Rings on their fingers…

One politician in Assam used to wear 10 rings each mounted with a different precious stone

In days of old, when men were bold, rings if worn at all were part of a woman’s adornment. Thus, the fine lady from Banbury Cross riding a white horse had rings on her fingers and bells on her toes. In traditional Hindu iconography, too, the gods hardly ever wore any ornaments; instead, they carried bows and arrows and other weapons, wore arms clasps and shoulder blades, accoutred for battle; the goddesses, including the heavily armed Durga, wore rings not merely on their fingers but on their noses and ears as well.

The tradition continued in the secular order. The karta of a Hindu family did wear a ring, of sorts, during rituals related to the rites of passage. But this ring was not made of gold or silver; it was a mere tuft of doob grass twisted into the shape of a ring, ritually sanctified for the occasion and indeed called pavitra, discarded soon after the rituals. Regular wearing of rings by men, unless one belonged to the feudal order, was viewed as an offensive ostentation in the days before Independence.

While English denominations for the fingers do acknowledge the ring finger, the corresponding nomenclatures in Sanskrit and their derivatives in other Indian languages do not. Indeed, the ring finger is known as anamika, the nameless one, an appellation that has other pejorative connotations. In contrast, as noted in that marvellous encyclopaedia of the esoteric man (Body Magic by Benjamin Walker, Paladin, London, 1979), the ring finger, also known as digitus medicus (physician’s finger), is the healing finger, and was used in the mixing of medicaments and potions.

Is there perhaps a faint intimation of this medieval belief in the mystical power of the ring finger in the almost obsessive attachment to rings and similar adornments in our times? While even the most ornamented women wear as a rule just one engagement or wedding ring, there is a profusion of rings on the fingers of men. This is especially so in rich and successful men because these need reassurances, knowing deep down in their hearts that their successes are due not to any special talent but to chance and circumstance.

This splurge in the use of rings, assisted by the free astrological advice in newspapers and the much higher priced advice from the self-styled experts in the field secured by the rich and powerful, does come through in newspaper photographs. While current anxieties over the shape of political alignments, heightened by doubts about one’s worthiness which no amount of political bluster can hide, has certainly influenced the profusion of rings on the Karnataka politicians’ fingers and, perhaps, on other body parts normally covered (rings on pierced nipples?), it would be wrong to see this as uniquely related to the current political situation. One politician in Assam used to wear 10 rings, one each for the eight fingers and two thumbs, each ring mounted with a different precious stone. It did him little good.

The belief and practice is pan-Indian; and while its votaries include persons from all walks of life, pre-eminent among them are businessmen and film stars. Since these are the role models, the practice is bound to catch up. There will eventually be rings on all our fingers and bells on all our toes, with jewellers round the corner rubbing their hands and polishing their gold – unless the Crow on the Cradle, as in the Pete Seeger adaptation of the rhyme, ominously presages a bomber above us wherever we go.

M.S. Prabhakara


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