A radiant blushing bride : vermillion on forehead, dainty hands decorated with Mehendi, slender feet decorated with “Alta”.This is the image of the quintessential Oriya bride that comes up in everybody’s mind once we think of Oriya marriage. Red signifies prosperity and purity. A color that makes its presence felt at all Hindu functions. Also known as Mahawar in some parts of the country, “Alta” is believed to cool the body while at the same time beautifying the feet.
It is still unclear when “Alta” was discovered or how it become such an important part of dressing etiquettes of women in Orissa. Rfeernces of this liquid can be found in Upanishads which made it a necessary equipment of the 16 adornments of a women. Then, many depictions of the Hindu mythology show Lord Krishna lovingly applying “Alta” on his beloved Radha’s feet. A married woman’s look was believed to be incomplete without the red lining on her feet. However with changing times, “Alta’s” use has diminished. However it still continues to a vital part of the bridal trousseau in Orissa just like the vermillion and kohl.
Traditionally, “Alta” was squeezed out of the betel leaves. Much later ‘kum-kum’ and vermillion were dissolved in water to create this dye. Today chemical colors and lac are used to produce this. Red lac is one of the most ancient of natural dyes.
How and when these beautiful aesthetic liquid made their way to the makeup routine of Indian women is not known . But a peep into the history provides ample examples to show that it was very popular among the women of yore. Even the marauding Muslims could not resist the charm of the red colors and started using it. However it was this exchange of culture between the original inhabitants of India and the visiting Muslims that gradually led to the waning away off of the “Alta” from public consciousness. The Muslims introduced henna in India and along with it came subtle designs in the hands which were highly aesthetic and appealing. Gradually the expansion of Muslims in India and their policy of forced conversion led to the henna finding its place of preference in Indian women. At first, henna extracts replaced betel juice to make the color. And then slowly the use of Alta also diminished. The first documented use of henna extracts to be used in hands and feet are found in among the women of royal houses of Rajasthan, whose marriage alliances to the Mughals made the adaption of the custom compulsory.
It was only the Indian classical dances that remained true to their ancient get up so much so that when the famed Kathak originated as a combination of Bharatnatyam and Persian-Arab dances, the artistes retained “Alta” as a necessary part of the dancer’s get up. This is quite understandable as the Indian dance forms had originated as a form of expression of Puranic stories . They thus stayed glued to traditional costumes and make up .
Thus true to their origin, the use of Alta is still lavishly in Indian classical dance forms. It is in fact one of the most conspicuous aspect of an Odissi dancer as she uses it to decorate both her hands as well her feet. Applying them on the hand, make the mudras more conspicuous for the odissi dancer. Apart from the odissi dancers, specific festivals in Orissa like the “Sabitri Brata” require the women to decorate their feet with Alta.
Thus though their use has been marginalize, alta still find a place in dressing table of a women today too.