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Textiles and Costumes in Early India

Article of the Month - December 2006
Viewed 86965 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

The Nomad

The nomad had his hunt lying before him. He had to carry it to his rock-shelter where the woman who had borne him a child awaited him. He dragged it by its legs but the exercise was quite tiresome and somewhat unproductive – a large part of the day had gone and only a small distance covered. Shrubs, stone boulders, stumps of the trees, felled or fallen, …., everything came in between. Tired he looked around. A playful bird, a larger one, perhaps a bustard, swinging on a vine suspending upon a tree, caught his attention and delighted him. The vine swung to and fro and with it the bird. He looked at the bird and then at the vine and questioned himself, ‘would the vine bear his hunt?’ He thought he should try. With a quivering mind he pulled the vine, laid it around his hunt, locked its ends, drew them to fasten into a knot and lifted it above the ground. He was delighted to see that it bore its weight. It was now easier to hang it on his back and carry. In the vine he discovered thus his first rope, string, and the later days’ flax, linen and all kinds of plant fibres.

The nomad was already in his rock-shelter when the night’s darkness began enshrouding his hill. Freezing cold winds joined it soon. In almost no time, his rock-shelter, hill and all around stood covered under a thick sheet of darkness, which nothing but cold sweeping winds shook. Hunt’s skin had been removed and the nomad and the woman who had borne him his child were now separating prominent bones from flesh. A portion of flesh, so sorted, was already put to roast. The hearth blazed low and high and in one of its gusts, the nomad woman noticed her child shivering with cold. Dried tree leaves and grass, covering the child for protecting him from cold, were shaken and dispersed. She re-arranged these leaves and grass but the child still shivered. She feared his shivering would again throw them off. An idea struck to her mind. She picked the hunt’s skin and laid it over the dry leaves and grass and, of course, the child. The device worked. The leaves and grass did not fall, shivering stopped and the child was comfortably sleeping. In skin, the so far useless part of the hunt, the nomad discovered his ever first body-cover – a costume or quilt.

The Nomad from the Rock-Shelter to Structured Abode

Hundreds of years passed. Nothing – a social tie or personal bond, bound the nomad to the woman who bore him his child but he was now used to her. The rock was only his shelter, not abode, but he was used to it, too. The whole day he ran after his hunt but wished he were back to his shelter, to his child and the woman he had become used to. Animals’ flesh was yet his food and their skin his body-cover but he hardly liked killing them. Despite all that, things went on as before except some questions emerging in his mind. ‘Why’, he thought, ‘he killed animals for his food while many of the animals that as much loved their lives and kids and needed food as he did, fed just on plants, plant-products – fruits, leaves…, and even grass and not on lives of others’. He realised his littleness. He wished he could live, as did many of the animals, on what the nature gave. He noticed that many animals contained in their thuds food for their kids and fed them. He wondered if they would share with him some of this food for his kids. Many a time, an animal, he sought to kill for food, looked at him with friendliness in eyes, or walked to his rock-shelter and looked into his child’s or the child’s mother’s eyes searching in them a grain of love for it. It sometimes pained him why he could not reciprocate and befriend this animal. These and similar other questions agitated his mind and he felt he was changing. Personal bonds and social ties bound him now to the woman who bore him his child. He was no more a nomad seeking refuge in rock-shelters. He structured instead a shelter by piling the pieces of rock or baked layers of clay, broken into cubes, one over the other, or by erecting a mud wall and thatching it with bamboos and tree leaves.

Lovingly Modelled Terracota Animal Figurines. Don't miss the embracing couple in the forefront
Lovingly Modelled Terracota Animal Figurines. Don't miss the embracing couple in the forefront

 

He had learnt reciprocating to the gestures of animals and the two were now friends. The animals shared with him the food they had in their thuds. The nomad was now the herdsman settled around Indus, the river which gave him water to drink and was the source of good crops and abundant food. Animals’ generosity led him to love all animals, even the most wild. He could not bring them all to his hutment but made their clay models and gave them to his kids to play so that the ties in between were stronger and love and respect prevailed.

 

The food he now grew, but for protecting himself, his child and child’s mother against shivering cold the animal hide was yet his main source. Tree barks and leaves did not survive beyond a day or two, nor withstood weather’s cruel fangs. Now he was not an individual wandering isolated. He lived in a group and here, his appearance, conduct and the way he lived mattered. In him had burst a creative impulse. By using the readily available clay he created, besides the models of animals, toys, tools, utensils, articles of day-today use, as also beads and other ornament components.

Hiranyagarbha, The Golden Embryo
Hiranyagarbha, The Golden Embryo

A wear was yet his problem. Skins did not reflect his taste, lifestyle and attitude nor had scope for his talent to work. He looked for something different, and it was discovered by chance. His child, looking around for something to fashion his doll’s coiffure, was enthralled to see a fruit, seed or whatever, shaped like a ball, crowning a rough looking shrub grown in the backyard of his hutment around the dung heap. It had exploded giving vent to a white hairy substance bursting from it. Its coiffure-like round shape was a perfect model for his tiny damsel’s hair dress. The hairy substance breathed a kind of softness and plasticity adaptable to any desired form, which further answered the child’s need. It was a boll born on a cotton plant. He plucked it and began giving it a shape. While removing pieces of boll-shell, stuck to a shell piece some of its fibres spun out and thus thread began its maiden journey beyond the plant it was born on. This boll was the golden egg – hiranya- garbha in the Vedic terminology

 

Textile in the Indus Valley

Note the Massive Variety of Headdresses in the Figures
Note the Massive Variety of Headdresses in the Figures

Thus, Cotton had emerged as the primary source of clothing in India by around 3000 B. C., during the early days of Indus civilisation, though in the absence of any tangible evidence as to its exact origin, a fiction, such as above, alone might define the incidence of its emergence. A child’s chance discovery or an elder’s effortful find, this plant yield was soon the most favoured source of clothing for the animal-friendly Indus dweller. It helped him replace animal skin obtainable largely by killing an animal, which he shunned. More significantly, it had scope for ingenious designing, colouring and fashioning various styles of costuming that revealed a person’s rank, distinction and taste.

 

An upturned Bowl with Trefoil Design
An upturned Bowl with Trefoil Designs

 

 

 

Harappan finds include a number of cores of sand revealing prominent traces of woven cloth and threads. Some vases and a temple ornament with impressions of cloth on them suggest that textiles were used also for beautifying various decorating articles.

 

 

 

The Priest with Trefoil Drape (Indus Valley: 3300-1300 B.C.)
The Priest with Trefoil Drape (Indus Valley: 3300-1300 B.C.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

More significant amongst the finds are: statuette of the priest draped in ‘uttariya’ (upper garment)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mother Goddess from Indus Valley
Mother Goddess from Indus Valley

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mother goddess figurines with elaborate headdresses adorned with variedly designed ribbons and short skirts secured with stylistic belts;

 

 

 

 

 

The Undraped Dancer (Metal) Signifying her Lower Status
The Undraped Dancer (Metal) Signifying her Lower Status

 

 

 

 

 

 

and, the metal statue of the nude dancing girl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These three sets of imagery seem to reveal three conventionalised modes of clothing – one, for the divine female representing fertility, abundance and beauty; two, for an ecclesiastical being; and three, for an entertainer. Thus, in Harappan culture, a person’s apparel was also the instrument that defined his distinction, rank and role in society.

Tablet Showing that Boats were Common and Used for Trade
Tablet Showing that Boats were Common and Used for Trade

No actual textile or textile component, except a piece of woven material, just 0.1"x 0.3”, pasted inside the lid of a silver vase, and a bundle of mordant dyed cotton thread, has been recovered from any of the Harappan sites. In the growth of textile, the significance of Indus is, however, far greater. Indus pioneered techniques of spinning, weaving, printing, embroidering and fashioning costumes. As suggest boat motifs on Indus seals, and inscriptions from Middle East countries, one of king Sharrukin of Akkad (Agade) of 2350 B.C., Indus had overseas trade, and cotton textile was one of its most traded commodities.

 

Pot with Peacock Motif
Pot with Peacock Motif

 

 

Greeks and Babylonians called Indian cotton as ‘Sind’ and ‘Sindon’. Three material sources reveal the presence of textile in the Indus Valley : actual textile and textile material; sculptures, terracotta figurines…. representing human figures wearing various costumes; and, tools and instruments used in manufacturing textiles. Pottery and potsherds, which shared with textiles their designing patterns and motifs, help know the type of designs and motifs which Harappan textiles used.

 

 

Four Petalled Motif on a Pot from Indus Valley from the National Museum of India. Below is a Sixteenth-Century Textile with Same Motif
Four Petalled Motif on a Pot from Indus Valley from the National Museum of India. Below is a Sixteenth-Century Textile with Same Motif

 

 

 

 

 

The trefoil motif, used in the shawl of the priest-figure, appears also in the clay objects and long after in the costumes of the female figures at Ajanta. The four petalled floral motif, painted on the Indus pot, in the National Museum, New Delhi, has been a textile design across centuries, in Ajanta, in textiles exported to different countries during Middle ages and in the 19th-20th textiles.

 

 

 

 

 

As per laboratory reports, the textile piece found at Indus Valley was manufactured using coarser variety of Indian cotton. It used warp and weft technique and was dyed in purple probably of madder class. Warp threads comprised the base, and weft, created thickness and design, still the basic principle of weaving. The bundle of yarn has sustained due to mordant coated over it. Thus, the Indus dweller had knowledge of spinning, weaving, dying and mordanting. In relation to textiles, three categories of Harappan finds are more significant : stone sculptures, the priest statuette draped in a shawl being of exceptional significance; terracottas, figurines of the Mother goddess, various male and female icons, and seals carved with human figures; and metal-casts, mainly the statue of the undraped dancing girl.

The trefoil motifs on the priest’s unstitched shawl might be a relief, weaved-in, embroidered, or block printed design. Headgears and sashes of the Mother goddess figurines could be, stitched and unstitched, and embroidered, weaved-in or inlaid. Male figurines are draped in elaborate headdresses, muffler-type wraps and sometimes in loincloth, breeches or close clinging ‘dhotis’. The human figures on seals are draped in knee-long stitched skirts. Copper needles, printing blocks, dying vats and textile tools – spindle whorls, spools, bobbins, loom-weights, holed discs …., recovered from various Harappan sites, suggest that textile manufacturing, as also dying, block printing, stitching, embroidering and fashioning costumes … were quite in vogue those days.

 

Wears in Vedic Texts

Kanvasatapathabrahmanam - 5 Volumes
Kanvasatapathabrahmanam - 5 Volumes

 

 

Except a few terms – vasa, adhivasa, nivi, drapi, pesas, suvasas, suvasana … occurring in the Vedic texts, contemplated to denote some kinds of wears, not a piece of tangible evidence – some material finds or whatever, suggestive of weaving, woven textile …., has been reported so far from the Vedic period. Even the alluded terms are not specific in regard to their material and manufacturing technique. Such allusions are sometimes only indirect or metaphoric. Most of these terms have occurred in later Vedic literature; Vedic Samhitas referring to urna sutra, yarn made of sheep’s or goat’s wool; the Satpatha Brahmana, to tarpya, an undergarment made of tree bark or flax and an upper one made of undyed wool, as also to kausheya denoting silk.

 

 

Manusmrti (Sanskrit Text with English Translation of M.N. Dutt, Index of Slokas and Critical Notes)
Manusmrti (Sanskrit Text with English Translation of M.N. Dutt, Index of Slokas and Critical Notes)

 

 

 

 

 

In Vedic literature, cotton is mentioned at its earliest in the Manusmriti, and that too only once. Manu prescribes Brahmins’ yajnopavita, sacred thread, to be made from cotton yarn. Skins, mostly of goats, antelopes and spotted deer, formed a significant class of Vedic clothing.

 

 

 

 

 

The Kautiliya Arthasastra: 3 Volumes
The Kautiliya Arthasastra: 3 Volumes

 

 

 

 

The post Vedic era seems to take two different lines in regard to clothing. Those pursuing Vedic line of animal sacrifice sought in skins the major source of clothing, while others, Buddhists and Jains in particular, in cotton. In his Ashtadhyayi, Panini talks of tula, perhaps cotton yarn, as one of the prevalent fabrics, and Kautilya, of cotton as a source of the king’s revenue, but the emphasis of both is largely on skins and wools, or at the most on silks, grasses and plant fibres. In his Arthashashtra, Kautilya enumerates many wild animals that could be killed for their skins and furs.

 

 

 

Yogi Wearing His Sacred Thread (Yajnopavita)
Yogi Wearing His Sacred Thread (Yajnopavita)

 

 

 

 

The Arthashashtra recommended that the number of tanneries be increased and wool obtained also from rats and dogs, not sheep and goats alone. It enjoined that sheep and goats be sheared every six months, not annually. Measures, which developed furs into a marketable commodity, were also suggested. Manu had also identified a number of animals that could be killed for skins. Majority of wears that he prescribed for ascetics and others was made of skins and wools and a few from grasses. Yajnopavita alone was its exception.

 

 

 

Costumes in Buddhist and Jain Texts

Contrarily, the main emphasis of the Jain and Buddhist texts is on textiles, cotton in particular, and related activities – tailoring, printing and dying, as also spinning and weaving, though fur garments also figure in some of the Jain and Buddhist texts and monks were allowed to have a strips of deer-skins. As suggest these texts, spinning and weaving was a wide spread industry those days. Trading class comprised independent dealers of cloth, yarn and cotton – dosiya, sottiya and kapasiya respectively.

Lunnaga or sivaga – tailors, tantuvaya – weavers or manufacturers of silken cloth, and champaya – printers and dyers, comprised an important group of craftsmen. These texts are quite elaborate in their details of various textiles – vastra or vasana made from kauseya, a silk produced from cocoon, not silk-worms; linen made from flax; dhanga, another class of linen made from hemp plant; karpasa, cotton; and, wool obtained mainly from sheep and goats.

DISCIPLINE (The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapitaka)
DISCIPLINE (The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapitaka)

 

 

 

 

 

Furs obtained mainly from deer and tiger and garments made from palm leaves and bank fibres, are also alluded to, though only to enlist the types of wears in use. In contrast, they deal at length with techniques of carding, spinning, weaving, dying and sewing. The Jatakas and Vinayapitaka advise monks as to what they should wear,

 

 

 

 

Kalpa Sutra
Kalpa Sutra

 

 

 

 

 

 

and the Brahat Kalpa-Sutra, what people were required to wear on different occasions, at least four – nitya-niwasan, daily; nimajjamik, after bath; kshanotsavika, festivals; and, rajadvarika, courts.

 

 

 

 

 

Amongst the articles of textiles and costumes, which these texts allude to, the significant ones are : kilimika – carpets; tulika – mattresses; bhisi – bolsters; kharim – bed coverings; patched sheets; patika – woolen coverlets; carpets inwrought with gold or silk; maksa kutika – mosquito curtains; robes; mantles; curtains; blankets; parasols; bags; plaids; scarves and ribbons; water strainers or filters; and, umbrellas – all woven and manufactured. Kashika, a textile woven at Kashi or Varanasi, a woollen blanket, cotton sheet or whatever, has been mentioned as the finest in its kind anywhere. Chittor and Mathura have been mentioned as other great centres of textile manufacturing.

Continued in Page 2

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  • ¡Hola!, necesito urgentemente me digáis donde puedo comprar tela tapajuntas (son las tiras bordadas de los vestidos indues), de las telas o vestidos típicos indúes.

    Gracias.
    by teresa on 5th Oct 2012
  • Thanks for a good article. You have not traced the origin of the words sari and dhoti. Sari comes from Cheera (Telugu) and Chelai (Tamil). They could have come from Seelai (Tamil) meaning cloth. Dhoti comes from Vetti (Tamil) meaning \"that which is worn\" coming from the verb Vedu (Tamil) meaning wear.
    by R. Kit Kittappa on 15th Nov 2010
  • Dear sir,

    kindly requesting for more deep development feedback.
    by nichiren nana kwame Asiedu on 12th Jun 2008
  • I would to know more about the history of the textile art in India. Thank you.
    by Albano, Reinel on 5th Jan 2008
  • if there is a superior word for the eastern civilization, i would have used it here. i feel much humbled.thank you
    by the little me on 1st Aug 2007
  • Koool stuff mann!!!!!
    by Nisha (nisha@singapore.com) on 15th Jan 2007
  • Thank you for this very excellent article. I have always thought the Indian clothing to be about the most sensible, suited to the climate and the people and the most comfortable anywhere. It seems to me amazing that a piece of cloth by just winding can become so personalized by each, thank you for the history and the explanations.
    by Anon on 21st Dec 2006
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