I was reading through "A History of India" by John Keay when I came across a few paragraphs which talk about Hindu kings' attire (or the lack of it) in the 15th century. Travellers like Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo and Abdur Razzaq gave evidences in their accounts for the native non-Muslim kings wearing little to nothing at all, women going about the streets with bare breasts, etc.

These accounts seem to specifically refer to the hot Southern parts of India. What about North Indian rulers? Were the Mauryan and Guptan rulers unused to clothes too? And in South India, could we ascertain when (non-Muslim) rulers started clothing themselves? How about the Vijayanagara kings and the Maratha kings, Shivaji and Shambhaji?

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    How do you define proper clothes?
    – Luke_0
    Aug 20, 2012 at 14:56
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    @Shyam You need to change the wording: "proper" is not the proper way of asking this question. Aug 20, 2012 at 15:07
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    Remember to a medieval european, 'almost naked' might just mean not arrayed in the same finery a C13 King or Pope would be! Perhaps a simple robe?
    – none
    Aug 21, 2012 at 3:18
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    @Jayaram Those same paintings, you'll note, feature women wearing saris sans blouses! Blouses were de mode only after the Mughal kings took power.
    – Aarthi
    Oct 26, 2012 at 2:49
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    If nudity is considered proper in a society, wearing any clothes at all is improper.
    – jwenting
    Mar 21, 2013 at 7:28

1 Answer 1


South India has had a vast number of kingdoms , each having its own variety and having being influenced differently from other kingdoms , in culture , custorms , religion , art , language and of course the attire of all classes of society.

So it's not wise to put them in one general basket called south india.

Since it is not possible to quantitatively analyse all the kingdoms , let me consider a few notable dynasties that have reigned this region over a period of few centuries.

Travellers like Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo and Abdur Razzaq give evidences in their accounts for the native non-Muslim kings wearing little to nothing at all.

Yes to some extent, you are right , the south indian kings of the chola dynasty in the 12 to 14 century AD, did not clothe their upper body, as evident in the portrait of the famous Chola king Rajendra Chola I

Painting of Rajendra chola

Here is a depiction of a King known as Cheraman Perumal from the Chera Dynasty , who were in power till the 12 century.

enter image description here

So yes in short , certain Kings up to 13 - 14 Century AD , from various kingdoms, were bare chested , but in no way , "wearing little to nothing at all" , and in my opinion they were quite "properly" dressed .

What about North Indian rulers? Were the Mauryan and Guptan rulers unused to clothes too?

These kingdoms range roughly in the time period of 600 BCE to 100 BCE , little is recorded about the attire of kings during this period (or atleast whatever i could find was not sufficient).

The Gupta king Kumaragupta I , depicted in the coin below , appears to be bare chested , and having a similar attire of his south Indian counterparts , centuries later.

Kumaragupta I

And below is the sculpture of the famous Mauryan King Ashoka , who according to me was one of the first indian king , to have a firm hold on all the Indian states , till the british conquered India , as a whole once again , after nearly 2000 years.

The Attire of Ashoka , is similar to the Gupta kings , having no cloth on the upper body but having an elaborate neck ornament.

For the first time India(the majority of it) has one single Emperor, this is a major opportunity , for the Indians to finally have a unified culture and tradition , this includes the attire. But the unified period is not long enough , to achieve this.

Emperor Ashoka

How about the Vijayanagara kings and the Maratha kings, Shivaji and Shambhaji?

Here is the portrait of King shivaji.

King Shivaji

By the time of 15 Century , all the kings of india , by now under the influence of the mughal emperors , and later under influence of portuguese , and the dutch , who were the first europeans to arrive before the french and english , had started to change their appearance , they wore dresses , which showed foreign influence , but which did not completely lose the traditional touch.

Here is the statue of the famous king Krishnadevaraya , who ruled the prosperous Vijayanagara Empire , which encompasses , almost the entire region of south india.

King Krishnadevaraya

From this point on (till date) , almost all kings of both North/South India , had a similar outfit.

Have a look at the present King (ceremonial only king) of Mysore.

Mysore Maharaja

As it is visually clear that the 21st century royal attire has undergone only a certain number of changes from its 15 Century counterpart , preserving the overall basic structure.

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    and do remember that climate differences can greatly influence mode of dress. A mountain area in the far north would not be a very pleasant place most of the year to go around (almost) naked, a tropical region in the south would likewise not be very comfortable when wearing thick woolen clothes the people in that mountain village would need to survive the winter...
    – jwenting
    Mar 21, 2013 at 7:31
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    "Portraits of Chola kings are not real and were drawn by artists who had a free rein on their imagination" Best of luck on your time travel to the 11 century with your dslr camera :) Mar 21, 2013 at 13:08
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    @Shyam In fact I really wonder if Chola kings were fair at all - I remember reading somewhere that they looked very dark. First of all you really wonder a lot of things and then you expect the artist to maintain an exact measure of skin tone of a 11 century king , really ?? Mar 21, 2013 at 13:18
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    @Shyam where do you think those pictures come from? And do you really think you're going to find archeological evidence of the skin colour of a man 1000 years dead, unless it be pictures created at some point by someone, which you'd then question as being "artistic license" if you don't like that they show?
    – jwenting
    Mar 22, 2013 at 7:07
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    @Shyam Marco Polo is not a credible source. It is by now seriously doubted he even existed, and if he did most likely his "accounts" were romanticised fragments of stories he'd been passed on by others, often through word of mouth over the length of the silk route (people did not travel the entire silk route, rather they traveled a section back and forth, trading at either end).
    – jwenting
    Mar 22, 2013 at 10:40

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