Indian Marriage Necklace – Research Paper

This paper is a study to further research “Marriage Necklace” kalata uru/thail C: 19th century, Indian, gold, approximately 1’x2’, currently shown at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. The study will cover the classification of this type of art as a whole, the technique in which it was created, the artists who created this type of art, its cultural history, iconography, mythology, and compare it to other works made during the time of its creation.

This thickset necklace is made of thirty over-sized gold pendants arranged symmetrically along a stout black cotton cord. Five pendants are large hand shaped, highly ornate forms that hang on the front breast area of the necklace. Two pendants are geometrically shaped mirror imaged cones that counterweight the necklace on the back area. Dividing the front pendants, arranged in pairs, are twelve smaller less defined cylindrical pendants that have a file like texture. All pendants are clasp to the black cord giving them a defined direction to face rather than freely hanging.

The focal point of the necklace is one of the five hand shaped pendants that hangs in the center on the front breast area of the necklace. This comb-like central pendant of solid gold is worked in repousse and depicts the Hindu god Shiva and his companion Parvati on the bull Nanki in front of a shrine. The relief design of the pendent allows red foil to show through from behind this scene. Above, green copper alloy backs more relief of antelope and birds, this detailed repousse work is characteristic of south Indian Jewelry.

In Indian culture all women wear jewelry as a fundamental part of their wardrobe and as a sign of respectability. Jewelry has great importance; it signifies status, marks rituals of life and identity, awards decency, and presents a social background and stage in life. As a protection from misfortune it acts as a store of wealth, and as a medium of prayer it has an association with religion, fortune, and health.

This piece of jewelry known as kalata uru meaning “neck bead” also called a thali was the ceremonial Kazhutthuru necklace from the mercantile Nattukottai Chettir community. Originally this thali was worn by a bride, as a gift from her new husband, during special festival occasions at a Chettiar marriage ceremony, a smaller version was also presented to be worn daily. For a Chettiar marriage a woman’s dowry is an important role through which jewelry was rendered between families, a bride can expect to receive a certain amount of jewelry from her in-laws. The gold used to make the complex marriage necklaces such as this one is given by the bride’s family; except for that used for the central pendant, which is provided by the groom’s family.

The thali central pendant was a key factor to the wedding ceremony in that it not only symbolized a blessing from the sun god Suyra it also had spiritual powers to establish a unity between the newly wed bride and groom. Although a Chettiar wedding could take place without the central pendant it was looked upon as a horrible insult to the bride’s family, therefore making it crucial for the groom to present a pendant for the thali that was unique in its own.

The smaller daily worn version of the thali known as a mangalsutra is greatly reduced with only a selection of gold pieces rather than the full set of thirty that are worn during the marriage ceremony. Pendants are added to the mangalsutra upon different ritual happenings, each of these pendants has a symbolic meaning, such as fame, education, strength or success. Pendants are also added after the sacred fire, and after conception.

Once this jewelry is in the bride’s possession it is known as stridhan or “women’s wealth”, it belongs solely to the bride and remains an uninfringeable source of financial security for her. In times of trouble the bride could support herself by selling the pendants from it, if not used the stirdhan is inherited by her children. This particular thali actually lacks one pendant. The pendant missing would have been a large elaborate bead representing the foot of Krishna. It is debatable whether a bride sold this pendant during a time of crisis, passed the pendant on to a child, or if this thali was ever completed for a marriage ceremony.

The technique in which this thali was made has features from early nineteenth century Europe as well as highly proficient techniques that are unique to the Indian subcontinent. During this period some of the most extensive innovations in craft of gold were created by Indian goldsmiths, some of these skills are still used around the world today. Goldsmiths held high ranking status in the hereditary caste system within the Sudra group of the social categories of India. Out of all metalworkers the status of a goldsmith attributed ritual purity. Goldsmiths worked on the floor of unadorned workshops using simple, sometimes makeshift, tools with which they produced works of great skill and ingenuity. A goldsmith was not only a metal smith, but also worked as an engraver, to mark the pattern of the design to be produced, a chaser, to hollow out the areas that were to be enameled and precious stones to be set, and an enameller, to hatch the surface and fuse colored glass to the piece, and on occasion an artist for creating the design of the jewelry.

Compared to other works of jewelry of the nineteenth century this ceremonial Kazhutthuru thali is renowned for not only its legendary cultural history but also its exquisite craftsmanship of its time of production. For the last century Upper-class Hindu families have hired goldsmiths to model thalis for their own personal wedding ceremonies, mimicking the Kazhutthuru thali. It has suggested that this thali is as important to India as the royal queens crown is to England.

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