Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jamdani Saree

Jamdani an ancient fine MUSLIN cloth with geometric or floral designs. Although jamdani usually means SARI, there are jamdani scarves, kurtas, turbans, skirts, handkerchiefs, screens and tablecloths as well. In the 17th century, dresses were also made of jamdani fabric. Towards the end of the Mughal Empire, a special type of jamdani cloth used to be made for the Nepalese regional dress 'ranga'.
The origin of the word jamdani is uncertain. One popular belief is that it came from the Persian words 'jama', which means cloth and 'dana', which means buti or diapering. Jamdani therefore could mean diapered cloth. It is probable that Muslims introduced jamdani weaving and the industry was their monopoly for long.
The earliest mention of the origin of jamdani and its development as an industry is found in Kautilya's book of economics (about 300 AD) where it is stated that this fine cloth used to be made in Bengal and PUNDRA. Its mention is also found in the book of Periplus of the Eritrean Sea and in the accounts of Arab, Chinese and Italian travelers and traders. Four kinds of fine cloth used to be made in Bengal and Pundra in those days, viz khouma, dukul, pattrorna and karpasi.
From various historical accounts, folklore and slokas, it may be assumed that very fine fabrics were available in Bengal as far back as the first decade before Christ. Cotton fabrics like dukul and muslin did not develop in a day. Dukul textile appears to have evolved into muslin. Jamdani designs and muslin developed simultaneously. The fine fabric that used to be made at Mosul in Iraq was called mosuli or mosulin.
In his 9th century book Sril Silat-ut-Tawarikh the Arab geographer Solaiman mentions the fine fabric produced in a state called Rumy, which according to many, is the old name of the territory now known as Bangladesh. In the 14th century, IBN BATUTA profusely praised the quality of cotton textiles of SONARGAON. Towards the end of the 16th century the English traveler RALPH FITCH and historian Abul Fazl also praised the muslin made at Sonargaon.
The art of making jamdani designs on fine fabric reached its zenith during Mughal rule. There were handlooms in almost all villages of DHAKA district. Dhaka, Sonargaon, Dhamrai, Titabari, Jangalbari and Bajitpur were famous for making superior quality jamdani and muslin. Traders from Europe, Iran, Armenia, as well as Mughal-Pathan traders used to deal in these fabrics. The Mughal Emperor, the Nawab of Bengal and other aristocrats used to engage agents at Dhaka to buy high quality muslin and jamdani for their masters' use.
The golden age of Dhaka muslin began with Mughal rule. Since then the demand for jamdani and muslin fabrics at home and abroad grew and this prompted further improvement in their manufacture. According to 18th century documents of the EAST INDIA COMPANY, a high official of the company was posted at Dhaka to buy mulmul khas and sarkar-i-ali. He had the designation of Daroga-i-mulmul. Every weaving factory had an office, which maintained records of the best weavers and other exports. Weavers had no fixed salary. They used to be paid the market value of the jamdani or muslin they produced. It was the duty of the Daroga to keep a sharp eye at every stage of production. Mulmul khas worth about Re. 100,000 collected from Dhaka, Sonargaon and Jangalbari used to be sent to the Mughal court every year.
According to a 1747 account of muslin export, fabrics worth Re 550,000 were bought for the Emperor of Delhi, the Nawab of Bengal and the famous trader JAGAT SHETH. The same year European traders and companies bought muslin worth Re 950,000. Towards the end of the 18th century, the export of muslin suffered a decline. After the English gained DIWANI in Bengal in 1765, Company agents resorted to oppressing the weavers for their own gains. They used to dictate prices. If weavers refused to sell their cloth at a lower price they were subjected to repression. To stop this repression the East India Company started buying the textiles directly from the weavers.
According to James Wise, Dhaka muslin worth Re 5 million was exported to England in 1787. James Taylor put the figure at Re 3 million. In 1807, the export came down to Re 850,000 and the export completely stopped in 1817. Thereafter muslin used to go to Europe as personal imports.
According to an account from the middle of the 19th century, white muslin with floral jamdani designs costing Re 50,000 was used by the rulers and nawabs of Delhi, Lucknow, Nepal and Murshidabad. There were a number of factors behind the decline of the jamdani and muslin industry in the middle of the 19th century. Among these were the use of machinery in the English textile industry, import of cheaper yarns from England and lack of patronage from the Mughal Emperors and the aristocracy. After the Partition of Bengal in 1947, official patronage was extended to the jamdani industry.
After the liberation of Bangladesh, a jamdani village was established at Demra near Dhaka to provide financial support to weavers. Jamdani weavers of other areas, however, suffer from lack of patronage and support of their labour and expertise. The silent looms of village Madhurapur in BAJITPUR upazila of KISHOREGANJ district speak volumes about the decline of this industry. This village was once famous for producing jamdani cloth and fancy textiles with yarn of 100/300 counts. Another famous village Jangalbari in the same district has the same story to tell.
Manufacturing technique The fineness of muslin cloth used to depend usually on the art of making yarns. The most appropriate time for making yarns was early morning as the air then carried the highest moisture. For making yarns weavers needed taku, a bamboo basket, a shell and a stone cup. They used popcorn, rice or barley for starch. Before making jamdani designs they used to dye their yarn and starch it. For dye they used flowers and leaves of creepers. For quality jamdani they used yarn of 200 to 250 counts. These days weavers buy fine yarn from the market and use chemical dyes instead of herbal dyes. For making jamdani two weavers sit side by side at a loom to work on the delicate designs. Jamdani designs are made while the fabric is still on the loom. Coarse yarns are used for designs to make the motifs rise above the fabric. Originally, the motifs used to be made on gray fabric. Later on fabrics of other colours were also used. In the 1960s, jamdani work on red fabric became very popular. The Victoria and Albert Museum of London has a fine collection of jamdani with work in white on white fabric.
Varieties of jamdani work The main peculiarity of jamdani work is the geometric design. The expert weavers do not need to draw the design on paper. They do it from their memory. Jamdanis have different names according to their design. For instance, panna hajar, dubli jal, butidar, tersa, jalar, duria, charkona, mayur pyanch, kalmilata, puilata, kachupata, katihar, kalka pad, angurlata, sandesh pad, prajapati pad, durba pad shaplaful, baghnali, juibuti, shal pad, chandra pad, chandrahar, hansa, jhumka, kauar thyanga pad chalta pad, inchi pad, bilai adakul naksha, kachupata pad, badghat pad, karlapad, gila pad, kalasful, murali jal, kachi pad, mihin pad, kankra pad, shamukbuti, prajapati buti, belpata pad, jabaful and badur pakhi pad. Present day jamdani saris have on their ground designs of rose, jasmine, lotus, bunch of bananas, bunch of ginger and sago. Efforts are underway to revive traditional jamdani designs. A jamdani with small flowers diapered on the fabric is known as butidar. If these flowers are arranged in reclined position it is called tersa jamdani. It is not necessary that these designs are made of flowers only. There can be designs with peacocks and leaves of creepers. If such designs cover the entire field of the sari it is called jalar naksha. If the field is covered with rows of flowers it is known as fulwar jamdani. Duria jamdani has designs of spots all over. Belwari jamdani with colourful golden borders used to be made during the Mughal period, especially for the women of the inner court.
Decline of jamdani craft For a long time the Mughals used to regulate the production of expensive jamdani. The Daroga of the mulmul khas factory in Dhaka used to engage weavers, who were paid wages in advance. Increased demands for jamdani weavers caused a rise in their wage and subsequently, the prices of jamdani too. Most expansive jamdani exclusively for the royalties were produced in royal karkhana (factory). The aristocratic people also engaged expensive karigar (craftsman) for manufacturing jamdani. Expensive Jamdani had a world market too. Asian and European royalties regularly put up orders for Dhakai Jamdani through various companies. The production of expensive jamdani suffered set back in the early 19th century when cheaper machine-made jamdani began to capture the world market for jamdani.
However, the long tradition of jamdani craftsmanship is still alive. At present, a major problem of the industry is that the weavers do not get adequate wages for their labour. A good piece of jamdani sari needs the labour of one to two months and the wage paid to the weavers does not compensate for their labour. The producers often do not have direct access to sari markets and because of their dependence on the middlemen, who often form informal cartels, they are deprived of their share of profit. Sometimes, the producers fail to recover the costs.
Many organisations now patronise jamdani industry and this is helping the production of superior quality jamdani. Some jamdani saris now sell for up to Tk 10,000 a piece. We have heard that sometime in the 1990s, the BANGLADESH NATIONAL MUSEUM bought a jamdani sari with designs of bunches of grapes and grape leaves for Tk 35,000. The common people cannot afford to buy quality jamdani saris because of their high price.

Folklore of Bengal

By the word 'folk-lore' a folklorist means myths, legends, folktales, proverbs, riddles, folk verses, folk beliefs, folk superstitions, customs, folk drama, folk song, folk music, folk dance, ballads, folk cults, folk gods and goddesses, rituals, festivals, magic, witchcraft, folk art and craft, and variety of forms of artistic expression of oral culture or rural and tribal folks or unlettered city dwellers that bind man to man. Most of the people from the rural Bengal are guided by the above mentioned attributes. Unfortunately, those are not available in written form. Details of all those can be available in the memories of the people.
In Bengali we do not get any narrative poems other than those celebrating the activities of deities or deified heros until we come to seventeenth century. The framework of these religious poems of Bengal has affinity with the romantic narrative poems of western Indo-Aryan. The common features are
(i) salutation to Ganesh, the god of success; to Saraswati, the goddess of learning and to other deities at the beginning, followed by some account of the poet himself;
(ii) the hero and the heroine presented as incarnations of Vishnu or of a semi-divine couple temporarily under course;
(iii) description of town, kings, courts etc;
(iv) description of lovers' pleasures, and pains in each of the 12 months of the year (Baramasya).
Before they took the written form, these tales were recited by the professional storytellers (called Kathaks, Vachaks) attached to courts of the ruler.

Several local folk cults hitherto confined to outlying regions were now claiming attention. The person who took up the task of elevating the folktales and songs connected with these cults into class of 'Mangal' poetry was a Kayastha by caste, Krishnadas by name. He lived in a village about four miles to the north of Calcutta. His first work Kalikamangal, really a version of story of Vidya Sundar, was written in 1676 when he was only 20 years of age. The second poem Sasthi Mangal was written three years later, 1679 and the third poem Raymangal in 1686 which continued to be written by others also.

In the later half of the eighteen century quite a number of poets all belonging to South-West RaDha, wrote Sitalamangal poem of various sizes. One of them was Manickram Ganguli, the author of Dharmamangal poems. The biggest work of the genre was written by Nityananda Chakravarty who belonged to South-East Midnapur, his work enjoyed high popularity.

The tradition of the Pirs of Bengal has its origin in thirteenth century. A few writers took up folktales to illustrate the might of Satya-Pir. A north Bengal writer Krishnaharidas, who wrote the biggest poem of the genre at the instance of the Muslim landlord, exploited local traditional lore. But majority of them wrote very small poems using the same story that was obviously modelled as per the inspiring episode of Chandimangal and Manasamangal poetry.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Palki - The Palanquin

Palanquin (Palki) a box-litter or sedan for travelling in, with a pole projecting before and behind, which is borne on the shoulders of two, four or even eight bearers of special caste or class. The origin of the word is SANSKRIT palayanka (a bed). Its PALI form is palanka and Hindi and Bangla, palki. The Portuguese are said to have added a nasal termination to any of these words and called it palanquin. There is a reference to palki in the RAMAYANA. IBN BATUTA had personally used palki and so did the traveller of the same time, John Maignolli (c 1350). Palki was one of the means for troop movements during AKBAR's reign and after. It was a fashion on the part of the pre-modern aristocratic and affluent people to move in palanquins, which were of many sizes and designs. The smallest and most austere one was called doli, which was borne by two persons only. The larger palanquins were borne by four to eight persons.
The European traders in Bengal in the 17th and 18th centuries extensively used palanquin in visiting hats and bazaars and also in carrying their cargo. They got so much used to the palanquin mode of transport that even a newcomer who joined as a writer in the company's service at a very nominal salary indulged himself in buying a palki and maintaining an establishment for it. This was identified as a problem since the habit of a person to buy palki was something that could lead to other pernicious habits. In response to the problem the Court of Directors issued an order in 1758 that prohibited the writers from buying and maintaining palanquins. The fact only indicates that palki was in those days what a motor car is today. In the pre-steamer and railway era, even the governor general often found it acceptable to move in palanquin.
In the early nineteenth century, the postal department introduced stage palanquin for mail and passengers and the system continued down to the later part of the nineteenth century. Long distance passengers used to buy stage palki tickets from the post office. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Europeans by and large stopped using palanquins. But until the end of the nineteenth century, the babus and aristocratic natives commonly used palanquins as their means of transport. The palanquin used by RABINDRANATH TAGORE in his visits to his zamindari kachari at Shilaidaha is still preserved there at the Tagore Kuthibari. The affluent people normally owned palanquins, which were borne mainly by their slaves, and the general people used it on hire.
With the abolition of SLAVERY, the palki labours began to come from Bihar, Orissa, Chotanagpur and Central Provinces from the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Many SANTALS sold their labour locally as palanquin bearers. They came from their homelands during the dry season and mostly left their spots on the onset of the MONSOON rains. They had more or less fixed places to visit at the end of the rainy season every year and made their temporary huts at some public or private place.
Palanquin as a mode of transport began to decline from the mid-nineteenth century when steamer and rail communications started and general transportation began to improve. With the development of roads and highways and increasing use of animal carts and carriages the palanquin as a means of transport faced extinction. The introduction of RICKSHAW in the 1930s had, in fact, ousted it from the urban areas. The ever expanding communication network, introduction of motorised vehicles in land and waters all over the country, and the popularity of pedalled rickshaw have now made palki an institution of the past.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Dandabhukti a territorial unit of ancient Bengal, located in the southwestern part of West Bengal (India). Dandabhukti or Dandabhuktimandala emerged into prominence in the first half of the seventh century AD when it was ruled by Mahapratihara Shubhakirti, who was a subordinate ruler under SHASHANKA, the King of GAUDA. Samanta-maharaja Somadatta, who served under Shashanka, was entrusted with the administration of Dandabhuktimandala and Utkala. Dandabhukti is mentioned as a distinct geopolitical unit in several epigraphic records: the two Midnapur copper plates of Shashanka, Irda copper plate of the Kamboja rulers of Bengal, and the Tirumulai inscription of Rajendra Chola. SANDHYAKAR NANDI also mentions it in his RAMACHARITAM. On the basis of the available evidence Dandabhukti may be taken to have comprised the southwest of Bengal, particularly southern and southwestern regions of the modern district of Midnapur in West Bengal and a part of the district of Balasore in Orissa. The memory of Dandabhukti survives in the name of the modern locality of Dantan/Datan in the district of Midnapur.
Two copperplate grants of a Bhaumakara queen refer to Dandabhukti mandala as being attached to the Uttara-Toshali and having contained Tamala-Khanda and Daksina-Khanda districts. These two districts have been identified with Tamluk and Dakinmal respectively, which are also mentioned as parganas in the Mughal revenue accounts of Midnapur district. The Irda copper plate (10th century AD) records the inclusion of the Dandabhukti mandala within the Vardhamana bhukti, ruled by the Kamboja Kings. The Tamil Tirumulai inscription (11th century AD) records the name of Dandabhukti, distinct from southern and northern Radha, and its location is placed between Orissa and southern Radha.
The well-known archaeological sites like Tamluk, Bahiri and Dantan/Datan in Midnapur district, West Bengal produced numerous antiquities throwing light on the trade, commerce and culture of the coastal region of the Bay of Bengal. TAMRALIPTI may have been included within the Dandabhukti settlement.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Shirni sweetmeat or food made of rice or wheat flour dressed in milk, banana and sugar. The word is of Persian origin and is often popularly called Shinni. With expectations for boons and blessings from the Almighty, Muslims customarily distribute shirni among people on various Islamic festivals. Shirni is offered at places such as mosques, MADRASAHs, KHANQAHs, DARGAHs, and MAZARs to please Allah and get His protection in situations such as illness or hardship and mishaps. Shirni is sometimes offered as a wish (manat) in the hope the fulfilment of a desire.
Shirni was not practised by Muslims in the early days of Islam. It became a custom after being introduced by PIRs. It is a popular belief that pirs have special spiritual power and therefore, their khanqahs are to be looked at as resorts for peace in the world. People also offer shirni at khanqahs as a token of respect for spiritual powers. The custom gradually spread and with passage of time, Hindus, Buddhists and, at some places, Muslims began venerating pirs, and with that, shirni became a religious rite.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Folk Medicine

The system of many people's beliefs and practices concerning the relation of man to diseases, causes of disease and the efficacy of remedies. Organic, psychic and social phenomena are strangely intermingled in folk medicine. Folk medical treatment has been practised in this country from time immemorial. Despite the availability of the modern medicine, folk medicine still occupies a dominant place, especially in the rural society. Folk medicine consists of both material and non-material components. The material components consist of medicinal preparations from plants and animal products. These are dispensed usually in their raw forms and are used in treating simple diseases like cold, cough, fever, indigestion, constipation, diarrhoea, DYSENTERY, intestinal WORMs, etc. The non-material components consist of religious and spiritual items. The religious items include: (i) religious verses from holy books written on papers and given as amulets, or recited and blown on the face or body of the patient, or on water to be drunk, or on food to be eaten; and (ii) sacrifices and offerings given in the name of God and deities. Spiritual items include communicating with spirits or ancestors through human media to inquire about the disease and its remedy, recitation of incantations to drive away imaginary evil spirits, and many other similar methods. Non-material components, either independently, or in combination with material components, are generally applied in the treatment of all kinds of diseases, but are specifically used in the treatment of patients with psychological problems such as insanity, various types of phobias, and depression and fear of supernatural creatures. Sometimes their use extends to the treatments of diseases like pox, cancer, leprosy, fractures, snake-bite and even tetanus in newly born children.
Folk medicine involves folk modes of treatment and also largely determines perceptions about disease and health prevailing among common folk. Some recent studies have found that a number of contagious and non-contagious diseases in the villages of Bangladesh are explained by the people in a manner significantly different from modern medical science. Rural people have their own terminology and modes of treatment. For example, they have coined several local names to express different forms of diarrhoea like dudher haga, patla paikhana, etc. Someone's erratic behaviour is called batash laga or alga batash, and is attributed to an intangible spirit, or sometimes, to a disembodied soul devoid of any corporeal spirit. Such a spirit apparently wanders through wind and penetrates the human body through its unlimited apertures. How does alga batash cause disease? The rural people will tell various stories to illustrate its working. Batash does not always penetrate the body directly. It may come through another person linked to a patient. Communicable diseases, however, are believed to be less influenced by alga batash than diseases like convulsions or hysteria, closely related to the domain of psychology. Violent behaviour accompanied by anger, deranged talk, loud laughter and other unusual behaviour are seen to be manifestations of alga batash. The indigenous term meho is used to express what is white discharge in medical terms or padda phool for uterine prolapse. In fact, without establishing the correct meaning of indigenous terms or by linking the symptoms one cannot deduce the disease pattern of people in rural Bangladesh. What is conceptualised in the name of a disease is often something close to the notion of illness and largely refers to the functional experiences of the body. For example, if someone has an ashukh (disease), he or she does not feel well and finds it difficult to eat or walk.
The search for health in case of illness involving reproductive health is not independent of the cultural influences that dominate rural life. Reproductive health problems, and vaginal discharge in particular, may be explained in several ways in the indigenous medical belief system. Such a discharge is often attributed to excessive heat inside the body. Childbirth is another domain where traditional explanations are widespread. Another level coming within the purview of traditional beliefs is related to women's monthly cycles. Menstruating women are not allowed to bathe either in ponds or in rivers. Village culture does not have the capacity to have pregnant women regularly examined by trained people. The delivery of a child in most cases takes place at home under conditions that are hardly hygienic. Most deliveries are domestic affairs generally conducted by relatives of the pregnant women. Only in critical cases, is a dai (birth attendant) called in. Gender discrimination, as might be guessed from overall conditions, also prevails in rural areas. To a rural mother, her child's health is more important than her own. To a rural wife it is her husband's health, which needs modern medical attention. A husband's prolonged sickness is sometimes blamed on the wife who is then branded as inauspicious. Women, it is believed, may contaminate husbands during menstruation and at the time of childbirth. She is therefore segregated and is a taboo for man during such situations. Subordinate status, ignorance, system, and the traditional feminine image compel women to take recourse to traditional treatment. To rural people a healthy person is one who is robust, looks lively, and shows energy in physical work. Minor sicknesses like headache, cold, slow fever, and stomach upsets do not bother them. A sick person does not go to a physician unless the sickness goes beyond what is considered a minor ailment. Their notions regarding disease causation include several mythological perceptions including God's will, divine punishment for wrongdoing, improper food intake, influence of an evil eye or spirit, etc.
It is widely believed in rural areas and also in many sections of urban society that one has to take the help of mystic powers to treat diseases. The mystic power comes from a fakir, pir, maulavi, and others. Common traditional treatments include pani pada (water incantation), jhad phook (oral incantation), tabij (sacred amulet) and tel pada (oil incantation). Broadly speaking, three categories of folk medicine prevail in Bangladesh. These are non-registered herbal, magical, and magico-religious. A practitioner in herbal medicine not registered or not having any formal medical education is locally called a kabiraj. He prepares the medicine himself from locally available herbs and usually keeps the formula a secret. The formula is either inherited or manufactured by himself or received from a master (ustad). Magical practitioners take recourse to incantation. They are called bede or ozha and are invited to perform exorcism whenever a person is bitten by a snake or has diseases such as pain, rheumatism, toothache etc. Religious practitioners are invited to perform exorcism whenever a person is possessed by a zin or bhut (spirit).
Too often, religio-magical practices go beyond the level of health-seeking behaviour to explain minor vices and crimes. To find out a thief or to isolate an offender different magical techniques are used. Ayna pada (sanctified mirror), bati chala (throwing an incantated bowl), lathi chala (sanctified stick) etc. are used for tracing out a thief, or finding out the amulets utilised by malicious persons to put a curse on someone. However, for successful cure, someone with the zodiac sign Libra, must hold these things. Since these types of beliefs and practices for treating either diseases or anything else are in common use in rural Bangladesh because of traditional beliefs, cultural practices and sometimes superstitions, they are collectively called folk medicines.