Pulling on ancient India’s legacy of women’s wear and chastity into contemporary temple dance wear


Caveat: my reflections are interpretive

One of my favorite how-to books is “Saris: An illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping” photo(2)
by the inimitable Chantal Boulanger who did extensive research traveling all over India documenting fast-disappearing draping practices.

I grew up with my grandmother pouring over photographs of beautiful temple sculptures. Part of my obsession today with ancient Indian women’s wear is the stories she planted in my impressionable mind about how much more open and relaxed women’s wear used to be a long time ago and how women’s beauty was celebrated without policing her sexual behavior.

Didu once pointed to an image and recalled a line of ancient poetry describing a nymph of a maiden – “her breasts so full and proud, not even a bee could pass through on its way to nectar.” She helped me to understand the woman’s breasts, while erogenous, were openly bared; however, it was her thighs that were to be kept covered at all times. Peer closely at the video below 😉

Chantal Boulanger writes on this eloquently:

“Educated Indians are nowadays only too eager to pretend that their womenfolk have always been as puritanical as they are supposed to be today. They associate nudity with the loose morals attributed to Westerners. They have fully adopted the views of Moslems and Victorian Britons that the only way to control sexuality is to hide women’s body.

This was not the case in Ancient India. Indian society then was by no means permissive. Chastity was an essential value, but so was self-control. Women did not feel the need to cover their breasts, and often wore very transparent clothes. It was normal, accepted by everybody and did not have any immortal connotation.
Modern Indians will have to deal will the fact that their ancestors did not think that breasts should be hidden, even though it was thought a sensuous part of the body (in women and Men). According to ancient Indian literature, not many parts of the body have no appeal. Descriptions of even chaste women go down from the elegance of the parting of their hair to the beauty of their toenails.
The chaste and virtuous wife does not have to cover her beauty. The power of her chastity is enough to protect her, even though her perfect body is indeed sexy. In fact, men more often than women used their mundanai to cover the upper part of their body. We might think that since they are never chaste, their bare chest could be attractive. In ancient Tamil poems, desire often arises in women as they watch the muscular breasts of warriors.”

I want to reflect on these two lines from Chantal’s text:
1. The power of [a woman’s] chastity is enough to protect her

The power of [a woman’s] chastity would conceivably, when questioned, be defended by her own word. This indicates women were respected, or atleast there was a practice of respect for women back in those days. This also implies she has license to explore her sexuality with certain degrees of freedom because she determined whether she was chaste or not. Chastity then takes on an alternate meaning here. Chastity may not necessarily mean virginity exclusively, and instead may imply, sexual discipline.

2. We might think that since [men] are never chaste, their bare chest could be attractive.

Genderism must have existed since the dawn of time. It’s how it has existed in its different forms and evolved over time that is fascinating to me. Even in ancient India there was a context whereby men had license to be promiscuous, but according to this text, it seemed customary that they would cover themselves to avoid drawing the attention of women having temporary trouble maintaining sexual discipline 😉 Completely the opposite of “cover up the women” cultures of today.