Spiritual markings on the forehead - tilakas and bindis

Spiritual Markings on the Forehead – Tilakas & Bindis

In THOUGHTS by Bhakti KulmalaLeave a Comment

Chances are you’ve seen pictures of Indian sadhus {holy men} with horizontal white lines across their forehead… dedicated yogis or monks with yellowish vertical lines from nose to the hairline… Priests doing a puja {worship ceremony} with a big red dot between their eyes… Indian ladies with their sari dresses and black or red dots on their forehead… Western hottie yoginis with hula hoops and bright, sparkling jewelry looking little ensembles on their forehead… All these, my friend, are called tilakas and bindis.

Indian woman with bindi

Even the baby has a bindi for auspiciousness and protection against bad spirits 

What are bindis?

Let’s start with bindis because they’re simpler. Bindi means ‘drop’. Indian women traditionally haven’t worn a wedding ring like we in the west do as a sign of marriage – they wear a touch of red dye (kunkuma or vermilion) on their forehead. Sometimes people think it’s a caste system thing but it’s more of a social thing and a lovely, heartwarming little daily ritual actually ~ that was my experience in India as a married person. It’s nice to broadcast your love like that :) It also represents the feminine goddess energy, and offers protection against negativity.

Vanessa Hudgens - bindi

Actress Vanessa Hudgens with a big center bindi & smaller bindis above her brows

Outside of India, you can see people who identify with yoga, eastern philosophies or religions wearing bindis too. They’re usually not the typical red dots, and not paint, but elaborate stickers with colorful sparkling little bits, swirly shapes, and so on. I wear these pretty often just because they’re beautiful ~ and it doesn’t hurt that they kind of signify the third eye, which ads a nice mystical touch to your day and can make a girl (or boy!) feel a little magical. Which is always splendid, no?

Shiva's worshiper Shaivite Sadhu at Varanasi - What are tilakas?

Shiva Follower’s Tilaka Marking with Three Horizontal Lines

What are tilakas?

Tilaka means ‘mark’. It’s worn on the forehead or elsewhere on the upper body as a sign of surrender – marking your body as a temple for a specific deity. For example, if the tilaka is V-shaped or has two or more vertical lines, it denotes devotion to Vishnu or Krishna, applied with chandana which is a mixture of clay, sandalwood paste and fragrances. Followers of Shiva wear a tilaka with three horizontal signs often applied with ashes, and sometimes a red dot in the middle, symbolizing Shiva’s third eye. Worshippers of Devi or the goddess Kali wear an all red marking made with kunkuma or a red powder.

What are tilakas - spiritual markings on the forehead

Sadhus giving their blessings with their raised palms


There are also variations in tilaka shape among the followers of the same deity. For example, to differentiate between slightly different philosophies among Vaishnavas, followers of Vishnu, there are all these tilakas:

Spiritual markings on the forehead - Vishnu tilakas - for Vaishnavas

And among one tradition of Vaishnavism, Gaudiya Vaishnavism, there are following various tilakas:

Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya tilakas

It’s a kind of a science! All in all, applying tilaka every morning is a super auspicious act of humility and surrender. You can do it with water if you don’t want to have an actual marking on your forehead. There are tilakas for different parts of the body too, not just forehead. The Padma Purana refers to this and describes the effect of wearing a tilaka and neckbeads made with sacred tulasi and lotus seed beads:

Persons who put tulasi beads on the neck, who mark twelve places of their body as Vishnu temples with Vishnu’s symbolic representations [the four items held in the four hands of Lord Vishnu-conch, mace, disc and lotus], and who have Vishnu tilaka on their forehead, are to be understood as the devotees of Lord Vishnu in this world. Their presence makes the world purified, and anywhere they remain they make that place as good as Vaikuntha [spiritual realm where Vishnu lives].

Sadhu with Vaishnava tilaka

Sadhu with a Vaishnava tilaka and hand in a bag that holds his mala meditation beads

Spiritual tilaka marking on the forehead

Goddess Kali worshipper’s red tilaka or tika

Vaishnava tilaka on a kid - spiritual markings on the forehead

Little Krishna devotee with Tulasi tree neckbeads and chandan sandalwood tilaka

Sadhu with tilaka and mantras

Vaishnava sadhu with Sanskrit mantras across his face

Tilaka’s Ultimate Purpose

The ultimate purpose of a tilaka is to sanctify your body and wear a tilaka as a reminder of your surrender. Tilaka is an auspicious, spiritual symbol of your love & respect to the deity you worship, and a daily reminder to treat your body as God’s temple and, accordingly, use it in divine service.

Bindis – cultural appropriation?

With bindis, the “ultimate purpose” gets a little hazy. Motivations for wearing a bindi range from sharing your social status as a married person to showing off the sparkling new forehead jewelry purchase from your local headshop. And that’s ok – there is no detailed philosophy behind bindi-wearing (that I’m aware of) like there is for tilakas. You know how it is seen as cultural appropriation when white, non-Native American people wear ‘sexy Pocahontas’ costumes for Halloween… Or intricate Native feather headpieces in a lingerie photo shoot? Yeah, that’s not cool. BUT,  you don’t have to worry about cultural appropriation with bindi-wearing – you won’t offend a Hindu if you wear one. Whereas tilakas make people ask you questions like ‘What does it all mean????’, in my experience bindis just make people smile – Indian, American, Finnish, all of us :)

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