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Fabric in Ancient India and Hinduism

Fabrics were used in houses and also in temples in ancient India. Contrary to a popular misconception, furnishing fabrics were an integral part of ancient Hinduism. Hindus made and used fabrics long before the arrival of the Islamic invaders.

Varanasi and many other cities in North, East and Central India were major centers of fabric production since 7th century BC. The Jataka Tales of the 5th century BC refer to blankets, carpets and door screens as well as embroidery in gold thread.

Tamil Sangam literature (300 BC to 300 AD) refers to furnishing fabrics as ovia ealini. These included bedspreads and door screens with paintings on them.

Verbal and visual depictions of furnishing fabrics such as curtains and wall hangings, are sometimes seen in stone sculptures of the Cholas (9th to 13th century AD) and several other dynasties including the Vijayanagara dynasty. The weavers often lived either within, or close to, the temple complex. They wove fabrics to hold and dust the idol and provide curtains and other furnishing fabrics for the residences of priests and others living in the agraharam area around the temple.

In Kashmir, the traditional weavers wove natural colored wool into broad carpets, sacks and saddle bags.

The women of Saurashtra and Kutch in Gujarat were experts in folk embroidery. They made beautiful clothe wall hangings to decorate their homes. Quilts and trappings for domestic animals were produced using various decorative techniques such as embroidery, appliqué, patchwork and beadwork. Mothers passed these weaving and embroidery techniques to their daughters.

Rajput women made appliquéd wedding canopies, covers for quilts and wall hangings.

Women of the Meghwa in western Rajasthan produced patch-work quilts and floor coverings. The Kathi families and Mahajan merchants of the region made bolster covers and wall decorations adorned with the typical northwest Indian motifs of birds, flowers and religious icons.

Bengal has a long tradition of embroidery and quilting known as kantha or nakshi. Dinner napkins, bags and wraps for large items of jewelry and mirrors were quilted and embroidered by the villagers for use by the local zamindar and his extended family. The motifs on these were inspired by the local environment and included boats, ships, aquatic creatures, temple festival cars, circus entertainers and even kings and queens.

Indian floor coverings or carpets are traditionally flat woven and generally made of cotton rather than pile woven wool. Cotton flat weaves are called durries, which are spread on the floor and also on wooden cots.

The Jata community of Haryana manufactures, to this day, good quality durries with white geometric designs on a blue background. The weavers of Naikodar, near Jalandhar in Punjab, make durries with figurative designs.

Durries are also made in many other places such as Panipat in Haryana, Jodhpur in Rajasthan and Bhavani in Tamil Nadu.

In Thanjavur and Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, domestic animals and chariots are decorated with cotton appliquéd fabrics. This fabric is usually a type of collage in bright colors.

The Thanjavur region also produces wall-hangings, door frames, door screens and tubular hangings bearing epic and themes from Puranas. These are hand-painted in vegetable colors.

Medieval Indian miniature paintings often exhibit furnishing fabrics of various colors, shapes and sizes. In particular, the Thanjavur School of painting, patronized by the Maratha kings of Thanjavur, displays a rich profusion of such fabrics. These paintings feature Hindu deities, kings, queens, and lay devotees amidst bolsters, chintz curtains, cushioned benches and carpets.

Source – Encyclopedia of Hinduism IV page no 69 - 70