Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Cowrie Jewelry in India

Not long ago, a Red Camel Facebook page fan asked about the use of cowries in Indian jewelry. This is a great question, and one that I was not overly familiar with. Almost all my research into Indian jewelry has been focused on silver, and it seems that all the research books I have do so as well. It was a bit of a challenge to find anything on this subject! But dig I did, and the results are below.

Cowries as a Form of Currency

Cowries are found in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, the Laccadives and around Zanzibar. They washed up in quantity on the shore and were gathered, and at times were cultivated by the local peoples. Cowries have been used as currency on every continent except Antarctica! Cowries became convenient form of currency because they were small, portable, long-lasting and hard-wearing, mostly uniform in size/shape and were hard to counterfeit. Traders from near the Indian Ocean spread cowries across the ancient world, from China to Eastern Europe. Cowries were used not only as currency, but as personal decoration in India, Africa, the Middle East and all across Asia and Oceana. Cowries were worn in ancient Egypt and have been found in Siberian graves as well as cro-magnon graves in Eastern Europe.

Besides being a small and portable form of money, the cowrie symbolized women in many cultures. The shape of the shells is thought by many to resemble female genitalia and so encompasses the concepts of female sexuality and human fertility. The cowrie is also hermaphroditic which makes it appear to magically self-multiply, contributing to it's use as a fertility symbol. It recalls the basic sexuality of human kind and epitomizes the potency of sex, transcending boundaries of culture, religion and decency. In some cultures, it is also thought of as bearing a resemblance to the human eye, so like the eye bead and mirror, it repels the evil eye and wards off demons. Because of it's almost indestructible nature and it's glossy white surface, the cowrie also came to symbolize immortality.

Because of its associations with sexuality, fertility, wealth, immortality and protection, the cowrie shell is one of the most common and powerful amulets to be found. It is used everywhere and decorates everything from amulets, pendants, jewelry, clothing, household items, musical instruments and animals.

As currency, it has been one of the longest and most widely used forms. Cowries were in use in China as early as 2,000 BC and were used up until 1940 in some areas of Africa. In some eastern parts of India (Bengal and Orissa), they were used up until the 19th century as a form of low value currency.

In India, the use of cowries for exchange gradually diminished with the wider use of metal currency issued by the British. The shells then plummeted in value and were impractical for use as currency. Cowries had always been used for other purposes, but their monetary connotation and ready availability lead to their decorative use as a symbolic display of wealth on the human body, animals or on utilitarian objects.

Cowrie Tassels on Banjara Armlets

Cowries as Personal Adornment in India

There is little written about the use of cowries in Indian personal and tribal adornment in reference works other than in general terms. They are sometimes mentioned as a natural form of adornment and sometimes there is discussion of their powers of protection. Much more, however, is written about the powers and necessity of bodily adornment itself, usually (but not always) framed in terms of precious metal jewelry. In fact, many reference works skip over jewelry composed of other materials completely and concentrate exclusively on that of precious metals. One can hardly blame them. The quantity and variety of gold and silver from India is almost unbelievable.

Indian jewelry and adornment can indicate religion, geographic origin, social and economic status, wealth and marital status. Dowries, both of Hindu and Muslim women,were usually made up of traditional silver or gold and provided by the bride's family. As basic background, until relatively recently Indian women could own only their jewelry as property. Most of her jewelry was provided at marriage and a specific amount, in weight, was proscribed by a written marriage contract. It was her sole material security. All other material wealth was owned by men.

In general the oldest tribal amulets are those found in nature, such as teeth, fur, bones, horns, feathers, shells, seeds, etc. As one of nature's oldest and most treasured amulets, cowries have found their way from coastal areas into the most remote parts of India. These old talismans have been used for over 2,000 years and are still in use by tribal and rural peoples today, especially in the “tribal belt” of India – from the Arabian Sea in the west running through central India to the Bay of Bengal in the east.

All traditional tribal jewelry acts not only to make its wearer beautiful, but also as protection from spirits, the evil eye and misfortune. Bodily adornment provides the most powerfully expressive elements of Indian tribal art, followed closely by domestic adornment. For thousands of years, cowries represented human sexuality, fertility, an eye or female genitalia. Cowries can be attached to almost anything and with the open cleft side visible can be made into attractive, decorative and repetitive patterns. From ancient times cowries were used as animal decoration as well as human, and the custom of adorning valued animals symbolizes human dependence on their stock and the value placed upon cattle, horses and camels. It is little wonder then that the cowrie became a ubiquitous element in tribal art forms.

Naga Warrior

Tribal Groups Using Cowries for Adornment

There are many different Indian tribal peoples that use the cowrie in their jewelry, clothing and everyday items. “Adivasi” is a general name that covers the original small, autonomous groups of rural tribal people found across modern day India who do not necessarily belong to any Hindu, Muslim or Christian religion. All use cowries as elements in personal and household adornment. Generally Adavasi women are equal in rights to men and can choose their own spouse. They do not bring dowries to a marriage.

Banjara tribal people (also known as the Lambada or Lambani) were originally nomads but are now more settled and have become road builders. The women wear magnificently embroidered clothing and heavy silver jewelry, even when doing manual labor. They add cowries to the edges of blouses and hems of skirts as well as incorporating them into tassels and jewelry. The Romany people are said to have come from Banjara forebears. To the Banjara, cowries represent Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. The Banjara women are holding tightly to their ancient modes of dress, which are said to be the most colorful and elaborate of any tribe in India. Much of the modern tribal belly dance costuming tradition originated with Banjara jewelry and textiles.

The Rabari are another well-known tribal group that use cowries in personal adornment. They are camel/livestock breeders, and some still travel the ancient routes between winter and summer areas. Most are now living a more settled life in Gujarat, the Punjab and Rajasthan. The Rabari have their own unique artists' traditions, including fabric stamping, embroidery and applique work. The women pursue embroidery, beadwork and other crafts, and make clothing and household items. Rabari men make animal trappings and bags. These include halters, girths and elaborate neck decorations, called gorbandh, that are decorated with buttons, tassels, mirrors, pendants and cowries. These are made and decorated to beautify and protect their most valuable possessions – their camels! Gorbandh are elaborate, and emcompass halter, bridle and “necklace” all in one, often reaching from the camel's head to it's knees. The Rabari are one of the most photographed tribal groups because of their striking dress and jewelry and their more accessible geographic locations.

One other Indian tribal group I will mention here is the Naga. Originally headhunters from ancient times, the Naga live in the most easterly part of India, on the other side of Bangladesh, in an area appropriately called Nagaland. Ancient Naga culture survived almost intact into the mid-twentieth century, including the practice of headhunting. They were fundamentally self-sufficient in essential needs, and were one of the last groups to be in contact with the British. Their spiritual beliefs tended toward animism, and they practice a primitive and superstition-based religion. There is no evidence of influence by the Hindu or any other outside religion. Most materials for their personal adornment come from local, natural, accessible sources. In this group, cowries are oddly used to denote men of warrior status. Cowrie wristlets represent the drawing of blood. In various configurations, cowries are used on men's loincloths and various personal items. They are not generally associated with women in this culture. For the Naga, cowries are a display of wealth and status.

Obviously the cowrie has a long and rich history in India and across the world. It's staying power is evidenced by the fact that it is still used today to adorn, decorate and beautify it's wearer, whether human or animal. As a renewable resource it is one of the most ecological adornments in use. It has played a large role in and made a great contribution to India's history, both as a currency and decorative element. For tribal people, the use of cowries is such an old tradition that often the original meanings and purposes have often been forgotten and can't easily be explained by their wearers!

Banjara Women in Tribal Finery



Shells as Money

The Adivasi

The Rabari

Naga Culture


Amulets – Sacred Charms of Power and protection by Sheila Paine

Naga Tribal Adornment by Shilu Ao

Tribal Asia-Ceremonies, Ritual and Dress by Robert Schmid and Fritz Trupp

The Splendor of Ethnic Jewelry by France Borel

Ethnic Jewellery-From Africa, Asia & pacific Islands by Oppi Untracht

Traditional Jewelry of India by Oppi Untracht

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