WEAVING RELIGION INTO TEXTILES
I write this on a day celebrated by the whole of India as handloom day, though for me, every day is handloom day. Textiles constitute the second largest industry in India, second only to agriculture, providing employment to over a million people India can boast of the beginnings of hand woven cloth, going by the discovery of a piece of madder dyed cloth, in a silver pot in the ruins of Harappa dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. The silver, acting like a mordant kept the red dye alive for centuries. Ancient Sind deserts unearthed terracotta spindle whorls and a bronze needle. It established the fact that not only did the early inhabitants of the Indus Valley know how to spin and weave but the coarse scrap of madder indicated that they knew how to dye the cloth that they wove.
Religion and textiles have been interminably melded and apart from social significance religious overtones have existed from time immemorial. Temple towns like Kancheepuram became the base for the weaving communities. Lord Shiva was an ascetic who favoured cotton, so cotton looms sprung up near Shiva temples. Lord Vishnu wore silk, so you could account for the cluster of silk looms around Vishnu temples.
Sage Markandeya, was believed,to be the weaver of the gods who fashioned the first fabric from the lotus fibre emanating from Vishnu’s navel. Weavers of Kancheepuram, claim descent from the sage. The aura of religion enveloped the weaver communities, who deemed it an honour to weave ritual cloth for the gods. Indeed it was the most skilled weaver who was designated this job, and only the finest of cloth devoid of any flaws considered good enough to be offered to the temple deity. This became a test and a challenge of finely honed skills and artistic ability exercised with the utmost devotion.. Ritual cloths have different expressions in various parts of India.
The South has been a stronghold of these kind of painted cloths famous of which are Srikalahasthi, Madurai, Pallakollu, and Tanjore. The stories were hand painted with the brilliance of indigo and madder, some of them combined with the technique of hand block printing. Mythological stories were handpainted on cloth, and it is a skill which is present even today, though the religious significance has faded with the advent of time.
Devotees offer saris to the temples, which are later preserved in special boxes to be taken out on festive occasions to be worn by the idols. Certain temples return the saris to the devotees, who preserve them in their homes, in a wicker basket, and limes, agarbatti and camphor are placed on them. On special occasions the basket is taken out by the oldest member of the family and the entire family worships the deity which has been offered the sari. The saris were sometimes auctioned and sold as temple saris.
In Srivilliputhur, such ornamental sarees measuring 10 yards, are offered to Goddess Andal, and later the cut pieces from these sent to various Vaishnav temples.
The offering of saris to the deity is common among Hindus, and one such votive offering to the Mother Goddess is the Amman Selai, to seek benediction and mercy from her. This is to mainly avert natural calamities, preventing pox, loss of life and cattle. These special saris are usually ordered and procured from craftspersons specialising in ritual saris. The Amman Selai is produced in Pasumpon Mathuramalingam district, Tirunelveli district and some parts of Tamil Nadu.
Originally the drawings of God Karupannaswami and Goddess Kali were drawn directly by the artist, but today, the old designs are traced and reproduced. Wax is applied over the figures in the pallu and in places where colour is not to be suffused and the whole sari dipped in red dye which is made from rose red powder and raktha chivappu dissolved in hot water.
The antiquity of pata-chitra goes back to the 8th century. This style of painting is a combination of folk and classical painting drawing heavily on Krishna Leela and Jaganath themes. This style of icon-painting of Puri occupies pride of place among various forms of pictorial arts in Orissa through wall paintings, manuscript paintings and palm-leaf etchings.
The candarvo is a Gujerati tradition which establishes the sacred space around the shrine over which it may be suspended, or by which the shrine is enclosed.
Similarly in Gujerat the pachedi follows the same tradition of hand-painting and block printing using black and madder colours. The pachedi and candarvo were surrounded by the same sanctity that enveloped the deities.
An abiding faith in religion and mythology gave strength and continuity to a strong oral tradition, and time honoured techniques.
Always, religion was the pivot around which this art blossomed. This slowly yielded to royal patronage, and when this too deteriorated, the artisans looked to new markets, designers, and the government for continued support for a sustainable livelihood.