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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!