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Tilak Hindu caste marks of sandal paste, chalk powder or ashes, drawn on the forehead or other parts of the body. Wood, metal coins or marigold buds are also used to make tilak paste. The use of a particular tilak design and material depend on caste and sect.

The use of the tilak is believed to have started from Vedic times, when ashes from burnt offerings were used to mark the forehead. Banbhatta's Kadambari, composed in the 7th century, refers to the trident-shaped sectarian mark on the foreheads of Drdhadasyu and Jabali Rsi who were devotees of shiva. This suggests that, at least from the 7th century, Saivites drew trident-shaped tilaks on their foreheads. The puranas, which date from the 10th-11th centuries, also refer to the Saivite practice of drawing tilak marks on the forehead. The charyapada also mentions the use of the tilak. It is believed that the tilak was introduced by the Saivites and then spread among other sects.

It may be assumed that the inspiration for different tilak designs came from the signs and symbols associated with the deities. For instance, the trident-shaped tilak mark on the foreheads of Saivites resembles the mark on the forehead of Shiva. The triple lines painted on the forehead of Vaisnavas are similar to the lines drawn on vishnu images in south India. The Shaktas, who worship the goddess' Kali, paint a red dot on their foreheads, emulating the red dot below the third eye of the goddess.

Tilak is not obligatory for everyone. Usually devoted Hindus paint the tilak on their foreheads before their daily religious rites. For the Saivite, Sakta, Vaisnava, Saura and Ganapatya sects it is a regular rite. Vaisnavas, in particular, draw tilak marks on twelve different points of the body associated with the twelve names of Vishnu after bathing. These twelve names of the god and the corresponding twelve spots on the body are as follows: Keshaba on the forehead, Narayana on the stomach, Madhava on the chest, Govinda on the throat, Vishnu on the right side, Madhusudana on the right arm, Trivikrama on the right shoulder, Vamana on the left side, Shridhara on the left arm, Hrsikesha on the left shoulder, Padmanabha on the back and Damodara on the waist. Tilak marks vary among the various sub-sects of the Vaisnavas. Some paint what looks like the English letter V, some U, while others make single or multiple lines. They also paint Vishnu's shabkha (conch), chakra (wheel) and gada (mallet) on other parts of their body.

Tilak mark that Saivites paint on their foreheads is called tripundra. It is usually made of three parallel lines; at times the lines are slightly curved, resembling a quarter moon. The tripundra is obligatory for Saivites who believe that it is as auspicious as bathing in the Ganges and reciting the names of Vishnu and Shiva. Other Saivite tilak designs include a half moon with a dot, and a wood-apple leaf or a pebble.

Tilak marks of the Saktas are similar to those of the Saivites. One or more stamps are common, as are tripundra marks, or slightly curved lines. Tilak stamps vary for sub-sects like the Daksinachari, Bamachari, Mahakali and Saivite-Sakta.

The Saura and Ganapatya sects use comparatively fewer tilak marks. The mark of a Saura consists of two straight horizontal lines between the eyebrows, with the bottom line being slightly shorter than the top line. The tilak mark of the Ganapatyas resembles the English letter U, dissected by a line in the centre, somewhat like the flame of a candle.

The use of tilak stamps reflects many social customs of the Hindus. The first among these is the caste system. Although all Hindus are free to use the tilak, different Puranas and scriptures have prescribed different tilak marks for different sects, such as vertical marks for Brahmins and horizontal marks for ksatriyas, a half moon for vaishyas and a circular tilak for Sudras. These rules, however, are not followed strictly nowadays.

There appears to be some links between the tilak and the worship of folk deities. For instance, the mark painted on the walls of a South Indian household which worships Gangamma Devi is almost identical with the three-pronged tilak of the Saivites. These similarities suggest that an admixture of Aryan and non-Aryan culture is reflected in the use of tilaks. [Dulal Bhowmik]