Beauty and cosmetics in Mughal and other ages

In India there were 16 “shingars”, or modes of make-up. But in the olden days, young girls spent sleepless nights in a bid to prepare the best possible cosmetics, while the modern girl has just to walk across the street to get things to change her face.

Beauty and cosmetics in Mughal and other ages

Mughal beauties : outing with king

While there is so much adulation of Mughal monuments not much is said about how moon-faced Mughal woman adorned themselves to rule over a harem of thousands of ladies, even though true beauty does not need any aids, for it lies in the eye of the beholder.

However, true beauty, like Plato’s Table, is an ideal sans definition, hence the need for beauty aids to gloss over blemishes. Our civilisation has come a long way now from those ancient days, when woman did not use cosmetics. They bathed in fountains and streams, ate a humble repast, clothed themselves in what was available and yet broke many hearts. This is not to suggest, however, that all of them were “La Belle Dame sans Merci”. Many of them had their hearts broken in turn by the gay gallants and pined away like the Lady of the Lake.

But those ages waned and later we find girls in India, Egypt, China, Rome and Greece, perfecting the art of cosmetics. It was crude compared to modern methods but the purpose was the same. The axiom that “fairness hides a lot of sins”, made girls of a darker complexion use herbs and ointments to make their skin fairer. Gram flour, cream and oils were mainly employed for the purpose. In India there were 16 “shingars”, or modes of make-up, and so when Pakeezah sings her famous song, “Main tau kar aaun solah shingar re…”, she is giving vent to the Mughal days’ charms of beauty, which made the Indian bride shine like the harvest moon.


Sandalwood paste, amla oil, kajal, surma, turmeric (haldi), clay bath and baths in the early morning with water cooled in the moonbeams were what kept girls of rich families occupied. They ate more than their modern counterparts but their diet was well-balanced and they were robust and full of life unlike some of the sickly specimens seen these days. Dr R Nath has devoted a whole chapter to medieval cosmetics in his book, The Private Life of the Mughals, and of how bride and groom were prepared for marriage.

In the days of the Hindu kingdoms, the emphasis was on chastity and as such undisturbed beauty sleep was not the custom but one of the essentials of a good life. In the days of the Mughals and later the Nawabs of Lucknow, girls of good families were just as chaste as those earlier, but there were certain families, which practised the art of public idolatry of women. These women were not the fallen kind one finds in brothels.

They were the pace-setters of the fashions of those days. The courtesans graced the courts of the nobles and not necessarily their cots. Intimacy was limited to the one who showered favours. Until he continued to do so there was no question of a rival. Those were the days when women used hot ash to pluck out unwanted hair and craned their necks to watch the kites sailing in the sky to develop a long swan-like neck or the proverbial goblet-shaped one. Lotus and honey were used as a hormone preparation to develop the body and Urad dal avoided like poison to cut down fat.

But at about the same time in the West, Alexander Pope, a great observer of the social life of his times, had this to say about beauty aid employed by women:

“And now unveiled, the Toilet stands displays. Each silver Vase is mystic order laid. First robed in white, the nymph intent adores with head uncovered, the Cosmetic powers. Unnumberd treasures ope at once, and here.

This casket India’s glowing gems unlocks. And all Arabia breathes from yonder box. The Tortoise here and Elephants unite, Transformed to combs the speckled and the white. Here files of pins extend their shining rows, puffs, powders, Patches, Bibles, Billetdoux… The best sylphs surround their darling care, These set the head, and those divide the hair…”

Now, with sprays, dyes, wigs, eyebrow pencils, bindis, nail polishes, lipsticks, shampoos and powders, the whole perfumery of the East and West produce glamour girls, who with the aid of anklets, trinklets, bracelets, bangles, girdles, necklaces, eye-shadows, and tight or loose, high or low cut clothes, wrench out the heart of the most cynical of youths.

Boutiques, first popularized by Yves St Laurent, Christian Dior and Givenchy, cater to the needs of the most ordinary of women and convert them overnight into Cinderellas pursued by the princeliest of men.

In the olden days, when young girls spent sleepless nights in a bid to keep the diva burning with spices and oils of many kinds to produce the best kajal possible, or the milk in the earthenware pot from curdling, and applying the cream used for complexions, the modern girl has just to walk across the street to get things which can change her face in a trice.

Mehndi, or henna, for the hands, lipsticks of a hundred hues to redden lips, topees and clothes for hair-dos, “kasturi” and “manjans”, “datoons” and toothpastes for pearly teeth are all readily available.

The story of the man who discovered on his wedding night that the buxom wench he had married was but an old, bald woman with artificial teeth and hair and padded breasts and hips, is perhaps no exaggeration for it speaks a world of truth for the concept of beauty through cosmetics and beauty aids.

Thus Milady walks or struts about the street in borrowed beauty, the cynosure of all eyes and the butt of many a joke, according to the whim of the passerby, who little knows what a bewildering variety of cosmetics has converted plain Jane into an Ursulla Andress or a Bridget Bardott.