In India, a Necklace That Means Marriage

In many parts of India a pendant necklace — called a mangalsutra, or “auspicious thread,” is tied around a Hindu bride’s neck during the wedding ceremony, a symbol that the couple is bound in matrimony and an indication of the bride’s new status as a married woman. The custom, which emerged in the last 60 to 70 years, first appeared in the country’s western and southern regions, but over time it has been adopted by other Hindu communities across the country, particularly in north India. And while a woman is expected to wear the mangalsutra every day of her married life, there are many now who bring it out only for festive occasions.

Sacred thread

There is no mention of jewelry that indicates one’s marital status in India’s ancient texts, said Usha Balakrishnan, an author and historian specializing in Indian jewelry and culture. But the concept of a “sacred thread” in the marriage ceremony can be traced back to the fourth or fifth century A.D. “This was typically a white woven cord worn around the neck, dipped in turmeric periodically,” she said. “The rationale was for the woman wearing it to benefit from the turmeric’s antibiotic properties, especially for child bearing.” Over time, as a result of European influences and elevated standards of living, the white cord eventually became gold jewelry.

Another interpretation is that the mangalsutra stems from the Indian custom of tying a black thread around the wrist or ankle to ward off the evil eye, while others note its pendant typically falls on the woman’s anahata (or heart) chakra, the fourth center for the flow of spiritual energy in a human body.

Anatomy of a mangalsutra

A typical mangalsutra involves a chain of gold and black beads anywhere from 16 to 34 inches long, accented with a pendant. Early beads might have been onyx or agate, then glass; now most are plastic or resin. The motifs vary, depending on the bride’s caste or cultural community. In Maharashtra, the state that includes Mumbai, there typically will be two dangling watis, or hollow gold balls, that represent the union of two families. A gold thaali, or plate, depicting the couple’s family deity is common in Tamil Nadu, at India’s southern tip. Bottu, or gold discs, are favored in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, and ela thaali — a leaf-shaped gold sheet, sometimes embossed with an Om symbol — can be found in Kerala, also in the south.

Kinnari Shah, head of design at the Indian jewelry chain CaratLane, said the addition of coral was not uncommon in some parts of southern India.

Solitaires entered the lexicon in the last half century, largely as a display of wealth and status. So while mangalsutras were initially made only with 22-karat gold, that changed once diamonds entered the equation. “We use 18 karat and 14 karat for strength when working on diamond mangalsutras,” Ms. Shah said. The necklaces generally are a combination of hand made and machine made, with jewelers employing techniques like stamping (for lightweight pieces) and 3-D printing (for intricate patterns). Ms. Shah said the most popular styles at CaratLane are less than 40,000 rupees (about $520); some of its designs, and those by other jewelers, sell for much more.

Design diversity

While the mangalsutra is considered a traditional piece, it is subject to fashion trends, too. “There is still a segment that loves flashy mangalsutras,” Ms. Shah said. “But overall, we have witnessed a move towards more petite, stylized versions. The younger generation of Indian brides is favoring unconventional versions — symbolic but also versatile and wearable.”

The motifs also have undergone a makeover. When the popular actress Sonam Kapoor Ahuja was married in Mumbai in 2018, her mangalsutra by Usheeta Rawtani Fine Jewellery featured a black bead chain accented with a round solitaire and the couple’s zodiac signs studded in diamonds. “Motifs like hearts, evil eye, florals, solitaire stones and geometric shapes are coming into play now,” Ms. Shah said. For example, “the infinity symbol mangalsutra bracelet is a very popular pick.”

A personalized take

Some recent brides have been tweaking the classic designs to match their modern wardrobes (and lifestyles), and still others have discarded the entire idea, disliking the undertone of subjugation. “India is too large a country to generalize,” Dr. Balakrishnan said. “What the mangalsutra means to urban brides is different from how married women in the villages perceive it. Its meaning endures more outside big cities.”

When the celebrity stylist and designer Eshaa Amiin married in Mumbai in 2020, it was with a traditional 22-karat gold and black bead mangalsutra with a thaali pendant from Popley & Sons Jewellers in Mumbai. “But it doesn’t match my non-ethnic outfits,” Ms. Amiin said. So she now wears a black bead and 16-karat gold mangalsutra bracelet with a gold drop from CaratLane and a delicate gold chain with an emerald drop accented with black beads.

“They are subtle and stylish,” she said. “But more importantly, I can stack both with my everyday accessories, while also staying true to the symbolism of the mangalsutra.”