Traditional Textiles


Published: February 22, 2020



In the year 1922, archaeologists found a hidden city named Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro which was collectively called  Indus Valley Civilization. They used to have one or two stories houses built with baked bricks which were identical. Each home had its private drinking well and bathroom. Both men and women used to get dressed in colourful robes. Women used to wear jewellery made up of gold and other precious stones. They also used to wear lipstick. A small bronze statue was found of a dancer which shows that they enjoyed dancing and had a great skill of working with metals. Some of the toys found were small carts, whistles shaped like birds, and toy monkeys which could slide down a string. The ornaments found in that civilization was microbeads which were made up of precious stones having different colour and sizes. The Indus valley civilization flourished 5,000 years ago in the valley of the river Indus.

Have you wondered what would be the origin of women wearing bindi on their forehead? Well, it goes back to Aryan civilization! The groom used to apply a spot of his blood to the bride’s forehead to resemble wedlock. Since this was a sign of marriage, single or divorced women could not wear it but what once was a tradition became a statement of fashion overtime having different colors and sizes. A new group of people called the Aryans arrived in the Indus Valley who came from Central Asia. Aryans loved to gamble and they were the ones to introduce horse chariot racing. Their clothing was initially made up of animal skin but as they got settled and started their occupation their clothes began to be made up of cotton.


During that period both men and women wore 3 unstitched garments called Antalya, muraja, and uttariya. Antariya was the main garment made from white cotton, linen or muslin. They sometimes used to do embroidery on it with gold or other precious stones. It was an unstitched length of cloth draped around the hips in a kachcha style, which was extending from the waist to the calves or ankles. This was secured by a band around the waist with different styles such as vethaka, muraja, pattika or kallabuka. The third item was called uttariya made from fine cotton or silk but for low-class people, it was made from coarse cotton which was used as a long scarf to cover the upper part of the body which again was draped in different styles.

Women generally covered their heads with uttariya in different styles having a beautiful embroidered border. The hair was centered parted with two braids or a large knot at the back. At times it was decorated with fringes or pendants. For the male no such headgear was noticed during the Maureen period however during the Sunga period great emphasis was put on the headgears in which their hair itself was styled in different forms to make the headgear.

Looking at the sculptures we could make out that they were very much fond of wearing jewellery and after researching it shows the material used most frequently, were gold and precious stones like corals, rubies, sapphires, agates, and crystals. Pearls too were used and beads of all kinds were plentiful including those made of glass. Certain ornaments were common to both sexes, like earrings, necklaces, armlets, bracelets and embroidered belts. Earring or karnika were of three types-a simple ring or circle called Kundala, a circular disc earring known as dehri and earrings with a flower-like shape known as Karnaphul. Necklaces of two kinds were worn. A short one called Kantha which was broad and flat, usually gold, inlaid with precious stones, and a long one, the lambanam. Baju band or armlets of gold and silver beads were worn on the upper arm, and were occasionally studded with precious stones. Bracelets called Kangan, very often made of square or round beads of gold, and richly embroidered cloth belts completed the male ensemble. Women, in addition, wore girdle called mekhala, a hip belt of multi-stringed beads, originally made from the red seed kaksha but now made of gold and silver beads, with shapes ranging from round to square and oval. All women wore anklets and thumb and finger rings. The rings were plain and crowded together on the middle joints of the fingers. Anklets were often of gold in this period, though silver was more common. They could be in the form of a simple ring, Kara, a thick chain, sankla, oran ornamental circle with small bells called ghungru. There is no evidence of nose-rings in the period. Forehead


The weaving of fine and coarse varieties of cloth was well established. Cotton, silk, wool, linen, and jute fabrics were readily available. Furs and the better varieties of wool and silk like tussar, called kausheya like Eri or Muga silk of Assam, yellowish in its natural color but when bleached called patrona, were used. Kaseyyaka (High-quality cotton or silk) and the bright red woolen blankets of Gandhara were worth a small fortune each. A rainproof woolen cloth was available in Nepal. Resist dyeing and hand printing in a pattern on cloth has been mentioned by Greek visitors to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, as is the Indian glazed cotton cloth, which was in common use by 400 BC. Material similar to the khinkhwab (which is the interweaving of silk and gold or silver wires beautiful floral pattern) was in great demand and even exported to Babylon long before the Mauryas. Cotton, wool and a fabric called karpasa were available in the north in both coarse and fine varieties. There were also fine muslins often embroidered in purple and gold and transparent like later-day material, which came to be called shabnam (morning dew). The coarse varieties were used by the populace. Woollen cloth, avika, from the sheep’s wool was either pure white (bleached) or dyed pure red, rose, or black. Blankets or kambala were either made by completing the edges with borders or braids, or woven wool strips were joined together. The process of felting (pressing the fibers together, instead of weaving) was also made known. All varieties of wool were available, coarse for making headdresses, trappings, and blankets for richer class.


  • Early Satavahana

The people of the Deccan were a hybrid race, a mixture of the abdoriginal Dravidians and foreign invaders. In the first century B.C their costumes too were an interesting mixture of foreign and indigenous garments. All these clothes are represented in caves IX and X in Ajanta. In the first century B.C we find tunics, kancuka in the stripes design worn by attendants. The kancuka are of mid-high length with short sleeves, in some the opening is on the left side and in others it is at the front. The tunic worn by a king in hunting dress has no discernible opening at the neck, so it is probably at the back. Necklines too differed in that some were V-shaped and others were round in shape. With the tunic a thick kayabandh was wound once around the waist. An elaborate turban ushnisa, intertwined with the long black hair of the aborigine wearers was also worn. In addition to these, hunters wore two-bar type sandals with a strap for buckling, which is still seen in the Deccan. As influences from the north and from foreign invaders percolated, the Dravidian aboriginal village women too changed their costume using short antariyas, large uttariyas with elaborate broad borders covering the head and back, tikkas on the forehead and a series of conch bangles on the arms. Except for the skirt, they looked very much like the Lambadis who are a gypsy tribe of the Deccan today. In the royal court dress of the Mauryan-Sunga people the female attendants wore transparent long antariyas with loose kayabandhs tied in a knot at the center having beautiful ornamental tips. Their many stringed girdles were made of beads. Shoulder length hair held by fillets tied at the center of the head seems to denote that these attendants were foreigners, although nothing in the garments wore seems foreign. The king and most of his courtiers wore the indigenous antariya short and informal ceremonial occasions. With this the decorative kayabandh was tied in different styles and knots. The kayabandh could be tied like a thick cord looped in a semi-circle at the front with conspicuous side tassels, or be made of thick twisted silk. The ushnisa was always worn and a crown was used when necessary.

  • Late Satavahana (100 B.C – A.D 250)

Clothing was generally sparse and made of thin cotton. The three articles of clothing, the antariya, uttariya, and kayabandh were widely used, but interesting mixtures of foreign and indigenous garments were fairly prevalent. The uttariya for both men and women was usually white and of cotton or silk. It was however, at times, of beautiful colours and embroidered. Men could wear it across the back and over both shoulders or merely thrown over the chest, and they still worn by both sexes in the kachcha fashion which meant that one end was passed between the legs and tucked in behind, but this way normally to the knees or even shorter. Generally, the antariya appears to have been made of almost transparent cloth and was worn very tight and clinging in the case of women. It is almost invisible in the early Andhra sculptures with only double incised lines to show the drape. Te nivi bandha knot to tie the antariya at the waist is often alluded to in the literature of ancient India. The kayabandh tied in a bow-shaped knot was worn by both sexes to give further support to the antariya at the waist. This item was worn in a variety of ways. The kayabandh in the form of a simple sash was called the vethaka. The women also wore the patika which was made of flat ribbonshaped pieces of cloth, usually silk. A heavy looking thick jeweled roll with hanging tasselsKakshyabandha-was worn by men. the kalabuka was a girdle made of many strips plaited together, and the mauraja had drum headed knots at the ends instead of tassels. It is in the distinctive ways of wearing these three simple garments the antariya, uttariya, and Page65 kayabandh and in the headgear and jewellery, that we can trace the evolution of the costumes and the fashion of the times in areas of India where they were in use. The true yajnopavati thread is found on the sculptures of this period. Before this, it existed more in the form of the uttariya worn draped over the left shoulder and under the right arm in the upavita fashion from which the term yajnopavati consisted of three cotton threads each of nine twisted strands, but of hemp for the Kshatariya and of wool for the vaishya. At a later stage this sacred thread continued to be used in a limited way by other castes but was retained most strongly by the Brahimns. Attendants, grooms, guards, and so on in the kg’s court and attendants in the women’s apartments in the palace, frequently used a stitched shirt like foreign garment called the kancuka. Women too wore the short kancuka with an indigenous antariya or when calf-length it was worn with kayabandh and uttariya, and in many other ways.


Kushan costumes may be divided into five types: the costume worn by 1. indigenous people-the antariya, uttariya and kayabandh 2. guardians and attendants of the harem-usually the indige and sewn kancuka, red brown in colour 3. foreign Kushan rulers and their entourage and 4. other foreign such as grooms, taders, etc. there are fifty category – a mixture of foreign and indigenous garments. This category os of great interest as it shows how clothes changed and evolved, how some of the purely draped garments of the Indians were replaced by cut and sewn garments. Especially in north and northwest where influences were felt more keenly, and where climatically sewn garments were more suitable. The Kushan dress had evolved from a nomad culture based on the use of the horse. It is at Mathura, Taxila, Begram, and Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan. The dress was worn by most of Scythian and races and resembled particularly that of the Partians. It consisted of ruched long sleeves tunic with a sleeve neck opening, simply decorated. The close fitting knee length tunic was sometimes made earlier, and with it could be worn a short cloak length woolen coat, worn loose from right to left and secured by a belt of leather. Besides these two upper garments, occasionally the third garment the chugha was used. The chugha was coat-like and decorated with a bored down the chest hemline, and had slits to fascinate movement. The trouser could be of linen, silk in summer but woolen in winter. These loose fitting trousers, chalana, were tucked into the soft padded board with trappings, khapusa. Along with this was worn the Scythian pointed cap of felt, bashylk or pea helmet or headband with two ends tied at the back. Although the clothes were simple, they were often adjourned with stamped gold or metal plates, square, rectangular, circular or triangular sewn in lines or at the central seams of the tunic. Their purpose was not decorative but functional as well, as they helped lift the tunic in the middle for riding, by gathering the cloth along seams. This helped to give the distinctive draped effect with four sharp pointed ends at her. The drape of trousers too as held in place by means of these gold plates stitched down the center.


Men In this period there was a marked preference for the stitched garment, as compared to any previous age, and clearly defined garments for north India and the Deccan began to emerge, which later crystallized into the garment preference we see in India today. With the Kushans, the stitched garment had gained in status and it was now linked to royalty, for the Kushans kings and their nobles had ruled a large part of India and Central Asia for more than a 100ears. The Gupta king realized the value of adopting a dress that traditionally becomes identified with royalty. They are shown on Gupta coins in full Kushans dress, that is, the coat, trousers and boots. They continued, however, to wear the indigenous antariya, ultrayia, and kayabandh for informal occasions. Women In the case male costume it is easier to trace the influence, which came mainly from the invaders and Page136 traders. In female costume, however, the variety is much greater and hence it is more difficult to pinpoint the exact sources. The antariya which was 18-36 inches wide and 4-8 yards long was worn in the kachcha style or as a lehnga, in which case it was first wrapped around

the right hip then around the body and tucked in at the left hip. It was drawn very tight across the hips accentuating their curve most seductively, was normally calf length. Another form of the antariya was worn in the kachcha and lehnga style together. This was usually a very short antariya only up to kachcha style; the longer end of the three-yard long material was then wrapped around like a short lehnga. A common form was a skimpy antariya made of cheap linen worn mainly by the lower classes. Normally the nobility and women of high rank wore the ankle-length antariya; attendants usually wore the shorter form. But in all cases it was tied under the navel and supported by the hip bones.A heavily gathered skirt, an elaboration on the ghagri probably introduced by foreigners, is also seen. It seems to be mainly used by dancers, so that its many folds, which may have been gored, enhance the swirling effect. This skirt is still worn by many rural peoples, including the Lambadi and Banjara gypsies of India. Women wore langoti type of drawers, the ardhoruka, which had evolved from the needs of modesty. This was a short strip of cloth worn around the waist with an attached piece from the center of the waist, which was drawn up between the legs and tucked in behind. Like the bhairnivasani this too was an early garment originally used by women ascetics. Jain nuns wore four of these ardhorukas ones on top of another, something like the medieval ‘chastity belt’.

Simple plaits were no longer visible, and hair was so elaborated dressed at times, that the help of maidservants who were expert hairdressers was obviously essential. There seemed to be broadly two styles of foreign origin, while the complicated ways of dressing long hair were mainly derived from south Indian and Deccani’s styles. The latter became extremely popular in the gupta age. The use of missi to darken the gums and lips, and hena to redden the palm and soles of the feet was fairly prevalent. Of foreign origin was the short h air, which was sometimes frizzed in front with luxuriant ringlets quite unlike anything, seen today, or just left hanging loose to the shoulders or lower, held by a fillet or a chaplet of flowers. The indigenous style showed itself in long hair worn in a bun either high or low on the neck or knotted at the side of the head, or with the coil wound on the left on top of the head. The bun itself was sometimes a simple tight knot, at other times in the shape of the figure eight, or large and loosely wound, but almost always surrounded by flowers or had large lotus blossoms tucked into it. In addicted, there could be a, ratnajali, jeweled net or a nete of pearls called muktajala, worn over the bun.

In the Gupta age the finest textiles were available, printed, painted, dyed, and richly patterned in weaves or embroidery. The art of calico printing improved considerably and many of the traditional prints of today originated in this period. There were checks, strips and bird and animal motifs, for eg. Geese, sawns, deer, elephants and so on. Delicate embroidery on muslins, consisting of hundreds of different varieties of flowers and birds, was skillfully executed along with intricately woven brocades, which continued to be in vogue. These brocades with floral designs from the Deccan and Paithan were like the Jamiwar and Himru fabrics of today. The former is a silk floral design on a wool background and the latter has cotton for its main warp. Gauze and Decca was noted for its transparency and was said to be fine that the only evidence of its presence was the delicate gold edging of the cloth.


Writing in the fifth century BC, the Greek historian, Herodotus, marveled at the equality of Indian cotton: ‘There are trees which grow wild, the fruit of which is a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness, that of sheep. The Indians make their clothes of this tree wool. In 330BC, Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, enthused about the patterned robes and dresses made from the finest flowered muslin worn at court and by the wealthy. It the first century BC, the Emperor Nero sent for spices and cloth from the East. In fact, the demand for Indian muslins in Rome was so great that Pliny the Elder complained of a trade deficit with the East causing a drain of over 550 million sesterces of gold bullion each year. The Mauryan administration had improved transportation and the Indo-Greek kings; the Shakas, Kushan and Parthians had established strong links with Western and Central Asia, China and the Mediterranean world. Mercantile activity increased throughout the Southern kingdoms where large-scale Marin tine trade and commerce was conducted by the Eastern ands Western coasts of India with Arabia, South-East Asia and Japan. Trade with the Nile Valley and Lower Egypt, by the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, was also well developed. Cotton fabric made up the main portion of the shipments carried by the Arabs dhows that piled the seas in the Middle Ages. Silk was also exported by the fabled Silk Road, the ancient trade route that linked China with the west. Fabrics were woven from a variety of yarns: cotton was cultivated in most parts of the subcontinent; silk came mostly from the Eastern Himalayas; and wool came from the Northern Himalayas. Most of these textiles were luxury commodities, which began their evolution during the medieval period.

The wild silks of India were gathered from the cocoons spun by the silkworm, which fed on the Asian trees, mulberry and the castor oil plants of the northeastern Himalayas. Textured silks were referred to as ‘bark cloths’ in early Indian texts. The first direct mention of this silk appears in the seventh century in Banabhata’s Harshacharita, the biography of King Harsha. There Muslims were quick to recognize the beauty and value of Indian silk, but in some regions Islamic law forbade the wearing of silk next to the skin. The problem was solved by developing a special fabric known as mashru, which is woven in such way that one side a rich silken ace. These mixed fabrics were used extensively in the Muslim courts for robes, linings and decorative hangings and were exported to Muslim communities in Africa and Arabia.

The beauty, brilliance, colour range and fastness of Indian fabrics were held in high esteem and their quality was unsurpassed. Remarkably, India managed to keep the complex technique of cotton dyeing secret from the world until the seventeenth century. The process of cotton dyeing involved preparing the bleached fabric, painting it with mordants, dipping it in dye and bleaching it again, in repeated sequences, until a bright multi-coloured fabric was created. The secret of the dyer’s art lay in the deft manipulation of the mordants and the purity of the vegetables dyes. There were over 300 dye-yielding plants in India. One of the most important of these was indigo, which had a high commercial value and was imported in large quantities by the Dutch, English, Persians, Mongols, and Armenians. The two most valued colors after indigo were black and red, which were dyed and fixed with alum and other mordants. In addition, Indian craftsmen had also mastered the technique of manipulating dyes to create complex grid patterns, delicate flowers and intricate pictorial scenes on cotton. Block-printed cotton exported from Western India and the Deccan provided the prototype for the calico and chintz upon which later European and American fashions were based.

Many other fabrics –patterning techniques emerged in different parts of the country. The bulk of traditional block printed, painted and dyed fabrics came to Western India, the Andhra region, the Coromandel Coast and certain peninsular regions. Dye painted wall hangings depicted stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata and mythological scenes from the Purans were used in temples as decorative backdrops and for religious rituals. They were painted by master craftsmen who had an in-depth knowledge of the sacred texts and who worked in guilds attached to the temples. The act of making these temples cloths was in itself a ritual and the rules of purity were observed rigorously by the craftsmen as they worked. Their main function was to relate the stories of the goals and goddesses to the public and they were considered to be auspicious objects. Although most of the surviving painted textiles do not pre-date the seventeenth century, the degree of sophistication they display suggests that the technique and style is the continuation of a long-established textile tradition.

The article was written by – Ms. Ayman Satopay. B.Sc in Textile and Apparel Design from Sir Vithaldas Thackersey College Of Home Science. Textile Value Chain intern. Email: [email protected]



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