Weaving sacred textiles

Folk Art

Weaving sacred textiles

Powerful motifs:The highly valued Iban Pua Kumbu warp ikat weaves.

Textiles in many parts of the world, whether woven, dyed, printed or embellished are valued by communities as cultural, sacred objects and used in ritual or ceremonial occasions. “In India, as in other civilisation, weaving is considered as an act of creation and worship. Many of the weaver communities like the Padmasalis and Devangas believe that their progenitors were linked to the lord of creation,” said Jasleen Dhamija, international textile expert at the recently concluded International Festival of Sacred Arts, Delhi (organised by the Attic headed by Preminder Singh and supported by the Delhi Government and other leading organisations).

Cloth considered as a sacred item, has been used since ages as an offering to the gods and to adorn them. For instance the red and yellow puja sarees of South India have some symbolism associated with them — they are worn to protect a loved one, to fulfill a vow or ensure a bright future.

Textile symbolism
The rhythm of weaving and felt making matches the rhythm of creation, which finds expression in the sufi dikr, invocation of God, sikh simran, remembrance of God by recitation of his name, jap, meditative repetition of a mantra or litany, Christian prayer with supplications. Fabric is woven into designs of the sacred and powerful like the grid or square, made by joining two equidistant lines, elaborated in the navagrahas or nine squares in many Indian textiles. These topics, among others were touched upon by eminent speakers at the panel discussion on sacred textiles. A textile exhibition at the Mati Ghar of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) curated by Jasleen Dhamija and co-curated by Vandana Luthra was a counterfoil to the panel discussions.
“India had connections with the global world as early as 500 years ago when trade cloths, which were considered ritually powerful and imbued with magical qualities, were exported to countries in Africa and other nations of the world. The Kalabari people living in the Niger delta of Nigeria, prized imported Indian textiles known as madras of specific colour combinations, primarily red and indigo (called injiri or real India) for use in sacred events about 200 years ago,” said Joanne B Eicher, Regents Professor Emerita of the Department of Design, Housing and Apparel at the University of Minnesota, who specialises on cultural aspects of dress and textiles in Asia and Africa.

Births in a community were marked by a new mother wearing injiri during a sequestering period and silks like loko bite or India (velvet embroidered with silver and gold thread silks) at the end of seclusion, culminating in the infant’s naming ceremony when a presentation of injiri was made by the proud father to the mother. The masquerader’s face (the masquerade is a ritual procession evoking water spirits) was covered with pelete bite (a fabric of unusual design by subtraction on this cloth), as he paraded around the town. An elder’s death on the other hand was marked with a funeral of eight days, where funeral beds in four rooms were adorned with wrappers using an array of Indian textiles like lace and cut red cloth.

The sun and the moon have been powerful motifs in art across the world. They take on a mystical meaning when woven into textiles of the Iban region of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. The highly valued Iban Pua Kumbu warp ikat (Mud Mee) weaves were specially woven for use in traditional animistic rituals associated with the eclipse of the sun and the moon. It is believed that when evil forces devour the sun and the moon, these textiles are brought out by the shaman of the longhouse (community houses built on stilts, facing the river) and waved about the tanju or deck, to invoke good spirits, which blow away evil forces, explained Edric Ong, President of Society Atelier Sarawak, the Arts and Crafts Society of Sarawak in East Malaysia.

It is believed that the symbols and patterns of tradition were given by the weaving goddess Kumang to master-weavers through dreams and are therefore described as woven dreams. With Christianity having replaced animism largely in these communities, how do weavers and craftspersons interpret and execute traditional designs? I asked. New faith empowers and fosters creativity, answered Ong. It also liberates them from old practices  like headhunting and the opportunity to work on new imagery.

Handloom: Nature and religion are the two most important and recurrent themes in the symbolism of Thai textiles patterns. Religious connotation
The sacred textiles of Ladakh celebrate ‘creating life’ and ‘protecting life’ said Monisha Ahmed, Independent Researcher on the Himalayan region of Ladakh since 1987 and a doctorate of Anthropology from the University of Oxford. The samsao — the soft and long backstrap loom is a metaphor for sexual union between men and women, fertility and procreation. This is why monks are forbidden to touch the loom. Textiles like coverings, thangkas, scroll paintings, cotton appliqué patchwork represent the concept of protecting life. Gya-ser or silk brocade is commissioned by Tibetan monasteries for wear by the  clergy and woven till today in Varanasi.

Symbols in Ladakhi textiles like swastika represents good fortune, dorge or thunderbolt stands for stability and the Enis Knot for compassion. In Ladakh, the khataq — a ceremonial scarf, is probably the most ubiquitous sacred symbol shared by both Buddhist and Muslim communities. Generally white in colour, and woven from cotton or silk, they may be plain or embossed with the eight auspicious signs of Buddhism. They are offered to deities and the clergy, new-born infants and their parents, to the bride and her groom, to visiting officials and respected elders.

Nature and religion are the two most important and recurrent themes in the symbolism of Thai textiles patterns, woven mostly by women farmers who turn to weaving when their work in the rice fields is finished. Traditionally, the woven Pha Sin (woman’s tube shape skirt) was used for the family’s clothing as well as for offerings to the Wat (Buddhist temple).

Water and rice are recurring motifs in Thai textiles — flowing water with rice seeds, rice sheaves and rice paste in banana leaves. While the footprints of water buffaloes on the cloth forecast the amount of rain expected, nagas are believed to sleep in caves at the bottom of water beds and protect the farmers from evil spirits. Most of the examples chosen were woven in Isan (North East Thailand) in the ikat technique, according to Michele Archambault, who spent 18 years in Thailand, where she started collecting textiles from village weavers, learning from them the names and meaning of the patterns.

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