The recent controversy over the fine imposed on the Norwegian women’s beach handball team has brought to the fore a peculiar situation being faced in the modern world — what I call the result of the destruction of ancient cultures such as the Hindu and the pagan. The code requires that the beach handball women’s team wears bikini bottoms showing most of the buttocks. Here is a picture of what the Norwegian women’s team wore in 2017, which was as per regulations.
This year at the Euro 2021, the ladies of the Norway team decided to wear what they felt comfortable in — but the authorities were not pleased; they imposed a 150 Euro fine on each player. Even before this incident, in April 2021, Sarah Voss had worn a full-body suit at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships in order to defy convention. The German federation (DTB) had said its gymnasts were taking a stand against “sexualisation in gymnastics”, which they felt was also important to prevent sexual abuse.
Until now, I had no idea that the revealing all-butt costumes worn by women players on the beach had actually been mandated by sports authorities! I thought the women chose to highlight their curves and selected this style of uniform amongst other choices. But I wondered how it could be comfortable. The others I spoke to thought the same. Meanwhile, the comments of the men on social media posts were on the lines of; “Man, who will watch beach handball if women stop wearing bikini bottoms?” It becomes evident that these tournaments were drawing male audiences for reasons not related to the sport. Perhaps that is why the authorities decided to capitalize on the titillation factor and ruled that costumes were to strictly reveal the whole butt and not a part of it?
Meanwhile, if you are wondering what the men wear for beach handball, here you go. Yes, I know some of you will definitely say they need to wear Speedos to bring gender balance, and you are entitled to your views.
So that brings me to the real subject of my article — the clothes worn by women (and men) in Ancient India. For thousands of years, the attire worn by women and men in India had similar designs — a lower garment (antariya), an upper garment (uttariya) and a kayabandh (cloth tied around the waist). All these were single pieces and unstitched. The breasts were exposed for both men and women but women often chose to tie the uttariya tightly around their breasts (perhaps the ones with bigger breasts) while others threw it loosely over their chests. Some women added a fourth piece of cloth too as per their style preferences. There was absolutely no shame associated with displaying one’s breasts or cleavage. This is why mothers breastfed their babies without worrying about being judged. The loose and flexible styles of dressing were suited to the warm and wet climates of India. In colder weather, heavier fabrics were used.
Men often put their antariya around their necks or even tied it across their chest; a style that was followed amongst the ancient Greeks too. All over India, there are hundreds of temples showing this style of dressing ; not to forget the descriptions in texts. Both women and men wore plenty of jewellery to accessorise their clothes.
Both women and men, however, covered the pubic area quite carefully even if the clothes were worn loosely. It was important to protect the openings that led to the urinary and reproductive organs of the body. However, tight undergarments were a no-no. The recent studies indicating that tight pants lead to lower sperm counts validate the knowledge of ancient times. Some of the finely woven fabrics used in ancient India were quite transparent but that does not seem to have been an issue until the Muslim period of history.
At a later period in history, the antariya and uttariya garments got combined into one piece of cloth called the saree. Every kind of skill and creativity was poured into the sarees to produce outstanding works of art that could suit any occasion — formal or informal, festive or routine. The textile industry put India amongst the topmost economies of the world — it was home to the fine skills of weaving, dyeing, embroidery, printing, and to innumerable other secondary and tertiary skills.
Unfortunately, the entry of invaders, colonizers and proselytizers into India struck a hard blow to Hindu women’s freedom of dressing. No longer could women be unselfconscious about their breasts like before. From the 11th century onwards, hordes of Islamic invaders began to capture Indian territory and destroy its famous temples and universities. The women suffered the worst excesses with kidnappings, rapes, conversions and open sales in slave markets. Practices such as Jauhar-Shaka became common, where women jumped into the fire rather than allow themselves to be raped and sold by barbarians. Society was in turmoil. Women were the easiest targets to inflict humiliation on entire communities. The natural tendency in such situations is for male members in families to cast a protective net around the females. Women’s clothing became more conservative. Covering the head became more common especially in northern India, which bore the brunt of assaults.
The Islamic era was followed by European colonization, the influx of Victorian ideas and Christian proselytization which led to even greater stifling of the original open dressing styles of Hindus. Without any regard to the climate, full-sleeved blouses and voluminous petticoats were introduced, which Indian women wore along with their sarees. The poor men wore collared shirts, trousers, and even ties.
After Independence, the movie industry began to exert great influence on dressing styles. Today, there is a mish-mash of dressing styles, but the ubiquitous T-shirt- jeans have become the refuge of sedentary Indians.
In the past few decades, Indian women are experimenting with different kinds of saree blouses — sleeveless, strapless, and noodle straps. Very few have tried to emulate their ancestors by doing away with blouses and petticoats. However, we have also entered the era of beautifully embellished designer blouses that showcase the talents of indigenous artisans. The Indian men continue to stick to trousers and shorts as if their lives depend on them. The antariya or dhoti is fast disappearing.
But the point remains — the modern world is a far cry from Ancient India where the rules for covering breasts and butts were not too different for men and women. The assault on ancient civilizations has not helped us in becoming more modern; in many ways, it has made us more regressive.