The Ornamented Woman

You think women today have it tough trying to stay fit and look beautiful? In Vedic India, women were considered qualified when they were versed in the 64 arts. What man could resist a woman possessing these qualifications?


In today’s world, a woman is considered desirable or “ornamented” if she has a beautiful face, an attractive figure, intelligence, a good education, a warm personality, a sense of humor or a kind disposition. One or some of these traits would be enough to win the hearts of most men. But if we turn the clock back more than 5000 years ago during Dwapara-yuga or the Bronze Age in Vedic India, a woman would be considered most desirable or properly ornamented if she was versed in the sixty-four arts. Once you discover what they are, you will be quite happy if your husband loves you for just a few of the qualities referred to in the first sentence. 

Since simply listing the sixty-four arts would be rather lengthy and likely boring, we thought we would tell the story of a woman in Vedic India who had an opportunity to develop most of them. Using the tale of the maiden, Nipuna, we will endeavor to point out the sixty-four arts outlined in yoga philosophy, which are meant to develop the feminine nature and contribute to knowledge and expertise in general. This is not an attempt to proclaim them the sole domain of the feminine but as you will see, many are imaginative, evocative of beauty and culturally enriching. Studying or applying even a few of them will open up one’s expression of and familiarity with the feminine nature. This applies both to women and men. Some of the qualities these arts are likely to develop within the self by their practice are beauty, perception, sensitivity, intuition, compassion, empathy, honesty, vulnerability, the opening of the heart, creative expression, laughter, silliness, child-likeness and freedom from inhibition.  

I don’t know whether you have ever had the experience of being in a culture where accomplishment in one or some of the arts is mandatory for all citizens.  An example of such a culture is Bali, a state in Indonesia.  Everyone is trained in the arts as children.  As adults, they go on to do various things as in any society, but they still participate in the arts either individually or collectively, based on their training and background.  To meet and be with these people is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.  They are the most gentle, open, trustworthy and friendly people I personally have ever met in my travels around the world.  Incidentally, the Balinese societal structures and religious beliefs are based on Vedic culture.  They are living examples of the expression of the sixty-four arts.

Nipuna, whose name means ‘expert,’ was a girl born to a family of brahmans or learned people.  However, though learned, her family was of modest means.  Before she was even conceived, Nipuna’s parents had prayed to the goddess, Saraswati, to benedict them with a child who would be gifted with beauty and talent.  When she was just a baby, her parents took her to a Saraswati temple and placed her at the feet of a deity or likeness of Saraswati, the goddess of learning and patron of the arts. They prayed that their daughter would receive her blessing and become gifted in the arts so that she would be able to make her way in the world, despite her parents’ humble means. Nipuna’s mind was like a clear, reflective pool of water and her beauty appeared to ornament or enhance the beauty of everything else around it.  Because of an endless curiosity and a compelling interest in all things, her mind was completely present in the moment and all her mental faculties were focused.  With such mental clarity, she trained herself from childhood to remember and repeat everything she saw and heard, verbatim.

In her childhood, she would go into the forest and imitate the beautiful songs of many songbirds including the chakora bird, which subsists solely by drinking the rays of the moon.  In this way, she learned to sing in a most distinctive and enchanting way.  A family of musicians and musical teachers lived nearby.  Nipuna was naturally attracted to the music and song and loved to spend time there.  Though her family could not afford to pay for music lessons, the head of the family who was a teacher to many, recognized her natural ability in music and took her under his wing for training.  In exchange, she would do errands and  help out in other ways.  She learned raga, various musical forms that are first mastered with the voice and then only applied to other musical instruments.  Different ragas are sung at different times of the day in order to invoke certain moods or states of mind. Nipuna knew them all and her voice had the effect of mesmerizing the minds and hearts of her listeners. After becoming expert at singing the various forms of raga, she also became familiar with the use of rhythm and meter and the composition of lyrics.  She had the unique ability of reading a poem and instantly composing and setting it to a melody as she read.  

Nipuna then turned her attention to musical instruments.  Nipuna’s favorite was the sitar, which is a stringed instrument that has the capability of transporting the mind to sublime states of peace and enchantment of spirit.  Her other favorite was a simple flute made from bamboo.  Her expertise on the bamboo flute was developed to such a high degree that she could captivate the forest-dwelling animals with its supernatural sound.  Thus, she would win them over as trusted friends.

Nipuna also learned classical and folk forms of dance from the dancers whom she would accompany with her instrumental musicianship.  She took to dance as a bird takes to flight and her dedication and practice resulted in her embodiment of the beauty of movement.  In other words, she didn’t just walk, she glided as if her feet never hit the ground but passed effortlessly over it.  Even her mundane physical movements gradually evolved into a refined elegance, which emerged from her study of dance.

Nipuna’s mother was loving like Yashoda.  Due to being brahmans or educated, spiritual people, her family followed a vegetarian diet.  Nipuna’s mother taught her to cook endless varieties and preparations of foods and dishes with delicate mixtures of aromatic spices and exotic ingredients.  Nipuna would learn her mother’s basic recipes and then improve upon them, relying on her refined sense of taste and smell.  The fragrances and aromas wafting from Nipuna’s home when she and her mother were preparing food were a welcome distraction to all passersby.  These simple yet elaborate meals were prepared regularly at Nipuna’s household. Before the family would sit and eat together, a small portion of the food was first set aside and placed upon the altar.  A portion was always offered to God first with an attitude of blessing and thanks.  It is understood that God accepts such an offering when presented with an attitude of love and gratitude and, in effect, eats the food.  The remainder of the food is actually considered to be remnants left over from God’s plate.  And, by eating such food, one’s lower nature gradually becomes purified and one’s higher or godly nature eventually begins to shine through.  

Another very important issue to be considered which Nipuna learned from her virtuous mother is the state of mind and attitude one should have while preparing the food.  The thoughts and feelings of the cook go directly into the food.  Thoughts and feelings are things.  They actually appear as forms on the subtle plane, though they cannot be perceived with the physical eyes.  When negative thoughts, anger, emotional upset, etc., cloud the mind, similar negative vibrations and emotions actually enter into the food being prepared and are then consumed and swallowed by all those who eat the food.  Have you ever experienced indigestion after eating a meal that was actually tasty and well prepared?  I’m sure you have.  Chances are the murky waters of the cook’s negative or unhappy state of mind spilled into the cooking pot, and you are left to digest the conflicting emotions long after the meal is over.

Once, while staying at the home of a close friend for a couple of weeks, I was treated like a king and the meals prepared by his girlfriend were simply wonderful.  In fact, there was one meal in particular which took her about six hours to prepare which was exceptionally good.  This meal, while absolutely delicious, must have been filled with mega-portions of love and attentiveness.  One morning, however, she was on her way out the door to go to the gym when my friend asked her if she wouldn’t mind cooking breakfast for us.  Well, she clearly did mind and didn’t want to do it.  But she did it anyway with a very unpleasant attitude and then left for the gym.  My friend and I ate the delicious breakfast (her cooking was always tasty).  For several hours afterward, I had a bad case of indigestion, which took a long time to get rid of.  

Food that is lifeless or doesn’t taste good is obviously poorly prepared.  You can’t always judge the frame of mind of the cook by how the food tastes or appears.  The next time you go to a restaurant, if possible, take a good look at the cook and evaluate her state of mind.  Then decide whether or not you want to risk eating the food.

In Vedic times as in modern times in places such as India and Bali, each home had its own altar or shrine which the family would use as its centerpiece for meditation, prayer, religious rituals, spiritual practices and for the observance of holy days and feast days.  Since it was the duty of the woman of the house to maintain and tend to the altar and the various offerings that were made to God upon that altar, Nipuna learned how to construct an altar and how to appoint and decorate it.  Her mother also taught her how to make preparations of food and flowers which were then offered upon the family altar.  The virtuous Nipuna loved the time spent tending and arranging the altar.

On the outskirts of the village lived a wise, old brahman sage named Vachas.  When his wife passed on, he needed someone to cook and take care of his altar and his household in exchange for fresh milk from his cow, herbs from his garden and some extremely valuable knowledge.  Though the milk and herbs were useful, it was the irresistible allure of knowledge that attracted Nipuna to, in effect, sit at the feet of the sage.  Their connection and mutual appreciation was immediate and Nipuna began to cook and clean the cottage of the brahman which was cluttered with books, maps, charts, rocks, stones, herbs and scientific devices.  The old man knew much about many things, things that most people were not aware of and, for the most part, held little interest for them unless they needed help or healing.  Rarely did he speak though he was most always quietly muttering mantras, prayers and mystical incantations.  However, when Vachas did speak, Nipuna would drop everything and listen attentively.  

She knew how to listen.  She had learned by spending many quiet hours alone in the forest listening to the voices of the animals.  And from this, she had also learned to understand the conversations between birds, parrots and other animals.  The old brahman practiced Ayurvedic medicine for which he harnessed the healing powers of plants and herbs and various concoctions.  Nipuna would watch carefully as he mixed his healing elixirs, which he used to treat the ailments of the villagers.  She also had the opportunity on many occasions to experiment and develop her own medicines and cures from the knowledge, which she had accumulated.  Vachas taught her how to make amulets or mystical pouches into which were put particular herbs, mantras written on special leaves, and gems.  When worn around the neck or on the body, these amulets had the power to counteract negative influences and disease conditions.  From him, she also learned how to plot the movements of the planets through the skies and what effect those movements had upon people physically, psychologically and karmically.  

Nipuna also learned about stones, precious gems and their vibrational healing properties.  The stones and gems were placed in settings, usually of either gold or silver, and then worn on the body.  He used colors in this way: Vachas had a high window in one of the walls of his cottage.  He would divert the light coming through the window using a large magnifying glass into a directed beam.  He would then place a chair in the path of this beam and alter its color with pieces of stained glass — any one of the seven colors of the spectrum.  He would have an afflicted person sit in the chair and be bathed in a particular color of light, which would have healing effects on particular disease conditions with regular treatments over a period of time.  Much valuable time was spent under the tutelage of the old brahman.  

When the occasions for yearly festivals and celebrations would come round in the village, various players and theatre troupes would arrive to perform.  Nipuna would offer her services in exchange for learning the dramatic arts including costuming and stage make-up.  Due to her natural ability to mime, act, and imitate others, she was soon awarded roles of major characters in the plays and dramas.  One year, after much persuasion by the troupe leader, her parents let her travel with the theatre troupe for an entire season. She was well looked after and was able to learn the subtleties of mixing and applying make-up for the stage, for daily use and for special occasions.  She learned how to grind powders and make pastes from which colors and pigments would be prepared and mixed.  These would then be subtly and delicately applied to enhance beauty, to create characters and for dramatic effect. Nipuna also learned to paint attractive designs and images on the body.  She excelled at all these techniques.

Nipuna’s skilful mother had taught her to spin cotton, wool and silk, to weave cloth and to do intricate needlework.  All of this she applied to the making of costumes.  She was taught how to design and cut cloth and to assemble costumes by an old woman who had been involved in such things for fifty years.  She also learned the design and construction of masks from the woman’s husband.  Nipuna became so competent at costuming, make-up and assuming a character that she could dress and behave in disguise to the extent that she could converse with her own friends who would not be able to recognize her.

As the theatre season drew to a close, Nipuna met a woman named Sugandha who was retained by a queen who ruled a small, wealthy kingdom along with her husband, the king.  The queen spent a lot of time and money on fashion and the enhancement of her own personal beauty as well as entertaining guests and the social graces.  Recognizing Nipuna’s gifts in the areas of make-up and costuming, Sugandha convinced her to come and work with her at the queen’s palace when the theatre season was completed.  From Sugandha, Nipuna learned the subtleties of mixing and applying scents, aromatics and fragrances.  She learned about the natural qualities of oils and herbs and the effects they have on the minds of people when applied to address specific needs.  She also learned to use fragrances to improve health and well being.  The modern-day term for this is Aromatherapy.  From the queen, Nipuna learned the art of conversation, humor and quick-witted repartee.  She also learned proper etiquette and gracious behavior.  The court was host to guests and foreign dignitaries from around the world.  Through her attentiveness and a natural ear for language, Nipuna learned to speak and understand many foreign languages.  By developing a friendship with the king’s chief minister, Nipuna learned to read gestures and body language so that people’s real intent or objectives could be discerned, no matter how hard they tried to disguise them.  He also taught her how to speak in code and how to win over enemies or opponents using the four methods of accomplishing policy, which are conciliation, gifts, dissension or force.  (For more on this subject, read The Way of Kings by the author)  From the court magician, Nipuna learned the art of magic as well as various forms of gambling and sleight of hand.

The queen had an extensive collection of gems, earrings, crowns, ornaments and jewelry with which Nipuna learned to adorn and beautify the queen in a most attractive manner using color combinations and decorative themes that would be sustained throughout a particular dress ensemble.  Nipuna also learned to groom and decorate the queen’s hair in a variety of styles and fashions, and she was taught various methods of adorning the queen’s head with crowns and tiaras.  Sugandha also taught Nipuna how to use physical exercise and specific foods and diets to tone, beautify and vitalize the body.

In her free time, Nipuna would go down to the river or lake with her friends and playmates.  There they would spend time frolicking in the water, splashing each other and squirting one another with water and dyes using a type of water gun.  Sometimes they would fill brass pots or glass containers with water to varying levels and, tapping them with a mallet, play musical tunes, delighting each other.

The king and queen had a young son whom Nipuna would sometimes look after.  She would make toys for him out of wood and other materials and build small carts, which they would decorate with flowers and pull around the courtyard.  She also taught him how to converse using only the hands and fingers, a type of sign language.  With great delight, Nipuna and the young prince would laugh together as they carried on a conversation in front of others who were unable to guess what they were saying.  

There were many guest rooms in the palace and each was decorated and arranged in a different manner using a different theme.  Trained by Sugandha, Nipuna developed her ability to design and decorate interiors.  In particular, she enjoyed arranging the bed and preparing the bedchamber in order to heighten the intensity of the romantic interludes and lovemaking between the queen and the king.  Some of the methods used were anointing the bed with fragrances and the preparation of aphrodisiacs and tonics to intensify sexual moods and to strengthen the libido.  Sandalwood paste was smeared on the forehead and sandalwood oil was massaged into the body.  Flower garlands were made to wear.  Betel nuts, which act as a mild stimulant, were prepared for chewing.  Music and musical instruments were available, especially the lute and the flute.  Erotic pictures and paintings were used to enhance the sexual mood, as well as the sharing or reading of detailed descriptions of sexual adventures, fantasies, etc.  The central idea was to bombard all five senses with erotic stimulants with the purpose of heightening the lovemaking experience for the lovers and bringing them to a satisfying climax, which would liberate their passions.

I realize that some who read this will cry, “Exploitation of women!” when they realize that the nude bodies of women were likely depicted in the erotic pictures used to heighten sexual desire.  It may be worth pointing out here that sexual behavior is essentially of two types — that which enriches the self and that which drains the self.  In either variety, sexual stimulation and climactic orgasm may be achieved.  But the first adds something of value and completion to the self through the exchange of love and a heartfelt emotional connection, while the other actually sucks the vitality and vigor from one partner by the other or by both in their feeding frenzy without giving anything of lasting value in return.  What is the difference and what is the criterion?  Simply, it is the connection of two hearts through love.  Almost any level of genuine love will do.  However, the deeper and more pure the love, the greater the value gained and the energy exchanged.  Sex without love or even without genuine emotional expression is nothing short of exploitation. It is impersonal, unemotional, indifferent, and of little redeeming value.  However, eroticism in the context of love and appreciation is not exploitation and though the incidentals and sexual stimulants used may be similar in either approach, the two distinct experiences are truly worlds apart.  One is, in effect, a rape of the emotional being of the other which results in a gradual breakdown of the self if perpetrated repeatedly, while the other first establishes an atmosphere of appreciation, honor and respect between the partners and subsequently results in a wonderful, loving exchange, which serves to uplift, affirm and expand both participants.

Nipuna learned to make flower garlands to wear for decoration and to enhance beauty.  She was also instructed by Sugandha on how to use flowers as ornaments to adorn the head and face.  She became skilled in making wreaths out of flowers, plants and shrubs to accent doors, entryways and fireplaces.  She developed an encyclopedic knowledge of plants and learned how to tend and nurture them as well as their specific properties and uses.  Nipuna prepared wonderful flower arrangements in vessels of varying sizes and shapes for dining tables, entryways and the king’s court.

In the formidable heat of summer in India, Nipuna learned to prepare palatable and cooling drinks designed to refresh the body and mind.  Some contained the essences of flowers and spices.  Others were made with yogurt, which cools the body.  In the cold winter, Nipuna learned how to prepare hot drinks and tonics, which not only warmed the body but also healed and reinvigorated the self since they were made with combinations of healing herbs. 

After some time, the king, who had a wandering eye, began to focus it on the peerless beauty of young Nipuna.  Though fond of Nipuna, the queen asked her to leave her service but presented her with many fashionable clothes and outfits that a young girl of her means would never be able to afford.  Having learned how to dress the queen, this intelligence was not lost on the enchanting Nipuna who for the first time in her life had the clothes to wear to match her beauty.  

Probably the most obvious way of stepping more completely into your womanhood is doing things that make you feel like a woman, doing things that make you feel feminine. For each woman this will be different, but one of the things that enhances that sense of the feminine is wearing feminine clothing.  There is a greater tendency and acceptance for women these days to dress like men or in some non-gender specific manner. It is interesting to note that it is acceptable for women to dress like men or, if you like, in what is typically regarded as men’s clothing. However, on the other hand, it is not at all acceptable for men to dress in women’s clothing for it is synonymous with their emasculation. I wonder why such a dichotomy exists? It is alright to repress the female identity through the wearing of male clothing but it is not okay to swallow the male identity through the wearing of female clothing. Many have looked upon women’s freedom to dress as men as some form of women’s liberation. Is that really what it is? Is it not rather a form of female repression and lack of acknowledgement of feminine value and the need to somehow disguise it? For if it is a form of freedom, then why is the wearing of women’s clothing by men not liberating for men in a similar manner?

With recommendations from several highly placed personages from the king’s court, among them the chief minister, Nipuna was welcomed with a grant of scholarship into a prestigious institute of higher learning to further her studies.  There she studied composition of prose and poetry, including lexicography, meter and the use of metaphor.  She learned to read books aloud for the benefit of others and for dramatic effect.  She became expert in debate and could convincingly argue the opposing sides of an issue.  She studied and excelled in techniques, which led to the expansion and improvement of memory.  And from this she learned to memorize a poem immediately upon hearing it for the first time.  She discovered the keys to solving and composing puzzles, riddles and intricate questions.  She also applied her talents to the study of art, specifically painting, the mixture and usage of color, and sculpture.  Nipuna spent four years at this university. Special honor and distinction was bestowed on her upon graduation.  

Wherever Nipuna sought employment she was received with open arms.  She quickly distinguished herself as the person with the foremost qualifications and typically would achieve any position she would seek.  Over time, she had realized the need to move from the imitative to the creative.  This in particular is what set her apart from all others.  Her development of these unique qualifications went on for the first twenty-eight years of her life.  Within this period of time, Nipuna had traveled far and wide and eventually settled in a far-off kingdom.  There she found work teaching others various arts and disciplines. 

One day, the queen of the realm died suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving the king a widower with two young children, a boy and a girl.  An official period of mourning for one year was designated by the priests.  At the end of such time, the king declared that he would select another woman to become his queen and the surrogate mother to his orphaned children.  Over the course of the year, however, the king invited various prospective women to the palace to render their distinctive services and make themselves familiar to the royal family. 

Many daughters of aristocrats and noblemen chose to vie for the hand of the king.  But they knew they must exhibit something of distinction beyond their natural beauty and femininity in order to make a suitable impression upon the king and his children. In the meantime, Nipuna’s reputation as a competent teacher of many disciplines had been circulating far and wide. Since Nipuna was expert and qualified in many practices, which the prospective queens wanted to develop, the nobles separately engaged her to tutor their beautiful daughters in these various arts and skills. Each young woman employed Nipuna for one hour per week to train her in her selected field of study. Nipuna was a very capable teacher and the young women were determined to learn and make a worthy impression upon the king. Over the course of the year, each prospective bride performed her skill so well that the king found it to be an important and essential trait for his future queen and subsequently endeared her to him. To choose one woman and miss out on the qualities of all the others became the king’s greatest dilemma.

Finally, as the year drew to a close and the king was to make his choice, a controversy broke out in the public square between the aspiring queens and Nipuna. They were all demanding that she teach them the other skills that the king wished they possessed. She could not physically meet such demands on her and the daughters of the noblemen were pushing and pulling and threatening her in their frustration. One day, the king happened upon such a scene in the town square when three of the prospective brides were accusing Nipuna of neglecting their tutelage while showing favoritism toward the other. The king came to the aid and protection of Nipuna and was immediately drawn by her natural beauty and charm. When it was revealed that she was responsible for teaching each woman her incredible skill, the king could hardly believe it. He insisted that Nipuna come to the palace and demonstrate these acclaimed abilities. When she did so, he and his children quickly grew to love her and the king proposed marriage to Nipuna when the year of mourning had come to an end. 

This story illustrates how the development of the sixty-four arts will unquestionably turn an ordinary woman or any woman into a queen, that is, a woman who is truly set apart from the masses. Further, the sixty-four arts will result in the expression of a well-rounded womanhood, a refined femininity and an individual elegance. With such talent and expertise, she will command reputation, respect and distinction. Even a few of these abilities would go a long way in developing one’s uniqueness and distinction.

Nipuna is also the embodiment of the Renaissance woman. By definition, a Renaissance woman is one who is gifted, talented or accomplished in many fields and disciplines, often unrelated, such as the arts, sciences, languages and the humanities. The prime example of such a person from the Renaissance period is Leonardo da Vinci. Some modern day examples of Renaissance women may be Grace Kelly. Eleanor Roosevelt, Emily Dickinson, Oprah Winfrey or Condoleeza Rice.