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The Lady with a Mirror, painted by Raja Ravi Varma. 1894. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


A lady combing her hair. Jaipur, 1790 CE
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have used a variety of tools to adorn, dress and clean their hair. ​

Yet, it is the ​comb that has remained the most essential and timeless of them.​

Description: A comb with a carved elephant on its handle
Material: Bone
Time period : 20th century CE
Provenance: Odisha

Historically, combs have been made of a variety of materials, like the horns of animals, wood, ivory, bone, and even metal.

Variations exist in the shape, size, design, and motifs which are carved, incised and even painted on the combs. These range from simple circular designs to elaborately carved images of gods, flora, and fauna. ​

Description: Comb with a rough surface
Material: Bone
Time period : 3000 BCE (Neolithic Period)
Provenance: Burzahom, Kashmir


The earliest evidence of comb in the Indian subcontinent dates to the Neolithic period (7000 BCE - 2000 BCE). ​

The site of Burzahom (in present-day Kashmir) provides evidence of combs dating to almost 3000 BCE.

Description: An intact ivory comb with a prominent shaft and circular and dot motif along with broken comb teeth.
Material: Ivory
Time period : Indus Valley Civilization (2600 BCE - 1900 BCE)
Provenance: Banawali, Haryana


The Indus Valley Civilization, also known as the Harappan Civilization (dating to 2600 BCE–1900 BCE) is one of the earliest civilizations of the Indian subcontinent.​

A comb has been found as part of grave good in a Harappan burial, indicating its importance aand probable ceremonial or ritualistic purpose.​

For instance, at Mohenjo-Daro, a comb was discovered in a burial, placed close to the skull of a female, suggesting that combs were worn in the hair as ornaments.​​

Description: Comb fragment with broken teeth with concentric circles
Material: Bone
Time period : Indus Valley Civilization (2600 BCE-1900 BCE)
Provenance: Kalibangan, Rajasthan
Image Source: ASI

With the growth of urban centres and trade, the Indus Valley Civilization provides evidence of standardisation in architecture, pottery, weights and measures, beads, etc.

Harappan sites like Mohenjo-Daro, Banawali, and Kalibangan have yielded evidence of various combs. These combs display standardisation in motifs and designs, including concentric circles with a dot in the middle.​

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Vedic texts, dated from 1500 BCE to 600 BCE, are the first written records available to us in the subcontinent. ​

The Atharvaveda in Book 14, Hymn 2, line 68 (Kanda 14 Sukta 2), mentions a hundred teeth comb was gifted to a bride to keep her hair and the hair of the families of the bridal couple clean. ​​ ​

Description: A triangular shaped comb with a thick end.
Material: Ivory
Time period : Megalithic period (300 BCE- 50 CE)
Provenance: Pochampadu, Telangana


In southern India, combs have been discovered at Megalithic sites like Pochampadu and Chandravalli. ​

Pochampadu (300 BCE-50 CE), located in present-day Telangana, has yielded evidence of a triangular ivory comb, with 14 intact teeth found near the skull of a female in a burial.

According to some historians, this comb was probably worn as a hair ornament, a tradition that continues in some parts of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. ​

Description: A rectangular comb with broken teeth decorated with circlets on its handles.
Material: Ivory or bone
Time period : 1200 BCE- 600 BCE
Provenance: Atranjikhera, Uttar Pradesh
Image source: Encyclopedia Of Indian Archaeology by A. Gosh, Vol. 1, 1989


In the northern part of the subcontinent implements made of iron had begun to be used by 1200 BCE. 

An example of a comb during this period was recovered from Atranjikhera, in present-day Uttar Pradesh.

The shaft of the comb is rectangular and decorated with engraved circlets.

Description: An ivory comb decorated with geometrical pattern of circles and parallel horizontal lines.
Material: Ivory
Time period : 2nd century BCE- 1st century BCE
Provenance: Kaushambi, Uttar Pradesh


By the second half of the 1st millennium BCE, new political and cultural centres like Kaushambi, Ujjain, and Mathura emerged in the Indian subcontinent.​
The combs that have been discovered from these ancient sites showcase increasing ornamentation and complexity in design. ​
​For example, this fragment of an ivory comb from Kaushambi is decorated with geometric patterns.

Description: Fragment of a square comb with broken teeth
Material: Ivory
Time period : Early Historic period
Provenance: Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh

The combs from this period also feature the flora and fauna, geometric patterns like loops, circles, horizontal lines, and grove lines.

Description: Engraved ivory comb
Material: Ivory
Time period :Scythian-Parthian period (1st century BCE-1st century CE)
Provenance: Sirkap. Taxila

The Combs of Taxila  ​

In the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent, 100 BCE–100 CE was an important period of political and cultural changes leading to the development of a rich artistic tradition.

Taxila, an ancient town from this region, has yielded evidence of combs with elaborate designs.

One example is an ivory comb that depicts a man and woman, reminiscent of Greco-Buddhist art. However, historians also believe it to be a representation of the quintessential Indian couple or dampati.

Description: Adorned ivory comb
Material: Ivory
Time period: 1st century CE
Provenance: Sirkap. Taxila
Image source: Prince of Wales Bulletin 1957-1959 Pramod Chandra. 1963

A half-elliptical-shaped ivory comb was also discovered at the ancient site of Taxila. The comb is intricately carved on both sides.

On one side, a woman is seen reclining on a pillow.

This woman probably represents Sri Lakshmi , the Hindu Goddess of wealth. She is seen reclining on the srisayana, which is the bed of the Goddess. ​

On the reverse, the comb is decorated with various essential possessions of the 'universal emperor' or 'chakravartin', including a lion, an altar, and an elephant. These symbols of royalty show the complexity and artistic expression that came to be associated with combs during this period.

Description: Fragments of a Comb.
Material: Ivory
Time period : Kushana period (1st century CE- 3rd century CE)
Provenance: Sringaverapura, Uttar Pradesh

Ornamentation in the Kushana period

The Kushanas established their power in the north-western part of the subcontinent in the last decade of the 1st millennium BCE. The rise of their empire led to increased patronage of flourishing centres of art across its territory. This paved the way for further ornamentations of combs.

For instance, the fragments of this ivory comb are decorated with a floral motif. These examples of ornamented combs show how they had become a space for diverse artistic expression.

Description: An adorned ivory comb
Material: Ivory
Time period :2nd century BCE- 1st century BCE
Provenance: Chandraketugarh, West Bengal
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Growing Ornamentation in Combs

The Shunga period, dating from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE, provides evidence of increasing ornamentation on combs.

A curved ivory comb discovered in Chandraketugarh (West Bengal) offers a fascinating example.

The comb depicts two female figures with ornate jewellery and hairstyles. It is also decorated with themes of birds and greenery on each side.

Description: Fragment of an ivory comb
Material: Ivory
Time period: 50 BCE
Provenance: Malwa (Central India )
Image Source: Prince of Wales Bulletin, Pramod Chandra, 1957-1959

The ivory comb from the Malwa region provides another example of an intricately decorated comb. The comb depicts a man and a woman sitting under a pavilion.

The woman on the right side is seen wearing jewellery and a short cloth around her loins. The comb is decorated with floral and geometric patterns.

According to historians, the figures represented here are similar to those carved on the bas reliefs of the Sanchi Stupa, which is located near the ancient town of Vidisha, in Madhya Pradesh.

Description: Comb depicting a royal couple
Material: Ivory
Time period : 2nd century BCE- 2nd century CE
Provenance: Kotilingala, Andhra Pradesh

Examples have also been unearthed from ancient sites in south India, including Dhullikatta and Kotilingala, both in present-day Andhra Pradesh.

The ivory comb discovered in Kotilingala a site dating back to the 2nd century BCE (Andhra Pradesh), depicts a regal scene of a seated royal couple styling their hair and a servant holding a basket of flowers. ​

Description: Ivory comb designed with concentric circles and a perforated top.
Material: Ivory
Time period: Gupta dynasty (300 CE- 600 CE)
Provenance: Sambhar, Rajasthan


One of the important items used for adornment during the Gupta time was the comb, evidence of which is found at different sites. The present example shows an ivory comb recovered from Sambhar in Rajasthan, decorated with incised concentric circles. It has a single row of teeth and a perforated top. ​

A painting of Amir Khusro, miniature painting


Amir Khusro, the 13th-century poet and court chronicler of the Delhi Sultanate rulers, in his works mentions the use of combs.

In ‘Ijaz-e- Khusravi’ (The Miracles of Khusro) , the poet mentions the use of combs called shana by the nobility of the Sultanate.

The combs were also used to keep the beard in shape.

King Siddharta Bathing, Folio from a Kalpasutra Manuscript, Gujarat, India, 15th century CE
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


The folios from the Jain text, Kalpasutra, are important visual sources for studying people's lives in the early medieval period.

The 15th-century folio from Gujarat depicts King Siddhartha, father of Mahavir, bathing and adorning himself. He is said to be adorned "like a wish-granting tree," before meeting his wife Queen Trishala, to explain the meaning of her dream.

The painting shows the use of a comb with teeth on both sides.​

Gujarat Subah of the Mughal Empire, Published in Wilkinson's General Atlas of the World, Quarters, Empires, Kingdoms, States &Co. with Appropriate Tables. Second Edition. London. Published March 1, 1809
Source: Wikimedia Commons


During the rule of the Mughal Empire, the emperors and nobility were avid patrons of the arts. They favoured combs made of jade and ivory.

Combs were an important item traded during the Mughal period.

In the 17th century, Surat, a centre of trade and commerce for the Mughals, had a comb industry that received a boost due to the burgeoning demand for ivory combs.

The import of ivory from Africa made Surat a manufacturing hub for combs during this period.

Description: A make-up kit with a box, four bottles and a comb.
Material: Jade, Gold, and Stone
Time period :17th century CE
Provenance: India

The Mughal emperors had a fondness for objects made of semi-precious stones, such as jade procured from China. They commissioned many different items carved from it, including combs.

A prime example of Mughal workmanship is a makeup kit from the 17th century. It contains a comb with teeth on one side, a box, and four bottles encrusted with red stones and set in gold. The bottles represent floral patterns, adding to the overall beauty of the kit.

Description: Grape-coloured jade comb
Material: Jade
Time period : 19th century CE
Provenance: India

Combs from the Colonial Period

In the 18th century, with the decline of the Mughal empire, many regional centres emerged in the Indian subcontinent. They became the centre of art and culture, representing continuity from the Mughal period, however with variations.
Beautifully ornamented combs made of different materials like jade, ivory, wood, metal, etc., were produced during this period.

Similar to the comb from the Mughal period, jade combs were manufactured throughout the colonial period. This 19th century comb has a beautifully carved handle shaped like a peacock and is encrusted with fourteen red stones.

Description: A comb with a floral decoration on its shaft, surmounted by two birds, with a screw finial between them to fill the comb with perfume.
Material: Silver and Gold.
Time period: 19th century CE
Provenance: Mysore, Karnataka Source: Wikimedia Commons

Combs made of precious metal were also in vogue during the colonial period.

​An interesting example is a comb from Mysore (19th century) made of silver with a gold overlay.

​Its handle is decorated with two birds with a screw finial between them to allow the body of the comb to be filled with perfume which seeped into the hair through holes between the teeth.​

Description: An adorned ivory comb
Material: Ivory
Time period : 19th century CE
Provenance: Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


During the 18th and 19th centuries, ivory combs were almost universally available across the bazaars of India. These combs were intricately carved and decorated with geometric patterns and even mythological scenes.

Madhav Rao Narayan, the Maratha Peshwa with Nana Fadnavis and Attendants, Poona, 1792 CE
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Alley of the Ivory Comb makers

Ivory combs were so popular that in Pune, Peshwa Sawai Madho Rao II, of the Maratha Empire in the 18th century, invited and patronised numerous families of ivory comb makers, and provided them with residences within the city.

Even though these shops do not exist in the modern city of Pune, the lane is still known as Fani Ali which translates to Comb Alley.

Description: A comb with the handle depicting the scenes from the life of Krishna
Material: Ivory
Time period : 20th century CE
Provenance: Odisha

Ivory combs decorated with the likeness of gods and other celestial beings continued to be in vogue in the 19th and the 20th century in the Indian subcontinent. An example is this comb from Odisha of the 20th century which depicts stories from Krishna’s life on its handle.​

Description: A once painted comb which has the carving of Krishna slaying the Demon Kaliya
Material: Ivory
Time period : 20th century CE
Provenance: South India

Artisans and craftsmen continued their trade by creating ornamental ivory combs in modern India thereby paying homage to a millennium of tradition. This comb from 20th century South India shows the figure of Kaliya Mardan Krishna(Krishna slaying the serpent demon Kaliya).

The Government of India passed laws in 1972 and 1986 banning the acquisition, trade, import, crafting, and manufacturing of ivory objects. This provision was to protect the Asiatic elephant from extinction. ​

Description: Double-sided comb
Material: Wood
Time period : 19th century CE
Provenance: Mysore, Karnataka

Intricately decorated wooden combs were also produced during the colonial period.

Another example is a double-sided comb from Mysore, Karnataka, with sharp teeth on one side and thick teeth on the other. The shaft is adorned with a bird motif.

Chelik (young boys) of the Muria Tribe at Phunder village making a comb, Chhattisgarh. Muria and their ghotul by Elwin Verrier.1947


The handcrafted combs of the tribes of India represent their traditions and artistic skills, while the designs and patterns carry social and cultural meanings within the idiom of tribal culture.​​
For example,

* Horses represent virility

* Two triangles over each other, forming a star represent procreation 

Description: A bamboo comb with a long handle and a shaft depicting artwork.
Tribe: Bhuiya
Material: Bamboo
Time period : 20th century CE
Provenance: Odisha

Combs were also decorated in a variety of ways including poker-work which means, the use of a heated iron to burn designs into wood or bamboo. The present example showing figurative motifs made with this technique, by the Bhuiya tribe of Odisha, is a testament to the ingenuity of the artwork of the tribe. ​

Description: A comb made of a decorated wooden handle and bamboo teeth, tied together with cotton thread.
Tribe: Santal
Material: Bamboo and Wood.
Time period : 20th century CE
Provenance: Hazaribagh, Jharkhand.

 The Santals

The ritualistic and functional aspect assigned to the combs is represented in various ways by different tribes of India.

The Santals of eastern India still carve the design of a comb on their doors and even tattoo it on their arms, thus leading historians to believe that the origin of the comb in Santal society is linked to magic and folklore.​

Additionally, they use a comb with fine and elongated teeth to delouse their hair, as displayed in the example. ​

Description: A bust of a lady, her hair is decorated with a comb.
Tribe: Muria
Material: Metal
Time period : 20th century CE
Provenance: Bastar, Chhattisgarh.


Deep within the heartland of Bastar, Chhattisgarh, wearing combs in the hair is one of the most popular forms of adornment.

In fact, it is also a symbol of affection, as the cheliks (young boys) of the Muria tribe express their love by gifting handmade combs, which the motiari (young girls) wear in their hair.

Description: A wooden comb with two warriors on horseback jousting.
Material: Wood and Metal
Time period : 20th century CE
Provenance: Bastar, Chhattisgarh

The ghotul also teaches teenage boys and girls, the rules of community living, art, craft, courtship, etc.​

Activities using the comb within the ghotul, the traditional youth community centre of the Muria tribe, include the combing of hair and the light massage of the chelik(boy) by the motiari(girl).

Description: A bamboo comb with a woven central portion.
Tribe: Adi
Material: Bamboo
Time period : 20th century CE
Provenance: Arunachal Pradesh

Combs from the North-East

Combs in the north-eastern states of India are also a part of a socio-cultural ensemble and ritual. The tribes here use a variety of materials to create combs in a wide array of shapes and sizes. The example here shows a rectangular comb with a woven central portion using fiber from the outer husk of a coconut, by the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh.

Description: A comb mad of hollowed out bamboo, bamboo spikes which are tied together with cotton thread.
Tribe: Bhutia
Material: Bamboo.
Time period : 20th century CE
Provenance: Podong Village, North Sikkim, India


Description: A rectangular comb with carved designs
Material: Bamboo
Time period : 20th century CE
Provenance: Nagaland.

A Banjara
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


Even in the age of machine-made plastic combs, many communities continue to practice their trade of making handcrafted combs from wood.

For example, the Chotamal Banjara tribe of Rajasthan,whose oral tradition traces their occupation of making wooden combs known as ‘Kangsi’ to the 16th century CE continues to make combs even today.

Similarly, the traditional craftsmen of Shahdra Sharief, Jammu, have kept their craft of making wooden combs alive, which was at one point in time patronised by the Dogra Royals.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


Despite being made of various materials, the basic structure of the comb, i.e., a tool with finely pointed teeth perpendicular to the shaft, has remained unchanged.

In modern times, both plastic and wooden combs are ubiquitously available across markets and households. These simple tools are used today by countless individuals, who desire to clean, untangle, and style their hair.