Category Archives: Indian Hair Comb

Sikhs and Sikh Combs

An important comb type, little publicised and infrequently encountered, is a notable feature of the orthodox Sikh community whose peoples, now dispersed throughout the world, originated mainly from the Punjab State of north-west India, bordering on Pakistan. This is a territory through which the 5 tributaries of the river Indus flow – the word Punjab signifies “the land of the 5 rivers”. Amritsar is the state capital, their language is Punjabi.

The term Sikh is derived from the Sanskrit word Shiksh meaning “to learn”; in Punjabi, it is translated as Disciple.[1] A Sikh initiated into the Khalsa is regarded as an “orthodox” Sikh, belonging to the community of Amritdhari. Founded by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, he gave Khalsa Sikhs five distinguishing marks of identity, the five sacred K’s or Panj Kakke, and a code of conduct setting them apart from other groups and requiring them to live pure lives.[2]

According to a post on Beard Gains, men are barred from cutting any body hair or beard – Kesh – and expected to wear a turban; to wear a Kachh, a pair of shorts (underpants), as part of the required clothing; a Kara, a bangle of steel or iron, to be worn on the right wrist and a Kirpan – a short dagger, a sword with curved blade, or a knife of similar shape – always to be carried on the body; a Khanga (Kanga) comb worn in the hair under the turban to hold the topknot of the Kesh in place, symbolising personal hygiene and cleanliness in body and spirit.

2016 - Sikh Khanga combs in wood [for BS] 2

Before putting on his turban, the Sikh plaits his hair into one long braid, winding it up and securing it on the top of the head. Into this the comb is inserted for safe keeping. Women are expected to observe a similar but modified code and may have a Khanga attached with a black cord tucked under a bun. The tradition is, however, tending to die out in recent generations.

2016 - Sikh Khanga combs in wood [for BS] 1

A Khanga comb is a small grooming tool having a distinctive shape with the ‘shoulders’ usually sloping sharply downwards from a rounded or squared top edge. The small teeth are fine cut or sawn, mostly by hand. In many cases, the guard teeth are angled outward at the lower tip. These combs were made in wood, ivory and rhino tusk or in buffalo horn but not cattle horn.

The combs measure between 1 ½ -2 ¾ ins (4-7 cm) in width and 1 ¼ -1 ¾ ins (3.5-4.3 cm) in depth. The illustrated combs are all dating to the later 20th C although the 3 small ivory examples are much earlier.

2016 - Sikh Khanga combs in ivory [for BS]

1. Srinivasan, Radhika. Cultures of the World: India. Times Books International, Singapore. 1994 [p.72]

2. A Popular Dictionary of Sikhism: Sikh Religion and Philosophy (Popular Dictionaries of Religion) 1 New edition by Cole, W. Owen, Sambhi, Piara Singh (1997) Paperback Cole, W.Owen. and Sambhi, Piara Singh. Curzon Press, Richmond, Surrey. 1990/1997 [p.90]

Jen Cruse is author of the authoritative reference The Comb: Its History and Development

Indian Combs of Love and Perfume

One day in 1819, an Indian tiger noticed a party of British hunters. They were obviously lost and thirsty, so the tiger led them to a cave where there was water and went on his way. The Western Ghat mountains near Maharashta can be hard to navigate.

What the hunters found were the painted caves of Ajanta.

Thirty-one of them had been dug into an arc of solid rock. Masterpieces of pre-sectarian Buddhist painting covered the walls. The oldest dated to 200 BC. They told the Jataka stories about the previous lives of the Buddha, from a resolve to give up all worldly goods to “The Turtle Who Couldn’t Stop Talking” to courtship scenes in Indian pleasure gardens.

Mahajanaka renouncing the worldly life, from the Mahajanaka Jataka. 7th century, Ajanta Caves, India

The images were intended for monks, who did not find them inappropriate. Buddha is seen in a courtly environment after his Enlightenment. Love-lorn princesses languish. Courtesans are shown nude but for their jewels. The famous 5th Century playwright Kalidasa wrote, “I recognize your body in liana; your expression in the eyes of a frightened gazelle; the beauty of your face in that of the moon, your tresses in the plumage of peacocks… alas! Timid friend- no one object compares to you.”

Mural of a garden courtship scene

The two-peacock theme spread to many cultures, as Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Persian art mixed in India and developed a complementary aesthetic.

In 185 BC, Pushyamitra Shunga, a Brahman from Magadha founded the Shunga Empire in Northwest India after assassinating the previous Buddhist emperor. Although he is accused of persecuting Buddhists, historians have not been able to prove it conclusively. However, during his reign, Buddhism spread to Kashmir, Gandhara and Bactria. The Creative Museum has an ivory comb from the Shunga Empire (without tines) featuring a goddess.

Also from the Shunga Empire comes this ivory comb from the Cleveland Museum of Art. It is in the style of Chandraketugarh, an archeological site 21 miles from Kolkata in Northwest India. The comb features two goddesses and two peacocks on either side of them, facing each other.

Some of the greatest Hindu combs were carved in 18th Century Karnataka in Southwest India under the leadership of the Nayakas of Keladi after the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire in 1565. Religious tolerance was also a hallmark of India’s late medieval period.

Residing in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is the divine herdsman Krishna and his favorite consort Radha. Some Hindu sects worship the Radha Krishna, as the masculine and feminine aspects of God.

On this ivory comb, Krishna and Rahda tend to four sacred cows beneath their pedestal. He plays the flute and is portrayed as a model lover, while various consorts hold a parasol, fly whisk, fan, and scepter. The bottom section of the comb features five female musicians. On the back is Ganesh, the god of good fortune.

Susan L. Beningson was hired as Assistant Curator of Asian Art at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013. Her collection of Indian Jewelry was featured in an exhibition, “When Gold Blossoms,” which toured the country. She also has ivory masterpieces from 18th Century Karnataka in the last decades of Nayaka rule.

This comb portrays Krishna and Rahda in an amorous embrace, on top of which are two golden peacocks holding a vessel with a ruby knob.

This is another two-peacock ivory comb from Karnataka.

from Kajetan Fiedorowicz

These two combs from the Susan L. Beningson collection come from Madurai, a city south of Karnataka in the state of Tamil Nadu. Ruling from the 16th- to 18th Centuries, the Madurai Nayakas had royal workshops and were credited with massive restructuring work, which spurred economic growth and led to the formation of many new towns. They also developed trade and earned the protection of artisans and merchants.

In this 18th century ivory and gold comb, Krishna is dancing and holding a butterball, two of his most popular portrayals. A scalloped frame surrounds him.

Here, two gold peacocks observe you with ruby eyes, while coral beads hang at the sides.

The Mughal Empire in the North of India was Muslim with a Persian ethos. It ruled over Northern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan from 1526-1857. The Mughals had a centralized government that included members of different religions in their ruling elites. This brought about a cultural mix in art and architecture, containing Muslim, Hindu, Turkic, and Persian cultures, most notably Shah Jehan’s Taj Mahal.

An 18th century two-peacock comb from the North was lighter and more delicate than the combs in Tamil Nadu. This ivory one was sold at Sotheby’s.

This 18th Century silver comb, which is hollow to contain perfume, has two silver knobs and is decorated with the face of a warrior Sultan and his consort.

Kajetan Fiedorowicz

In the first half of the 19th Century, to the West near the Persian border, 18th Century courtly scenes were painted on ivory combs. However, they portrayed sultans, as opposed to Krishna and Rahda.

Kajetan Fiedorowicz

The Creative Museum

In 1805, the British East India Company took power from the Mughal Empire, relegating the Sultans to nominal rulers used for colonial domination. In 1857, the Sepoy Mutiny was repressed, and two years later, the Mughal Empire went out of existence. In 1858, the British East India Company transferred all powers to the Crown.

To pre-Colonial Indians, there was no association of women with sin, no Eve or snake or apple. However, the British, especially Christian missionaries, were horrified at temple walls decorated with “much immodest, heathen-style fornication and other abominations.”

That is when combs started to look like this parcel-gilt silver peacock comb. It was made in Northern India in the early 20th Century. The comb is hollow for the internal well of perfume, and the base has small holes, so the perfume can drip to the teeth and then into the hair.

The Michael Backman Gallery, formerly the Jen Cruse collection

However, artists slip in miracles when no one is looking.

From the Museum of Fine Arts Houston comes this gold comb of lions with ruby eyes from the late 19th to early 20th century.

We are all lucky that art was preserved from societies that practiced religious and cultural tolerance, for then artists were free to combine diverse elements and create extraordinary pieces. Once government becomes intolerant and blind, like the British who wanted to make all the world England, imagination shuts down. People just find an acceptable design and make copies.

Postscript: I would like to thank Kajetan Fiedorowicz, without whom I could not have written this piece.

The Sarpech of Mughal India

At the First Battle of Panipat, on 21 April 1526, Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur founded the Mughal Dynasty. He was absorbed in the ethos of Persian culture, even through he was a Turkic-Mongol, descending from Genghis Khan on his mother’s side.

However, instead of repressing different cultures under its domain, the Mughal Empire accommodated them and collaborated with different ruling elites such as the Marathas, Rajputs, and Sikhs. This created relative peace and economic expansion during the 16th Century. The Mughal Empire reached its peak in 1700 with their sixth emperor, Aurangzeb, a pious Muslim.

The Mughal Empire during the reign of Aurangzeb c. 1700

Men’s turban ornaments were called Sarpech, “sar” meaning head front; “pech” for screw. They were given to the elite as gifts from the Emperor and inserted into the side of a turban. A turban’s jeweled plumes indicated royal status. The most popular motif was a large flowering plant. It could be found on everything from textile wall-hangings to jewelry. In addition, 17th Century ornaments had only one upward projecting unit.

Two Mughal pieces from the late 17th/early 18th Centuries: embroidered wall-hanging, Sotheby’s; sarpech, Victoria and Albert Museum

Here are some other magnificent examples of 18th Century single-plume turban ornaments from Jaipur in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

This sarpech is made of nephrite jade, gold inset with rubies, emeralds, topaz, gold foil, rock crystal and pearl. c. 1700-1750.

This gold and enamel sarpech was made by court jewelers c. 1700.

In West Bengal, a pair of jewels were made for the male turban. They were worn in the center instead of the side. In 1755, the pair was presented as a gift to Admiral Charles Watson by Nawab Mir Ja’far, whom he installed after the Battle of Plassey because Ja’far would not threaten the interests of the British East India Company.

From Murshidabad, India, a district of West Bengal, this painting depicts Nawab Alivardi Khan seated on a terrace in conversation with his nephews Nawaziah Muhammad Khan (Shahamat Jang) and Sa’id Ahmad Khan (Saulat Jang) and his grandson Siraj ud-daula, all wearing plumes in their turbans. It was made of opaque watercolor and gold on paper, c. 1750.

Finally, this magnificent sarpech was made from enameled gold in the royal workshops of Jaipur c. 1800-1850. Given that the Hindu deity Krishna is associated with the peacock, the ornament might have been made to adorn an image of Krishna, rather than for a ruler to wear. Paintings of Krishna also depict him wearing ornaments in this form.

The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II, was deposed by the British and exiled to Burma following India’s First War of Independence in 1857. The British government then assumed formal control of the country.


For more scholarly research, please examine our Resource Library and these books:

Maharajas’ Jewels

Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals

Traditional Jewelry of India

Plumes: The Creative Museum at the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Asie

In its second collaboration with the Museum of African and Asian Arts in Vichy, The Creative Museum has been invited to participate in the exhibition, PLUMES.

Human fascination with birds begins when their freedom of flight captures our imaginations. We watch birds soar and glide freely, as their beautiful, feathered wings catch gusts of air. Can we explore birds’ connection to the human soul in other cultures?

The exhibition PLUMES investigates five civilizations: India, China, the Ivory Coast, Papua New Guinea, and North America to show how art reflects human reverence for each culture’s emblematic bird.

Click on the image to go to the exhibition

From India: The peacock is India’s national bird and holds an important place in Hindu epic poetry and mythology. In Rajasthan’s miniature paintings, peacocks provide companionship to wistful nayikas. They are heroines in the Natya Shastra, written by Bharata, c. 100 BC. The Creative Museum’s silver-gilded comb comes from Rajasthan. The well contains perfume, which drips into the user’s hair, and is adorned with two peacocks.

From China: Tian Tsui is the art of cutting and gluing the kingfisher bird’s iridescent blue feathers to gilt silver. The feathers are so small, it is a painstaking task. The term literally means “dotting with kingfishers” and has been a traditional Chinese art for 2000 years. The Creative Museum’s magnificent diadem uses tian tsui. The flowers are topped with three symbolic child figures with painted bone faces.

From the Ivory Coast: The hornbill kaloa bird is the mythological founder of the Senoufo people. One opportunity for young tribal men is to join the Poro Society, a school where most carvings and masks are made. Statues combine human and animal elements. The bird’s horned beak is elongated, as it touches the fertilized, swollen belly. This comb from The Creative Museum shows the beak-belly relationship, as a man wears a kaloa-bird mask, perhaps for an initiation ceremony.

From Papua New Guinea: The Dani People from the Highlands have a fable. Once, a snake and a bird engaged in a great race to decide the fate of human beings. If the snake won, men would shed their skins and live forever. If the bird won, men must die. The bird won. The Creative Museum’s male headdress from the Dani is made of cassowary bone and feathers, crocodile claws, and warthog teeth. It was most likely worn by a warrior.

From North America: The Tlingit are an indigenous tribe who live along the Pacific Northwest coast: now Oregon and Washington in the USA; British Columbia in Canada. Modern-day Tlingit also live in Alaska. Before Christian conversion, they were animists. Their totem poles narrated stories, legends, and myths. The Tlingit have raven clans and eagle/wolf clans. As the eagle’s beak is curved, The Creative Museum’s bone hair pin with a totem pole eye probably belonged to an eagle-clan shaman.

With these five distinct cultural interpretations, The Creative Museum’s contribution to the Plumes exhibit at the Museum of African and Asian Arts in Vichy shows how bird mythology lives on in headdresses around the world.


For more scholarly research, please examine our Resource Library and The Creative Museum’s publications and these books:

Kingfisher Blue: Treasures of an Ancient Chinese Art

Powerful Headdresses: Africa and Asia

Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment

Headdresses of Ladakh

Between the Kunlun and Himalayan mountains, in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir lies the kingdom of Ladakh. Its capital, Leh, was an important stop on the trade route between Buddhist Tibet to the east and Muslim Kashmir to the west. It was also important to merchants traveling between India and China.

The region is famous for its mountain monasteries, which practice the Vajrayana sect of Mahayana Buddhism. This picture of the Lumyaru Monastery between Leh and Srinagar, Kashmir was taken by Kevin Kelly.

In the Thiskey monastery,

they have one of the most beautiful Maitreya Buddah statues in the world.

In the book, Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment, author Truus Daalder introduces us to two stunning headdresses from Ladakh.

The first is a “woman’s head ornament of flexible leather spokes and strands of coral and turquoise beads (chodpan)” from Ladakh, India, which was made in the early 20th Century. It is made of “coral, turquoise, amber, silver, and leather.”

The second is “old and unusual woman’s headdress in the shape of a perak,” a leather strap studded with stones such as lapis lazuli and turquoise. The perak also displays amulets of Ladakh deities to protect the woman from danger in the human world. They were only worn by the aristocracy and women of high economic status.

This is the perak from Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment. It has “turquoise, 7 silver amulet attachments, a textile base, cowries, amber and other beads.”

This perak resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Silver chains were only worn on special occasions. The stones on this headdress include turquoise, seed pearls, coral, and brass plaques representing the deities.

Here is an aristocratic woman wearing one.


For more scholarly research, please examine

Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment

Sotheby’s: Indian Mughal Comb

This ivory comb was made in North India, as the Mughal Empire reached the height of power in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The dynasty was founded in 1526 by Persian Sunni Muslims of Turkish-Mongol descent, hence the name, Mughal. The empire included Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and North India, among other lands. Condition: Perfect. Sale price: 15,000 GBP on May 31, 2011.


The Mughal Empire (The New Cambridge History of India)

Museum Combs: Egypt, New Zealand, India, and Germany

I would like to feature four museum combs today. The first comes from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It belonged to the King Wadj, whose name means serpent. His tomb was found near the ancient city of Abydos. He was the third King of the First Egyptian Dynasty and ruled c. 2920 BC. In the comb’s carvings, you can see two serpents.

Our next work was made by Maori master Patoromu Tamatea. This bone Heru comb resides in New Zealand’s Museum of Wellington’s City & Sea under the collector’s, instead of the artist’s name.

Next are two marvelously shaped combs from the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum in South India. Both were made from the 18th to 19th Centuries.

And last is a breathtaking liturgical comb, which belonged to Saint Heribert (970 – 1021). He was Archbishop of Cologne (Köln) and considered a saint in his lifetime. Pope Gregory VII canonized him c. 1074. This crucifixion comb is one of the prizes in Köln’s Schnütgen Museum and was made in the second half of the 9th Century.


For more scholarly research, please examine

Pharaohs Of The First Dynasty Of Egypt, including: Menes, Narmer, Qa’a, Djer, Hor-aha, Djet, Den (pharaoh), Merneith, Anedjib, Semerkhet, Ancient Egyptian Boats (first Dynasty) – Abydos

Carved Histories: Rotorua Ngati Tarawhai Carving

Pune Culture, including: Kasba Ganapati, Sawai Gandharva Music Festival, Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum, Culture Of Pune, Sudarshan Rangmanch, Dagadusheth Halwai Ganapati Temple, Baajaa Gaajaa

Fragmented Devotion: Medieval Objects from the Schnutgen Museum in Cologne

Indian Perfume Oil Combs

Just as an accent can reveal a person’s origin, so a perfume (attar) can identify an Indian rural village. Each village has its unique mixture of oils from native plants, such as jasmine, patchouli, rose, and sandalwood. Connecting scent to beauty is a signature of Indian culture. These combs held oil to perfume the hair. Here are a few examples:

The owner would pour oil in the red-stoned knobs on each edge of this gold comb, which is owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Two lions sit back to back with upward curling tails, breathing foliage.

Our author Kajetan Fiedorowicz collected this silver beauty. In a most unusual H shape, oil caps reside on each side. A prince’s profile adorns the front.

Our final stop is The Creative Museum. Here, two birds bookend an oil cap in the middle, with a small bas-relief decoration underneath. This comb was made for a woman’s dowry and comes from the Punjab region of Northwestern India.

The Creative Museum also has a bas-relief comb depicting one goddess dressing the hair of another, which gives us an idea of how Indian artists combined function (holding oil), engineering (the cap and space in the comb to hold the oil), and art in both the comb and in real life.


For more scholarly research, you may examine

Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India

The bird comb with the bas-relief pattern shown in this post is available on E-bay for $900 or best offer.

Shringar Patti, Maang Tikka, and the Jada Naga

What is the difference between a shringar patti, a maang tikka, and the jada naga? Many brides wear all of three pieces.

A shringar-patti is worn on forehead, and it includes a fringe worn on either side of the face, consisting of a star or geometrical shaped pieces linking to each other. Hung from it are pipal leaves or stars or drops. The maang tikka is the crescent shaped plaque, sometimes enameled, suspended on to the middle forehead. However, the Jada Naga has a hallowed place in Hindu tradition and mythology.

Krishna is said to have defeated the evil multiheaded serpent Kaliya, who was poisoning the Yamuna River. In the 13th Century, the disciple Sidhendra Yogi had a vision. It was a dance drama where Krishna’s favorite consort, Satyabhama, expresses her desire for total devotion to her Lord through conjugal union. Yogi found the dancers in Kuchipudi, a small village in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, India.

The Jada is a decoration for a floor-length braid, which symbolizes the black cobra Kiliya. Antique Jada Nagas were made of cloth cord with a choti at the bottom — the serpent’s head. Modern pieces can be all gold.

Here are three examples of antique Jada Nagas:

From the Creative Museum

These two are on display in The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.


For more scholarly research, I recommend the book “Dance Dialects of India,” by Ragini Devi.

Some lovely things at Sothebys

This is a lovely example of classic style. Hair comb pairs like this were also called opera combs. The crowns of these are openwork plaques set with about 1.50 carats of European-cut and rose-cut diamonds atop tortoise shell combs.

Eighteenth-century India gives us this next tiara in an unusual hinged form. The openwork decoration depicts three lilies surrounded by stems and foliage.

The last tiara is just a knockout. It’s an English turquoise and diamond tiara, c. 1880, and sold for 27,000 GBP. I want this. :-)