‘BRIDAL JEWELLERY’ of Spiti – A visual treat of a Hinterland

An innate desire of humans is to look beautiful and that’s why jewellery was invented. Surprisingly, it was not the ‘Homo sapiens’ but the ‘Neanderthals’ who first used jewels to beautify themselves around 130,000 years ago – imagine! Early on jewelry was made of shells, bones, and stones but later metals took over with gold and silver becoming the preferred choice.

The Bridal Jewellery of Spiti

A Spiti woman in the traditional dress and Jewellery – Photo credit Ajay Banyal

Did you know that initially jewellery was worn more as amulets to ward off evil eyes and to secure garments? As most dresses were wrapped around, they required securing. With time, jewels took on an ornamental quality and became immensely treasured. Men were equally enamored, and jewels adorned both genders the world over in all cultures.

Jewellery is a valuable archaeological source as well, signifying a lot of things— the wearer’s personality, status, and wealth; the richness of their culture along with their traditional and religious beliefs. Sometimes it can tell the story of trade or geographical resources.

Women of Spiti

“I have enough jewelry,” said no woman ever! For most women, jewelry is their prized possession, not to be shared easily. So how would you feel if someone takes out her entire ‘Bridal jewelry’ and happily offers that you wear it?  And calls her relatives to help with dressing.

 Ecstatic and humbled—that’s how I felt when I visited Kaza recently, and had the pleasure of wearing Dolma Cherring’s exquisite bridal jewelry. I also learned about the beautiful customs of a lovely community – the Spiti people of Kaza.

Dolma Cherring in her beautiful traditional attire and jewelry

Nestled amidst the high mountain ranges of Himachal, in a cold desert environment, the Spiti or Piti – as known locally – means the ‘middle land.’ Land between Tibet and India. Their culture is unique, and so is their jewelry.

Beautiful Spiti

I am fond of collecting traditional jewelry, hence inquired about it during my recent trip to Spiti Valley. As luck would have it, Kesang Rapchik (The President of the Taxi Drivers Union and our driver for our stay in Kaza) suggested that his wife could dress me up as a traditional bride. I readily agreed and what a memorable experience it turned out to be!

With Kesang Rapchik and Dolma – At their beautiful home

Wearing the entire Bridal set of jewelry with their Shamo (cap), Rigoya (the dress), and Lingti (woven shawl)

Spiti jewelry is similar to Kinnaur, Lahaul, and  Leh and is mainly made of silver with many precious and semi-precious stones – turquoise, coral, and pearls. The tribal jewelry is influenced by Tibetan designs that have been preserved through the ages. The pieces are heavy and worn covering head to waist, and nothing on the feet due to climatic conditions. The Spitian women also don’t pierce their noses and wear any nose jewelry.

Mostly designed to secure the traditional dress, especially the shawls, and to cover the head and ears to protect against the cold. Interestingly the ear flaps of the headgear (Perak) were added after one of the queens of Spiti developed an ear infection and required protection from the cold winds!

Berag – The most precious item made of silver, cloth, and sapphire to cover the head

The torquise were earlier bought from Tibet and were very expensive but now artificial Torquise is also available and it reduces the cost of Berag.

Kondha – Earings-silver with turquoise and coral beads

Ghiyun– the gold pendant – with semi-precious stones – the number of Ghiyun and their size and weight increases depending on the financial status of the family – quite similar to Kinnauri Jewellery

Pitsup – Waistband

Digra – Waist belt holder

Docha – A waist ornament to be tied on the waist belt (Kira) above the right knee

Jewellery holds a special place in the lives of the women of Spiti. I could feel the pride and love Dolma had for her jewelry in the way she explained them to me. There are also many customs attached to jewelry in their culture.

The head ornaments like Berag and Perak are not worn by unmarried women. The young girls wear simple jewelry; heavy and elaborate jewelry is only for married women.

 In older times only ‘Khangchen’ homes (the high noble families) and not the ‘Khing Chung’ homes (the low-class families) could afford the entire Berag set with real Turquoise from Tibet. Nowadays, most women that desire a full set of bridal jewelry get it made.

 The jewelry is gifted by the bride’s parents and the boy’s side does not gift jewelry to their daughters-in-law (though these traditions have become more relaxed now). It’s like pooling the resources in the new marriage – the bride brings jewelry and the boy his lands. The traditional jewelry passes from the mother to the eldest daughter only.

With the traditional Shawl Lingti 

If a couple has more than one daughter they make new jewellery for her. The husband can add to his wife’s jewelry after marriage, which can be gifted to anyone the couple decides upon. If the couple has no daughter, then the jewelry can be gifted to either the DIL or to the nieces of the lady or the Monastery.
 Interestingly, the Spitian bride covers her face only during her wedding and never before or after. On enquiring, I was told that as the groom doesn’t go to bring his bride home; hence she covers her face to be only shown to her husband on reaching her ‘sasural’ (in-laws’ home). The Bride covers her face with Berag and hardly can see through it. Married women wear it over their left shoulder.  
The entire jewelry set is extremely heavy (10-12 kg, costing approximately INR 12 -15 lakh in today’s value) and one wonders how the bride bears the weight during her wedding and after! Traditional jewelry is worn on all auspicious occasions, be it religious or festive. 
A bride covers her face and a married woman wears the Berag on her shoulders
The Spitian women have a simple day -to day wear jewelry as well -like Ghyool – for young girls, Chimkut -a hair ornament, Ultik – a necklace made of different beads, bracelets of shells, Doo– bangles of solid silver, and Surundup – silver finger rings.
Other than gold and silver no other metal is used in the Tribal jewellery of HP – which is unlike the rest of India. Probably because the upper regions of Himachal had close trade ties with Tibet and the tribals had enough resources for jewellery befitting their social status. Perhaps it was also a way to invest their surplus money.
Most of the jewelry is crafted by the two local jewelers in summer and who migrate to Kinnaur during winter. This kind of jewellery is available in Kinnaur also but most Spitians get it made in Kaza only.
With the loving family of Rapchik and Dolma

Personally, I was delighted to dress up as a Bride again after 32 years! So fascinated I was with my bejeweled look, that I ordered some jewelry for myself and my daughters from the local jeweler. Thank you to Dolma and her aunts for all the love and affection and pampering they showered on me. More than the jewellery it is their generosity that captured my heart.

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