Urdhva Pundra: Vaisnava Tilak

By Sun staff - 29.3 2016


Urdhva Pundra is a tilak worn by followers of Vaishnavism to show that they are devotees of Vishnu (Krsna). It is generally worn on the forehead, but also on other parts of the body. The markings are made either as a daily ritual or on special occasions, and denote which particular lineage, or sampradaya the devotee belongs to. The different Vaishnava sampradayas each have their own distinctive style of tilak based on the siddhanta of their particular lineage. The general tilak pattern is of two or more vertical lines resembling the letter U, which commonly represents the foot of the Lord.

Vasudeva Upanishad explains the significance of three vertical lines in urdhva pundra tilak as being a reminder of:

the trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; 
the Vedic scriptures: Rigveda, Yajurveda and Samaveda; 
the three worlds: Bhu, Bhuva, and Svar; 
the three syllables of Om: A, U, M; 
three states of consciousness: awake, dream sleep, and deep sleep; 
three realities: Maya, Brahman and Atman; and 
the three bodies: Sthula, Sukshma, and Karana. [1-2]

Gaudiya Vaishnavism

In our Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya the tilak is usually made out of mud from Vrindavan. The main tilak is basically identical to the Madhva tilak. The slight difference arose due to the emphasis on direct devotional service such as hearing from the shastras and glorifying the Lord in accordance with Srimad Bhagavatam. As such, the black line made from the ash of the fire sacrifice is not included. As per Sri Hari Bhakti Vilasa (4.211), the tilak is a 'U' that starts from the beginning of the nose, which is technically 1/3rd the distance from the base to the tip. In due course of time, this original tilaka was modified to suit various divisions and sects of those devoted to the worship of Sri Sri Radha Krsna and Sri Krsna Caitanya.

Madhva Sampradaya

The Madhva sampradaya mark is two vertical lines with Gopichandana, representing Krishna's lotus feet. [3] In between a vertical black line is made from the daily coal of the dhupa(incense). In the Madhva sampradaya, worship of Lord Krsna or Karayana is offered daily. The coal left after offering incense is used to mark the black line. This is called as angara. Those who are wearing this line have finished the devara puja (worship).

Underneath the black line, a red dot is added to indicate that one has finished taking prasada. This dot is called akshate, made from the ash of the banana tree flower petal mixed with turmeric paste. The shape of angara-akshate is like that of a gada (mace). It is understood to be pranadeva sannidhi (having the presence of Vayu Devaru). Those who did not perform daily worship to the Lord wear the simple two line tilak only.

Sri Vaishnavism

The Srivaishnava mark is called sricharanam. Members of the Sri Vaishnava tradition form tilak with two lines representing the feet of Narayana,[5] with a red line in the middle which represents Lakshmi Devi. A small line on the top bridge of the nose represents that the wearer belongs to the Thenkalai subsect. Because the Sri Vaishnava sampradaya begins with Lakshmi, and because they approach Narayana through Lakshmi, their tilak reflects this process of surrender, known as saranagati (or prapatti).

A variant to this is found within the Ramanandi sect, begun by Sri Ramananda. They wear a similar tilak design but in reference to Sita and Rama, Who are the focus of their devotion.


In South India's Iyengar tradition there are two forms of tilak. One is Thenkalai (southern sect) and other is Vadakalai (northern sect). Thenkalai are a subsect of the Vaishnavite Iyengar community of Brahmins. Thenkalais are followers of Ramanuja, Pillai Lokacharya and Manavala Mamuni.


Vadakalai, meaning northern school or northern culture, are a sub-sect of the Vaishnavite Iyengar community of Brahmins. In Sanskrit, the Vadakalai are referred to as Uttara Kalārya. Vadakalais [4] are followers of Ramanuja and Vedanta Desika. [5-7]

Vallabha Sampradaya

In the Vallabha sampradaya, or Rudra sampradaya, the tilak worn is a double vertical red line which is rounded from base. This 'U' represents Purna Purushottama, Shri Krishna's lotus feet. Krsna is the only form of God worshipped in the Vallabha sampradaya.

Nimbarka Sampradaya

In the Nimbarka sampradaya, the tilak is made of gopi-chandana (the clay from Gopi Kunda in Dwarka, Gujarat), as described in the Vasudeva Upanishad. The tilak starts at the bridge of the nose and continues as two vertical lines to the top of the forehead. This is said to represent the temple of God. Within these lines, between the eyebrows is a black dot, made from the slate found in Barsana, Uttar Pradesh, the sacred birthplace of Radha. This represents Sri Radha and Sri Krsna together.

This tilak is said to have been first given to Nimbarka at the time of his initiation by the sage, Narada. The tilak is first given to an initiate by their guru at the time of initiation, and after this, daily the devotee will remember his guru before he adorns his head with the tilak.



[1] Sunder Hattangadi (2000), Vasudeva Upanishad, Sama Veda, Sanskrit Documents Archives 
[2] D. Dennis Hudson (2008), The Body of God, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195369229, pages 90-95 
[3] Vedic Encyclopedia - see Tilak section 
[4] Students' Britannica India, p. 205. 
[5] T. V. Kuppuswamy (Prof.), Shripad Dattatraya Kulkarni (1966). History of Tamilakam. Darkness at Horizon. Shri Bhagavan Vedavyasa Itihasa Samshodhana Mandira. p. 166. 
[6] Sociology of Religion, Volume 1, p. 129, by Joachim Wach, University of Chicago press, 1944 
[7] Kabir, the Apostle of Hindu-Muslim Unity, pg.107, Muhammad Hedayetullah, Motilal Banarsidass, 1977