Hindu Tradition of the Tilak.
When I dress up in my Indian outfits sporting colourful bindis on my forehead, I sometimes get asked, “What is the significance of that?” but mostly I am told how beautiful it is, and so Indian.
The bindi or tika, like the saree, is unmistakably Indian. You see it everywhere…on the streets of India, in the movies, in travel books.… so much so that it is often thought of as an Indian tradition.
However, only the Hindus in India apply the tilak ( Sanskrit Tilaka or ‘mark’ ).
Traditionally Hindu women wore a vermillion bindu or dot on their foreheads to indicate they were married. Today the bindi sports many colours, comes in various shapes and sizes and is used as a fashion statement. However, it still remains an important symbol of marriage.
The vermillion powder (kumkum) is considered auspicious and may be applied to men too during religious festivals or rituals and on special occasions like birthdays and weddings. In the olden days when the men went into battle and even today when a soldier leaves home on duty, or a man leaves home on a long journey a lamp is lit and tilak is applied on his forehead for his safe return.
Priests in temples also apply tilaks to both men and women as a sign of the deity’s blessing.
Tilak marks are applied by the thumb or ring finger of the right hand and may also be made of ash from a sacrificial fire (bhasma), sandalwood paste ( chandan) or turmeric.
Sadhus or holy men and some devout householders wear the tilak everyday. Often this is just a smear of paste, but other times it is more precise and elaborate, indicating the person’s sectarian affiliation.
Saivites (followers of Shiva) wear a tilak of three horizontal lines across the forehead, with or without a red dot. Sometimes a crescent moon or trident is included. The devotees of Shiva usually use sacred ashes for their tilaks.
Among Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu), the many tilak variations usually include two or more vertical lines resembling the letter U, which symbolizes the foot of Vishnu. There is sometimes a central line or dot. Most Vaishanative tilaks are made of sandalwood paste.
The worshippers of the goddess Devi or Shakti apply kumkum.
In addition to its religious symbolism, the tilak has spiritual importance too for the Hindu. The point between the eyebrows is the seat of the ajna chakra and represents the third eye – the seat of intuition. The process of applying the tika is said to stimulate this point and increase awareness and psychic powers.
The tilak also has a cooling effect on the forehead and this can assist in concentration and meditation.