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!