Critical Podium Dewanand India
Textiles and Costumes in Early India by Exotic India
Sacrificer Nitin Kumar
Sacrifice code wfor0340
Sacrifice date December 2006
Article of the Month - December 2006
Textiles and Costumes in Early India
The Nomad http://www.exoticindia.com
The nomad had his hunt lying before him. He had to carry it to
his rock-shelter where the woman who had borne him a child
awaited him. He dragged it by its legs but the exercise was quite
tiresome and somewhat unproductive - a large part of the day had
gone and only a small distance covered. Shrubs, stone boulders,
stumps of the trees, felled or fallen, .., everything came in
between. Tired he looked around. A playful bird, a larger one,
perhaps a bustard, swinging on a vine suspending upon a tree,
caught his attention and delighted him. The vine swung to and fro
and with it the bird. He looked at the bird and then at the vine
and questioned himself, 'would the vine bear his hunt?' He
thought he should try. With a quivering mind he pulled the vine,
laid it around his hunt, locked its ends, drew them to fasten
into a knot and lifted it above the ground. He was delighted to
see that it bore its weight. It was now easier to hang it on his
back and carry. In the vine he discovered thus his first rope,
string, and the later days' flax, linen and all kinds of plant fibers.
The nomad was already in his rock-shelter when the night's
darkness began enshrouding his hill. Freezing cold winds joined
it soon. In almost no time, his rock-shelter, hill and all around
stood covered under a thick sheet of darkness, which nothing but
cold sweeping winds shook. Hunt's skin had been removed and the
nomad and the woman who had borne him his child were now
separating prominent bones from flesh. A portion of flesh, so
sorted, was already put to roast. The hearth blazed low and high
and in one of its gusts, the nomad woman noticed her child
shivering with cold. Dried tree leaves and grass, covering the
child for protecting him from cold, were shaken and dispersed.
She re-arranged these leaves and grass but the child still
shivered. She feared his shivering would again throw them off. An
idea struck to her mind. She picked the hunt's skin and laid it
over the dry leaves and grass and, of course, the child. The
device worked. The leaves and grass did not fall, shivering
stopped and the child was comfortably sleeping. In skin, the so
far useless part of the hunt, the nomad discovered his ever first
body-cover - a costume or quilt.
The Nomad from the Rock-Shelter to Structured Abode
Hundreds of years passed. Nothing - a social tie or personal
bond, bound the nomad to the woman who bore him his child but he
was now used to her. The rock was only his shelter, not abode,
but he was used to it, too. The whole day he ran after his hunt
but wished he were back to his shelter, to his child and the
woman he had become used to. Animals' flesh was yet his food and
their skin his body-cover but he hardly liked killing them.
Despite all that, things went on as before except some questions
emerging in his mind. 'Why', he thought, 'he killed animals for
his food while many of the animals that as much loved their lives
and kids and needed food as he did, fed just on plants,
plant-products - fruits, leaves., and even grass and not on lives
of others'. He realized his littleness. He wished he could live,
as did many of the animals, on what the nature gave. He noticed
that many animals contained in their thuds food for their kids
and fed them. He wondered if they would share with him some of
this food for his kids. Many a time, an animal, he sought to kill
for food, looked at him with friendliness in eyes, or walked to
his rock-shelter and looked into his child's or the child's
mother's eyes searching in them a grain of love for it. It
sometimes pained him why he could not reciprocate and befriend
this animal. These and similar other questions agitated his mind
and he felt he was changing. Personal bonds and social ties
bound him now to the woman who bore him his child. He was no more
a nomad seeking refuge in rock-shelters. He structured instead a
shelter by piling the pieces of rock or baked layers of clay,
broken into cubes, one over the other, or by erecting a mud wall
and thatching it with bamboos and tree leaves. He had learnt
reciprocating to the gestures of animals and the two were now
friends. The animals shared with him the food they had in their
thuds. The nomad was now the herdsman settled around Indus, the
river which gave him water to drink and was the source of good
crops and abundant food. Animals' generosity led him to love all
animals, even the most wild. He could not bring them all to his
hutment but made their clay models and gave them to his kids to
play so that the ties in between were stronger and love and
The food he now grew, but for protecting himself, his child and
child's mother against shivering cold the animal hide was yet his
main source. Tree barks and leaves did not survive beyond a day
or two, nor withstood weather's cruel fangs. Now he was not an
individual wandering isolated. He lived in a group and here, his
appearance, conduct and the way he lived mattered. In him had
burst a creative impulse. By using the readily available clay he
created, besides the models of animals, toys, tools, utensils,
articles of day-today use, as also beads and other ornament
components. A wear was yet his problem. Skins did not reflect his
taste, lifestyle and attitude nor had scope for his talent to
work. He looked for something different, and it was discovered by
chance. His child, looking around for something to fashion his
doll's coiffure, was enthralled to see a fruit, seed or whatever,
shaped like a ball, crowning a rough looking shrub grown in the
backyard of his hutment around the dung heap. It had exploded
giving vent to a white hairy substance bursting from it. Its
coiffure-like round shape was a perfect model for his tiny damsel's
hair dress. The hairy substance breathed a kind of softness and
plasticity adaptable to any desired form, which further answered
the child's need. It was a boll born on a cotton plant. He
plucked it and began giving it a shape. While removing pieces of
boll-shell, stuck to a shell piece some of its fibers spun out
and thus thread began its maiden journey beyond the plant it was
born on. This boll was the golden egg - hiranya- garbha in the
Textile in the Indus Valley (ca 3000 B.C.)
Thus, Cotton had emerged as the primary source of clothing in
India by around 3000 B. C., during the early days of Indus
civilization, though in the absence of any tangible evidence as
to its exact origin, a fiction, such as above, alone might define
the incidence of its emergence. A child's chance discovery or an
elder's effortful find, this plant yield was soon the most
favored source of clothing for the animal-friendly Indus dweller.
It helped him replace animal skin obtainable largely by killing
an animal, which he shunned. More significantly, it had scope for
ingenious designing, coloring and fashioning various styles of
costuming that revealed a person's rank, distinction and taste.
Harappan finds include a number of cores of sand revealing
prominent traces of woven cloth and threads. Some vases and a
temple ornament with impressions of cloth on them suggest that
textiles were used also for beautifying various decorating
More significant amongst the finds are: statuette of the priest
draped in 'uttariya' (upper garment)
The Mother goddess figurines with elaborate headdresses adorned
with variedly designed ribbons and short skirts secured with
and, the metal statue of the nude dancing girl.
These three sets of imagery seem to reveal three conventionalized
modes of clothing - one, for the divine female representing
fertility, abundance and beauty; two, for an ecclesiastical
being; and three, for an entertainer. Thus, in Harappan culture,
a person's apparel was also the instrument that defined his
distinction, rank and role in society.
No actual textile or textile component, except a piece of woven
material, just 0.1"x 0.3", pasted inside the lid of a silver
vase, and a bundle of mordant dyed cotton thread, has been
recovered from any of the Harappan sites. In the growth of
textile, the significance of Indus is, however, far greater.
Indus pioneered techniques of spinning, weaving, printing,
embroidering and fashioning costumes. As suggest boat motifs on
Indus seals, and inscriptions from Middle East countries, one of
king Sharrukin of Akkad (Agade) of 2350 B.C., Indus had overseas
trade, and cotton textile was one of its most traded commodities.
Greeks and Babylonians called Indian cotton as 'Sind' and 'Sindon'.
Three material sources reveal the presence of textile in the
Indus Valley : actual textile and textile material; sculptures,
terracotta figurines.. representing human figures wearing various
costumes; and, tools and instruments used in manufacturing
textiles. Pottery and potsherds, which shared with textiles their
designing patterns and motifs, help know the type of designs and
motifs which Harappan textiles used.
The trefoil motif, used in the shawl of the priest-figure,
appears also in the clay objects and long after in the costumes
of the female figures at Ajanta. The four petalled floral motif,
painted on the Indus pot, in the National Museum, New Delhi, has
been a textile design across centuries, in Ajanta, in textiles
exported to different countries during Middle ages and in the
As per laboratory reports, the textile piece found at Indus
Valley was manufactured using coarser variety of Indian cotton.
It used warp and weft technique and was dyed in purple probably
of madder class. Warp threads comprised the base, and weft,
created thickness and design, still the basic principle of
weaving. The bundle of yarn has sustained due to mordant coated
over it. Thus, the Indus dweller had knowledge of spinning,
weaving, dying and mordanting. In relation to textiles, three
categories of Harappan finds are more significant : stone
sculptures, the priest statuette draped in a shawl being of
exceptional significance; terracottas, figurines of the Mother
goddess, various male and female icons, and seals carved with
human figures; and metal-casts, mainly the statue of the undraped
The trefoil motifs on the priest's unstitched shawl might be a
relief, weaved-in, embroidered, or block printed design.
Headgears and sashes of the Mother goddess figurines could be,
stitched and unstitched, and embroidered, weaved-in or inlaid.
Male figurines are draped in elaborate headdresses, muffler-type
wraps and sometimes in loincloth, breeches or close clinging
'dhotis'. The human figures on seals are draped in knee-long
stitched skirts. Copper needles, printing blocks, dying vats and
textile tools - spindle whorls, spools, bobbins, loom-weights,
holed discs .., recovered from various Harappan sites, suggest
that textile manufacturing, as also dying, block printing,
stitching, embroidering and fashioning costumes . were quite in
vogue those days.
Wears in Vedic Texts
Except a few terms - vasa, adhivasa, nivi, drapi, pesas, suvasas,
suvasana . occurring in the Vedic texts, contemplated to denote
some kinds of wears, not a piece of tangible evidence - some
material finds or whatever, suggestive of weaving, woven
textile .., has been reported so far from the Vedic period. Even
the alluded terms are not specific in regard to their material
and manufacturing technique. Such allusions are sometimes only
indirect or metaphoric. Most of these terms have occurred in
later Vedic literature; Vedic Samhitas referring to urna sutra,
yarn made of sheep's or goat's wool; the Satpatha Brahmana, to
tarpya, an undergarment made of tree bark or flax and an upper
one made of undyed wool, as also to kausheya denoting silk.
In Vedic literature, cotton is mentioned at its earliest in the
Manusmriti, and that too only once. Manu prescribes Brahmins'
yajnopavita, sacred thread, to be made from cotton yarn. Skins,
mostly of goats, antelopes and spotted deer, formed a significant
class of Vedic clothing.
The post Vedic era seems to take two different lines in regard to
clothing. Those pursuing Vedic line of animal sacrifice sought in
skins the major source of clothing, while others, Buddhists and
Jains in particular, in cotton. In his Ashtadhyayi, Panini talks
of tula, perhaps cotton yarn, as one of the prevalent fabrics,
and Kautilya, of cotton as a source of the king's revenue, but
the emphasis of both is largely on skins and wools, or at the
most on silks, grasses and plant fibers. In his Arthashashtra,
Kautilya enumerates many wild animals that could be killed for
their skins and furs.
The Arthashashtra recommended that the number of tanneries be
increased and wool obtained also from rats and dogs, not sheep
and goats alone. It enjoined that sheep and goats be sheared
every six months, not annually. Measures, which developed furs
into a marketable commodity, were also suggested. Manu had also
identified a number of animals that could be killed for skins.
Majority of wears that he prescribed for ascetics and others was
made of skins and wools and a few from grasses. Yajnopavita alone
was its exception.
Costumes in Buddhist and Jain Texts
Contrarily, the main emphasis of the Jain and Buddhist texts is
on textiles, cotton in particular, and related activities -
tailoring, printing and dying, as also spinning and weaving,
though fur garments also figure in some of the Jain and Buddhist
texts and monks were allowed to have a strips of deer-skins. As
suggest these texts, spinning and weaving was a wide spread
industry those days. Trading class comprised independent dealers
of cloth, yarn and cotton - dosiya, sottiya and kapasiya
Lunnaga or sivaga - tailors, tantuvaya - weavers or manufacturers
of silken cloth, and champaya - printers and dyers, comprised an
important group of craftsmen. These texts are quite elaborate in
their details of various textiles - vastra or vasana made from
kauseya, a silk produced from cocoon, not silk-worms; linen made
from flax; dhanga, another class of linen made from hemp plant;
karpasa, cotton; and, wool obtained mainly from sheep and goats.
Furs obtained mainly from deer and tiger and garments made from
palm leaves and bank fibers, are also alluded to, though only to
enlist the types of wears in use. In contrast, they deal at
length with techniques of carding, spinning, weaving, dying and
sewing. The Jatakas and Vinayapitaka advise monks as to what they
and the Jain Brahat Kalpa-Sutra, what people were required to
wear on different occasions, at least four - nitya-niwasan,
daily; nimajjamik, after bath; kshanotsavika, festivals; and,
Amongst the articles of textiles and costumes, which these texts
allude to, the significant ones are : kilimika - carpets;
tulika - mattresses; bhisi - bolsters; kharim - bed coverings;
patched sheets; patika - woolen coverlets; carpets inwrought with
gold or silk; maksa kutika - mosquito curtains; robes; mantles;
curtains; blankets; parasols; bags; plaids; scarves and ribbons;
water strainers or filters; and, umbrellas - all woven and
manufactured. Kashika, a textile woven at Kashi or Varanasi, a
woolen blanket, cotton sheet or whatever, has been mentioned as
the finest in its kind anywhere. Chittor and Mathura have been
mentioned as other great centers of textile manufacturing.
Various Components of Early Costumes
After Indus, it is the Mauryan era (300 to 180 B.C), that, upon
the evidence of its sculpted figures as the statue of yakshi from
Didarganj, comes out with well defined costume styles.
This yakshi statue defines a new costume style and marks a subtle
departure from the Indus tradition. In the costumes of this era
the short skirts or broad band-type wear worn around loins and
elaborate headdresses of Indus were completely missing.
However, in less than a hundred years after the Mauryans, the
Indus concept of an elaborate headdress re-emerged in Indian
costumes, with far greater emphasis and wider significance. The
yaksha statues, recovered from Bharan Kalan, now in Mathura
Museum, datable to late third or early second century, and the
entire range of human figures - kings, courtiers, attendants,
servants, devotees, usually male but also female, at Bharhut,
Sanchi, Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda.. were conceived with variedly
styled headdresses, arranged sometimes with prominent
protuberances (golakas)of various sizes, and at other times,
modeled as conch, stupa, Shiva-linga, long drum, a flower-form,
The position of protuberance - in the center, inclined to right
or left, indicated the wearer's position and rank. Protuberance
in the center was reserved for a priest. It is mainly due to its
centrally located protuberance that one of the two Bharan Kalan
yaksha statues (300 B.C.) is sometimes identified as Agni instead
of a yaksha.
Antariya, Kayabandha and Uttariya (Lower Garment, Waistband and
Mauryan Period (ca 325 to 180 B.C.)
Broadly, simple, unstitched and usually undyed costumes,
comprising three components - antariya, kayabandha, or
kamarabandha, and uttariya, defined the Mauryan wears.
Antariya was the modern sari/dhoti type main garment varying in
size. As in the Yakshi statue, antariya was worn on the lower
part of the body below the waist as the male dhoti in modern
Styles of male and female antariya only slightly differed. As
female wear, its large part, almost one half or two thirds, was
artistically pleated into a decorative frill, which was tucked
into the waist band. Its other end was carried, from over the
hips, to the right arm and across it was thrown to let it trail
to the ground.
In male attire, one end was pleated, though not as artistically
as in female wears, and tucked into the fold of the antariya
wrapped around the loins while the other end was carried from
between the two legs and tucked behind. It was worn up to the
lower part of the ankles, not feet as in female attire. Its
length, too, was much less.
Kayabandha was a sash tied around the waist for securing the
antariya. Kayabandha was largely a male attire tied in loop
knots. It could be a simple sash, vethaka, one with drum-headed
knots, a flat ribbon shaped pattika with elaborate band of
embroidery, composed of many strings or a knitted one.
In female attire, a multi-stringed girdle substituted kayabandha.
Sometimes a beautifully pleated kayabandha was tucked over the
pleats of antariya for giving it a thicker look.
Uttariya was a long scarf-type textile covering the upper half of
the body. Uttariya, too, usually formed the part of male attire
worn either as a band tied over the stomach or as one diagonally
across the chest from the right hip to left shoulder and across
the back from left shoulder back to right hip.
Costume-Styles as Reflect in Early Buddhist Sculptures
During the reign of the Sunga (185 to 73 B.C.) and Satavahana
(230 B.C onwards) rulers, boots, sandals and leggings formed an
addition to costumes.
Later, around the middle of the first century of the Common Era,
uttariya and antariya merged into one in Buddha's images. Now a
sheet, as long as could cover his form from his feet to his left
shoulder, defined his apparel.
Later, into the art of India infused the elements of Greek
sculptures. Influenced by the long robe of Greek sculptures, the
sheet, covering the divine form of the Buddha, further widened to
cover his entire figure, both shoulders and down to feet, as did
a Greek robe.
Costume-Types, Designs and Techniques as Revealed in Ajanta
Murals (200 B.C. to 450 A.D.)
A minute survey reveals that no two figures in Ajanta murals wear
a similar costume. And, Ajanta panels, representing a Jataka or a
detached episode from the Buddha's life, are a representation of
crowd, though a meaningful one, with people pouring in from all
sides, each differently costumed, and each costume differently
designed and fashioned.
Ajanta damsels knew multifarious styles of putting on a sari.
Ordinarily, a sari was tied on pelvis wrapping both legs down to
the feet. Maids, attendants and common women covered their upper
part also with one third of it but not those from elite classes.
Elite wore it mostly up to the waist.
A smaller part of its length was wrapped around the loins and its
half width was folded like a short skirt and the longer, let
loose on the backside trailing on the ground like a long majestic
In another innovation, it was worn on body's middle part, that
is, from breasts to knees. It was secured on the waist by one of
its ends tied like a kayabandha.
The sari was also worn like the male dhoti or as the contemporary
langad-dhoti, a style of wearing sari yet pursued in entire
Maharashtra. The sari was wrapped around the loins down to knees
and one of its ends was carried from under the two legs and was
Sometimes, its other end was thrown over one of the shoulders like a
A full sleeve blouse has been designed with white front and back
and tied-and-dyed sleeves. Its front has pointed corners, as are
sometimes seen in concurrent fashion garments.
Some blouses are designed with a round neck, some with v-neck and
others with a collar.
Here are socks, parasol, fans, curtains, tapestries and a lot
more. Here are people with a band tied on the forehead, scarf,
tied around the head, wearing round, flat and domed caps and
wrapped in a sheet, chadara.
Styles of wearing male uttariya are enumerable. A sash has its
own beauty when it is passed from under the right arm, is carried
over the left shoulder and is then brought down to the right hip.
Besides the weaved-in-designing, tie-and-dye and block printing
seem to have been the chosen techniques of coloring textiles
those days. Monochromic textiles are little favored. Ajanta
murals showcase, instead, a range of designed textiles. These
design comprise variously laid stripes - narrow, broad,
horizontal, vertical, straight, waving, crossing each other and
forming squares and rectangles, color-alternating..., sleek
delicately laid lines across the entire piece, chess-board
designs, floral patterns, trefoil, four-petalled, multi-petalled,
vines, painted using obverse and reverse blocks, and rows of
Costumes-types, styles, designs, color-schemes and the very
spirit of these early wears is so deeply rooted into its soil
that despite a gap of about two thousand years the contemporary
textile fabricators and fashion designers not only wonder at
their ingenuity but also look at them for inspiration and
discovering in them their models today.
This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain
specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr
Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the
National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated
on numerous books on Indian art and culture.
References and Further Reading:
Agrawal, Dr. V.S. India as Known to Panini: Lucknow.
Bachhofer, Ludwig. Early Indian Sculptures: Paris.
Behl, Benoy K. The Ajanta Caves - Ancient Paintings of Buddhist
Bhargava, K.D. (ed.). Indian Seals: New Delhi.
Brown, C. Catalogue of Prehistoric Antiquities in the Indian
Museum Calcutta: Calcutta.
Chandra, Moti. Costumes, Textiles, Cosmetics and Coiffure in
Ancient and Mediaeval India: Delhi.
Cowell, E.B. The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births
(6 Volumes Bound in Three): Delhi.
Dahiya, Neelima. Arts and Crafts in Northern India (From the
Earliest Times to C. 200 B.C.): Delhi.
Ghosh, A (ed.). Ajanta Murals: Delhi.
Hegde, Raja Ram. Sunga Art: Delhi.
Jaina, J.C. Life in Ancient India as Depicted in Jaina Canons: Bombay.
Kangle, K.P. The Kautiliya Arthasastra: 3 Volumes, Delhi.
Lalwani, K.C. (tr.) Kalpa Sutra: Delhi.
Majumdar, R.C. Vedic Age, Bombay.
Indus Civilization: A Catalogue of the Exhibition of Indus Finds
and Art Objects (2000), Tokyo.
Sharma, Dr. R.N. (ed.). Manusmrti (Sanskrit Text with English
Translation): New Delhi.
Singh, Dr. Kiran. Textiles in Ancient India: Varanasi.
Whitney, W.D. Atharvaveda samhita in 3 Volumes (Sanskrit Text,
English Translation, Notes and Index of Verses):Varanasi.
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