Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Tripundra - Sacred Ash - Shaivite Tilak

The practice of wearing Tilaks dates back to the Rigvedic period. Vedic people used to smear several parts of the body with ashes, ghee, etc. after the conclusion of homa or yagna, which used to be the principal religious ceremony. With the passage of time, the practice of marking tilaks got further segmented with the growth of Shaivite and Vaishnavite cults, and evolved a varied style of texture which marks their own identical entity. The process of marking several parts of the body with tilaks became a customary gesture and symbolic spiritual aspiration too.

Tripundra On His Forehead
Tripundra On His Forehead
Amongst the followers of the Hindu Trinity, Shaivites stand prominent and they mark their body with bhasma and Tripundra tilaks. Bhasma means besmearing the body with ashes and Tripundra tilak is a drawing mainly of three horizontal lines with a bindi or dot in varied sizes, either superimposed or drawn above or below between the two eyebrows. They are made with ashes and sandal paste of varied color temperatures, each associated with particular sect.

Tripundra’ means ‘three marks’ in Sanskrit. ‘Tri’ means three and ‘pundra’ indicates ‘the act of releasing.’ Tripundra also refers to the three mukthis or the souls, three bonds being ‘anava’, ‘karma’ and ‘maya.’ The Tamil word is ‘Pattai’ which refers to the Shivite tilaka. It is used on the forehead as Tripundra, as three horizontal lines representing Lord Shiva. When applied with a red spot in the centre, the mark symbolises the unity of energy and matter that creates the entire seen and unseen universe of Shiva-Shakti.

Tripundra, to those who apply it, is a reminder of the spiritual aims of life, the truth that body and material things shall someday become ash, and that mukti is a worthy goal. Tri means three, pundra means one which is released. There are three horizontal lines of vibhuti (holy ash) on the brow, often with a dot (bindu) as the third eye. Holy ash, usually produced from burnt cow dung, is a reminder of the temporary nature of the physical body and the importance of spiritual attainment and closeness to Shiva (Atman-Brahman). Chapter 2 of Kalagni Rudra Upanishad explains the three lines as various triads: sacred fires, syllables of Om, gunas, worlds, types of atman (Soul), powers, Vedas, the time of extraction of the Vedic drink Soma, and Mahesvara (a form of Shiva).

The first line is equated to Garhapatya (the sacred fire in a household kitchen), the A syllable of Om, the Rajas guna, the earth, the external Atman, Kriyā – the power of action, the Rigveda, the morning extraction of Soma, and Maheshvara.

The second streak of ash is a reminder of Dakshinagni (the holy fire lighted in the South for ancestors), the sound U of Om, Sattva guna, the atmosphere, the inner Atman, Iccha – the power of will, the Yajurveda, midday Soma extraction, and Sadashiva.

The third streak is the Ahavaniya (the fire used for Homa), the M syllable in Om, the Tamas guna, Svarga – heaven, the Paramatman – the highest Atman (Brahman), the power of perception, the Samaveda, Soma extraction at dusk, and Shiva.


Agneyam is taking bath in Vibhuti. It is defined in the Vedas as Agneyam bhasmasnanam. Vibhuti can be worn in Five, Eight, Sixteen or Thirty two places. There are two broad categories of wearing Holy Ash. The first is Uddulanam which means the sprinkling of Vibhuti on the body. The second is Tripundram that is in the three distinct bands. (see above)

FIVE PLACES: Forehead, Two shoulders, Chest, Navel;

EIGHT PLACES: Head, Forehead, Two ears, Two shoulders, Chest, Navel;

SIXTEEN PLACES: Head, Forehead, Two ears, Neck, Two shoulders, Two elbows, Two wrists, Chest, Navel, Two ribs, Back;

THIRTY TWO PLACES: Head, Forehead, Two ears, Two eyes, Nose, Mouth, Neck, Two Shoulders, Two Elbows, Two Wrists, Chest, Two ribs, Navel, Two sides of the groin, Buttocks, Two Urus, Two Thighs, Two Knees, Two Ankles, Two Feet.

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