Marriage ceremonies in India are very elaborate, lasting multiple days and including substantial symbolic rituals. The bride’s dowry is a deciding factor in the marriage arrangements, for in traditional Indian society marriage is not driven by romantic love but by the bride’s and groom’s families, who decide that the couple will flourish.
In India, gold is the traditional form of dowry for the bride; this gold is the woman’s life insurance should any disaster befall her or her family. The girl’s family provides gold in the form of jewelry, including ornaments for the ears, forehead, hair, neck, wrists, arms, and ankles. The form of individual pieces varies from region to region. This item of jewelry, known as a thali, is among the pieces provided to brides in the southernmost part of India in the area today known as Tamil Nadu. At the time of the actual marriage ceremony the groom ties the thali around the bride’s neck, although due to its size and weight she wears a smaller version on a daily basis. Traditions vary from community to community, and in some the heavy thali is worn on special occasions while in others only again on the occasion of her husband’s sixtieth birthday.
The size of the thali and its ornament reflect the wealth of the bride’s family. This thali likely belonged to a woman of a wealthy merchant class, and it is probably only the central section of the whole piece of jewelry. Originally it would have been flanked on either side by smaller pieces, each with five extended points or “fingers.” Some say these pieces, missing here, represent the hands of the newlyweds. The smaller side pieces are given to the future bride by her family, but the central piece is usually given by the groom.
The workmanship here is very fine, with abstracted floral patterns covering much of the surface. The bottom of the pendant has two conical legs, while the top features apsaras, elegant and beautiful female celestial beings, beneath whom are mythic beasts seen in profile. In a centrally placed niche is an image of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess associated with love, wealth, beauty, and fertility. These attributes invoke the ideal bride and wife, and during the wedding ceremony the bride is considered to embody Lakshmi.
Catherine Asher, "Thali (pendant)," in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 135.