The third stanza of Sarojini Naidu's "Dirge" goes like this:

Shatter her shining bracelets, break the string
Threading the mystic marriage-beads that cling
Loth to desert a sobbing throat so sweet,
Unbind the golden anklets on her feet,
Divest her of her azure veils and cloud
Her living beauty in a living shroud.

The stanza continues from the previous ones about the clothes, makeup, and jewelry of this new widow. However, then the stanza ends with "her living beauty in a living shroud".
The "living beauty" makes sense, but I'm confused what "in a living shroud" is supposed to be here. We've just described the finery and everything that she has, which isn't "living". What's going on here?


1 Answer 1


Traditional Hindu culture uses clothing and jewellery to mark a woman's marital status. Married women wear bangles of red or green glass, bracelets of gold or conch shell, and/or a ma.ngalasuutra, a gold necklace with black beads. There is of course much regional variation. For example, a ma.ngalasuutra is not customary in Bengal, whereas a shell bracelet is. And women from more cosmopolitan backgrounds may not feel the need to signal their marital status via their choice of clothing or accoutrements. But in much of the country it is typical to have some such markers of the woman's status as a wife, and they're also typically understood across communities. A Bengali person would readily know the significance of a ma.ngalasuutra, for example.

These markers all removed if the woman's husband dies. As Naidu's poem describes, the necklace and bangles are typically broken and discarded. Another custom, rather less prevalent now than it used to be, is that the widow also gives up colored clothing and wears all white. White garments are associated with death and funerals throughout South Asia: the corpse is clothed in white, and the funeral attendees wear white as well. Shrouds are also white.

Naidu makes the connection between the white clothing typical of widows and a white shroud. The widow is clad in white as in a shroud, but because she is alive, she is wearing a "living shroud".

  • Any reason you've added periods in mangal sutra?
    – CDR
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 23:31
  • @CDR I'm transliterating using iTrans coz it uses only ASCII characters. I could use IAST and type maṅgalasūtra, using diacritics instead of periods and doubled vowels, but that would require switching keyboard layouts, and I'm too fucking bone-idle.
    – verbose
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 23:43
  • @verbose you can use a simple "mangalsutra" instead, most Indians write it that way (see, e.g., pages for maglasutras on major jewellery stores like Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri or Tanishq).
    – muru
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 3:44
  • @muru sure I can, but I tend to transliterate exactly rather than approximately. That seems advisable when writing for an audience unfamiliar with Devanagari (or allied scripts such as Bengali) or with terms like "ma.ngalasuutra". But tbh, it's just a quirk. I use iTrans when referencing Hindi film songs too: abhii na jaao chho.Dakar, ke dil abhii bharaa nahii.n. Or classical ba.ndish: saa.De naal ve miyaa.N dilabarayaa, sajan miyaa.N ramazaa.N. iTrans is so habitual with me, when asked what "sharada" meant, I said it was a season before I realized the asker meant "shaaradaa".
    – verbose
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 4:03
  • 2
    @verbose your post, your way, but I wonder if "ma.ngalasuutra" is helping anybody other than those who are both unfamiliar with Devanagari, etc. and familiar with this ASCII-only iTrans output.
    – muru
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 4:10

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