Special Attire of a Student during Upanayana (उपनयने विशेष-परिधानम्)

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Upanayana is a unique ritual with specific procedures whose symbolism impose upon the pupil certain external marks of differentiation concerning his dress, equipment, and appearance by which he is identified out and recognized.[1]

The goals of the special attire prescribed in the texts for a student are to primarily teach him to live a simple life with less needs, with humility, closely associate with nature, avoiding luxury and decorations, leaving the ahamkara or riches, and live harmoniously with his co-students.

Acharya Ashrams have their own code of conduct as described in the Dharmasutras and Grhyasutras. However, all students based on their varna had special rules to follow, had a dress code, and specific activities. Whatever be their objectives of study, students were to have certain marks of differentiation concerning their attire.

Characteristic Attire of an Upaneeta

Following is a list of these characteristic features which a student has to follow starting from the Upanayana samskara. An Upaneeta (one who is undergoing Upanayana) has a distinct attire constituting of garments held by a mekhala or a girdle - all made of specific plant and animal materials, a staff of wood, a shikha and a yajnopavita (sacred chord). After Upanayana a student was prescribed to keep the special attire until he finishes his education with some exceptions.

शिखा ॥ Shikha

According to the siddhantas given in Yogashastra, the area on the head right beneath the shikha has the "thousand petaled lotus" (higher intelligence) and further beneath it is the brahma-randhra. It is said that this location is the seat of higher consciousness (paramatma tattva). Keeping the Shikha in this way protects both the centers. Ancient seers have identified this aspect and mentioned that it brings about longevity, tejas (brilliance), and bala (strength) apart from protecting the Brahmachari. They advocated that it is through the shikha that the flow of ojas (vitality) and energy takes place into the bodily systems. It leads the person to higher consciousness (paramatma-tattva). According to Prof. Ram Murti modern scientific evidence also points to the fact that it is through the area of shikha that the energy is received into the body. Yogis are constantly in contact with the Brahmatattva and hence they do not require a shikha. It is the people in Brahmacharya, Vanaprastha and Grhastha ashramas that require a shikha to draw the Brahma shakti to attain their higher goals. During many dharmik activities, the Shikha is to be kept bound, it is touched, and cleaned thereby the "thousand petaled lotus' (sahasra-dala-padma) abounds with tejas and leads one on the path of attaining the Self. It is because of its association with the Brahmatattva that bearing a Shikha has become an indelible identity of a Sanatana Dharma practitioner since ages.[2]

अजीनानि ॥ Ajina (Deer-Skin as Upper Garment)

The dharmik view of decorum required that, when engaged in a religious ceremony, the upper part of the body should de covered with a piece of cloth. On the occasion of the Upanayana, therefore, the young scholar was offered an upper garment, because from this time his proper religious life began. From the ancient literature we know that the original piece of the upper garment offered at this occasion was the deer-skin. We are informed by the Gopatha Brahmana that the deer-skin was symbolical of spiritual and intellectual pre-eminence.[3] Smriti Chandrika mentions that according to Brhaspati,

कृष्णाजिनं ब्राह्मणस्य रौरवं क्षत्रियस्य तु। वस्ताजिनं तु वैश्यस्य सर्वेषां वा गवाजिनम् ॥ (Smrt. Chan. Part. 1 Page 74)

The Brahmachari is to wear Ajina as upper garment of the skin of certain animals. It should be the skin of Krishna or Ena, black buck (an antilope skin[4]), for a Brahmana; of Ruru, or spotted deer, for a Kshatriya ; of Vasta or Aja, goat, for a Vaishya [Brihaspati; Yama ; Sankha]. It may also be cowhide [gavyam] for all, according to Paraskara (sarveshaam vaa gavyam) and of spotted deer for all, according to Yama.[1] We find similar recommendations in Gṛhyasūtras of Asavalayana, Baudhyāna and Kaṭhaka with slight changes here and there; like Baudhyāna prescribes the skin of black deer suited for all varnas so does Kaṭhaka agree with him except for prescribing the skin of tiger for Kṣatriya, representing the courage and valour and skin of spotted deer for Vaishya.[4]

The Ajina was first used as an upper garment. But, later on, when cotton cloth was supplied in its place, it was utilized for a seat. In early times the country was covered with forest and skins were found in abundance. But when forest were cleared, there became paucity of hide, and blanket was prescribed. Apastamba prescribed the skin of black buck deer for brahmins, Ruru deer skin for kshatriyas and goat skin for vaishyas, Avika or wool blankets for all varnas is also suitable.[3]

हारिणमैणेयं वा कृष्णं ब्राह्मणस्य ३ रौरवं राजन्यस्य ५ बस्ताजिनं वैश्यस्य ६ आविकं सार्ववर्णिकम् ७ कम्बलश्च ८ (Apas. Dhar. Sutr. 3.3-8)

The ancient tradition was adhered to, though the animal skin was reduced to threads which is now represented by three strands fastened together as the Yajnopavita at the time of the Upanayana Samskara.[3]

वासांसि ॥ Vasa (Lower Garments)

Smriti Chandrika mentions that according to Gautama,

शाणक्षौमचीरकुतपास्सर्वेषां कार्पासं वाऽविकृतम्। (Smrt. Chan. Part. 1 Page 75)

Vasa is the lower garment which may be made of the following materials, according to viz. (i) shana (शाणं शणविकारम्), hemp (2) kshauma (क्षौममतसीसूत्रनिर्मितम्), fibre of atasi plant (3) chiira (चीर), darbha, or kusha grass (चीरं दर्भादिनिष्पन्नम्) ; (4) kutapa, (कुतपः पार्वतीयाजरोमनिर्मितः कम्बलः) wool derived from mountain goats and used to make kambala (कम्बलः) or blankets and (5) Kaarpaasa (कार्पासम्), cotton.[1]

According to Vasishtha, it may be only woven cotton cloth (वसिष्ठोऽपि --- सर्वेषां वा तान्तवमरक्तम् । taantavam-araktam). But it should be woven or manufactured in the home of the pupil for purposes of the ceremony (Vaasah sadyah krittotam (Baudhayana, G.S., ii, 5, ii)). This shows the use of loom and khaddar in every household in those days. According to Taittiriya Aranyaka [ii, i], cloth could alternate with deer-skin (ajinam vaso va dakshinatah upaviya).[1]

Manu defined the kind of the lower garment based on the Varna vyavastha.

वसीरन्नानुपूर्व्येण शाण-क्षौमाविकानि च । (Smrt. Chan. Part. 1 Page 75)

The Brahmana should use Vasa of Shana (शाण), the Kshatriya of Kshauma (क्षौम), and the Vaishya of Avika (अविका) or goat's wool. But most texts agree that different varnas should use a cloth (Vasa) of different colours. The Brahmana should use his Kaarpaasa (कार्पासम्) which is white, clean, and fresh, and coloured red with manjishta. The Kshatriya should have his Kshauma cloth coloured yellow, and the Vaishya Kausheya cloth [Vasishtha].[1]

According to Apastamba, the Brahmana should use cloth coloured with kashaya, a vegetable dye (vriksha-kashaya-nirmitam varksham), the Kshatriya manjishtha cloth (dyed with madder), and the Vaishya haridra (yellow) cloth.[1] At present the above distinctions have vanished away and clothes dyed in Haridra ( yellow ) are offered to all the twice-born.[3]

मेखलः ॥ Mekhala (A Girdle)

The Brahmachari’s uniform also comprises a mekhala (मेखलः) or girdle made of different materials for different varnas of students. It was a girdle of sort garment which was offered to an initiate by acharya during the ceremony of Upanayana along with the chanting of the mantras. It is made of munja grass for the Brahmana, something made of munja is expressed as Maunji; since the munja grass is tied as a girdle in this Samskara, it also gained the name of Maunjibandhana (मौञ्जीबन्धनम्). Mekhala is made of jya (ज्या । bowstring) for Kshatriya (symbolizing his military avocation), and shana (शण), hemp thread for the Vaishya. It may also be of rope used for yoking the oxen to the plough (symbolical of agriculture as his occupation).[1] Paraskara suggests the use of a girdle made of Murva grass for Vaishyas. The Mekhala was usually made either of Munja grass or of hemp or any other material. Manu suggests that the girdle of a Brāhmaṇa should be made of a triple cord of munja grass and that of Kṣatriya with hemp-twists.

मौञ्जी त्रिवृत्समा श्लक्ष्णा कार्या विप्रस्य मेखला । क्षत्रियस्य तु मौर्वी ज्या वैश्यस्य शणतान्तवी ॥ २.४२ मुञ्जालाभे तु कर्तव्याः कुशाश्मन्तकबल्वजैः । त्रिवृता ग्रन्थिनैकेन त्रिभिः पञ्चभिरेव वा ॥ २.४३ (Manu. Smrt. 2.42-43)[5]

And in the absence of munja grass, Manu advises that the girdles of Brāhmaṇa, Kṣatriya and Vaiśya were supposed to be made of Kusa, Aṣmantaka and Valvaja grasses. The mekhala was tied by the Acharya near the navel with three knots signifying the student being encircled by three Vedas. However, we find the grhyasutras prescribing the tying of knots as per the rishis in the Pravara of the student.

इयं दुरुक्तम् परिबाधमाना वर्णं पवित्रं पुनती म आगात् । प्राणापानाभ्यां बलमादधाना स्वसा देवी सुभगा मेखलेयमिति ८ (Para. Grhy. Sutr. 2.2.8)[6]

Reciting the above mantra the Acharya gives the student a mekhala having knots (as per student's pravara). The above mantra means, "Here has come to me keeping away evil words, purifying my kind as a purifier, clothing herself by power of inhalation and exhalation, with strength, this sisterly goddess this blessed girdle." Manu suggested tying of one or five knots as per the tradition prevalent in the family.[4]

दण्डः ॥ Danda (Staff of wood)

The Brahmachari is also to be equipped with a danda or staff of wood of varying lengths for students of different varnas. The different woods mentioned are Bilva, Palana, Vata, Khadira, Pilava, Udumbara, Plaksha, Nyagrodha, Vetasa, Ashvattha, and, failing these, any wood which is used in a yajna (yajniya) according to Gautama. Manu states as follows

ब्राह्मणो वैल्वपालाशौ क्षत्त्रियो वटखादिरौ । पैलवौदुम्बरौ वैश्वो दण्डानर्हन्ति धर्म्मतः ॥ केशान्तिको ब्राह्मणस्य दण्डः कार्यः प्रमाणतः । ललाटसम्मितो राज्ञः स्यात्तु नासान्तिको विशः॥ (Manu. Smrt. 2.45-46)[5]

Meaning: The wood of Palasa and Bilva should be used for the danda of a Brahmana, Vata and Khadira for a Kshatriya, and Vilva and Udumbara wood was appropriate for a danda of a Vaishya. It should reach up to head in length for a Brahmana, up to forehead for a Kshatriya, and up to nose for a Vaishya. Dandalakshana according to Yama is as follows

ऋजवस्ते तु सर्वे स्युरव्रणास्सौम्यदर्शनाः। अनुद्वेगकरा नृणां सत्वचोऽनग्निदूषिताः ॥ (Smrt. Chan. Part. 1 Page 78)

But in all cases, it should be straight, beautiful, non-terrifying (anudvegakara), unburnt, and in its natural condition (satvacha).[1] The staff was not a mere wooden stick, it symbolized strength, resolute power, long journeys, accepting the ordeals, support, control, protection from enemies in self-defense be it from animals or other men, demons and pisachas - a true companion which an initiate was supposed to possess at all times. It was a sign of self confidence in a Brahmacharin. As per Paraskara Grhyasutra, wood of palasa was preferred for the Dañda (staff) of a Brāhmaṇa, Bilva wood for Kṣatriya and Udumbara wood served appropriate for Vaiśya. Some of the Gṛhyasūtras offer the flexibility to use all kinds of wood for all varnas.[4] A broken staff could attract penances on the part of a student; hence he should always be careful about his staff.

यज्ञोपवीतम् ॥ Yajnopavita (Sacred Thread)

The equipment of the Brahmachari is completed by the Yajnopavita (यज्ञोपवीतम्) or sacred cord to be worn by him in three sets of three threads each. These nine threads (tantu) are consecrated to the following nine deities who impart to them their own potency, viz. (i) Omkara, (2) Agni, (3) Naga, (4) Soma, (5) Pitri, (6) Prajapati, (7) Vayu, (8) Surya, (9) All Deities together. The thread is to be made of cotton (karpasa) for a Brahmana, of sana for a Kshatriya, and of goat’s skin for a Vaishya [Manu]." He who does not know the divine origin and significance of the Upavita will have all his religious ceremonies such as Snana, Dana, or Japa fruitless.”[1]

Symbolism of Uniform

There is spiritual significance behind each of these external marks prescribed for the Brahmachari.

By wearing an Ajina, the student is constantly reminded to become a youth of ideal character and deep scholarship. It is symbolical of Brahmavarchasam (spiritual radiance) and intellectual preeminence (Gopatha Brahma

ब्रह्मवृद्धिमिच्छन्नजिनान्येव वसीत क्षत्रवृद्धिमिच्छन्वस्त्राण्येवोभयवृद्धिमिच्छन्नुभयमिति । (Apas. Dhar .Sutr. 1.3.9)

Apastamba states that “He who wishes the increase of Brahmana power shall wear Ajina (skins) only; he who wishes the increase of Kshatriya power shall wear cloth only ; he who wishes the increase of both shall wear both [cf. Gopatha Brahmana, i, 2, 4]. Hiranyakesin [i, i, 4, 6] calls the skin as " a chaste, mobile vesture ”.[1]

अथैनं वासः परिधापयति येनेन्द्राय बृहस्पतिर्वासः पर्यदधादमृतं तेन त्वा परिदधाम्यायुषे दीर्घायुत्वाय बलाय वर्चस इति ७ (Para. Grhy. Sutr. 2.2.7)[6]

The symbolism of Vasa or garment is thus explained by Paraskara [ii, 2, 7] : “ In the way in which Brihaspati put the garment of immortality on Indra, thus I put (this garment) on thee, for the sake of long life, of strength, of splendour.” Hiranyakesin [i, i, 4, 2-3] extends still further this symbolism by stating that the student puts on the garment that he may be clothed " with long life, in the increase of wealth, and be a protector of human beings against imprecations ”. Thus the significance of the clothes worn by students clearly is to enhance their lives, radiance, strength and immortality.[1] The Mekhala was made of a triple chord to indicate the protection of the three Vedas encircling the child. It was tied round his waist to the recitation of verses stating that it was a daughter of the deity Shraddha (Faith) and a sister of the sages {svasa rishinam), born of tapas {tapaso’dhijdta) {Av., 133, 4], the protector of purity {rita), and asceticism {tapas), against evil [Varaha, Gr. S., 5].[1]

या दुरिता परिबाधमाना शर्मवरूथे पुनती न आगात् । प्राणापानाभ्यां बलमावहन्ती स्वसा देवानां सुभगा मेखलेयम् । इति ४ (Hira. Grhy. Sutr. 1.1.4)

Hiranyakesin calls the Mekhala the blessed one who has come to us, who drives away sin, purifying, our guard, and our protection”. Gobhila [ii, 10, 37] and Paraskara [ii, 2, 8] also call the Mekhala the girdle of protection. The Danda also has a spiritual meaning.

तं प्रतिगृह्णाति यो मे दण्डः परापतद्वैहायसोऽधिभूम्यां तमहं पुनरादद आयुषे ब्रह्मणे ब्रह्मवर्चसायेति १२ दीक्षावदेके दीर्घसत्रमुपैतीति वच नात् १३ (Para. Grhy. Sutr. 2.2.12-13)[6]

According to Paraskara, the student is to be equipped with a danda "for the sake of long life, holiness, holy lustre”, or because "he enters upon a long Sattra (a kind of yajna)” [cf. Satapatha, xi, 3, 3, 2 ; Katyayana, Sr. S., vii, 4, 1-4]. Manava Gr. S., (i, 22, ii) takes the staff as an aid to the traveller on the quest of Truth. Vaaraha Gr. S., 6 takes it to indicate that, armed with it, the Brahmachari will guard the Vedas. Apararka (on Yajnavalkya, i, 29) takes a materialistic view of it as a weapon of defense to the Brahmachari when he is out in the forests to collect firewood, in darkness, or unknown places like a tank or river.[1]

The composition of the Yajnopavita is full of symbolism and significance. The three folds of the Yajnopavita are also symbolical. They represent the three Gunas, reality, passion and darkness, out of which the whole universe is evolved. The Acharya, while investing the student with the Yajnopavita repeated an appropriate Mantra,[3]

यज्ञोपवीतं परमं पवित्रं प्रजापतेर्यत्स हजं पुरस्तात् । आयुष्यमग्र्यं प्रतिमुञ्च शुभ्रं यज्ञोपवीतं बलमस्तु तेजः । (Para. Grhy. Sutr. 2.2.11)[7]

It is asking for strength, long-life and illumination for the boy, the boy looking, in the meanwhile, towards the sun.[3]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 Mookerji. Radha Kumud, (1947) Ancient Indian Education (Brahminical and Buddhist) London: MacMillan And Co., Ltd. (Page 178 -180)
  2. Dr. Ramamurti Chaturvedi (2001) Yajnopavita Vedarambha Samavartana Samskara. Varanasi: Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishvavidyalaya
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Pandey, Raj Bali. (1949) Hindu Samskaras, A Socio-religious study of the Hindu Sacraments. Banaras: Vikrama Publications. (Pages 187-240)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Chahal, Mandeep (2020) Ph.D Thesis Titled: Samskaras in the Grihyasutras historical account of Jatakarma Upanyana Vivaha and Antyeshti. (Chapter 3)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Manu Smriti (Adhyaya 2)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Paraskara Grhyasutras
  7. Paraskara Grhyasutras