India has a diverse and rich textile tradition. The origin of Indian textiles can be traced to the Indus valley civilization as early as 5th millennium BC. The people of that civilization used homespun cotton for weaving their garments. Excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, have unearthed household items like needles made of bone and wooden spindles, suggesting that the people would spin cotton at home to make yarn and finally garments. Fragments of woven cotton have also been found at these sites.
The first literary information about textiles in India is available in the RigVeda, which refers to weaving. The ancient Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata mention a variety of fabrics. Information about ancient textiles of India can also be garnered from the various sculptures belonging to the Mauryan and the Gupta ages as well as from ancient Buddhist scripts and murals.
India had numerous trade links with the outside world and Indian textiles were popular in other countries of the ancient world. Alexander the Great in 327 B.C mentions “beautiful printed cottons” in India. It is believed that the erstwhile Roman emperors paid fabulous sums for the prized Indian cotton. Indian silk was popular in Rome in the early centuries of the Christian era. Several fragments of cotton fabrics from Gujarat have been found in the tombs at Fostat (older areas of Cairo city, the country’s capital). Cotton textiles were also exported to China during the heydays of the silk route.
Silk fabrics from south India were exported to Indonesia during the 13th century. India also exported printed cotton fabrics / chintz to Europe and the Asian countries like China, Java and the Philippines, long before the arrival of the Europeans.
In the 13th century, Indian silk was used as barter for precious commodities from the western countries. Towards the end of the 17th century, the British East India Company traded in Indian cotton and silk fabrics which included the famous Dacca (Bengal) muslin besides substantial quantities of the same fabric made in Bihar and Orissa. The past traditions of the textile and handlooms is still discernible in the motifs, patterns, designs, and weaving techniques, employed by the weavers even today.
Surat in Gujarat was one of the oldest centres of trade in cotton textiles. This textile reached Surat from different parts of India which would be sent back after processing (refining, dyeing, stain removing etc).
Manufacturing of cotton and silk fabrics was the main industry in Surat, which attracted the Dutch as well as the English in the 17th century. During the 16th century, there was a vast market for textiles of Surat in South-East Asia, the Gulf countries and East Africa. During the Mughal period, products like pagdi (turban/headgear) made with golden thread, cloth for sashes and veils, were very well-known.
The traditions of textile making and the handlooms have been passed on through generations of weavers, some of the techniques used have not changed much over the centuries. Almost every region in India has developed their own patterns and style for a Sari (which is a 1m x 6m of fabric). This series of posts will explore the various traditional textiles such as the Sari in cotton and silk from various parts of India.
[Historic references, text courtesy http://www.indiaheritage.org/creative/creative_textiles.htm]