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History of Indian Textiles

August 12, 2014 4 min read

“The record of ancient and medieval Indian textiles exists mostly in literature and sculpture. There is archaeological evidence of a cotton textile industry at Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley around 3000 B.C., and a few fragments survive from much later periods. Most of the extant textiles are dated after the seventeenth century, because the monsoon climate has been very destructive to early specimens. The Greeks with Alexander the Great wrote of the fine flowered muslins and robes embroidered in gold they had seen in India. They may also have seen the cotton fiber that grew on trees.

A handbook of administration, the Arthasastra,tentatively dated to the third century B.C.,1dealt with methods for distributing materials to spinners and weavers whether the workers were guild members or worked privately at home. At that time few occupations were open to women. Indeed, women who elected not to marry were not allowed to hold jobs. However, weaving was permitted to widows and retired prostitutes. The Arthasastra gave the penalties for fraudulent practices and listed the taxes to be paid by weavers. Among the textiles mentioned were white bark cloth from Bengal, linen from Banaras, cottons from south India, and several kinds of blankets, the best described as being slippery and soft.

In ancient and medieval India the textile industries were politically controlled, and if a ruler was favorably disposed towards the arts, weaving prospered. Differentiation was made between the rural textiles woven for the masses and those made in state workshops for royalty and the well-to-do in other countries (Plate 48). The best workmanship was found in the ritual hangings for temples, and even in modern times it has been considered preferable to destroy worn ones rather than allow them to fall into foreign hands.

Few good commentaries survive from the early medieval period (900­ – 1200 A.D.) when terms were used inconsistently. Fabric names apparently repre­sented the places where they were woven, and details about weaving techniques were scanty.

The Muslim period in India extended from around 1200 A.D. to 1760 when the British took over. A succession of sultans controlled most of India until Genghis Khan attacked early in the thirteenth century and Tammerlane invaded in the late fourteenth. Marco Polo left detailed accounts of the people and industries of the coastal regions of India in the late thirteenth century. He mentioned seeing on the Coromandel Coast the finest and most beautiful cloth in all the world-buckrams like the tissues of spider webs, and he observed dyeing with indigo in the great tex­tile center of Cambay and spinning of cotton in Gujarat. Under the Sultan of Delhi (1325-1351) price controls for food, cloth, and other commodities were initiated to help fight inflation. A permit was required to buy silks, satins, and brocades, and only the well-to-do were allowed to have them. The sultan employed four thousand silk weavers who made robes of honor, hangings, and gifts of gold brocade for foreign dignitaries.

Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan, founded a new and important dynasty, the Mogul, in 1526.A series of great rulers-the greatest Akbar who ruled for the second half of the sixteenth century-governed a glorious empire where the textile arts flourished until the late seventeenth century. Some of the best accounts of Indian textiles were written by European ambassadors to the Mogul courts. Fabulous horse and elephant trappings, as well as the apparel, pillows, and wall hangings, were remarked upon. A king always wore a garment but once. There were marvelous gold brocades called kimhabs,or kincobs,from Banaras. Writers proclaimed on the sheerness of Dacca muslins, called evening dew, running water,or sweet-like-sherbert.Seventy-three yards, a yard wide, weighed only one pound. By comparison, the finest Swiss cottons ever made were at best sixteen or seventeen yards to the pound.

European settlements appealed in India in the latter part of the Mogul period. Motivated by the desire to break the spice trade monopoly held by Venice and the Arabs, Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India by sailing around Africa in 1498,and by 1510the Portuguese had jurisdiction in Goa on the west coast of India. For a short time they controlled the Asian trade by taking over the port of Malacca (near Singapore), where they met trading junks from China. The Portuguese carried pintados (painted cottons) east from India to trade for spices.

Indian textiles were more important to the Dutch and the English than to the Portuguese. The Dutch East India Company was chartered in 1597,the East India Company in 1600.Their ships went first to India with bullion to exchange for the cotton textiles that could be bartered for spices in the Malay Archipelago. Eventually, the Dutch gained a monopoly in Indonesia, with trade centered in Java, and the English withdrew to India to establish trading stations known as “factories.” One of the intentions of the East India Company was to sell English woolens in Asia, but broadcloth was never more than a novelty in India. By 1649the British were sending chintz (see chapter 4)and cheap cotton calico to England. Much was for reexport to America, the Near East, West Africa, and the slave plantations in the West Indies. A four-cornered trade developed. The East India Company shipped calicos to London where they were sold to the Royal Africa Company. The latter shipped them in turn to West Africa as guinea-clothto be bar­tered for people. These slaves, and any remaining cloth, were shipped to the West Indies and exchanged for sugar, cotton, and tobacco-all cargoes bound back for England.”

Excerpt from an online publication of Cornell University




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