'The missī-stained finger-tip of the fair': A cultural history of teeth and gum blackening in South Asia

Thomas J. Zumbroich

Abstract


This study presents the first systematic investigation of teeth and gum blackening as a form of body ornamentation in South Asia. While classical Sanskrit literature had affirmed the aesthetic appeal of jasmine white teeth, from around the middle of the sixteenth century blackened teeth, and sometimes gums, were noted as essential female adornments in some urban and courtly contexts. The agent of choice for teeth blackening became known as missī, a powdery mixture of (1) iron and copper sulphate, (2) a plant source of tannins, such as myrobalans, and (3) flavouring agents. The use of missī, thought to be sanctified by Fāt­imah, the Prophet's daughter, became deeply engrained in Islamic culture across much of the subcontinent. Teeth blackening as a life cycle event related to sexual maturity and in its literary portrayals acquired distinct sexual overtones. It was integrated into to the culture of courtesans and prostitutes where missī became synonymous with the ritual of selling a woman's virginity. Although not a primary motivation, medicinal considerations also played a role in the use of missī. Early references to blackening the gums and edges of the teeth suggest a connection to an older tradition of filing the interstices between teeth which had become prohibited by Islamic law. Geographically and culturally distinct traditions of teeth blackening also prevailed among diverse indigenous groups living along the slopes of the Eastern Himalayas, from Nepal through Meghalaya and Assam to Nagaland. Here teeth were blackened by applying the wood tar of specific plants or chewing specific plant products. These practices related technologically and culturally to the wide-spread teeth blackening traditions of island and mainland South-east Asia and beyond.

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