Writing in the fifth century BC, the Greek historian, Herodotus, marveled at the equality of Indian cotton: ‘There are trees which grow wild, the fruit of which is a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness, that of sheep. The Indians make their clothes of this tree wool. In 330 BC, Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, enthused about the patterned robes and dresses made from the finest flowered muslin worn at court and by the wealthy. It the first century BC, the Emperor Nero sent for spices and cloth from the East. In fact, the demand for Indian muslins in Rome was so great that Pliny the Elder complained of a trade deficit with the East causing a drain of over 550 million sesterces of gold bullion each year. The Mauryan administration had improved transportation and the Indo-Greek kings; the Shakas, Kushan and Parthians had established strong links with Western and Central Asia, China and the Mediterranean world. Mercantile activity increased throughout the Southern kingdoms where large- scale Marin tine trade and commerce was conducted by the Eastern ands Western coasts of India with Arabia, South-East Asia and Japan. Trade with the Nile Valley and Lower Egypt, by the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, was also well developed. Cotton fabric made up the main portion of the shipments carried by the Arabs dhows that piled the seas in the Middle Ages. Silk was also exported by the fabled Silk Road, the ancient trade route that linked China with the west. Fabrics were woven from a variety of yarns: cotton was cultivated in most parts of the subcontinent; silk came mostly from the Eastern Himalayas; and wool came from the Northern Himalayas. Most of these textiles were luxury commodities, which began their evolution during the medieval period.

 The wild silks of India were gathered from the cocoons spun by the silkworm, which fed on the Asian trees, mulberry and the castor oil plants of the northeastern Himalayas. Textured silks were referred to as ‘bark cloths’ in early Indian texts. The first direct mention of this silk appears in the seventh century in Banabhata’s Harshacharita, the biography of King Harsha. There Muslims were quick to recognize the beauty and value of Indian silk, but in some regions Islamic law forbade the wearing of silk next to the skin. The problem was solved by developing a special fabric known as mashru, which is woven in such way that one side a rich silken ace. These mixed fabrics were used extensively in the Muslim courts for robes, linings and decorative hangings and were exported to Muslim communities in Africa and Arabia.

 The beauty, brilliance, color range and fastness of Indian fabrics were held in high esteem and their quality was unsurpassed. Remarkably, India managed to keep the complex technique of cotton dyeing secret from the world until the seventeenth century. The process of cotton dyeing involved preparing the bleached fabric, painting it with mordants, dipping it in dye and bleaching it again, in repeated sequences, until a bright multi-coloured fabric was created. The secret of the dyer’s art lay in the deft manipulation of the mordants and the purity of the vegetables dyes. There were over 300 dye-yielding plants in India. One of the most important of these was indigo, which had a high commercial value and was imported in large quantities by the Dutch, English, Persians, Mongols, and Armenians. The two most valued colors after indigo were black and red, which were dyed and fixed with alum and other mordants. In addition, Indian craftsmen had also mastered the technique of manipulating dyes to create complex grid patterns, delicate flowers and intricate pictorial scenes on cotton. Block-printed cotton exported from Western India and the Deccan provided the prototype for the calico and chintz upon which later European and American fashions were based.

Many other fabrics –patterning techniques emerged in different parts of the country. The bulk of traditional block printed, painted and dyed fabrics came to Western India, the                     Andhra region, the Coromandel Coast and certain peninsular regions. Dye painted wall hangings depicted stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata and mythological scenes from the Puranas were used in temples as decorative backdrops and for religious rituals. They were painted by master craftsmen who had an in-depth knowledge of the sacred texts and who worked in guilds attached to the temples. The act of making these temples cloths was in itself a ritual and the rules of purity were observed rigorously by the craftsmen as they worked. Their main function was to relate the stories of the goals and goddesses to the public and they were considered to be auspicious objects. Although most of the surviving painted textiles do not pre- date the seventeenth century, the degree of sophistication they display suggests that the technique and style is the continuation of a long-established textile tradition.

Costumes of Medieval Period Mughal Period

Queen Subada, Detail from Shahnamah, Sultanate School, 1450.

Costume Details:

 Phiran: of transparent material, form-fitting and ankle length, has two embroidered vertical panels along the length and sleeves.

Odhni: of sheer material, fringed, draped over the head around the neck and shoulders. Salwar: tight fitting white pajamas

Hairstyle: long, worn in a plait ending in a decorative tassel.

Hair ornaments: of pearls, have many strings and loops suspended from the head of the Queen. Necklace: many stringed gold necklace edged with pearls, and a smaller necklace with a ruby pendant. Bangles: of graded sizes of gold and pearls.

Baldric: gold and pearl baldric, like a chain, is worn over the right shoulder and under the left arm. Anklets of gold and pearls.

Indian elements: odhni, bare feet, bare/visible torso, some of the ornaments.

From Roshen Alkazi‟s Medieval Indian Costume (India and Central Asia). The tale referred to is the Shahnameh and the character is Sudabeh (I am assuming the name is modified in the Indian version). The illustrative style draws a bit on Jaina texts of the period.

This is a door stopper of a book with great visuals and illustrations that covers an intermediate period of Indian history, starting with Mahmud of Ghazni and ending somewhere around the time of Babur. There aren‟t too many costume resources for this period but Alkazi draws on Indian and foreign texts (largely Central  Asia and Iran and both Islamic and Buddhist influences) to show the kinds of costumes that were prevalent and the intermingling of styles. It is a little more focussed on parts of India that came under Islamic rulers but covers a lot of ground.

First up the most ubiquitous of summer (and spring) flowers, the jasmine.

In the east it is highly esteemed, and the Indian women braid it into their hair when they receive it from their lovers, in as much as it promises long affection.

Excerpt on the jasmine. The kunda is a spring flower and varieties of jasmine bloom through spring and summer in the subcontinent.

And though symbolic of a romantic bond, nothing at all to stop one from a solo enjoyment of its flowers in the hair:)

The bougainvillea girls enter in a flock, like dragonflies at noon. Their sudden laughter peals over me. Warm salt waves that take the breath and pull you to drowning. They float through the musty dark of the store, glittery dustmotes on a ray of light. The Mistress of Spices, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Pics: 1. DOT, Daizy and Tapushi 2. Peach, photographed by me 3. via tilfi 4. Via parama_g

Summer flowers and staying cool in Sanskrit poetry.

A crest of double jasmine nestles in her braid, fresh after bathing; A necklace made of trumpet flowers pours coolness on her breast’ an acacia blossom, delicate of tip, adorns each ear

The summer offers its insignia

to a woman’s every limb. Madhubala.

Pics: 1. Laxmi Chhaya wearing jasmine 2. bridal photography by Anbu Jawahar (flowers in pic not the Indian trumpet flower but suggestive of trumpet flowers) 3. detail from a Hemen Majumdar painting 4. Still from Kumki.

In Sanskrit, mango has 63 names. Some of them are as follows : Kamashar, Madhavdruma, Bhrungubheeshta, Seedhurasa, Vasantdoota, Atisaurabha, Madirasav.

The most common words in two ancient languages are: amra in Sanskrit and manga in Tamil……. Most languages have words for mango derived from amra or manga.

Pics: 1. Salabhanjika at Sanchi where the tree is a mango tree 2. Detail from a miniature painting with a fruiting mango tree 3. Detail from a Kumaril Swamy painting 4. Snagging a Mango (2017), Aditi Raychoudhury.

And the jackfruit.

This is April.

The jackfruit tree that shines

like slashed gold at the touch of a chisel,

and the honey-mango tree that always tempts the hand to carve a toy boat from its trunk,

will be shaking now with blossoms, with fruit.

Though this artwork is related to Deepavali, the jackfruit is also a summer fruit. Pic: 18th century miniature painting.

And lastly, my personal favorite. Summertime is jamun time. (wiki on jamun). But do not eat it with mangoes, says the Sushruta Samhita:).

The luminescent beauty of Lord Krishna’s dark skin is compared to the shiny black fruit; just as a woman’s round, beautiful eyes are often poetically referred to as ‘jamuns’. The God of clouds – Lord Megha incarnated on earth as the jamun and that is why the color of the fruit is like the stormy monsoon clouds.

Pics: illustration of the jamun tree, Raag Megh Malhar, Jamun Kheer by kharakapas.

Costumes of British Period

it was Jnanadanandini Debi, the wife of Satyendranath Tagore – brother of the famous Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore – who popularized the blouses, jackets and chemises and the modern style of the sari today after she was reportedly refused entry to clubs under the Raj for wearing the sari fabric over her bare breasts. Tagore is believed to have actively encouraged his wife to adopt Western ideas.

The terms “blouse” and “petticoat” – both English – made the leap into Indian vocabulary in the Victorian era. Shirts also came to be worn under the sari as part of high fashion and these rather British innovations are considered traditional garments.

Even though it can be revealing, as the crop top leaves the midriff bare, the sari blouse has long been deemed decorous and associated with tradition. In India it was important for a woman to cover her body with a draped fabric here no matter what is underneath.

The British influence only became stronger over time. We see different kinds of blouses coming in with sleeve structures, and various necklines.


image captionAt the height of the Victorian era the British and Indian fashions rather resemble each other

In India, unlike in Britain, there are no written codes of conduct or sumptuary laws about what should be worn. What was considered suitable was spread through word of mouth.

So today’s guardians of the hemline – who no doubt believe they are safeguarding women by prescribing what women should wear – are following in the footsteps of older political overlords.

Indian women now are much freer to do what they want, at least in the cities, yet we see dress codes being set and women condemned for what they wear. Some people even make an association between clothing and rape.

These people don’t understand that ideas of decency are constantly changing and rape is not a consequence of what women wear but of how certain men think.

Our dress is our identity. But what we think of as traditional Indian modesty, can turn out not be not very Indian at all.