The Function of Ornamentation

Found this wonderful article (link below) on ritual ornamentation (Alankara) while doing some research. Highly recommended. I will probably use it both as a reference and assign it in classes on sacred art.

Key takeaway, barely mentioned but very significant:

“In temples, the decoration of the deity is believed not only to create a beautiful image but also to act as protection against the raw power of the “naked” deity.”

This is why naked goddesses (like Ma Kali) are considered simultaneously benevolent AND dangerous. Why it is so common to see wrathful goddess in temples so utterly swathed in silks, flowers, and jewelry that her body is completely hidden and one can barely make out her face, hands, and feet! The temple priests are performing a service for visitors, mitigating the intensity of the deity’s blessing-power or “gaze” (Darshana) for viewers.

This is also why it is inauspicious to view deities unornamented, out of context, lacking any offerings, as we would see them in a museum.

“Alankara is a long and venerated tradition in Hindu ritual, one of the sixteen upachara, or rites of devotion. As Cynthia Packert argues in in her study of images of Krishna in Braj, skillful decoration of the deity with clothing, flowers and ornamentation is an act of loving adoration (2010). As Urmila Mohan notes, devotees often form a personal bond with the deity based on the dress and ornamentation (2015). Scholars argue that for devotees, these acts of adorning the divine express their affection for the deity and the express divine spiritual perfection.”

So if you have an altar at home, if you have the statue of a deity you love, try draping your beloved with a bit of cloth, some beads or a bracelet, maybe a few flowers. It’s both an affectionate act of service AND a rite of protection.

This said, it strikes me that this scholar seems to lack a basic comprehension of ornamentation beyond it’s cultural significance and what we might call the religious or superstitious motives. It is not recognized as a functional aspect of rites to invoke a living power that has a palpable effect on the consciousness and subtle body of devotees. This is common among scholars (both in India and beyond) who seek to avoid a perceived conflict of interest by validating (or participating in) the beliefs of those whom they write about.