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What is a Tilak?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A tilak, tilaka, or tika is an auspicious mark worn by followers of the Hindu religion. In many cases, a tilak is worn on the forehead, but the marks may also be applied to other parts of the body. In addition to being an expression of devotion, a tilak is also considered to be an auspicious mark for the wearer. In nations where the expression of religious freedom is protected, tilaks can be a common sight on Hindus.

Classically, a tilak is red, made from a paste of dye and ash. Sandalwood paste, clay, and spices are all used to make tilaks. Tilaks can also come in other colors, such as yellow, grey, and white, and they may be applied by hand or with specialized stamps. They also come in a wide range of shapes, including the classical dot-shaped tilak. Different shapes and colors indicate various religious affiliations, so that followers of a particular Hindu sect can easily identify each other.

The forehead, the most common location for a tilak, is considered to be an auspicious place. It is the site of the sixth chakra, which governs consciousness and reason. Applying a tilak is said to act as a focus, clarifying thoughts and allowing the wearer to see the truth. This site is also known as the area of the “third eye,” a very important part of religious practice for many Hindus. You may have noted marks or eyes in this spot on artwork featuring many Hindu gods, for example.

Names for the tilak vary, depending on the style and the part of the world. Honorary tilaks may also be applied to people who have distinguished themselves in sport, or important visitors to a region. These tilaks often take the form of a line. Women wear the tilak to indicate that they have been married, in which case the tilak is sometimes known as a bindi. Hindu women may not wear a bindi if they are not married, but women around the world wear the sacred marks decoratively.

Some devout Hindus such as priests and ascetics wear the tilak every day, as part of their religious practice. Others apply tilaks on special occasions or during festivals, and they are a common part of the decorations at weddings and major life events. You may also spot the occasional urdhva-pundra, a special tilak in the shape of a U with a small dot in the middle of the U; these tilaks are worn by worshipers of Vishnu.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By ysmina — On Oct 31, 2011

@animegal-- Absolutely, you can wear a decorative bindi or tilak if you are in India. I have an Indian Christian friend who wears a decorative bindi during Indian holidays and celebrations.

It's true that tilak has a more religious connotation than bindi does. But the decorative gems and pieces that are sold (not the dot ones) are suitable for everyone. No one will think you're weird if you wear it like that in India.

If you wear a powder or gel tilak in a dot shape, they might be curious to know if you practice Hinduism. But it's also common to see foreigners with tilak since most people who visit a Hindu temple, establishment or household will get tilak applied anyway.

By turquoise — On Oct 30, 2011

@burcidi, @ddljohn-- Tilak is also applied after prayer is offered to the various deities. In my household, if someone offers prayer, she or he will come, offer prasad (food offering to the deity) and apply tilak on the other family members. It's a way to share the blessings of the prayer with the rest of the family.

By ddljohn — On Oct 29, 2011

@burcidi-- Actually no, there is no rule for it to be done when leaving and entering the house.

It is usually done when a family member is arriving home after a long time. It is also done for guests, as a way of welcoming and blessing them. Generally mothers will come to the door with a pooja tray with various auspicious items, tilak powder and a burning oil candle. She will bless the person arriving and apply tilak on their forehead before entering the house.

It's also common to do it for children who are going away to school or who are about to take their exams for good luck and success.

Basically tilak can be applied ceremonially in all special occasions where good luck, success and protection are desired.

By burcidi — On Oct 29, 2011

In Hindi films, I often see the mother of a household apply tilak on family members coming home or sometimes leaving the home.

Is it a custom to always apply tilak when leaving or entering the house?

By manykitties2 — On Oct 28, 2011

@animegal - I don't see anything wrong with wearing a tilak or bindi as a fashion accessory, as long as you do it in a respectful way. I think that if you are in a country that is heavily into the practice of Hinduism you shouldn't wear it, but if you're going out to a party at home, why not?

I think a lot of things people wear nowadays are taken from various religions and other cultures. With the world the way it is I think a lot of things are going to continue to get absorbed into mainstream culture.

By animegal — On Oct 27, 2011

I will be doing some traveling and have noticed that there are a lot of places that sell easy to apply tilak marks. They are basically stick on crystals and other accessories that replicate the look of a true painted on tilak or bindi. I really like the look of the bindi mark and would be willing to wear it as a fashion piece. Do you think this would be OK to do even if I am not Hindu?

Part of me feels like it would be no different than wearing a cross or pentagram for aesthetic reasons. I am not a religious person, but I do like the symbols and accessories.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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