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Diverse Traditions of Creative Expression in Odisha’s Textiles

Advocacy, Craft, Handloom, Art

Diverse Traditions of Creative Expression in Odisha’s Textiles

Jain, Gunjan

The handwoven textiles of Odisha are famous for their intricate weaves, bold colours, diverse designs and a large repository of motifs. This is the land of Chariphulia, Bhanumati, Bichitrapuri, NakshtraBhushan, Panchabati, Manihare, Muktamala, Bijoymala, Priyatama, Madhumati, Rajashree, Suchitra, Muktapunji, and several such creatively named textile designs. Textile historian Ghosh suggests that the art of weaving in India was developed and mastered first by the fishing communities.It is also believed that it was the spider, the weaverbird and myriad ways of nature that inspired human civilization to weave nets, mats, baskets and ultimately textiles. In Odisha, where we find an unbroken thread of craftsmanship that maps the history of human civilization, from the Paleolithiccelts and cave paintings of Kalahandi to neolithic boat workshops of Chilika,and numerous rivers and rivulets including the mighty Mahanadi, a four hundred fifty kilometer long coastline and verdant rainforests of the Eastern Ghats,both theories of the origins of weaving can be said to be valid here.

It is learnt about the thriving trade between Kalinga and the South eastern Asian countries during 1-7th century BCE from Buddhist texts i.e., Ceylonese Chronicles, Dathvamsa, Dipwavamsa, Mahavamsa, Nikayas, Jataka Tales, Brahminical sources viz. Bharatmuni’sNatyashastras, Arthashastra by Kautilya, Raghuvamsha and Kumarsambhav by Kalidas, Skandapuran, VayuPuran, Mahabharata andRamayan etc. besides the accounts given by foreign travellers like Xuanxang and Meghasthenes.

The history of textiles is dynamic and very often contentious due to the lack of corroborative evidence, as textiles hardly survive the span of history itself. References to textiles in ancient and medieval paintings, texts, and sculptures are therefore the primary source of locating & mapping textile history. One of the earliest references of Orissa’s textiles happens to be Kautilaya’sArthasastra (350 BC), which mentions of thriving textile production and trade in Kalinga. It was after the conquest of Kalinga in 261 BC, that the Mauryan Emperor Ashok embarked on a mission to spread Buddhism across the world.

The celebration of the popular Bali Jatra has its origin in the trading movement by the brave seafarers from Kalinga known as the Sadhabas, to Java, Sumatra, Bali, Borneo, altogether forming Suvarnadvipa or Indonesia.The 4th century poet Kalidasa’sRaghuvamhsa speaks of the Sadhabas as the ‘Lord of the Seas’ and in the folklore of Odisha the Sadhabasare known to be weavers as well.This could possibly explain the similarities in the various textiles found in these regions and Odisha like Ikat. It is difficult to locate the origin and direction Ikat spread.The similarities between the Kalingan textiles of the Phillipines, the ikat of Bali and others with their counterparts in Orissa like Bandhacould possibly be because of the maritime history of Kalinga.

In the 7th Century CE, the Chinese traveller Xuanxang visited PushpagiriMahavihara, a Buddhist university complex in central Odisha and made note of the textile production in the region apart from the various port towns and thriving trade. The 12th century Jagannath temple in Puri has several references to various textiles that are still used in rituals. It is said the 12th century poet Jayadeva had his Gitagobinda woven on fabric using the Bandha (ikat) technique.The 14th century Maithili poetJyotirishwar’sVarnaratnakara, written in the early fourteenth century in Maithili, mentions Bandha weaves like Suryabandha and Gajabandha.The 14th century poet Vatsa Das describes textiles from the region in the KalassaChautissa and the Mahabharata of Sarala Das, the 15th century poet,makes elaborate descriptions of the clothes adorned by the characters in the epic.

The portsof Odisha gained popularity across the world for excellent fabrics available like “Chandrakonaa” and “Sanno” that were produced in the coastal region. In 1633 the first contingent of Englishmen arrived in Orissa and after clashes with Portugesesettlers they made their base at Jagatsingpur and started export of fabrics from Orissa to Britain. At that time three thousand weavers were residing inJagatsinghpur, a major coastal center of handloom weaving. It was here that the Britishers built one of their first commercial settlements and then at Balasore, with the beautiful muslin and chintz from this regionbecoming very popular in England.

Around this time the coastal districts of Orissa like Puri, Cuttack and Balasore produced about 90,000 tonnes of cotton to meet growing demands from the Western traders. But the greed of the colonisers ultimately led to the death and downfall of the weavers and their art. By 1785, Britain started producing its own muslin and levied heavy taxes on weavers in India who produced muslin. Colonial history reverberates with inhuman atrocities perpetrated by the Britishers against the weavers. They were tortured, imprisoned and their properties were confiscated. The glorious tradition of artistry and craftsmanship of Orissa’s weavers was finally broken after centuries.

It is the resolute strength of the people that despite such tragedies of the colonial regime that many of these age-old traditions have remained alive. The arch nemesis of the British colonisers in Orissa was the Kondh tribe who waged several rebellions that were quelled with brute force. Even today the KutiaKondh tribe of Koraput and Kalahandi districts spin cotton yarn and weave course scarfs as their winter garment to face the severe winters of the Eastern Ghats.The women of the DongriaKondhcommunity, embroider their creation myth of Niyamraja (hill god) on thick handwoven cotton shawls called ‘RektiKapdaGanda’ in bright vivid colors depicting their dongars (hills) and fields. These shawls are usually made for their personal use and rarely sold outside the tribe. The patterns are a pictorial declaration of their belief in giving back to nature as much as they take from nature. Male weavers of the Dom community weave the shawl in the basket weave. The body of the shawl is off-white in colour and primary colours are used for embroidery.The women wear this shawl over a white sari with a red border. Unmarried boys give the shawl as a token of a proposal to girls of their choice, If she accepts the proposal she keeps it.

In Koraput district the women of the Bondatribe use their native loomsto weave the Ringa, a hip wrap, 8” to 10” wide and 2 to 3 feet in length.Originally the ringa was woven with bark of the kudhei and sisal tree in the weft in simple stripe pattern. These days it is woven with thick cotton yarns in multicolour stripe pattern.The women of the Gadaba tribe of Koraput also weave their own version of the Kerang and in their custom a woman is considered marriageable only if she knows weaving.

In the same district is Kotpad, where the Panika tribe practices the age old tradition of dyeing with a natural dye ‘aal’ extracted from the root bark of the Morindacitrifolia tree which belongs to Rubiacea family. The bright red colour achieved from aal varies from bright terracotta reds to maroons to deep browns and black. Aal dyeing is a tedious and a time-consuming process. Similar aal dyeing and weaving is also practiced in the bordering district if BastarinChattisgarh.

Originally the Panika weavers producedpatas, similar to saris, usually four meters long and one meter wide draped by women of tribes like Muria and Dhurua. Usually the body of this cotton sari is off white with aal red borders in three shuttle technique and small motifs as ornamentation woven as supplementary weft. Other textiles like Pheta and Angoccha (turban and shoulder cloth) are woven for men.

The fabrics are woven on a basic pitloom known as mangtha or haathabhandi in coarse cotton. The motifs are largely inspired by nature and other significant objects of daily use inspired by the animals, insects, birds,  fishes, human figures etc in extra weft. The ‘maelugdatarappata’ worn by the bride’s mother, especially at weddings and the kansabandhi are the prime examples of the single colouraal dyed saris.The local demand for aal dyed fabrics has been on a decline due to easy availability of cheaper, powerloom woven synthetic alternatives. Women have started wearing polyester printed saris.

The Kuli and the Koli are tribes of Orissa whose primary occupation was weaving. The Kuli live in the districts of Bolangir, Sambalpur, Phulbani, and Nayagarh.The Kolis are settled in the districts of Koraput, Phulbani, Boudh, MayurbhanjGanjam, Sundergarh, PuriKeonjhar and Cuttack. The weaving practices of Odisha’s tribes is relatively lesser know than the several other major weaving communities like the Bhulia, Kostha, Dera, Srabaka, GaudiyaPatra, AsaniPatra, Tanti, Gaudiya Tanti, Rangani, etc.

In western Odisha the art of Ikat is called Bandhaand is practiced bythe Meher community,comprising of theKuli, who are labour class Mehers, the Kosta who are tassar weavers and Bhulia weavers who weave cottonBandha. In central and Eastern Odisha theGaudiyaPatara,AsaniPatara and Srabaka of Eastern Orissa weave Bandha. The Kosthas are experts in reeling and spinning yarn from silk cocoon. Silk cocoons are known as Kosa both in Orissa and Chhatisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh and it is believed that their knowledge in reeling silk yarnis the reason they are known as the Kosthas.

Unlike the weavers in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, the OdishaBandha artisans usually do not draw designs first and rather weavestraight away from their imagination. What is most revealing in Bandha is the technique of using other extra warp/weft elements to create reliefs and highlightsin the patterns. The fusion of the two is highly evolved and effective, as can be seen in the traditional Bandha cotton saris of Bargarh/Sambalpur districts and silk Bandhasaris of Sonepur district.Bandha can be distinguished by intricate, curvilinear designs and conversational motifs unlike Andhra ikats which are mostly bold and geometric.From coarse variety to very fine mercerized cotton quality upto a hundred and twentycounts are woven. Efforts have also been made to weave tussarikat fabrics.

The traditional ikat design is an integration of conventional motifs deriving from Buddhism and Jagannath cult, like Shankha( Conch Shells)& Chakra ( Wheel). The other dominant motifs in Bandha are Macho (fish),Phulo (flower) Singha (lion), Mayura (peacock), Padma (lotus), Baulamala (string of flowers), and Harina (deer).In fact many of the motifs used today have been inspired by the various carvings and sculptures found in the various temples of Odisha. For instance the SInghabandha (Lion motif) is an imitation of the Lion gate of Jagannaath temple and not the natural Lion.

Bandha weaves used to be typically dyed using natural colors extracted from plants, flowers, leaves and barks of trees but not anymore.Borders are usually adorned with Kumbha (temple tower) motifs. TheNakshtraBhusanis made of coarse as well as fine fabrics comprisingmulticolouredspotted motifs.The  Muktajhariis another typical design with animaland floral motifs, woven in a mix of rich contrastingcolours.

The Saptapadi or Saktapaarand Bichitrapurisaris, from the weaving looms of Sambalpur, Bargarh and Sonepur are identifiable by the double ikat checkerboard pattern (passapalli) and extra warp border. The similarity with the square Teliarumals of Andhra can be seen in Bandha checkerboard warp/weft yarn resist intypically red, black and white colour combination. The SaptapadiSari has weft bandha for the pallu, warp bandha for the border and a combination of the two for the body.

In addition to the bandha, Sambalpur saris frequently use supplementary warp patterning to provide an elaborate additional border between the two existing borders. These woven borders, known as phulia, incorporate a number of rows of the flower motif in the border, ranging from one to twelve.Sonepur is the other district where cotton and silk saris in contemporary elaborate extra weft designs on drawlooms and Jaquard looms are produced. One of the popular motifs is the konark chakra woven in extra weft technique on the pallu (end piece) of the sari.

The popularity of these weaves is evident from the thriving business in the traditional handloom haats of western Odisha. The biggest such weekly market is the Balijodihaat in Bargarh district held every Friday. Held on an open field, the weekly haat sees weavers from Odisha and neighboring states sell items such as yarn, saris, dhotis, dress material, bed covers, etc. Business begins in the early morning when traders arrive to snap up items in bulk and continues through the day. The turnover of the market is estimated to be between Rs. 1- 2 crore every week and apart from doing roaring business, the sense of pride among small sellers there is palpable – with direct access to the market, it’s also an important platform for feedback and encouragement. As theentire revenue flows back into the same area where the products are made it strengthens the local economy, and the haat’s decentralized model – right from producing yarn down to selling the products – is one of the key reasons for the popular Sambalpuribandha to still survive.

Like theBhuliaMeher, even the GaudiaPatra and AsaniPatra weavers of Odisha are known for single weft ikat technique both in cotton and silk.The Gaudia and Asani are primarily located in Tigiria area of Cuttack district and have ancient ties with the Jagannath temple in Puri.The legendary GitagobindaPhetafabric is still woven by the Gaudiyafor the Jagganath temple in three main colours – yellow symbolizing salvation, Green symbolizing life, and red symbolizing creative power.

The weavers here unanimously agree that their ancestors came from Bengal. Ghosh suggests that legend describes they have come to this areas from Nabadweep of Bengal.Even the term Gaudiya explains their origin being Bengal, Gaud being the original name of Bengal. Their surnames Aash, Guin, Dutta, Paramanik, Naha, Raha, Akhit, Das etc. also supports their story of migration from Bengal, since most of those Bengali surnames are absent in Orissa. Some of them believe that they were invited by King of Puri sometime during thirteenth century. History of Bengal shows that there was frequent clashes between Hindus and Muslims in one hand and Sakta and Vaisnav cult on the other from ninth century onwards which perhaps was the reason for migration of Vaisnav people to migrate to Orissa.

A small number of Buddhist weavers also live in the Tigiria called Srabaka or Saraka. The largest concentration of the Srabaka is found in Nuapatna and they are also settled inBanki, Regadi, Maniabandha, Mahammadpur, Resarasikpur, Khurda etc. in the districts of Khurda, Cuttack and Puri.They are highly skilled in tie and dye ikatdesigns besides other weaving designs like booty, checks etc. Theycan weave cotton cloth using yarn up to 100 counts besides weavingof silk and tassar. The Srabakas also produce silk yarn from cocoons bythigh reeling or spinning of waste cocoons. Their weaves like Khandua, Tarabali (large and small stars), Maniabandhijodo etc., have earned a great reputation. The primary motifs in their designs are the Buddhist Gajja (elephant), hiran (deer), sua (parrot), padam (lotus) and other flowers, lata (creeper), kumbha (small triangles), danti (tooth-like) etc patterns. The glossy KhanduaPattaare single weft Bandha patterns woven on silk and cotton fabrics. The Srabakaweavers have mastered the art of producing very fine curvilinear designs in weft bandha.

The tussar belt of Odisha lies mainly in districts of Mayurbhanj, Baleshwar, Keonjhar and Jajpur. The Adivasi communities practice sericulture and the women in tussar weaving villages still thigh reel their own khaditussar yarn and weave into cloth. Tussar silk is produced by the larva of the insect AntherareaMylitta. The silk is spun by the silk worm in a single shelled oval cocoon with a fine grained hard non flossy shell. These tussar cocoons are mainly collected from local trees like Sal and Arjun. The present day tussar weavers of Jajpur claim to have migrated from Bardhamandistrict of Bengal similar to the Gaudia and AsaniPatras, though it appears tussar weaving in Orissa has a much longer history.

TussarSaris would predominantly have plain body in natural tussarcolour (beige) with dobby borders and end piece woven in stripes of repeated motifs inspired by marine wildlife like fish, tortoise, florals etc. in combination with simple geometric patterns inspired by everyday objects like tooth and grain in supplementary extra weft technique. These days many ethnic saris are more colourful than in the past as synthetic dyes have broadened the range of possibilities. Unfortunately there is only one weaver today that continues to weave pure khaditussar sari using thigh reeled khaditussar yarn for warp as well as weft, with three shuttle Kumbhaborder and rib patterned end piece that was designed for the Vishwakarma exhibition in 1982 and still has a niche market demand. A large section of weavers produce plain tussar cloth and ahimsa tussar cloth that is sold in the markets of Champa district of Chattisgarh.

Tussar fabrics have special religious significance in Orissa and are widely used in Jagannath rituals. Orissa is known for its distinct temple architecture and stone carvings like Mutkeswar, Konarka, etc. It can be said that stone craft and textile craft have influenced each other entirely. Templeor kumbha /deulmotifsare found in almost in every Sari, either on the border or the anchal.

There are several kinds of cloth specifically produced for daily rituals as well as special occassions in the Jagannathtemple. The deities are adorned with tussarPataduring theRathayatra, BoiraniPata is made from cotton yarn and worn by the Lord round the year, Chehelimatha is red dyed tusssar cloth that the deities wearon special occasions,and there are several other such with their unique function like the Tadap, Uttariya, BaralagiPata, Patani, Sirakapada, GitagobindaKhanduaPatas, Boiranisaree, BoiraniPheta, Kenduli or PattaniSaree, GadiPheta, Chemedi, Mulmul, NetaPhuta, Cheheli, DakhiniSaree, Kala Khadi, TrikhandaPatani, Phulapadachadar, KavariKachheni, KodaPahada, SutaGada, SutachulaPheta, SutaKodaPochha, SutaKodaPachhoda, KhadiPachhoda, Tuli, ChadarGada, SuklasajaGada, BaulaPata, PataDhadiPanchi, SutaDhadiPanchi, Srimukhota, TanaKohosa, RathGhera, ChandanGuda, BibhaPanchi, Surya Boiranipheta, Chandra SekharPheta etc.The Jagannath rituals also use colourful crafts made with the famous Pipiliappliqué art.

Berhampur patta are heavy textiles woven in mulberry silk in extra warp and weft patterns in Berhampur district. Among the popular textiles produced in fine silk yarn is the ‘Jodo’, dhoti and gamcha (shoulder cloth and unstitched patloon for men) with ekphulia border (one row of fish and rudraksh) typically in ‘ganga jamuna’ borders, one side border in red and the other side border in purple or black.Thesemuch sought after textiles are woven by a community called Dera, also known as Debangasand are settled in Berhampur, Chatrapur,Parlakhemundi, Bomkai, Digapahandi, etc., of Ganjam district and around Jeypore in Koraput district. Some of the Deramigrated to Sonepur of Bolangir district as well.

The Deramen and women are competent weavers andonly recently some of them living near urban areas switched from pit looms to shuttle frame looms. However they weave better on their traditional looms. They use silk, cotton, spun silk, etc.,both of lower and higher counts to weave cloth. Their designs are usually simple and use dyed yarn for designs.

The Dera of Bomkai village produced a type of sari with embroidered weaving design that resembles brocades. They have kept alive the original thick coarse cotton Bomkai sari woven on a basic pit loom. The weavers have inherited their colour and design sense from their ancestors who, like the most modern of designers, were inspired by their immediate environment. The weavers participate and dance in the annual Thakuranijatra which begins on the last Tuesday of the month of Chaitra. The male dancer in the red bomkai sari represents Durga and the one in black, Kalika. The Thakurani icon is a conceptual combination of Durga and Kalika with a headdress adorned with seven snakes.

Today, only three weavers are left in the village of Bomkai who still weave their beautiful thick cottons with extra weft designs inspired from their environment depicting bitter gourds, peacocks, parrots, trees, flowers, fishes in glowing colour. The others have migrated to Tamil Nadu and other states to work on powerloom or given up weaving altogether. Today the story of weavers migrating as unskilled labour and the death of theirheritage weaveshas become common affair in Odisha.

The ones who do stick it out find every year more and more discouraging but stick it out of stubbornness and pride in their creative heritage. One of the only three surviving original Bomkai weavers once said, ‘I prefer weaving in my house with my family over breaking stones and/or operating machines for 15 hours like all those people migrated to Surat and elsewhere for better salaries. All I ask for is fair wages for my weaves.’

The BauriTantisare Dalit weavers settled in coastal Orissa and normally produce Gamchha, dhoti etc.There are numerous weaving centres spread over Odisha in districts like Nayagarh, Kendrapada, Khurda, Cuttack,etc where cheap coarse cotton saris, lungis and gamchas are still woven in simple ikat designs and supplementary warp/weft designs for the local market. The weavers of Jagatsinghpur continues to weave cotton saris in non mercerized cotton which offers a light and free drape compared to mercerized cottons that tend to stick to the body. There is another weaving communityknown as Matia, mostly settled in Cuttack, Puri and Balasoredistricts. TheJolha are a group of Muslim weavers settled in Cuttack district.

The Dhalapathar village in Khurda district offered the most exquisite handwoven tapestries in cotton. Two decades ago almost every Odia household displayed Dhalapathar curtains proudly. These curtains were woven in thick coarse cotton with different elaborate large size designs like the PuriJagannath temple, motifs inspired from temple paintings and sculptures like Navagunjara, Gaja-Singha etc. Today, there are only two weavers left in the village who have the knowledge of this rare weave. There have been attempts to revive these beautiful tapestries in the form of pure cotton and tussar silk saris.

A village called Siminoi, tucked away in the district of Dhenkanal highlights a classic case of migration. There is not a single weaver left engaged in weaving the once desired thick cotton Siminoi saris in simple extra weft patterns. All have migrated to different cities in search of odd jobs or shifted to power loom.Maximum migration has taken place in Berhampur of weavers and farmers – migrated to surat and working on powerloom in extremely poor and unhealthy conditions.The unbroken tradition of art and crafts that originated in the Paleolithic era cave paintings have come a long way but have reached the crossroads. The future is uncertain and no effort is enough to promote and preserve this glorious legacy of human ingenuity.

Bibliography or Reference

  1. A History of Ancient & Early Medieval India by U Singh
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  18. KhanduaSarees& Fabrics: Tradition & pride of Orissa by P. Nayak, T.K. Rout, P.K. Samntaray and P. Dash
  19. European Trade and Colonial Conquest Vol 1 by B. Dasgupta
  20. Fabled Orissa: From Glory and Grandeur to Colonisation by S.K. Rath
  21. Castes and Tribes of Southern India by Edgar Thuston
  22. Traditional Indian Textiles by John Gillow and Nicholas Barnard
  23. Indian Ikat Textiles by Rosemary Crill
  24. The Sari, Styles, patterns, history, techniques by Linda Lynton
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  26. Design Sutra, Nift
  27. Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond by RtaKapuChisti
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