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Textiles in the Chaurapanchsika Love Poem of the 16th Century

November 15, 2016 4 min read

Chaurapanchasika is a love-lament poem from the 16th century (some say earlier).

[Chaurapanchasika is a set of 50 verses written by a Kashmiri Pandit Bilhana in the 11th century. It is also known as Bilhana Panchasika and Sasikalapanchasika.

The southern version of the story runs that a young and accomplished Brahaman, Chaura (according to Sir Edwin Arnold version the name of the poet protagonist was Chaura) at the court of King Sundava of Kanchipur was appointed to train his beautiful daughter Vidya (or Sasikala). In order to avoid any romantic development between the two, he told the princess that her tutor was a leper and told Chaura that his tutor was blind. However, the ruse soon fell flat through and before king could knew both the young souls were into passionate love.

When the king came to know about the affair he imprisoned Chaura who spent his last hours in prison composing the verses in praise and detailing his amours with his beloved. Each verse began with the refrain ‘I still remember her’.

When he was taken for execution and was asked for repent he offered his 50 verses, which moved the king and he united him with his daughter into wedlock.

The northern version recorded in the volume 13 of the Kavyamala as Bilhana –Panchasika narrates the same theme however the names of the protagonists differ. Here, it is a talented Kashmiri Pandit Bilhana engaged in the court of king Virasimha who fells in love with lovely Champavati the daughter of the king. The Kavyamala also consists of seventy-four verses called purvapithika or background story of the poet.]

Rich clientele patronized the paintings based on the verses of Chaurapanschasika .

One of the notable collections which came into Shri N C Mehta’s collection through Padamshri Muni Jinavijayaji. In this set, believed to be from 16th century Mewar the verses are in black ink against a yellow background, while the pictures are in a lateral format and appear to have been separate and loose not bound in the form of a book or a portfolio.  The text on the pictures is in Sanskrit written in Devanagri script.

The scenes in the sanskrit poem with 16 illustrations depict Bihana wooing Champavati. The erotic element is added in by the suggestive presence of a bed in almost all the illustrations.

Love and romance are all very good – but love stories of others do little to provide a feast for the soul …

And so the artist probably thought to add some art of the time into the paintings.

The variety of textiles seen in these paintings proves that textile art was highly evolved in the 16th Century in the Rajput / Gujarat region.

In this note, I am presenting the art in the set that has found its way to the wovensouls collection:


Enter a caption

Let’s  first enjoy the textile art in the fashion of men and women and  then in another note the home decor style.

These paintings also allow us to study the construction of the garments worn at the time.

The ties on both sides of the chest for the man, his patkas with woven / embroidered ends, his loin cloth that was common for all men until a generation ago and his transparent mulmul are fascinating. But the garment that is intriguing is the piece that he has around his knees when he is seated. I have never seen any such format being used in real life. It seems like a great way to support the knees when one sits cross legged. But is it just a support or is there more to this cloth than meets the eye?

Her costume  is interesting as well. In some paintings, her lower garment could be a wrap-around sarong – but considering that even when she is seated we do no see any skin – it may be a dhoti format or pants like the Salwar for by then the Mughals had already arrived. In others it is a skirt with a contrasting flowing cloth like a patka. None of her lower body garments are made of mulmul but her upper body is covered in a sheer blouse and further with a sheer odhana.

The  acceptable standard of ‘show of skin’ in those days was remarkably different from that today.

This should offer food for thought for all those proponents of Indian “sabhyata” and norms of “decency” that are held up as ‘traditional Indian values”. 

But the most exciting part is the sightings of Bandhinis and Patolas in these paintings.

The circular motifs could very well be large tie-dye Bandhej while the checkered ones could well be double ikat patolas!

What a wonderful hypothesis!

It is time to study these more carefully and look for more published paintings of the same type to see what we can find about the presence of our beloved textiles in historical paintings!!

And if the paintings themselves turn out to be interesting study subjects for students of fine art – that would be a bonus!


Nov 2016



Source: Internet / ethnicpaintings.com










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