When travelling, my sensory faculties are always operating at heightened levels. There is so much to do, by merely being; absorbing the sights, sounds, smells and sensations. India is known to be an “assault on the senses” especially to the first time visitor who will be easily overwhelmed by all there is to take in.
Following almost a decade away, I remember returning to India as a young adult and feeling as though I had stepped into another world. It was my first time unsheltered, away from the embrace of my relatives and in a completely different region and culture to which I was used to whilst holidaying. There were so many unfamiliar signs and symbols that evoked curiosity in me and I craved answers.
Below, I attempt to explain the meaning behind just five of the many signs and symbols found throughout India.
Aum (ॐ) - Aum or om is believed to be the powerful vibration of cosmic creation. It is the sound that the Universe made when it came into creation and it continues to make. If the universe’s breathing could be captured, it would be done through the all encompassing aum. The symbol for aum (which looks like the number three with a curvy tail protruding from its centre) is in fact how it is spelt in Sanskrit. Aum is a sacred mantra which is often chanted at the beginning and at the end of prayers.
Ganesha - Murtis (statues) of all sizes are dedicated to one of Hinduism's favourite Gods - Lord Ganesh. His significance as the remover of obstacles means that he is often prayed to at the start of something so that he will guide us forward. Most residences and offices will have a depiction of Lord Ganesh in painting or sculpted form. Click here to learn about the festival dedicated to Lord Ganesha.
Image: Murti of Lord Ganesha
Swastik - This ancient symbol is a transcultural one and was found throughout Asia and Europe. In India, the origins of the symbol was derived from the Vedas (spiritual text). In Sanskrit, swastik translates to “it is good”. The symbol is an auspicious one for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists.
Image: Aum and swastik side by side
Sindoor/Kumkum - You might notice women with a red mark starting at the forehead on the scalp and going as far back as their hair is parted. This is known as sindoor or kumkum and is a traditional mark of the married woman (and has been since the Harappan civilisation almost 5000 years before) . The sindoor is made from vermillion powder, giving it the bright red hue and making it a visible mark on a woman. It used to be made from more natural ingredients like turmeric and lime. The ritual of putting on the sindoor is said to be a prayer for longevity and good health of the husband. It also activates the chakras in the forehead and crown of a woman and its location (above where the third eye lies) which makes it a channel for the spiritual and mental wellbeing of the wife.
Image: Sindoor and bindi visible on this woman
- Bindi - The bindi is usually placed in between and just above the eyebrows was traditionally painted on carefully using a paste of turmeric and lime juice dried in the sun, but is now more commonly affixed as a sticker. It used to be another sign that a woman was married and was coloured red, but this view (and colour preference) no longer prevails. In Hinduism, the location between the eyebrows is said to contain an important chakra called ajna, meaning “command” or “perceive”. This is the location of the third eye which reflects inwardly into one’s soul and facilitates one’s ability to access their inner guru. This point on the forehead is an outlet for spiritual energy from the lower spine, that is summoned through meditation. It is believed that placing the bindi on this spot helps to retain the divine energy within and control the levels of concentration. It is also the place of convergence for important nerves and blood vessels, which when stimulated, can assist with the release of tension and stress, as recognised in both yoga and acupressure.
What about you? During your travels, have there been any signs or symbols that you have questioned? Please comment below and let us know. We’d love to know what piques your curiosity.