The discovery of several spindles and a piece of cotton stuck to a silver vase revealed that spinning and weaving of cotton was known to the Harappans nearly five million years ago. References to weaving are found in the Vedic literature on the method of spinning and the various materials used. In northern, central and eastern India, ancient texts speak of Benaras, Bengal, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh as famous centres of weaving between the seventh century and second century BC. References to silk artifacts can be found in ancient Buddhist literature. In addition, there are abundant visual references that unveil the evolution of textile designs during different periods of time.
The foundations of the Indian textile trade with other countries began as early as the second century B.C. A hoard of block printed and resist-dyed fabrics, mainly of Gujarati origin, found in the tombs of Fostat, Egypt, is the proof of large-scale Indian export of cotton textiles to the Egypt in medieval times. In the 13th century, Indian silk was used as barter for spices from the western countries. Towards the end of the 17th century, the British East India Company had begun exports of Indian silks and various other cotton fabrics to other countries. These included the famous fine Muslin cloth of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Trade of painted and printed cottons or chintz was extensively practiced between India, China, Java and the Philippines, long before the arrival of the Europeans.
Textiles came to be associated with social and ritualistic events from very early times. Sacred images are clothed and the texts, whether on palm leaves or on paper, are tied in bright textile pieces. Fabrics that use mill-spun yarn but which are hand-woven are known as handloom. Cotton is the soul of the handloom industry of India today. Before the introduction of mechanized means of spinning in the early 19th century, Indian cottons and silks were hand spun and hand woven. Khadi became a highly popular fabric as a result of the swadeshi movement. Today cotton is an integral part of textiles in India. Nearly four million handlooms are engaged in weaving fabrics of nearly 23 different varieties of cotton.
Each region of the subcontinent developed its own distinct textile identity, reflected in the weave and pattern of the fabric and in the way it was worn. Kanchipuram, Ahmedabad, Aurangabad, Varanasi, Jaipur, Chanderi, Paithan, Gadhwal and Kashmir were important centres of textiles from ancient times. The finest textures of northern parts of the country are the Maheshwari and Chanderi saris of Madhya Pradesh and jamdani of Tanda and Benaras in Uttar Pradesh. The Benares silk saris is a very ancient tradition. In the 19th century, Benares silk manufacturers used vegetable and animal forms which were derivations of the Mughal tradition. The design now widely used is a highly stylised floral motif known as the ‘Ashrafi Buti’, which is based on the old gold sovereigns. The tangail cottons of West Bengal, Sambalpuri and Vichitrapuri saris of Orissa, tussar silk of Bihar, kasavumundu and karalkuda of Kerala, Kancheepuram silks of Tamil Nadu, Pochampalli telia rummals of Andhra Pradesh and the Irkali saris of Bijapur in Karnataka are fascinating specimens of meticulous workmanship. The Paithani saris, produced in Paithan near Aurangabad, are made of silk in rich, vivid colours with gold embroidery. They find a mention even in the Greek records dating before Christ. Paithani is expressed in designs like mazchar (ripples of silver), bangadi mor (peacock inside a bangle) and dhup chaun (sunshine and shade), which are woven on the pallu. In the modern Paithani saris, silver threads coated with gold are used instead of pure gold threads. Aurangabad is also famous for the Himroo shawls which are made of fine threads of silver and gold. The final cloth appears as “Gold Cloth“. Jamdani cottons, traditionally woven in Tanda, Uttar Pradesh, are lightweight patterned cloths that essentially rely on the tapestry technique. Fine white, off-white or cream coloured cloth is woven in Kota, Rajasthan and Palghat and Thiruvanthapuram in Kerala.
Sanganer, near Jaipur, is famous for the finest hand-block printing and design, dyeing and ornamentation. The local craftsmen are experts at crinkling, tie-dye, lahariya, mothra, quilting and multitudinous skills of braiding, plaiting and trimming. This art is also very well developed in other parts of Rajasthan. While the Bagru prints are famous for floral designs in dark vegetable colours the Barmer prints are known for their bold geometric patterns called ‘ajrakh‘. A later-day development is the method of embossed printing with gold and silver called Khari. Jaisalmer specializes is the wax resistant art printing, a technique that creates some of the most unusual shades. The Udaipur printers take their inspiration from the pichhwai of Nathdwara, which leave their lance in the fold of the cloth. The Kota-dorias are famous throughout the country for the fineness of their quality.
Shawl weaving flourished in Kashmir under the patronage of the Mughals. The pashmina and shahtoosh shawls of Kashmir are woven out of the fleece of the Tibetan goat. The pashmina shawl usually comes in subtle shades of cream, beige, brown and grey, depending on the natural colour of the fleece. They may be dyed to produce brighter colours or livened up with embroidery. The shahtoosh is even more delicate than the pashmina. It is so fine and soft that it passes through a ring quite easily. Ladakh has a most picturesque and fascinating weaving tradition. The natural coloured wool is woven into broad carpets, sacks and saddle-bags.
Jammu & Kashmir is also famous for its carpets. The art of carpet weaving came to Kashmir from Persia in the 15th century during the reign of Sultan Zain ul_Abadin. The art got a boost in the 17th century during the reign of Ahmed Khan the then governor of Kashmir.
Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura, Assam, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat are other states where good shawls are woven. The art of weaving jamawar or tapestry shawls rolled into India from Turkey in the 15th century A.D. Woven in shades of cream, brown and grey interspersed with coloured threads to form floral patterns, the best jamawars are now made in Basohli in Himachal Pradesh. Kullu is famous for its vibrantly coloured shawls with striking geometrical patterns. In the North East, each tribe or community has its own specific designs and motifs for shawls and sarongs. The mekhla chadar, pung and rabha kambang have elaborate patterns. Tripuri women wear a scarp, called pachra or ninon, which reaches down just below the knee. They weave in their loin-loom a small piece of cloth called ‘Risha‘, which is used as their breast garment. The Manipuri designs are based on their special legends, traditions and beliefs. The popular akoibi and ningthous phee are patterned on the different designs of a snake and are used mostly in the phanek or women’s lungi. The morang phee or the Manipuri sari is distinguished by its border and the likli and lashing phee design.
The Indian dress can be loosely divided into two categories: stitched clothing (tunics, gowns, jackets, waistcoats, skirts and trousers) and unstitched clothing (mantles, shawls, turbans, scarves, saris and loin-cloths). Different regions have become renowned for different kinds of fabric. Masuriya is a rare cotton fabric woven in Masuriya village in Rajasthan. Himroo is a kind of brocaded material woven on a simple throw-shuttle. Varanasi is well known for its kinkab (brocade) with its beldar (scroll pattern) and butidar designs. Its brocade works like chandtara, dhupchhaon, mazchar, morgala and bulbul chasm have great demand abroad. Gujarat’s nathdwara pichwai in the brocade style is very famous. The baluchar silk of Murshidabad district of West Bengal have unique designs. The patola weaving involves the subtle merging of different shades of colour. Assam has several varieties of silk like endi, muga and pala.
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