limited to Hindi-speaking areas of India.[1][2]


The word ghoongat, ghunghat or ghunghta is derived from Avagunthana (Sanskrit: अवगुण्ठन) meaning veil, hiding and cloak and Oguntheti (Pali: ओगुन्थेति) to cover, veil over and hide. [3][4]


The ghoongat, ghunghat or ghunghta veil evolved from ancient Avagunthana in (Sanskrit: अवगुण्ठन) veil, hiding and cloak.[5] Early Sanskrit literature has a wide vocabulary of terms for the veils used by women, such as avagunthana meaning cloak-veil, uttariya meaning shoulder-veil, mukha-pata meaning face-veil, sirovas-tra meaning head-veil.[6][7]

Facial veiling is not sanctioned in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism but some sections of the society from 1st century B.C advocated the use of the veil for married women which came to be known as Ghoonghat.[8] It has been both romanticized and criticized in religious literature and folk literature[9]

In the Pratimānātaka, a play by Bhāsa describes in context of Avagunthana cloak-veil that "ladies may be seen without any blame [for the parties concerned] in a religious session, in marriage festivities, during a calamity and in a forest". [10] The same sentiment is more generically expressed in Nāgānanda and Priyadarśikā by Harsha, where maidens were expected to wear no veil; it was donned only after the marriage.[11] Later, the veil was referred to by the same term, avagunthana, in Śiśupālavadha and the Dashakumaracharita.[12] According to commentator Sankara, the ladies of Sthanvisvara used to go about covering their faces with a veil. [13]

In Buddhist Mahayana literature, Lalitavistara Sūtra written in 3nd century CE, young bride Yasodharā objected to observe veiling (oguntheti/oguṇthikā) in front of respected elders. This was taken to be a sign of immodesty and willfulness, as people criticized her and gossiped.[14] When she became aware of this, Yasodharā came before the assembled court and defended herself in long conversation "Those whose thoughts have no cover, no shame or decorum or any virtue, those who gossip, may cover themselves with a thousand garments, yet they walk the earth naked. But those who veil their minds, control their senses, and have no thought for any other expect their husband, why should they veil their faces?" Yasodharā's parents-in-law were delighted with their daughter-in-law's proud statement and gave her two white garments covered with jewels. [15]

The Lalitavistara Sūtra reflects changing times around 3rd century CE and Buddhists attempt to counter this growing practice, as there is no mention of this entire incident in early Buddhist Theravada literature.[16][17]

In Valmiki's Ramayana dated between 5th century BCE to first century BCE, Rama asks his wife Sita to unveil herself so to that the gathered citizens of Ayodhya can take a look at them before they go in exile to the forest, there is no mention of Sita veiling herself again after this incident. [18] At the end of the epic, hearing the news of Ravana's death, his queens giving up to lamentations rush outside without their Avagunthana, in which chief queen Mandodari surrounding his corpse says "Why do you not get angry, beholding me, having put off my veil, walk out on foot by the city gate? Do you behold your wives who have thrown off their veils. Why are you not angry seeing them all come out of the city?"[19] Thus, it is notable that royal women avoided public gaze and veiling was expected to be worn only by married women. [20]

Śūdraka, the author of Mṛcchakatika set in fifth century BC says that the Avagaunthaha was not used by women everyday and at every time. He says that a married lady was expected to put on a vile while moving in the public. This may indicate that it was not necessary for unmarried females to put on a veil. [21]

In Mṛcchakatika, courtesan Vasantasena's mother, having received ornaments for her daughter from a wealthy suitor to keep her as his mistress, she sends Vasantasena with her maid, asks her to go in the carriage bedecked with ornaments and to put on her avagunthana veil. This instruction is taken to signify that a courtesan who has accepted a suitor, had to use a veil in public similar to married women.[22] At the end of the play when Vasanthasena is legally wedded, she receives the title "Vadhūśabda" meaning "title of a bride" simultaneously with the veil "vasantasenām avagunthya" meaning "a token of honorable marriage" [23]

In the same literature, courtesans maid servant Madanika marries her lover Sarvilaka, a thief who changes his ways. Her new husband says to her that she has achieved what is difficult to acquire: "Vadhūśabda avagunthanam" meaning "the title and veil of a bride".[24]

In Abhijñānaśākuntalam by Kālidāsa written between 1st century BC - 4th century CE, when heroine arrives at King Duhsanta's palace, seeking to take up her wifley status, the king first remarks "Kā svid avagunthanavati" meaning "who is this veiled one?" and immediately forbears to look at her, with the words "Anirvarnaniyam parakalatram" meaning "The wife of another is not to be inspected."[25] This largely indicates that Avagunthana was a sign of a respectable married women, and was a married women's raiment.[26]

In Kathāsaritsāgara written in 11th century AD, we find heroine in story Ratnaprabhā protesting : "I consider that the strict seclusion of women is a folly produced by jealousy. It is of no use whatsoever. Women of good character are guarded only by their own virtue and nothing else." [27]

Rational opposition against veiling and seclusion from spirited ladies resulted in system not becoming popular for several centuries.[28] However, it is notable that some section in society from 1st century B.C. advocated the use of the veil for married women. There is no proof that a large section of society observed strict veiling until medieval period.[29] Under Islamic Mughal Empire, various aspects of veiling and seclusion of women was adopted, such as concept of Purdah and Zenana, partly as an additional protection for the women folk.[30] Purdah became common in 15th and 16th century as both Vidyāpati and Chaitanya mention it.[31] Sikhism was highly critical of purdah, Guru Amar Das condemned it and rejected seclusion and veiling of women, which saw decline of purdah among some classes during this period.[32]

Bride with full veiling during wedding ceremony.


In ghoonghat practice, facial veiling observed by married women is known as Laaj (Sanskrit: लज्जा, Lajja - modesty, shame). In veiling practice, it literally means "To keep (ones) modesty, shame and honor". Earliest attested word Laaj in context of veiling is found in Valmiki's Ramayana as lajjaavaguNThanaan describing Mandodari.[19] However, it is unclear whether it refers to facial veiling.[33]

During marriage ceremony, bride wears a veil given by her parents. Later, during the ceremony brides mother-in-law covers her face with ghoonghat, she therefore simultaneously wears the veil given by her parents and that from her in-laws, symbolizing her passing from the protection of ones household to another.[34]

Muh Dikhai (Devanagari: मूह दिखाई, first gaze) is a post-wedding ceremony, where bride is formally introduced to grooms relatives and extended family. The ceremony takes place once the bride arrives to her new home, each family member lifts her veil, looks at the bride and gives her a welcoming gift. She receives Shagun from her mother-in-law, which is typically jewelry, clothing and silverware. After this ceremony bride observes full veiling for next few months or until her parents-in-law advise her to unveil.[35]

Post 1900s[edit]

During early 1900s, women of royal and aristocratic class were first to abandon strict veiling in public. However, the head was loosely veiled due to sensitivity towards the custom during changing times.[36] The rest of the class soon followed, it lingered on in some parts of India until well after 1940s. Facial veiling has gradually declined, and is mostly limited to parts of Hindi-speaking areas today.[37] In 2004, India Human Development Survey (IHDS) found that 55% of women in India practice ghoonghat, majority of them in Hindi-speaking states.[38] Survey found that some women may cover their face fully but for others, partial covering of the face is more a nod to propriety than a large impediment.[39]

Purpose and Usage[edit]

In ghungat, a woman will veil her face from all men to whom she's related by marriage and who are senior to her husband. This would include, for example, her husband's father, elder brother and uncles. The effect of ghungat is to limit a young woman's interaction with older men.[40][41]

The ghunghat varies in style due to personal choice and tradition. Most wearers cover only the forehead, ears, and eyes; this allows them to see through the garment whilst being veiled. A popular style is to pull the fabric from the side of the face and hold it there whilst talking to males; this forms a quick barrier between the speakers and is the most convenient form of the ghunghat.

In traditional rural areas, women use their sari or dupatta to completely cover the face, concealing their identity to males. There is a small minority of women that use the fabric to cover their whole face, chest and arms. This type of veiling is still popular with some Hindu, Jain and Sikh brides and is observed on the wedding day. Many new brides will use the ghungat until their parents-in-law advises to unveil. This is to keep the modesty of the bride.

Traditionally, in some parts of India, women are supposed to wear a ghunghat in front of family elders and male guests, father-in-law, elder brothers of her husband, except when only in front of other women, husband and younger male family members. The ghunghat is used to show respect to elder males of the extended family. In desert areas of India and Pakistan, the ghungat is used to keep sand from blowing onto the face. The ghungat was popular until at least the 1930s, but its usage has steadily declined since, particularly in urban areas. However, the ghunghat is still in use in rural parts of Hindi-speaking states where it's part of everyday attire.

The ghoonghat or odhni is considered as the symbol of a woman's community, her social and marital status as also her sense of modesty in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. It is romanticized in literature, art and music, the ghoonghat remains as popular attire of women in the region and finds place in the expressions of popular culture of contemporary times.


  1. ^ Raj Mohini Sethi (2011) "Socio-economic Profile of Rural India (series II).", p.111
  2. ^ IHDS 2004–5 data "Gender and Family Dynamics.", p.153
  3. ^
  4. ^ Ambalaṅgoḍa Polvattē Buddhadatta, A. P. (1957) "Concise Pāli-English Dictionary.", p.69
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  6. ^ Govind Sadashiv Ghurye (1951) "Indian Costume.", p.236
  7. ^ Ramesh Prasad Mohapatra (1992) "Fashion Styles of Ancient India: A Study of Kalinga from Earliest Times to Sixteenth Century Ad", p.24
  8. ^ Anant Sadashiv Altekar(1959) "The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization.", p.174
  9. ^ Anant Sadashiv Altekar(1959) "The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization.", p.171
  10. ^ Govind Sadashiv Ghurye (1951) "Indian Costume.", p.236
  11. ^ Anant Sadashiv Altekar(1959) "The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization, p.170
  12. ^ Sulochana Ayyar (1987) "Costumes and Ornaments as Depicted in the Sculptures of Gwalior Museum.", p.152
  13. ^ Govind Sadashiv Ghurye (1951) "Indian Costume.", p.239
  14. ^ Betty Kelen 1967 "Gautama Buddha: In Life and Legend" chapter 1, p. 7 and 8
  15. ^ Betty Kelen 1967 "Gautama Buddha: In Life and Legend" chapter 1, p. 7 and 8
  16. ^ Betty Kelen 1967 "Gautama Buddha: In Life and Legend" chapter 1, p. 7 and 8
  17. ^ Rohini Chowdhury 2011 "Gautama Buddha: The Lord of Wisdom" chapter 1, page 9.
  18. ^ Anjani Kant (1951) "Women and the Law.", p.43
  19. ^ a b Valmiki Ramanaya, chapter 111 - stanza 6-111-63 and 6-111-64
  20. ^ Anjani Kant (1951) "Women and the Law.", p.43
  21. ^ Sulochana Ayyar (1987) "Costumes and Ornaments as Depicted in the Sculptures of Gwalior Museum.", p.152
  22. ^ Govind Sadashiv Ghurye (1951) "Indian Costume.", p.236
  23. ^ Laurie Patton (1961) "Jewels of Authority: Women and Textual Tradition in Hindu India.", p.81
  24. ^ Laurie Patton (1961) "Jewels of Authority: Women and Textual Tradition in Hindu India.", p.81
  25. ^ Laurie Patton (1961) "Jewels of Authority: Women and Textual Tradition in Hindu India.", p.81
  26. ^ Laurie Patton (1961) "Jewels of Authority: Women and Textual Tradition in Hindu India.", p.81
  27. ^ Anant Sadashiv Altekar(1959) "The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization.", p.173
  28. ^ Anant Sadashiv Altekar(1959) "The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization.", p.171
  29. ^ Anant Sadashiv Altekar(1959) "The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization.", p.174
  30. ^ Anant Sadashiv Altekar(1959) "The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization.", p.175
  31. ^ Anant Sadashiv Altekar(1959) "The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization.", p.175
  32. ^ Sardar Harjeet Singh(2009) "Faith & Philosophy of Sikhism.", p.254
  33. ^ Anjani Kant (1951) "Women and the Law.", p.43
  34. ^ Emma Tarlo 1996 "Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India", p.177
  35. ^ Doranne Jacobson, Susan Snow Wadley 1999 "Women in India: two perspectives", p.195
  36. ^ Laurie Patton (2004) "Maharanis: The Lives and Times of Three Generations of Indian Princesses.", p.81
  37. ^ Raj Mohini Sethi (2011) "Socio-economic Profile of Rural India (series II).", p.111
  38. ^ IHDS 2004–5 data "Gender and Family Dynamics.", p.153
  39. ^ IHDS 2004–5 data "Gender and Family Dynamics.", p.153
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  41. ^ Nevile, Pran (2006). Lahore: a sentimental journey. New Delhi, India: Penguin Books. p. 77. ISBN 0143061976.