Pootu vaitha oru vatta nila...
So goes a song from the movie tamil Idhayam. Roughly translated it is "A round moon with a bindhi". Tamil poets from the days of yore (this one by poet Vairamuthu),have tried to descibe the beauty of a tamil woman. A few constants in their descriptions -long hair decked with flowers, chandramukhi (woman with a face like the moon) and a pottu (bindi) smack in the middle of her forehead.
Yes, the pottu adds greatly to a woman's beauty, but why the red pottu and in that specific location? The red color and the location can be prefuncturily explained based on aesthetics. Red is a beautiful and bright color that contrasts well with the fair skinned aryan woman and symmetry requires the location specified earlier.
Is that all there is to it? Well , I think not. A key aspect of Hindu culture (I am specifically referring it to as culture rather than religion as I believe we muddled the two later on) is its symbolism. So here is my take on it......
The pottu is mainly red in color. Red color has the longest wavelength and can thus be seen the farthest (that is why the stop light is red!!!). Red also symbolizes fire... the fire of passion. When a girl is young, she wears the pottu to signify the passion in her. The question that could come up here is - Doesn't a man have passion? He certainly does, but our (rather our ancestor's) society, being as it was, allowed men to lay bare their passion - for education, women etc.
When the woman is married, she applies it to the top of her forehead where the hair starts. This is to indicate that her love is consummated or satisfied. It is a sort of warning sign to all other men who look at her. Also in some cultures, the woman cover her hair after her wedding. This is because the hair is black and black signifies that it accepts everything/everyone.
The color symbolism is so important in our culture. Another such symbolism is why widows wear white and their hair shorn. White as a color repels all light/colors. When a woman is clothed in white, she tells the wold that she is no longer an active participant..... I repel all of you.. all I have is within me.
Women these days barely wear the pottu. They ignore it as having religious connotations, which do not go well in this liberal, modern and hence civilized (so they say) world. Even the few who wear it, prefer black to red.
This is just one example of a religious symbol having no religious roots, rather a societal or cultural root. There are many more such examples. I wish people would stop to ask or think, why we (or our parents) do certain things the way we (or they) do and try to come up with rational explanations rather than accepting them on blind faith or rejecting them as being religious.
We don't give our ancestor's enough credit for being rational thinkers!!