Decorative in Indian art : jewellery in ancient India

Jewellery has always occupied an important place in the social and cultural life of India. Initially men and women used natural material for beautification of the body like leaves  and flowers followed by beads using other type of material. In course of time, metals like gold  was  used to make ornaments which continues to this day.

The figure of the bronze dancing girl found at Mohenjodaro, one of the Indus valley sites depicts her wearing necklaces and a number of bangles. Gold, silver and ivory, copper, bone, shell and terracotta have all been used to make ornaments. Excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro yielded variety of beads  which were strung together and worn as armlets, bracelets, necklaces and girdles.image001.jpg

Dancing girl, Mohenjodaro, Indus valley civilisation

By Joe Ravi, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Vedic texts make enough references to jewellery and its use to decorate the body. The Ramayana and Mahabharata, India’s great epics describe jewellery elaborately. When Sita daughter of King Janaka gets married to Lord Rama, she is bedecked with ear ornaments, nose ornament, chandrahaar , bracelets, anklets with bells etc. her head ornament the chudamani is believed to have been given to her father by Kubera, the God of wealth himself. Lord Rama wears pearls on his crown, and as ear-rings and around his neck. Yudhistira loses a rare pearl during his gambling game with the Kauravas in the Mahabharata.

Buddhist and Jaina literature mention ornaments. The Jataka tales mention jewellery including those worn by elephants and horses. The Kalpasutras, Jaina texts describe different ornaments.

In ancient India, following the Indus valley times and the Vedic era, the ascendancy of the Mauryan dynasty unified the Indian subcontinent. Trade routes opened and rare and new gems came to India. The Arthshastra written in 3rd century B.C by Kautilya describes jewellery types. Jewellery was worn both by men and women. The yakshi from Didargunj, Patna wears a headband, a pendant, girdle on her waist and anklets. Terracotta figures from this age also depict jewellery. Bharhut, Sanchi, Bodhgaya and Amaravati are attributed to the Sunga and Satavahana phase of Indian history. Their art reveals a variety of ornaments used on head,ears,neck,arms,waist and feet. Motifs were drawn from nature or religion. Short necklaces were called Kanthi and in case it had a large pearl as  a centre-piece it was called sirshak. A necklace having alternate gold and pearl beads was called Apavartika. Ratnavali was a necklace having many gems, pearls and gold beads. Shankhavalayas were made of conch, ratnavalayas set with precious stones, jalavalayas were bracelets with perforations. Mekhala,Kanchi,rasana and sarasana were different type of girdles. Various names have been assigned to anklets such as manjira tulakoti, nupura, padangada,hamsaka and palipada and kinkini for the ones with bells. Trade was prevalent between South India and Rome at the beginning of Christian era and the gold which came in was converted into jewellery. Jewellery of Satavahanas is described in Gathasaptasati written in Prakrit by a ruler. A circular jewel was placed in the centre of the usnisha(turban), kirita(a crown with jewels) was worn too. Women wore the chudamani and the makarika(crocodile shaped jewel) was also very popular. Ear kundalas were in vogue. The phalakahara consisting of gold slabs as very popular among necklaces.

29 Didarganj Yakshi 3bc Patna, at the Patna Museum, Bihar

Yakshi from Didarganj, 3rd century B.C.,Patna, Bihar

By Anandajoti – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


Royal family, Sunga art, 1st century B.C.,West Bengal

By Uploadalt – Own work, photographed at the MET, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The jewellery of Taxila and adjoining townships of Sirkap and Sirsukh have revealed a blend of Indian, Greek, Persian and Greco-Roman in design and form. This is because the city was built and destroyed many times between 500 BC to 500 A.D. by invaders like the Greeks, Mauryas of Magadha, the Bactrian Greeks, the Sakas, the Parthians, the Kushanas and the Huns.

The Sungas replaced the Mauryan dynasty. Bharhut sculptures are seen wearing a variety of ornaments. Ear-rings were termed Karnika or kundala if they were ring shaped. A single string of beads was called ekavali. Armlets were very much in use. Bracelets were also worn, girdles were worn by women. Hair ornaments kept hair in place. Sakas, Parthian and later the Kushanas followed the Sunga rule. This had an impact on the society of ancient India as they came from central Asia and influenced indigenous art and craft of India.


Sunga empire, fertility goddess

By No machine-readable author provided. World Imaging assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Kanishka , a Kushana ruler patronised art and his rule was from Bactria to Magadha and Kashmir to Saurastra. Gandhara was an important centre with Roman influence and the other was Mathura which was purely Indian. Jewellery has been excavated  from Taxila which include gold, copper, bronze pendants, bracelets, bangles and armlets. Kushan  jewellery is evident in the Gandhara and Mathura sculptures. The railing pillars at Mathura depict Yakshi with nupura(anklets), mekhala(girdles), hara(necklace), valaya(bracelets), bangles, ear-rings and finger-rings.


Yakshi from Mathura, Uttar Pradesh

By [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The Gupta empire rose to power in the fourth century which was founded by Chandragupata I with his capital at Pataliputra in 320 A. D. Jewellery ws profusely used. The king wore a kirita or crown. Women wore chudamani and makarika. The Chudamani was a lotus shaped jewel of pearls and precious stones. The makarika was  a fish-crocodile jewel. The poet Kalidasa refers to Ratnajala and Muktajala as hair ornaments. Kundalas of various types including makarakundalas and manikundalas. The ear ornaments were called the karna bhushanas. Patra-kundala was an ear ornament in the shape of tinted cones of coconut or palm leaves.Ekavali, induchhanda,vijayachhanda,devachhanda, guccha were all stringed necklaces. Girdles were called hema. Bangles and bracelets were called valaya, angada and keyura. Nupura and maninupura were anklets. Angulika and manibandhana(ring with jewels were finger ornaments. After 470 A.D. the Gupta power declined. Kumaragupta’s pillar inscription mentions the jewellery worn by women. Gupta coins depict the monarch’s head ornaments. The chandrahara was a lunette shaped flat necklet. Vanamala or vaijayantika was a big garland which was also worn during this period.

     King Harsha came to power in Thanesar in 606 A. D. after the Gupta empire collapsed and gave rise to many local kingdoms. Harsha Charita and Kadambini composed by Banabhatta mentions jewellery which existed at that time.. The king wore a crest jewel and ear-ornament studded with precious stones. Sometimes asymmetrical ear ornaments were worn. The hara or necklace was very popular, usually made of pearls. Necklaces made of gold were inlaid with valuable jewels or tiger claws. The use of Keyura(armlets) was prevalent. Crescent shaped necklaces and long ones knotted in the centre was common. Valaya(bracelets)  were worn on the wrist, also called kankana. Rings were worn on fingers.  Jewel studded girdles were worn on hips and waist.

The Ajanta caves in Aurangabad in Maharashtra date between 2nd century B.C and 7th century A.D. They were Buddhist centres of learning and probably made under the Satavahanas and later the Vakataka dynasty. The paintings reflect the jewellery of the period. Head ornaments, necklaces, armlets,bangles are clearly seen.


 Fresco,  Ajanta caves, Aurangabad, Maharashtra

By Unknown – Unknown, Public Domain,

Chandella period sculptures also depict various ornaments. Women wore a stud of gold or silver in the parting of the hair called bor borla. Sisaphala or rakhdi was shaped like a lotus flower and was used on forehead. Men and women wore ear ornaments like kundalas, balas, phulajhumka and karnaphula. The karnaphulas were star or floral shaped. Necklaces were common with leaf shaped or square pendants held together by a string. Women wore longer necklaces. Kantha and hansuli were other type of necklaces. Among bangles and bracelets heavy cylindrical armlets with beaded borders were used. Kanganas were popular with round beads. Finger rings were worn on thumb and index finger. Mekhala(girdle) was of a single string of beads or made up of a decorative belt with a central clasp worn around the waist. Anklets were made up of beaded strings in single or multiple rows. The courtesans wore kinkinis. Toe rings were worn by both men and women.


Sculpture from Chandella period, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

By Rajenver – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

 The south of India had its own skilled jewellers and ornaments are mentioned in Tamil literature, worn from head to foot. The Pallavas ruled for 300 years and the kings and queens wore crowns, armlets, kundalas etc. Necklaces were inlaid with precious stones. Cholas ruled during 10th to 12th century A.D. and their inscriptions mention jewels gifted to temples in minute detail. The sculptures produced depict ear rings,armlets,waistbands and foot ornaments. Bangles were called gajulu, khadi. Valayas were used on upper arms by men. Bracelets svechitika or barjura were worn. Women wore agrapatta with a circular floral ornament on the forehead called simanta. Hoysala sculptures were ornate and depict different types of ornaments. The Hoysalas ruled from 11th to 14th centuries and built many temples. Vijayanagara kingdom was founded in 1336 by two brothers Harihara and Bukka with capital at Vijaynagar on the southern bank of Tungabhadra river. Travellers’ accounts give descriptions of the jewellery worn by people in the kingdom and mention caps, neck collars,shoulder 8belts,bracelets,armlets,girdles,anklets all set with precious stones. The wealth  of Vijayanagara is legendary and precious stones, gold and diamonds existed in plenty. The kingdom came to an end in 1526 A.D after the battle of Talikota when king Rama Raya lost to the sultans of the Deccan. The court dancers of the period wore hordes of jewellery. Ear ornaments included the kundala, muktodakas made of pearls. Royal women wore Vajragarbha, ear-rings with diamonds in the centre. The head and hair ornaments include baitale bottu, ragate (used on the back of the head) , jadde boovu on the plait,jadde bangara, gold on the plait, nagara, a gold ornament with tiny gold beads, kuchchu, a tassel at the end of plait.Keyura and bhujabhushana were used on arms and shoulders. Necklaces were called hara, ekavali,trivali,chavali,saptavali. Thanaharas covered the entire chest. Navaratna finger-rings were in vogue. Wristlets included kadaga and kankana.Girdles were called katisutras, kanchidhama and vodayana. Chalukyans wore a special ear ornament called sopan krama vinyasta kundala, which covered the whole ear and set with precious stones.

Hoysala period showed gorgeous ,ornate jewellery on the sculptures produced during this period.

 The Kakatiya period sculptures depict head ornaments like the cherrubottu, jalli and bottubilla. Kundalas were big in size. Ekavalis, Sirsaka and Panchaphalakas were necklaces. Keyuras or dandakadiyas were the armlets. Skandamala was shoulder ornament. Women wore heavy anklets and toe rings called mattiyalu.


Chola sculpture, South India

By Thiago Santos – Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as the Goddess Parvati, CC BY-SA 2.0,


Madanika from bracket at  a Kakatiya temple, Telangana

By Varshabhargavi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Hoysala sculpture, Belur, Karnataka

By Nithin bolar k – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


References :

  • H.Clifford Smith/The art of Jewellery; New Delhi :Bharatiya Kala Prakashan,
  • M.L.Nigam/Indian jewellery;New Delhi : Roli Books, 1999.
  • Jamila Brijbhushan/Masterpieces of Indian jewellery; Bombay : D. B Taraporewala and Sons,1983.


Posted by : Soma Ghosh

2 thoughts on “Decorative in Indian art : jewellery in ancient India

  1. Vinod

    Decorating the body seems to be as old as civilization……and the artists and sculptors have done a brilliant job of beautifully freezing them in time. Very nice subject and composition.



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