Historical Background


Tradition of Indian Handlooms dates back to prehistoric ages. Its early origin and development through ages can be traced through various Hindu literary sources like Veda, Upanishad, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Kautilya's Arthasastra etc. In Brihatsamhita, Varahamihir who lived in AD 405 describes a wide variety of textiles that were in existence in those days.

On the basis of the archaeological evidence i.e. fragment of cotton cloth dyed with madder found in Mohenjodaro and Harappa (Indus Valley Civilisation), it is known that the art of hand spinning, handloom weaving and dyeing/printing of cotton with natural dyes were practised by our people and it formed an established industry in the country, about 4500 years ago. All testifies to a glorious tradition that has remained for about fifty centuries with changing and reshaping according to the creativity of the artisan and the demands of the monarchs as well as market. It also has a lot of influence from the invasions, trade and cultural contacts with various sects like Mughals, Portuguese, Dutches, Britishers etc. Till 18th century, India was the largest exporter of textiles, obviously hand woven and hand processed with natural dyes, in the world.

Beauty of Indian Textiles, through the centuries, was expressed in various poetic forms by many poets. Two thousand years ago the Tamil poets of Sangam age compared them to the ethereal elusiveness of smoke and vapour. Sheer muslins were the prized possessions of the Romans. They used to call them "Venti nebula", clouded winds echoing their airy and transparent textures. Amir Khoosru, the poet described the muslin "A hundred yard of it can pass the eye of a needle, so fine is its texture, and yet the point of the needle can pierce through it with difficulty. It is so transparent and light that it looks as if one is in no dress at all but has only smeared the body with pure water". Zeb-un-nissa, the daughter of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was once chastised by her father for appearing in the court without clothes until she pointed out that she had put no less than eight robes around her body. Sant Kabir, who is basically a Julah or weaver, has expressed many philosophical poetic versions of human life comparing with the process of weaving of cloth with the intersection of warp and weft threads on handlooms.

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About the Author

The author is Director at Weavers' Service Centre in Office of the Development Commissioner (Handlooms), Ministry of Textiles, Govt. of India, Chennai.