Textiles are believed to date from pre-historic times evidence of weaving being traced to a period before 3000 B.C. The word textile refers to a filament or yarn that can be made into fabric or cloth, resulting in the material or textile. The word derives from the Latin 'textiles' originally meant only for woven fabrics, but in later times came to include knitted, bonded, felted and tufted fabrics as well.
Traditional handloom textiles began their long journey in the earliest civilizations of India, China and Mesopotamia. Cotton, silk, wool and flex fibre were produced in many regions of the world and the skill and artistry of weaving occupied the imagination and dexterity of those ancient peoples. Fine weaving probably passed from India to Assyria, Egypt and Mesopotamia and later to South Europe.
In the subcontinent textiles are hallowed by ritual and spiritual connotation. In ancient philosophies the universe is envisioned as a fabric woven by the gods. A whole range of mystic thought expressed in folklore and folk verse compares the act of weaving, the laying of loom threads as warp and weft, as creation. God is the weaver the fabric is man. The early Indus Valley civilization, which is dated from the Harappa and Mohenjodaro settlements of 2600 B.C. do not provide visible evidence of the making of textiles, but the find of a small shred of cotton cloth stuck to a pottery shard indicates that weaving was part of craft production. Clay and metal seals from the Indus Valley sites depict human figures clothed in shawl like draped garments and loincloths held in position by woven belts and sashes. Historic events of the period from 3000 B.C. to 1800 B.C. analyzed by scholars and anthropologists reflect the trade and cultural exchanges between the inhabitants of the Harrapan and Mohenjodaro region and Babylonia (Mesopotamia). Gold and copper, lead, lapis lazuli stone, turquoises, pearls, shell and bone, fuchsite inlay and jade were probably traded for the products of the Indus Valley settlers, such as cotton textiles, beads, copper tools, timber and precious woods. The Indus (Harrapan) seals seen at Ur and other Mesopotamian cities convincingly corroborate that sea trade between these two regions had commenced as early as 2600 B.C. and continued up to 1800 B.C. Harrapan seals used to seal bundles as merchandise, display cord or sacking (hessein) impressions on the clay seals testify to different weaving techniques. Mesopotamia trade documents, lists of goods and official inscriptions, mentioned Meluhha, the ancient name for the Indus region, thus supporting the archaeological finds of Harrapa and Mohenjodaro.
Spindles and spinning whorls have been excavated from the sites of the Indus Valley while the cultivation of cotton and use of sheep's wool has been evidenced from the implements found for processing these fibres. One can deduce that clothes of simplified forms were in use, as seen in the terracotta and stone statuary of figurines such as the Mother Goddess, dancing female and male figures of priests and deities. The number of needles found at the Indus Valley sites evidences that the technique of sewing was practised.
The Rig-Veda (1500 B.C.) contains literary references to dress, describing two parts of the worn garment: the vasu (lower garment) and the adhivasa or upper garments. Descriptions of different types of dress for various strata in society are mentioned in the Rig-Veda, leading us to believe that clothes were in use. A garment called atkal described as woven and well fitted is mentioned, while a mantle or cloak called drapi is recorded. Female dancers used the embroidered garment or pesas, and a bride wore the vadhuya at her marriage. The taste for dressing was epitomized in the words suvasas and suvasana meaning well clad. At the excavation sites of the Indus Valley dyeing vats show that the art of fabric dyeing was known and widely used. Certainly from the time of the Rig-Veda weaving and a variety of terms describing different materials are used, such as vasas, vasana and vastra ; words for woof and web 'otu', 'tantu' for yarns or threads and 'tantra' the warp are found in Vedic texts.
It is at this point in history that cotton wool and cotton fibres from Vanga or East Bengal are recorded as important trade items and revenue earners. Marco Polo who traveled through many parts of Asia in 1290 A.D. gave accounts of the fine cotton cultivation and its products. In India the manufacture of textile, especially cotton had become a large industry, where enough was produced for export. Indian cotton textiles continued to be the cynosure among royalty all over Europe, the Middle East and India.
Muslin and Jamdani
The Indo-Gangetic civilization which grew and developed along the banks of the mighty Ganga-Jamuna-Brahmaputra, fused into the indigenous culture of the Bengal delta, to provide in an almost unbroken line the heritage we own today.
The renowned muslins of ancient Bengal, and the specialty of Dhaka muslin is undoubtedly linked to the genre of the Dhaka weaver's skill and talent, or else how could a loom craft come down over a period of two thousand years? The delicate weaves of the diaphanous material and later the figured muslins or jamdanis can only be explained by the unique inner quality of the Dhaka weavers and their descendants. Even today in the villages of Naopara, Demra and Narayanganj, reside the offspring of these blessed and gifted weavers, living along the same riverbanks and using the same type of bamboo looms to weave their magic. Nowhere else in the subcontinent, or elsewhere in the world, it is believed, has such fabric been woven by the hand of man.
The weaving techniques of ancient Bengal, which had been developed into a fine art, have come down to present times in a more or less continuous form. The Greek Chronicler Mesgasthenes visited the court of Chandragupta Maurya (Sandrocottus) in 325 B.C. and described the garb of the Indians in the court as 'flowered robes of fine muslin'.
It can be said that the zenith of muslin production was achieved with the patronage of the great Moghuls.
Italian traveller Manrique, in his writings of 1628, describes the patronage of the court of Emperor Shahjahan, and later Emperor Aurangzeb, who received annual tributes of these fine cloths from their Governors in Bengal and which were so special that it cost ten times the price of any other clothes made for Europeans or others in the Empire. We are informed further that muslin merchants in 1887 protested the monopoly of the East India Company's hold on weavers throughout East Bengal (48,000 persons) which was done by issuing permits that prevented the weavers from taking on work for private traders.
It is the unique quality of the air at the particular point of conjunction, where the river Sitalakhya branches off from the mighty Meghna. It is said that the grey waters of the Meghna turn to a light yellow colour in the tributary causing the air above it to hold a different dampness. The breezes that waft from the river over the village on its banks (especially the morning air before the sun rises high) give the weaver his `gift of the loom'. The weaver himself is a unique being too. He kept his elementary links with nature. He held on ritualistically to the rising at dawn to start weaving, the fixing of taana and baana (arranging yarns in order) when breezes are light at different hours of the day, the mode of weaving during the monsoon rains, the applying of starch in the dry afternoon air and maintained seasonal time, the season to stop weaving, fold up the looms and attend the village `melas' (trade fair). Even to this day the weavers preserve habits and activities that conform to the rainy season, stormy weather, and the dry winters, keeping their looms in tune with the earth on which it stands. In fact, it is amazing that the shape and design of the bamboo loom placed over a clay floor pit is unchanged over the past centuries.
The other factor of vital importance to the uniqueness of Dhaka muslin is the existence of the cotton fibre itself. In the India Office Library in London is a manuscript entitled Textile Fabrics by H.H. Cole, 1877, a catalogue made out in preparation for the Great Exhibition in London at that time. Under paragraph No. 335 it says, `The cotton of which fine Dacca muslin are made is grown in the district and differs from the common cotton plant of Bengal in some particulars, the most important being that the staple of the cotton is longer, finer and softer. The finest qualities called the photi, which have been cultivated from time immemorial in the districts, are grown in certain localities along the banks of the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. Its superiority has been attributed to the action of the sea, the water of which, mixing with the rivers, which overflow their banks during three months of the year, causes a deposit of silt and sand and this improves and fertilizes the soil. The cotton in the state of kapas, that is, with the seeds and wool unseparated, is cleansed and prepared by the women who spin the yarn. The wool adhering to those seeds is carded with the jaw of the boali fish, the teeth of which being small, curved and closely set, act as a fine comb in removing the loose and coarse fibres of the cotton and all extraneous earth or vegetable matter'
The combination of a special raw material in the cotton (kapas) produced in the Dhaka region, the unique atmospheric temperature on the banks of the Meghna, the innate skill of the Dhaka weaver, along with the aesthetic senses of the Muslim patrons at Bengal's capital and the Delhi court, firmly established the name and value of Dhaka muslins by the 16th century. The Dhaka muslins (as a genre of woven loom cloth) were highly prized by this time and it is recorded by Tavernier, historian-traveller from Italy, that the Iranian king Shah Safy (1628-1641) was presented by his ambassador to India a muslin turban 30 yards long, so fine that it could scarcely be felt when held in the hands.
By the 1800's English officials of the East India Company had made detailed records of the loom manufacturing industry, acknowledging the masterpieces of muslin production. James Taylor noted in his book that `A skein which a native weaver measured in my presence in 1846 and which afterwards carefully weighed proved to be in the proportion of upwards of 250 miles to the pound'. This signifies the exquisiteness of the cotton yarn used to weave muslin. D.B. Mitra also notes, `Many Europeans have noted the slender and somewhat delicate physical frame of the natives of Dacca, the remarkably fine sense of touch and the nice perception of weight which characterizes their fingers'. Regarding the climate Mitra quotes that `The climate of Dacca was well suited to the manufacture of fine muslins, while that of Birbhum to the manufacture of coarse calico. The heat and climate of Dacca is lower by some degrees than that of the western district of the province'. He also adds that `the reason why the best weavers had settled in Dacca was that the finest kind of cotton was cultivated in the neighborhood of Dacca', and later `the soil of Sonargaon, Kapasia, and Junglebarry possessed all the components necessary for the best cotton ground'.
It must be understood that mulmul, the plain white, striped and checked muslins were produced since long on the Dhaka looms in different qualities for the local populace and figured muslins or Jamdani were woven under order for the richer classes. Hence the word 'Mulmul Khas' (special mulmul) and 'SarcareAle' (the great ruler) were coined when mulmul was woven on order for royalty, but mulmul was always a popular material for wearing comfort and beauty. Although fine cottons were also produced at Mosalipotam in South India at this point in time, Dhaka muslins exceeded in delicacy and were far superior in texture, so as to become legendary.
For an accurate description of Jamdanis as observed by the British officials, I quote from, 'Hand Woven Textiles of India.
"The famous malmal khas or 'King's muslin' could be made in lengths of 10 yards and one yard in width, containing from 1000 to 1800 threads in the warp."
These could only be made during the rainy season, the moisture in the air allowing the very fine thread to be woven, and would take a weaver almost five months to complete. How rightly has Dr. Watson said, "With all our machinery and wondrous appliances we have hitherto been unable to produce a fabric which for fineness and utility can equal the woven air of Dacca. More beautiful still are the figured muslinsthe jamdanis, from their complicated designs they have always constituted the most expensive productions of the Dacca looms". The jamdani may be called a product of the shuttle in which the designs are inserted by hand during the process of weaving, and produce the effect of embroidery. As in tapestry weaving, small bobbins or shuttles filled with coloured, gold or silver threads, are passed through the warp, the weaver producing the exquisite designs by the skilful use of the bobbins in the course of the intricate weaving. No wonder the best jamdanis of old are today the prized heirlooms of many a Bengali family.
The perfection of embellished muslins called jamdani took place through that extraordinary coming together of three vital forces: material, talent and patronage. The Muslim ruling classes with their Turko-Persian Central Asian combine of sense and style placed a new demand on the weavers. The weavers responded with imagination and dexterity, fulfilling the requirements of their patrons. Persian influence takes dominance over design at this point in history and the Islamic civilization's unique grasp of geometric and abstract motif carries the craft of weaving to new heights. Without doubt it became clear that the ethos, which springs from religious inspiration, led to an outburst of art expression. The unique art of jamdani motif was thus born and gives proof to the phrase 'divinely inspired expression' as creative weavers used their tools to express their thoughts.
At this time also there is a noteworthy breakthrough in innovative design. A distinct moving away from typical Hindu and indigenous motifs took place; the lotus is evidently absent, while the rose, lily, star, sprig and arabesque foliage take over. We also see the angular and geometric outlines taken from glazed tiles, woolen carpet patterns and the enlarged blown-up paisley (kalka) lifted from Kashmir shawls and Persian woven brocades. Designs from Turkish leather saddles, tents (shamiana and kanats) and Muslim architectural lines, bring vitality to the jamdani woven textile design.
As we seek to find the cause of the decline of muslin in the 18th century and disappearance by the 19th century we find ample indicators pointing to the loss of this rich cultural heritage. The debilitating actions by the colonizing power had commenced a long while ago as learnt from G.C.M. Birdwood's record: "In 1641 Manchester cottons were still made of wool. But in vain did Manchester attempt to compete on fair free trade principles with the printed calicoes of India, and gradually India chintzes, were so generally worn in England, to the detriment of the woolen and flaxen manufactures of the country, as to excite popular feeling against them, and the Government yielding to the clamor passed the law in 1721 banning wearing of all printed calicoes whatever." The British policy to protect its own textile manufacture led to a general stoppage of import of the fine cottons including muslins from Dhaka. Results of this policy became further obvious by 1793 and I quote, `British policy British skill and British enterprise brought about a commercial revolution, established a new economy and bound India to the heels of the British economy' (N.K. Sinha, Economic History of Bengal, Vol-III)
Many factors caused the loss of one of the world's greatest living treasures. The Dhaka muslin, which had been introduced into England between 1666-1670, had by 1787 begun to suffer the negative effects of the mechanized spinning and weaving methods of British manufacture. The Company's trade to Europe, particularly to Versailles, Hamburg and Lisbon was badly affected by the wars England was waging against France. After the French Revolution the demand of muslin cloths at the French court ceased. Another important factor was the export of raw cotton to England, resulting in a severe scarcity of cotton raw material in Bengal; the price of cotton rose sharply leaving the weavers with no margin of profit on their production. The Dhaka weavers who were employed full time in this occupation, became unemployed due to the fall in exports of the finer qualities of mulmul or muslin to Europe, America, Ceylon, Gulf of Persia and Arabia, Manila and China, and the disappearance of Mughal patronage at the court, In the Dhaka arang in 1776 there were 1,600 weavers, but they were suffering under the oppressive `advance loan' conditions of the Company's officials. Sonargaon which in 1833 had a population of 5,000 was the centre for manufacturing flowered muslins (jamdanees) done mainly by Muslim weavers in the town and surrounding villages and numbered about 1,300 weavers, according to the Company registers. The coercive policies of the British through their `gamasters' and `amlas' had begun to take its toll, and weavers had begun moving out of their profession and tried to make a living out of their agricultural land.9 Writing in 1839 James Taylor in his book Topography and Statistics of Dacca noted that the produce of the Dacca looms chiefly consisted of `flowered muslins (jamdanees) and Khasidas (Kasida needle work on muslin) but the quantity was small compared to what it was in former years'. Indeed the population of Dhaka declined as a results of unemployment and D.B Mitra states in 'The Cotton Weavers of Bengal' that `In 1800 the inhabitants on Dacca were 20,00,000, but the total would not be more than 68,038 in 1839'.
In fact by the time of the first Great Exhibition of 1851, Dhaka muslins were produced only on orders for the gentry and a small quantity for local markets, as by then the export trade to England had been completely overshadowed by machine made cheap cotton produced in Manchester.
Another interesting record at the India Office Library in London is the manuscript of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition: Indian Catalogue 1886. Under the heading Bengal Div XIII, loom embroidered fabrics, silk, cotton and woolen thread: sub section Nos. 239, 264, etc. it is recorded as follow: `From Dacca, loom worked jamdani pieces both white and coloured, No 239 Shahburga chawal-dana piece lent by Nawab Ahsanullah of Dacca ' This account indicated that the patronage of loom fabrics by the Nawab family continued till very recent times, but the material referred to is jamdani and not the old fine muslin. We may therefore deduce that there was no high quality `Dacca muslin' produced after the 1890's since, by then, the cultivation of cotton had been completely substituted by indigo and jute plantations which the British rulers found a much more lucrative trade item. The fabled muslin disappeared because the unique raw cotton was no longer available. This fact can give culture activists a point to ponder, that if cotton plantations are revived, the gifted Dhaka weavers can still produce the muslin of old
Turai / belun (roller-beam)
Vanga or East Bengal had grown its townships, commerce and industries over the period approximately of 1000 B.C. and the Indo-Gangetic Civilisation had reached fruition, imbibing and fusing with the earlier Indus Valley culture.
The Bengali race is a mixture of Mongoloid, Arakanese, Burmese and Assamese peoples with the Aboriginal river, forest and agro-based peoples of old Vanga. The most recent entry of outsiders started in the 8th century A.D. (up to the 12th century) when Buddhist influence was at its height and the great monasteries at Paharpur and Mainamati testify to that influence. The Pala and Sena Dynasty overcame Buddhism and its followers sought safety in the hilly regions of Rangamati, Bandarban, Khagrachari etc. They form some interesting Tribal population of the country.
The Tribals of the Chittagong Hill Tracts consist of ten main tribes, belonging to the Chakma, Tripura, Tonchangya, Roeng, Pangue, Tusha, Moru, Khumi, Chak and Khyeyng. Several, but not all of these tribes had a weaving tradition. The Chakmas, an important tribe, who follow Buddhism, produce handloom cloth, which carries an ancient link with tribal or indigenous communities in larger Asia. Weaving in Buddhist tradition holds spiritual and ritualistic overtones. In fact some textiles are considered as sacred, such as those woven to commemorate the death of a person and also those woven for marriage ceremonies. There is a special cloth made of hand spun yarn and woven specially as an act of charity. Such long pieces of fabric are made by Chakma women and hung out in open spaces or forest areas on a tall bamboo, as a gift to the monks. Buddhist monks eat from charity (they do not cook their own food) and also they cannot purchase their garments. They receive gifts of their robes from the community, who hang the material in the open, and any monk whose clothes have worn out can cut off a piece to fulfill the needs of his apparel.
Names of Designs :
There are hundreds of patterns but a good weaver must learn. Some of the most famous designs are:
1. Begum bichi - seed of eggplant.
Stick counts refer to the number of small sticks inserted in the threads to form the motif. They go up from sixteen to thirty-eight lines in a single pattern. These form the complicated geometric designs of Chakma loom fabric.