Ever since I was a little girl, I've loved playing dress up, and accessories were always the name of the game. Neon jelly bracelets, beaded necklaces, big hoop earrings, and even bigger brooches were all staples in my wardrobe at one point or another while I grew up. But it wasn't until I visited India at 18 years old that I found an accessory that stuck with me through all the fads of the ‘80s and ‘90s: Payal.
Twenty-two years later, I'm still wearing them on both feet every day, because on that trip, I discovered they're a way to make me feel both seen and heard.
Payal are flexible silver anklets, often decorated with small, colorful stones, beads, and bells. They're gorgeous on their own, but once I learned more about their history, I became even more intrigued. During my trip, I learned that Indian women have worn them for centuries, making these anklets an integral part of our culture when it comes to traditional femininity and beauty. But it was the jingling "chum chum" sound when one walks with them on that initially drew me to them at 18.
Historically, this chime has served as a reminder for men that there was a woman entering the room, as well as a way for Indian brides to attract their husband. However, these days, payal are worn by women of all ages — young and old, single and married — marking more of a personal fashion statement and sense of pride, rather than marital status. But for me, I loved the fact that payal acted as a way for women to make their presence known.
On top of that, it was interesting to discover the reason why payal were traditionally only available in silver. According to Hindu philosophy, it is believed that gold is the metal of the Gods, and therefore sacred. Since payal are worn on the feet — the lowest part of the body — it is considered disrespectful or an ill-omen to wear them in gold, unless for a holy gathering, where one's feet will not get dirty.
Before my trip, I was under the impression that payal were prestige accessories, reserved only for special occasions. But in India, nearly every woman I encountered was wearing the anklets — even those who seemed to be impoverished. This was a powerful discovery for me, as I began to explore more of my own family's history. While I was there, I learned that my ancestors were born into the lowest ranking of the Hindu caste system. We were Dalits, otherwise known as the outcasts of society.
Although the country has come a long way from the humiliating segregation and toxic prejudices my grandparents and parents all suffered, classism and caste-based discrimination still exist in both subtle and overt ways. As I became acutely aware of these social structures while in India, I also began to notice how lower caste women were still often disregarded. But whenever I saw them, even though they wore the simplest of garbs, the sparkle and sound of their payal always caught my attention — and that's a memory that has stuck with me for decades.
Once I got back to Canada, I felt more strongly rooted in my heritage than ever, and my payal became one of the ways I identified with my culture. I always loved the way they looked, but once I started wearing them myself, the fact that I always heard the "chum chum" sound they would make as I walked — while I also internalized my family's history — fueled my fiery spirit to look at these anklets not just for the aesthetic, but as motivation to be loud in all aspects of my life; I refused to be disregarded. At school, I started working on social issues projects and pursuits that upset the status quo, which made my dad proud.
As the years went on, it became a tradition that my dad would bring me back a new set of payal on each of his visits to India. Only then would I take off my old pair in exchange for the new. To this day, even in the winter, I wear my payal loud and proud — sometimes under my socks or tights if the weather is too chilly.
Years later, I can still say that my payal served as way for me to look at fashion as more than just vanity. For me, it's all about dressing with purpose.
While payal have always meant a lot to me on a personal level, I love that those around me take notice of them too. From my co-workers joking that they know when I'm late for work because they don't hear any chiming, to my husband laughing at me because he says I can never sneak up on him. Even my kids know that my payal are a part of me, since the soft chimes sometimes wake them from their sleep when I try to creep out of their rooms after putting them to bed.
I don't ever see myself parting ways with my beloved anklets, and with summer nearly here, I'm excited to show off the newest payal my dad brought me from India this year. But what makes this year extra special is that I'm starting a new tradition with my 4-year-old daughter who will be getting her first pair of payal soon. Along with teaching her that girls are meant to be seen and heard, I want to impart on her the beauty in our callous family history and for her to appreciate the strength of our cultural roots. Like me, I hope she too sees her payal as a powerful symbol of the importance of using her voice — just as her payal will use their sweet sounds to make her presence known.