These last few months I have been sporting a tilak. Call it a social experiment, but it wasn’t something I did to gauge public reaction. Every morning or evening, I do a short puja (well, shorter anyway), at the beginning of which I put a sandalwood, ash or vermilion mark between my eyebrows, and I spend the rest of the day unmindful of it. Unmindful, that is, until I step outside.
Why fuss over a mark?
I am a modest practitioner of my faith. I’m no priest or scholar, but I do know a Tilak is supposed to be important for a Hindu. It bestows immense spiritual merit and is essential for an observing Hindu to wear one while doing any rite, solemn or celebratory. The colour, the substance, the shape and the ritual of it comprises an entire culture. It is as important as one’s food if you ask me, the festivals one celebrates and the values one holds dear; in fact, a Tilak can indicate all of that to us and those who happen to see it. There is one every sect, community and family has picked for itself.
Yet I remember a time when there was no concept of a Tilak in my religious life. My father was more diligent in his daily recital of a few pages from Tulasidas’ grand work. Yet he never wore one either. Nor did or gods. Not until we organised a formal puja. It makes sense. My family’s ancestral origins are fuzzy at best, with no knowledge of Kuladevatas, or indeed the sage our Gotra is named after. What little we managed to continue and confer to our young ones is precious to us. Our annual rites too, are of deities nobody can name.
A lot of important pieces of the puzzle we call our culture have been lost and forgotten. A mark of belongingness and pride that was perhaps once worn by every person is conspicuously absent from most of the Hindu world. And as Hindus move abroad, or into big burgeoning cities, sparklingly modern offices and malls with more Indians who look like New Yorkers smiling from billboards and brochures than the number of golgappas in stalls right outside the entrance, but never inside, a Tilak is more something you take a selfie with on Diwali than something you remember your culture with, or your gods, or your family and ancestors.
With this backdrop I went out into the world for a few months, sporting various Tilak marks.
Here is what I learned about others around me
The gentle Indian was usually jolted. Eyes lingered on my forehead, then for a brief moment, their eyes would meet mine. But only briefly. They’d pull away uncommonly fast, perhaps embarrassed, or maybe afraid? Afraid of what, I have asked myself quite a few times after such encounters. But I answer my own query; I already know what, don’t I? The bigger the Tilak, the more startled and embarrassed the viewers became. Small kumkum dots were odd to them, but a full Tripunda was positively nerve-racking!
The second kind of reaction usually came from those I recognise to not be Hindu; sometimes because I know them, or their name, and other times because I can spot articles of their own faith. Their reaction too was forcefully muted. But it was a different kind of suppression, one where I could see their eyes convey one or another emotion I don’t want directed at myself; amusement (for whatever reason), at times disgust, though only a few times, and fear, of what the media has made out colourful powders on the forehead to be.
The third kind of reaction was virtually always from my friends and family. They looked at my forehead with concern. A trans-generational memory of bad consequences of soiling it, perhaps? I can’t say. I’ve never seen a photograph of any elders of any preceding generation wearing any markings.
What I learned about myself
There was a fourth kind of response too. Friends, family and strangers did occasionally appreciate my markings. But in those moments, I was the one who was fearful.
Last night, we were visited by some very dear relatives. I finished puja, and appeared to greet them, my forehead marked across its length by bhasma and kumkum. I didn’t raise my head before them after touching their feet, eager to ensure they didn’t see my odd forehead. They did see the marks on my arms, however. After I came back after vigorously scrubbing away the sacred ash, I was asked why I had washed it away. I had no answer.
My brother’s reluctance to drive me to the market with ash on my forehead is a lesser issue than my own reluctance to wash it away at the first sign of company. Facing crowds perhaps is easier. The space where Hinduism truly survives, and thrives, the space of family bonds and friendship, has been violated by this fear of being seen as a Hindu. It perhaps explains why, at work or with friends or extended family, my tilak has been just a speck of kumkum at a position where it stays hidden by the rim of my spectacles. It explains why I have rushed to smear water on my forehead after my daily prayers while out on vacations. I don’t want my young siblings and nephews to appear Hindu. Bad things happen to those who do. A tilak in India can mean odd looks, causing loved ones concern, and being forced to confront a history unspoken of, sometimes even traditions of resistance that wouldn’t sit well with our dominant narratives.
And so, I have carried a bit of consecrated kumkum in my bag to work and on vacations, but my forehead stays naked. My forehead is afraid, and so I must instate a pride.
(Our actions are political expressions, and the act of not wearing a Tilak was a political expression perhaps coerced out of our ancestors. I must, then, express my freedom to wear it, whenever I can.)