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Plants as Human Adornment in India

This is a personal story. When I entered India the first time in May 1978, I was immediately struck by the vastness of the subcontinent. So much was new to me. I had lived in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East for seven years, but these places hadn't prepared me for India. Here were new foods, with a bias toward vegetarian dishes (I had already been a vegetarian for six years) and a whole new flora to explore.

Very early (in fact, starting on page 20 of Notes On Beads, Book B*) I discovered the multi-volume A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India compiled in the 1880s by George Watt.

Watt not only had an encyclopedic knowledge of natural and manufactured products in British India, but was a trained botanist. There is a sort of shrine to him in the botany wing of the India Museum in Calcutta; many of the samples and much of the information came from him. Under the rubric "Beads" in the Dictionary. Watt wrote:

A complete list of the objects used for the above purposes [prayer strands, garlands, necklaces, earrings, etc.] would be highly interesting and instructive. But such a list may be viewed as having an ethnological rather than an economic interest, and would, therefore, be somewhat out of place in the present publication. The subject is, however, replete with interest, and as a considerable trade is done in certain articles which must be enumerated here, it has been thought desirable to give the leading facts which can be collected together in a limited space. It is hoped that at least one object may be served by the publication of even an incomplete list of this nature, -- namely, the creation of an interest in a subject which the advances of civilization are certain to obscure more and more every day. The first attempts made by savage races at clothing and adornment were most probably decoration by means of natural objects. A careful study of the shells, bones, seeds, fruits and flowers used for this purpose by aboriginal tribes at the present day, would throw a flood of light upon many obscure anthropological subjects destined to be obliterated with the advances of foreign trade in glass beads and cheap European ornaments.

(Watt 1889 [1]: 426)

And you thought I wrote long sentences! What followed was a discussion of imported and locally made glass beads written by W.J. Watson and a short discussion of feathers, leather, goat's hair, hornbill casques and boar's tusks used as decoration. Then, true to Watt's heart, he listed no less than 55 plants used for human adornment in India.

I was immediately inspired. Here I was in a new floristic zone with lots of strange plants growing all around me. And I was in a country where many plants are sacred. I now had a list of 55 of them used for beads and other forms of jewelry. I was eager to learn about this New Land.

I began by trying to see how many of the plants on Watt's list were still in use. This turned out to be a difficult. Often there was no new information on various tribal groups. In time, my goal shifted to see how many other bead and ornament plants I could identify.

My botany professor, M.D. Kajale, suggested I read Economic Botany, available at the Poona University Library. This American-published journal has been going strong for decades, documenting the many uses of plants. Article after article fascinated me. One (by Mehra, Kanodia and Srivatava, "Folk Uses of Plants for Adornment in India") covered similar ground as Watt, with a total of 61 species.

But there was a lot more to learn. I harvested from old and new sources and via personal observation. In the end, I had a list of 169 plant species used for human adornment in India from prehistoric to modern times. Now, what to do with it?

Naturally, I sent the manuscript to Economic Botany. That initiated a whole new education. It wasn't enough to have a botanical binomial to identify species. I had to have the very latest name, all recorded variations and the latest standard family grouping.

The editorial work was tough. I couldn't use "tribe," as it was considered politically incorrect. I couldn't say that plants rot in the ground faster than, say, stone tools, without citing evidence. I don't know of any evidence. It's just something every archaeologist -- and anyone with common sense -- knows. I couldn't identify anything -- even Bougainvillea -- by myself because I wasn't a botanist. Kajale helped on this.

It took several versions of the paper, including the constant cutting back of the introduction to leave room for the list. The paper as published was longer than Economic Botany usually allows. They waived the per page fee (yes, you pay to be published in Economic Botany). This is usually paid by one's institution. I convinced them if I had to come up with $260, I wouldn't submit the paper, and they relented. It was finally accepted in May 1983, after five years of work.

I am not, nor do I intend to be, a professional botanist. But beads certainly taught me a lot about that branch of natural science. Simultaneously they have me through historic texts and the ethnographic literature. Furthermore, I can now identify many plants I see in India, recall their stories and often remember their botanical names. Thanks, beads.

You can order a reprint of this paper (about four screens down).


Notes on Beads is a series of notebooks I carry with me. They contain handwritten notes about beads from different sources - books where a library has no photocopying, information on beadmakers I visit and catalogues of collections
I study. Book A was begun in mid 1976. The current book is
V - 3250 pages later. Page 20 of Book B is only 130 pages in the series.


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