The Nose Pierce

In 1998 I got my tongue pierced. Yes, my tongue. The short, sad, story is documented in an article that was published in the San Jose Mercury News – you are going to have to take my word for it, because that was many computers ago, and before the internet started saving everything. Suffice it to say, the article, which the Merc paid me $100 for, spurred my writing career. It was the clip I used to help get me into the Santa Cruz Science Communication program, and redemption for getting my tongue pierced on a strange whim, and then five days later, pulling the ugly, painful thing out.

That same year, I got my nose pierced. Now, you may say to yourself, “I don’t need to read on, getting your nose pierced is a normal Indian girl thing, plus tons of non-Indians have their noses pierced.” Sure. That sounds about right. But for my Mom, getting my nose pierced was equivalent to telling a mother who lived through the 1960s bra burning period, that I was going back to wearing a corset.

When my mother was young she refused to get her nose pierced. Of course, she never told me this when I was younger, so when I called her and told her happily that I got my nose pierced I was surprised to hear her response, “Oh.” “Oh?” “That’s it Mom?” “I’m so excited, I’ve wanted to have my nose pierced forever, and it feels so glamorous.” Her answer, “OK, great, just make sure it doesn’t get infected.”

Some tiny part of me thought she would be proud for some reason. Even though at the time I was in the midst of getting my doctorate, there was that piece of me that wanted her to be proud that I loved to flaunt my Indian heritage. Especially since one time she came to my home (decorated with Indian knick knacks and tons of little statues of the Gods) and said, “Hmm, I come to my kids’ homes and they are so American, not Indian like my Indian friends.” Wow. That hurt. I was really thinking that my home looked Indian, but again, I wasn’t here nor there. Not Indian enough for Indians, not American enough to be completely American (whatever that is). Later when I asked her about it, she shrugged and said, “I have no idea why I said that, you have an idli maker in your house and more Indian tapestries than many Indians.” After ten years of mulling the initial comment over I almost keeled over. That is Mothers for you.

My nose piercing made me feel beautiful. And it has for almost 20 years now.

But what is it about the penchant for piercing in the hotter climes (Africa, India, Asia) that doesn’t seem to exist in the histories of the colder areas? And why do Indians pierce their noses? Where does the tradition come from?

The tradition it is thought, hails back to the Mughuls that invaded Northern India in the late 1500s. Once I found this out, I realized that I knew very little about the Mughuls themselves, except for what I read in little Amar Chitra Katha comics as a kid (more on those in another story). So to get at the history of the Mughul empire I began reading a lovely series of historical fiction novels that uniquely describes the rise of Babur, the first Mughul emporer in India and goes on to chronicle the rest of his descendants (The Empire of the Mughul series by Alex Rutherford if you are interested).

Babur, who was related to Tamur (A Turkic lord) and Genghis Khan, sought to build an empire, but was thwarted throughout his conquest of the Turkic lands. After the city of Kabul in Afghanistan was passed on to him via the death of his uncle, Babur looked to the rich lands of India to satisfy his lust for power. By the time he died, Babur had conquered much of the Northern portion of India. He kept a meticulous journal which documented his trials and serves as a historical reference.

Now, one of the reasons that we think the Mughuls brought nose piercing to India is because there are no real references to nose piercings in ancient Hindu texts. Once the Hindus took on the cultural ritual, philosophies for its benefits emerged. Piercing on the left nostril alleviated menstrual cramps based on Ayurvedic medicine and its reliance on pressure points. Also, the Goddess Parvathi is thought to be honored by the nose piercing – hence many women were forced to have their noses pierced on their wedding days in a painful process to ensure that their marriage was truly blessed. I did consult my Mother as to the correct side to pierce my nose, in Tamil Nadu, South India it is common to pierce the right side, while in Maharastra women pierce the left side. But these too can be inconsistent, as my cousin has her nose pierced on the left, and mine is on the right (both of us are from the same area of India originally).  I do know that my Mother felt that a nose pierce symbolized “ownership” and she was a tough cookie, not to be owned by anyone, least of all my sweet father. So, she refused to have it done.

The mukkuti (as it is called in South India) is commonly shaped in a mango pattern- I would like one of these, but probably have to wait until my next trip to India, for now I wear a simple diamond stud. Mukkuti literally means nose pierce. While most Southern Indians traditionally wear a stud that has many diamonds on it (my grandmother had one with at least 7) rings are often only worn for weddings. Northern Indians (Punjabis etc..,) however, more commonly wear rings.

I remember when I got my nose pierced back in 1998, I was in graduate school, and I asked my advisor if he thought that people would judge me as odd because I had a facial piercing, when I applied for postdoctoral positions and/or jobs. He looked at me like I was crazy, shook his head, and said, “no”. Of course, his experience with piercings stemmed from his postdoctoral advisor Andrew Murray, who, along with being one of the geniuses in Cell Cycle research, was also at one time one of the MOST pierced people I ever met. So of course one little nose ring on an Indian woman would never be a problem.

Interestingly, more than ten years later, while working at my current institution, I was photographed for a flyer advertising the school. For years, the flyer sat on my bulletin board on my desk and I often would look at it and wonder why the picture did not look quite like me. One day a student came in and said, “Why does your nose look different in the picture?” It turns out that the photographer had photoshopped out my nose ring. One of my colleagues was incensed. But it didn’t quite bother me, I felt that perhaps that photographer just wasn’t enlightened enough to understand the significance of a nose ring on an Indian professor. Or it just may not have photographed well and he took it out to maintain the integrity of the picture. Who knows?

Nowadays my little daughter loves to touch my nose ring and ask, “What is that for Mommy?” I tell her it’s for beauty and signifies my Indian-ness. She then asks when she can get her cute little nose pierced. Whenever she wants is my answer. Pressure points, custom, and desire are all perfectly good reasons to get a piercing in my book, besides, if you don’t like it, you can just take it out (like my sister in law did long ago-you can’t even tell that she once had it pierced). My son has his ear pierced, and was the first boy in his elementary school to do so. Self expression is a beautiful thing.

To me the nose pierce is just another way to signify my culture. And to feel beautiful. I think my Mother has forgiven me. Besides since that time I’ve broken some other major cultural barriers by getting my belly button pierced and marrying a vele kara (white guy), so a tiny stud in my nose is probably the smallest of transgressions.

Post script: I know I did not yet answer question #1 that I asked above: “what is it about the penchant for piercing in the hotter climes (Africa, India, Asia) that doesn’t seem to exist in the histories of the colder areas?” That will take a bit more research… so stay tuned!







7 thoughts on “The Nose Pierce

  1. I’ve only read a few of these episodes, Aparna, but you express yourself well, and they are interesting. The one thing that jumped out, to me, was that you appear to celebrate the history of the Mughul Empire. I really know nothing about it, except I read (just a couple of days ago) that Pakistan had test launched a submarine based cruise missile, capable of delivering a nuclear warhead with a 450km range: they’ve named the missile “Babur-3”, after the conqueror who defeated India. So I’m curious: given the deeply rooted animosity between the two regions, why would any traditions (nose pierciengs) pass from one side to another, and would other Indians describe stories about Babur as “lovely”? Is this your objective, American side, or is it really not that big a deal? I’m just struck by the contrasting historical references to the same figure.


    1. Dear Tim,
      Thank you for the comments! I actually took out a paragraph describing how difficult it was for me to read about how the Mughuls just took over India. When they came in, they called the Indians “barbaric heathens who worshiped strange multiple Gods.” The Mughuls dessicrated many of the temples as well. That said, the Mughuls were not the first to bring Islam into the country, and from what I read, Babur and Akbar were more respectful kings (the ones in between and others that came in from Persia etc., were not so much). It is especially difficult to read and learn about how much wealth and jewelry was stolen by the various factions. And then right on the heels of the Mughuls came the British who treated the Indians quite badly as well and stole so much wealth and power from the country over the 300 years that they were there.

      I intend to write some blog stories about the British rule and more about the Mughuls and discuss some of the issues. But it is going to take much more research on my part. The stories written by Alex Rutherford depict Babur as quite sensitive, and I imagine that those images came from the authors’ research (Alex Rutherford is a pen name for a couple hence the plural authors). I would like to speak with them about their research and observations to learn more myself. Thank you for reading this! I highly respect your comments and questions (I hope I answered them adequately).


  2. My daughter has had a tiny stud in her nose (left side) for two years now. Of course SHE did it because she thinks nose piercing are beautiful, not for any cultural significance, so I loved reading about the history here. I’m also curious if Indians would consider someone like my daughter piercing her nose to be cultural appropriation, and in any way a negative thing. She’s very sensitive to that issue – but I don’t think she ever imagined it as a cultural statement. I’ll definitely be sharing this post with her, Aparna. Thanks for the history lesson and I look forward to reading more…


    1. Dear Julie,
      I think it is lovely that your daughter has her nose pierced. Many traditions like the nose pierce have become more vogue here in the US and I think that most Indians would not feel that it is strange or different for a non-Indian to have their nose pierced. It was very difficult to find information on where the actual tradition came from, but I agree it’s beautiful, and should be shared with whomever wishes to take it on. But it would be interesting to hear comments from others. I think that if an Indian were “offended” by another person piercing their nose, it would be a form of racism on the Indian’s part. Especially since one of the reasons to do it (besides beauty) is to help with pressure points and alleviate menstrual discomfort.


  3. May I simply just say what a comfort to find a person that actually knows what they’re discussing over the internet. You certainly realize how to bring an issue to light and make it important. A lot more people should check this out and understand this side of the story. I was surprised you aren’t more popular since you certainly possess the gift.


  4. Thank you so much for writing this post!
    As a 1st generation Indian-American (I don’t find a lot of our narrative on the net readily available) trying to find what being Indian means to me, everything you said was so affirming.
    I’m in my late 30s and I have been feeling called/pulled to get a nose ring and I have been trying to figure out which side, though I do feel inclined to go with the right side. And there is a part of me that just wants to wait until I make it back to India. India is home in its own way for me. And it means something for me to get my nose ring there. A coming home of sorts. Thank you for writing as you did, so beautifully and honestly.


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