Woven in tradition
Tribal textiles of India have been a symbol of community bonding, culture and legends for ages. Professor Vandana Bhandari delves into their fascinating history and unique identity
Be it the eponymous textile of Sikkim’s Lepcha tribe, the Muga weaves of Assam or the Bomkai textile woven in Odisha’s Bomkai village – indigenous textiles are not just an integral part of the demography they hail from but also find a place in modern fashion sensibilities. Today, with Indian designers turning to the vast repertoire of the country’s unexplored traditional fabrics for inspiration, many of the nation’s lesser-known materials and weaving techniques from remote tribal communities are being brought into the limelight. Adding to the impetus has been Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constant encouragement to weavers and craftspeople from rural areas, both through policies and personal appeal. He has often donned indigenous garments, including the Assamese gamosa (traditional white cloth with red borders and motifs) and the Himachali topi (cap) during his public appearances, giving these pieces of clothing their much-deserved recognition.
In India, textiles of a community are a part of its social fabric, culture and everyday life. This becomes even more pronounced in tribal villages, where the communities are closely knit even today. Fabric patterns symbolise the socio-cultural identities of tribes across India – from Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha to Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and other Northeastern states. Often, the motifs and embroideries created on such textiles depict the profession a particular tribe is engaged in. For example, the bhalka (spear or arrowhead) motif of the Gadia (or Gadulia) Lohar, a community of blacksmiths from Rajasthan, who travel from one village to another on bullock carts to repair farming and household equipment. The design prominently features in the costumes worn by the community.
Weaves of the Northeast
The Northeastern region of India is home to several tribal communities and each tribe has its unique weaving tradition, set of motifs and even colours. The weaving skills are handed down through generations and is mostly practiced by women, primarily using the traditional backstrap loom.The textiles of the Northeastern region thrive on a web of stories and legends drawn from folk traditions, customs like marriages, and festivals. For instance, the legend of Tejimola, a popular Assamese folktale of a young girl, mirrors the symbolism of Assam’s iconic handwoven drape, the mekhela chador (saador). The story references Tejimola’s paat mekhela – riha (mulberry silk garment), a precious gold brocade saador (or drape), and the protagonist’s sentimental relationship with the garment.
Similarly, the traditional attire of Assam’s Karbi women, pe-kok (an upper body drape pinned above the right shoulder), which is worn with pinicamflak (donned from waist to knee), is dotted with colourful motifs and patterns representing their marital status. For women of the Tripuri community, one of the largest tribes in Tripura, the traditional garment riha, which is draped on the upper body, showcases their culture and tells stories of their lives. In Arunachal Pradesh’s Adi community, women weave their traditional textiles on the gekong-galong (an indigenous bamboo loin loom). The gale fabric, the signature wrap-around skirts the women wear, are produced on this loom. According to legend, spiders taught these women how to weave.
The Mishing (Misin) tribe from Assam’s Majuli island weave on peddle bamboo frame looms, and the fabric’s identity are the patterns of sun (doyni) and the moon (polo) – said to be the mother and father of the tribe, respectively. A recurring design on a Mishing weave is the diamond that represents the chang ghar, a house that is built on a raised platform, to protect the inhabitants from floods. Designs inspired from daily life are also found on the Assamese gamosa (gamcha), which is gifted within the community as a mark of respect. It is also used as hand towels, turbans or often draped around the neck.
Embroidery practised among tribal groups is a part of the diverse needlework tradition of India. Vibrant colours and intricate techniques combined with environment-inspired motifs narrate the tales of people whose lives are in sync with nature. Beadwork is popular among the Bhil and Rabari tribes of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Rabaris generously use mirrors of various shapes and sizes in their embroidery and incorporate thread fringes, glass beads and plastic buttons to edge corners. Embroidery is also a speciality of Andhra Pradesh’s Lambadi tribe residing in tandas or thandas (settlement of the tribe). It is said the Lambadis originally belonged to Rajasthan but eventually spread out to Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. The women of the tribe ornament themselves and their costumes extensively and often embroider on old and used pieces of cloth with decorative stitches.
For the Toda tribe from Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiri Hills, embroidery is a work of pride. Known as pugur in the Toda language, this tradition is passed down generations, and uses a darning stitch (rows of adjacent straight lines). Patterns like the sun, moon, stars, peacocks, butterflies and flowers, stitched in mostly crimson and black, feature prominently in their fabric. Their traditional embroidered shawl called puthukuli holds immense significance as it stands for both aesthetics and dignity. The tribal communities of Bastar in Chhattisgarh and the neighbouring Koraput region of Odisha use a natural dye called aal to colour cotton cloth. Weavers of the Tokapal, Nagarnar and Kondagaon villages of Bastar are well known for their weaving skills. They work on pit looms with unbleached cotton yarns to create a fabric called pata, whose borders are dyed with aal. These fabrics are predominantly worn by women of the Muria and Maria communities and showcase their social status.
Aal is also used in the mirigan sai (weaver’s section) of Kotpad, a small town in Odisha’s Koraput district. Here, bundles of yarn, treated with castor oil and dung, are immersed in aal to yield vibrant red, rusty maroon and brown shades. Often pieces of iron sulphate are added to the dye baths for darker hues. The process of treating, dying and drying the yarn is a labour-intensive process and takes about a month to complete. Weavers then weave these yarns on pit looms into resplendent saris that have moved on from being sold in the bazaars of Koraput to international markets and e-commerce sites. The Kotpad handloom fabric received a Geographical Indications (GI) certificate in 2005. Recently, speaking at an international webinar on Indian textiles, PM Modi said that naturally-coloured cotton and silk have a long and glorious history, and the diversity in textiles shows the richness of the country’s culture. He added there is something unique about the textile traditions in every community, every village and every state, highlighting the rich textile traditions of the nation’s tribal communities. The story of tribal textiles is not necessarily only that of history and tradition but also one of resurgence and progress. Today, many of these lesser-known fabrics are coming to light. The craftsmanship of these indigenous fabrics not only contribute to the Prime Minister’s Make in India campaign but also provide impetus to the artisans and encourage sustainable fashion.