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Published Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nose Piercings in India

This is a Tamilnadu woman with a double nose piercing. (AKA the natt, the bulak and the mookutthi) (Image: Etan Doronne, Wikimedia)

The first thing you probably should know about nose piercing in India is that it’s as widespread and multi-faceted a practice as any other in a country with so many languages and cultures blended together. In Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, jewelry in the nose is worn by both married and unmarried young women, and it’s called mookutthi. In some places it’s part of the marriage ceremony. Gujarati women wear it on the right. Maharashtra women wear it on the left. In Nepal and Rajasthan it’s worn in the septum, and it’s called bulak. In fashionable cities nose-rings are worn for the same reason they’re worn everywhere else: because they’re cute.

Solah Shringar

Where they’re worn as part of a marriage ceremony, it’s often part of the Solah Shringar.

In Indian culture, the Solah Shringar – literally ’16 Decorations’ – of the bride includes the wearing of a nose ring, usually of gold and with pearl decorations, and with a chain passing to the ear across the face. It’s considered part of the devotion to the goddess Lakshmi, who is a model of the perfect wife, and of beauty and fertility. The ritual also includes hair decorations, bracelets, rings and henna drawings on the skin.

Ayurvedic Medicine

In Megwhal culture, the status of a woman can be determined by the size of her nose ring. (Image: Meena Kadri, Wikimedia)

It’s often said that the nose piercing on the left side comes from ancient Ayurvedic medicine, and that this point, or marma, on the nostril will alleviate pain from childbirth or possibly help with painful menstruation. This belief is often attributed to the works of Shushruta, such as the Sushruta Samhita, an ancient text on medicine. But after hours of research and reading translations, I can say that there’s no mention of this at all in the Sushruta Samhita. The sections often referred to are about venesection, or piercing of veins for bloodletting. While Sushruta says there are smaller points in the body that carry energy, the practice of piercing these areas seems to have developed much later, with the influence of acupuncture. Most of the references to this belief date back to the not very ancient days of 2004, when author Desmond Morris mentioned it in his book, The Naked Woman. From there I followed the trail to Dr. Frank Ros and his book, The Lost Secrets of Ayurvedic Acupuncture, which in turn cites a well known Ayurvedic doctor named Chandrasekhar Thakkur, whose work was popular in the 1960s and quotes from something called the Suchi Veda an ancient text which seems to only be referenced in the works of Dr. Thakkur. In others words, there’s a good chance that the idea of a nostril piercing being related to Ayurvedic medicine dates back to the ancient days of the 1960s.

If anyone has info on the Ayurvedic stuff, I’d love to know. Send it to [email protected].

Suchi Veda

The most likely origin for the practice, barring a revelation on the Suchi Veda, is that it came from the Muslim world. You may not think of Islam as being huge into nose piercings, but they were a hundred years ago. It’s very common for people in Muslim communities to remember a grandmother or great aunt that wore a large nose ring, and up till the 20th century it was one of the things that Muslim women were known for. Just as today we associate the Hijab with Islam, a hundred years ago if someone mentioned Muslim women, you’d have thought ‘nose ring’. But that’s a subject for another blog.

How it got from Islam to the Hindus in India has to do with the history of India, and the often intermingled trajectories of Hinduism and Islam in that country.

P.K. Gode,

I can't not include an image of a traditional Hindu bride, because they are super fancy. (Image: Prakhar Amba, Wikimedia)

in his Antiquity of the Hindoo Nose Ornament, which was first published in 1938, goes into great detail on the practice and its origins.

As Gode says, “The Amarakosa of Amarasimha, one of the earliest Sanskrit lexicons composed before the 8th century gives us a list of ornaments… this list makes no mentions of a nose-ornament. This omission is quite significant, and we may be justified in presuming that the nose-ornament was not current in the time of Amarasimha.”

In other words, since it wasn’t listed, people probably weren’t getting nose rings in the 8th century in India. He also mentions nose screws in South India, as a “Screw inserted in the side of the nostril, in a hole bored for the purpose.” Ladies wear it in both sides of the nose, and it usually has a precious gem at the tip of the screw. And that’s in 1938, in case you thought they were a new thing.


But on the Muslim origin of the nose-ring in India, Gode mentions another half dozen sources saying they can find no evidence prior to the year 1080, in either painting or statue, showing the nose ring. That’s significant, because the first forays into India by Sabuktigan in the late 900s predate this, and from this point forward, Islamic fashion was a heavy influence on Indian culture.

Also, notably, Gode and his contemporaries make no mention at all of Ayurvedic medicine when talking about the nose-ring in 1938, and since they were renowned experts on Indian history, that strikes me as odd, and pushes me another notch towards saying that’s probably a modern invention. Although, like I said, if I’m wrong send me an email.

I’d love to know.


Have a question or comment about these blogs? Reach me at [email protected]