Hair braid ornament
This exquisite piece of jewelry comes from the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. Certainly this work is associated with jewelry worn by practitioners of Bharatanatyam, a classical south Indian dance that originated in Tamil Nadu. It was originally performed in temples by highly trained and educated women who served the deity and thus did not marry. Performers wore elaborate costumes and jewelry that reflected the wealth of the temple to which they belonged. The movement of the dancer's head and legs were highly important. Anklets with bells would have ornamented the feet. Hair ornaments such as this one serving to adorn a long braid were often favored by dancers, although they were also sometimes worn by wealthy laywomen.
Traditionally in India women do not cut their hair unless they are widowed. The long hair is either tied in a bun or braided. In south India even the poorest woman would traditionally wear flowers in her hair, but the temple dancer or wealthy might favor such an elaborate braid embellishment. The top of this ornament consists of an image of a five-headed cobra associated with the gods Shiva and Vishnu. Snakes are a symbol of Shiva's extraordinary yogic powers, while this particular form with the baby Krisha, a form of Vishnu, rests on a coiled snake whose name is Shesha. The snake's five hoods protect Krishna from harm. This particular image is a reference to the notion of eternity and the Indian belief that the universe is constantly in endless cycles of birth, preservation, and destruction. Beneath the image of Shesha are pieces of gold linked together that allow the braid to move freely. Each piece of gold represents the scales of the snake's body. Bells would have been attached to the three inverted cups at the braid cover's end, thus making sound and movement come together and enhancing the beauty of the wearer.
Anne R. Bromberg, The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 138-139.
Watch an excerpt from Pushapanjali, the first dance in a classical Indian dance performance.