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Re: Symbols worn by Vaisnavas on the Body

From: Mani Varadarajan (mani)
Date: Tue Sep 19 1995 - 10:39:07 PDT

The symbol is called "Urdhva pundra" in Sanskrit.
In Tamil, the white part is called "thirumaN" and
the red part "sri chUrNam".  The whole thing is
often referred to as "thirumaN" or "nAma", since
each thirumaN placed on the body represents a 
different name of Sriman Narayana.

thirumaN means holy mud.  It is made from a claylike 
mud that is only available in certain places, notably
in present-day Melkote in Karnataka State.  The red
substance either contains turmeric or is plain kumkum.
Some people use plain yellow turmeric instead of
red, but this is less common.

The primary place for the urdhva pundra is on the
forehead.  The two white lines represent the feet
of the Lord, and the red line represents Lakshmi
Thaayar who is everpresent with him.  The Azhvaars
refer to this tradition of wearing the pundra as 
"wearing the feet of the Lord on one's head", 
representing one's eternal relation as his servant.

The pundras are also worn by the orthodox on 11 
other places on the body.  This is an expression
of God's omnipresence, as well as the bearer's
dedication of his body to the Lord's service. 

Women also wear the urdhva pundra, except that
traditionally the thirumaN portion is smaller
and looks like a crescent shaped moon.  

These days, most lay Sri Vaishnavas simply wear
the sri chUrNam.

Mani

P.S. It seems that Ramanuja initiated the tradition
of only using the special white clay for the thirumaN.
One Azhvaar remarks that even ash can be used (anathema
to some Vaishnavas due to its connection with Siva), 
but best would be the dust of the feet of other devotees!