In Barbie’s Closet

A coworker sent me a link to this toy (thanks, Abi!) and I can’t resist posting it, if only because I wonder how much of “us” Mattel got right and wrong. From Barbie Collector (where it’s cheaper, if you’re about to make some little girl or boy really happy by buying it for them):

The most important and magical festival celebrated in India is Diwali. Homes are decorated with marigolds and mango leaves, thousands of oil diyas or lamps are lit as auspicious symbols of good luck, and everyone enjoys sweets to the sound of firecrackers and revelers.
Diwali™ Barbie® doll wears a traditional teal sari with golden detailing, a lovely pink shawl wrap, and exotic-style jewelry. The final detail is a bindi on the forehead—a jewel or a mark worn by Hindu women.

Mango leaves? Really? Since I’m a 2nd Gen (and a Syriani Christiani) penne I’m not going to claim that I know much about either that or the festival of lights, but I do have an opinion on Barbie’s ethnic dress. I don’t think that is a “traditional sari“. Perhaps it’s half-of-one? Honestly, I think it’s more of a lehnga, since I’ve never worn a duppata with my very traditional (can it get more old skool than kanjeevaram?) outfits.

I was curious about the “exotic” jewelry so I started fruitlessly looking up words after AIMing an equally clueless friend who insisted that the chain and pendant which decorates Barbie’s hair is called a “tikka“. I associate this word with murgh, but whatevs. After reading an entry in Stephen Colbert’s favorite online resource, I was concomitantly disagreeing with her and picturing 55 word nanofiction written by Jai. Here’s what was so evocative:

* When Rajput men married, they are said to have cut their thumb on their sword and applied a tikka of their own blood to their brides. This custom evoked the Rajput values of courage and indifference to pain.

* Several Bollywood movies have used the “tikka of blood” theme, notably Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Gadar.

I had seen neither of those films but now, after disambiguating the tikka, I have a mild urge to do so. This takes my “avesham”-level to zero, since before researching this post, my desire to see some Bolly was in the red. Already lost in Wikipedia, I surfed back to “sari“, where I skipped downwards until I tripped over this:

In Pakistan, the wearing of saris has almost completely been replaced by the Salwar kameez for everyday wear. According to many observers, the sari has lost favour in Pakistan since it is seen as being associated with India. However, the sari is often worn by the elderly, and to formal events.

I knew that Salwars are more popular in Pakistan, but I didn’t connect wearing saris in that country with…the elderly. As for being “associated with India”, two of my Pakistani friends used to bluntly admit that they often associated saris with Hinduism. I smell conflation, but I’ve lit some agarbatti, so I’m sure that odor will be replaced, shortly.

I remember when I posted about Neela getting married on E.R.; we had the most fascinating discussion about who gets married in what, after some of you found it odd that she wore white. It’s hard to believe that Barbie of all things might be the catalyst for it, but I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about saris, jewelry and…um…mango leaves.

65 thoughts on “In Barbie’s Closet

  1. anna,

    mango leaves are used in christian homes as well (such as at onam)…

    is a bindi (worn in between the eyebrows) considered a sign of marriage today? i thought only the vermilion/sindoor at the hairline was a sign of marriage today …

    i’m also under the impression that the tikka is like a bindi (though worn in the hair) in that it is more like jewelry than a symbol of marriage …

    btw — in malayalam, a tikka is “netti-puttam” … most christian brides wear it in its various versions.


  2. I haven’t read all the comments, but has anyone mentioned how “fair and lovely” (still the best-selling cosmetic in the subcontinent, if not in the diaspora) this ivory-skinned Barbie is? Why did they have to make her so pale?

  3. It is a lungi-choli-dupatta set. A very weird combination, as lungis are usually worn with kurtis. And no dupatta.

    Someone asked about the difference between a ghagra and a lehenga. A ghagra is shorter in length [calf length or a little lower], and it has a fuller skirt. Not as full as the daaman but full enough. Lehengas go down till the ankles, and usually offer a slimmer silhouette.

    As for the tika [one 'k' only], it is called maang tika, or just tika, and is usually worn by young girls and married women. In certain parts of the country [like Bihar and Rajasthan], it is one of the essential adornments of a married woman.

    And no bindi there, no.

    Moving on to tika, you’d find it used as a synonym for ’tilak’ [the usually vermillion mark on the foreheads of men] as well as the name of this adornment for women. In terms of marks on the forehead, the women’s version has always been round, and is today called a bindi. But the reasons behind all three – the tilak, the maang-tika, and the bindi- are the same. It was once meant to aid focus on the third eye chakra, and to ward off evil from the same.

  4. I’ve been into Indian culture, fashion (traditional), music etc for nearly two years. I live in Canada and wearing a tikka isn’t done all the time by desi’s however I do tend to see a few of them on the young girls (teens and up) during festivals and holidays but I rarely see the older women wearing them. I am of course speaking of the tikka worn down the parting of the hair. I personally own five of them and I just love how they look. What can I say I am a desi in a western body. Oh and there is no way that is a sari although it looks like we all agree on it being a lengha choli/sarong. I wonder if you could tie a half descent sari on a barbie. It’s amazing this doll was allowed on the market I remember the first time I went out in a sari (and had it tied wrong) I wasn’t allowed to walk around like that very long :) a very kind lady took me into her shop pulled the sari off me and retied it for me and showed me how to do it properly and for the last two years I’ve been wearing and collecting them. I am at 25 saris and I don’t see an end in sight to my collection. I was really interested in the Pakistani view of the sari though, I had a Pakistani friend she owned two sari’s but would never wear them because her husband would make fun of her but she did have closets full of salwar kameez.

  5. Hi, all — Great comments on the Diwali Barbie!

    I’m a journalist working for public radio, and I’m doing a story on the Diwali Barbie for the BBC/PRI show “The World,” which airs nationally in the U.S.

    I’d love to get comments about the Diwali Barbie on air from those of you on this blog. If you’re interested, please contact me at and let’s set up a phone interview. I’m on deadline for this week, so a quick reply would be great.



  6. Hi all! Just stumbled onto this page by accident really, I was searching for information myself on Tikkas. I’m basiclly a white american girl, though some of my ancestors on my fathers side DID come from Mongolia, so I REALLY have no complete knowledge of this culture, as many of you do, only what I have researched and read up until this point. ( I’m an art student, who loves to research and draw scenes and people from other cultures, hence my fascination with saris and Indian jewelery at the moment.Not to mention I have random obsessions with world religions and history.) Annnnd this site:

    was very imformative, though I canot be certain HOW correct it really is, since this is the world wide web..XD;.. But anywho, just wanted to drop that off.

    Oh and my opinion on the Barbie….I wish she was darker in skin-tone she seems a bit too pale for me…and I seriously do NOT understand the random pink bow/ribbon thing…

  7. I have no Indian heritage whatsoever, but I am very interested in fashion from around the world and I think saris are absolutely beautiful. When I saw this doll on, I figured even with my limeted sari knowledge that it probably wasn’t as accurate as they made it seem (Though it is pretty, and it is good that they have a doll with some Indian influence). I recently saw a picture of the “Princess of India” doll (view it here: and was happy to see a much more accurate portrayal of a sari and a doll with a proper bindi (albeit below the decorative forhead jewelry that may or may not be realistic). You guys should check it out.

  8. We Indians “Punjabans” don’t like it that America is taking India away from it’s original place, away from India/ Punjab. Just because India has/ had great things from the start doesn’t mean it was created to be taken away. Can yall just leave us alone.

  9. I am a Canadian who has lived in Toronto for quite some time. I am married to a Pakistani and have friends who are Hindi and Sikh. That being said, the daily wearing of sari’s tends to be an Indian thing. Some traditional women even wear the to sleep in. Pakistani’s tend to wear Sari’s for dress to weddings etc… Shilwar Kameez is a daily thing. The tikkas tend to appear on younger/trendier girls or young women as part of a set of jewlery. One thing is for certain, I would not call what Barbie is wearing a sari, at all, and wouldn’t a lehnga need a long and full skirt?