The world at her feet

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The toe ring is an essential accessory of married women in many cultures in India. But today it’s getting as popular with unmarried girls, and even men! Shoma A. Chatterji examines the appeal this ring holds and the health benefits attributed to it.

Dayyare dayyare chadh gayo paapi bicchua
Hai hai mai mar gayee koi utaro bicchua

These are the first two lines that pay a music-and-dance tribute to the toe ring commonly known as the bicchua in Hindi. The song is from Bimal Roy’s biggest commercial hit Madhumati and the dance was performed by none other than one of the best classical dancers who graced the Hindi screen – Vyjayanthimala. The lyrics however, are a misnomer as the second line – “Someone please take off my bicchua before I die,” is wrong, because no one can take off the toe ring from a girl’s toes once she has worn it. The other cinematic liberty taken with custom is that only married women could wear the bicchua at least during the time presented in the film. The third surprise is that you do not quite get to see the dancer wearing the bicchua because her feet are always away from the camera frame.

All this suggests how a simple bodily ornament can be used as an agency of mass entertainment that has posterity value, as the song is very famous till today, and so is the dance number accompanied by a beautiful chorus. The bicchua in the song is used as a metaphor or a symbol of femininity within the Indian milieu for the gypsy girl who sings and dances to the lines. This is perhaps the only Indian film that pays a celluloid tribute to the Indian woman in a different form.

The tale of the toe ring
There are many kinds of jewelry in the world in general, and in India in particular. Each one is made to beautify a part of the female body. This covers the head with the crown, forehead and hair parting with the bindiya or tikli, the ears with jhumkas, studs and kaan – covering the entire ear, the nose with nose rings, nathnis and nose studs, nostrils, armlets for the arms, ratanchoor for the fingers, the back of the palms and the wrists, etc. Indian women have been wearing toe-rings for hundreds of years. Originally, Hindu women of certain states would wear a large silver ring on the big toe of the left foot as one more symbol of marriage. They are not transferable. In other words, the married woman cannot remove the toe-ring from her toe and give it to another woman while her husband is alive. Rajasthanis are rigid about this custom till this day.

Today, it is more of a fashion statement worn even in the West and among Indian young girls and women, on any toe over any form of dress, and it does not matter whether they are married, single or divorced. Styles and patterns have changed with respect to materials used, designs worn, kind of look and so on. But it is very much a part of contemporary Indian fashion, principally in urban, modern India.

Some literary sources trace back the use of the toe ring by women to Vedic times, say, around 500 BC. Sanskrit texts detail that toe rings fall within the ambit of the 16 traditional ornaments every woman needs to adorn herself with. Women from Rajasthan, U.P. and some parts of the south still consider the toe ring as a mandatory accessory for a married woman. Toe rings have specific names depending on the ethnicity of the wearer: they are called bicheeya (pronounced bee-chee-ya) or bicchua in Hindi, metti in Tamil and mettelu in Telugu. Some sources indicate that in some cultures, men wear rings on their big toes as symbols of strength.

Metteluin and Metti are usually made of silver and are worn in pairs (unlike the trend in Western countries, where they are worn singly or in unmatched pairs,) on the second toe of both feet. Traditionally they are ornate, though more contemporary designs are now being developed to cater to the modern bride. Some bicchua sets may have pairs for four of the five toes, excluding the little pinky. Bicchuas may not be made of gold because gold holds a revered status and may not be worn below the waist by Hindus, but this is not followed very strictly and toe rings made of gold and diamonds are commonly seen.

Toe rings are increasingly becoming a part of men’s fashion as well. Technically, a toe ring is a ring made out of metals or non-metals that is worn on a toe. Commonly it is worn on the second toe. Traditionally, it was supposed to have been worn on the big toe. These rings are seldom closed circles, but open hoops so that they can easily be removed.

The toe ring promotes health?
The toe ring is also said to bring health benefits. One school of thought believes that the toe rings press on certain nerves that link to the reproductive system and also maintain the healthy balance of the system. Another theory stems from the ancient Indian belief that one’s prana or life force must be held in balance and all paths of one’s prana run down to the toes. Some also say that a particular nerve in the second toe connects the uterus and passes through the heart. The constant friction this leads to while walking revitalises the reproductive organs in women. The common practice is that toe rings are made out of silver, never mind the design or the shape. Why silver of all metals? Because silver is a good conductor which absorbs energy from the polar energies of the earth and passes this on to the body, which refreshes the entire body and physical system of the woman who wears it.

In most Western countries, toe rings are a relatively new fashion accessory. They often ornament barefoot sandals, anklets, or flip flops. According to Hindus, gold should never be worn below the waist because gold is considered to have holy significance and is looked at with reverence. With time, people have done away with the taboo of wearing gold below the waist and cheerfully wear gold toe rings that look very pretty. These toe rings are available in different styles and designs. With the gradually evolving fashion designs, painted glass toe rings are also available in the market. For those who favour toe rings that are more subdued, plain round rings are available in a variety of colors and metals. Toe rings can also come engraved with your name, or with various symbols. Toe rings are a part of every girl’s summer attire, in different colors, styles and ornamental designs. Contemporary designs are now being developed to cater to the modern bride. Nowadays, toe rings are being developed or manufactured even in plastic and glass and other mundane metals like copper for its healing qualities. The trend of wearing them in pairs is fading away. Various newer fashionable designs for toe rings have come up for bridal wearing, and are available in sets of four or two or as desired.


shoma

Shoma A. Chatterji

The writer is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards. She is currently Senior Research Fellow, ICSSR, Delhi, researching the politics of presentation of working women in post-colonial Bengali cinema 1950 to 2003.

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