India – Textiles and Travels

In the great books of India, an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, constant, the voice of an old intelligence, which in another age and climate, had pondered and thus disposed of the questions that exercise us. Ralph Waldo Emerson

With a textile history dating back millennia, it’s impressive and inspiring to see the industry in India still going strong. A glorious tradition of artisans producing textiles by hand continues right up to the present day and each region still specialises in its own fabric, influenced by geography, climate and culture.

Until at least the 18th century, India was using far more advanced techniques than the European textile industry, employing the likes of ‘mordant dyeing’ (using intense colours that do not easily fade) from the second millennium BC.

Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, championed the nation’s now ubiquitous floral motif during his reign from 1526-30. A great nature enthusiast, he commissioned many resplendent gardens and inspired later generations to incorporate sacred flowers into art, eventually spreading into commercial use at the height of the textile trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.


Weaving an orange and gold sari on a hand loom. Photo by iStock

Indian textiles had been traded with China and Indonesia since ancient times and the creation of the 4,000 mile Silk Route – the trade artery connecting the East and the West – was a significant contributor to regional development. At the end of the 15th century, Vasco da Gama arrived in India and Europe and began buying Eastern fabric in vast quantities, making India the greatest exporter of textiles in global history.

 The scale and impact of this period is illustrated by the fact that the English language still contains Indian words for many materials, from khaki, pyjama and gingham, to calico and dungarees. ‘Chintz’, derived from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘coloured’ or ‘spotted’, now describes a type of floral decoration, but originally referred to glazed calico textiles made in India for the English market.


View from Altit Fort, Hunza Valley, along the Silk Route. Photo by Faysal Elahi.

Visit the villages of Puttapaka and Bhoodon Pochampally, near Hyderabad, to see exquisite silk saris woven in the rare and costly double ikat style. This highly precise and labour intensive method involves resist dyeing both the warp and weft fibres prior to weaving, eventually producing the unique 200-year-old design of the Puttapaka Sari.

Then there’s Khadi cotton and silk, symbolic of a movement started by Mahatma Gandhi as a means of making India self-reliant and free of the shackles of a British monopoly. Woven from cotton, silk or wool, and traditionally considered a rough ‘poor man’s fabric’, khadi has undergone a recent revival, and can now be seen regularly on Indian catwalks.

In Assam, the eastern Himalayan region of India known for the eponymous tea, the mountainous climate is perfect for the special type of silkworm that produces Muga silk. A visit to the manicured tea plantations that cover the misty hills here is a must, as is taking in a selection of the regions’s myriad ornate temples. A wild silk, Muga is trickier to dye than its cultivated contemporaries, but has a far superior natural colour and a lustrous golden sheen. It’s deceptively strong; though delicate and glossy in texture, it often outlives its owner.


Ikat Pattern created on a hand loom. Photo by iStock.

Varanasi, of course, is world-famous for its extremely fine silk. The majority of the silk-weaving population here are Momin Ansari Muslims, who traditionally work at home on foot-powered looms, using manual methods that have been passed down through families for generations. Varanasi saris are known for their embellishments and elaborate Zari embroidery, using pure gold thread.

Perhaps the most intricate Indian textile of all is Kalamkari, pain-stakingly free hand painted or block printed cotton from Andra Pradesh, using only natural dyes. There are two strands to this technique, the Srikalahasti and the Machilipatnam. The former is associated with the deities it depicts, while the latter evolved with patronage of the Mughals. Though the term Kalamkari has been misappropriated more recently to refer to any fabric patterned with vegetable dyes, free-hand painting and block-printing, the original process is far more complicated.


Kalamkari painting. Photo by Anil Bhardwaj.

Kalamkari usually sees the fabric bleached, before being immersed in a mixture of fruits and milk to avoid colour bleeding. Then the pattern is applied with a pen or brush, followed by the natural dyes. Finally, after all colouring has been completed and the fabric has dried, the washing stage begins. Each fabric can be washed up to 20 times.

Whether it’s a Banarsi silk sari or Bandhani tie-dye from Rajasthan, the level of expertise and quality you’ll find are the fruits of a long and rich textile history. But the most wondrous thing about a textile tour of India isn’t just the variety of traditions and techniques; it’s also the incredible and awe-inspiring geographical diversity of this most magical country.


Sunrise across an Indian village. Photo by iStock.
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