Resplendent, intricate, and varied, India’s textile tradition is a kaleidoscope of colors and cultures. Louise Levathes makes a pilgrimage across the country for the ultimate sari
Zubin Shroff A Muslim tie-dyed longhi for men that dates back more than 100 years.
| Credit: Zubin Shroff

In an alley off the busy streets of Mumbai is the workroom of textile designer Bela Shanghvi. As president of the Craft Council of Maharashtra and consultant to the Indian government on development projects for weavers, she has traveled extensively throughout the country and has a sense of India’s rich textile tradition, which goes back more than 3,000 years.

"Each of India’s 28 states—and many of the villages within those states—has its own distinct designs, its own textile language," she says.

"Language?" I repeat.


An energetic woman, with cropped hair, Shanghvi moves quickly about the room, pulling fabrics off shelves and spreading them on a low table.

We look first at a beautiful pashmina woolen shawl from Kashmir with a blue-and-white paisley design all over. Shanghvi talks about how the delicate, intricate needlework of the scarf echoes the flowery speech and complexity of the Kashmiri people, who are sometimes considered "difficult to read." We look at fabrics from Gujarat, in western India, with bold, high-contrast red-and-black patterns that, Shanghvi says, are like the bold and passionate Gujaratis themselves. Gujaratis, she adds, either consciously or unconsciously create fabrics that stand out from their harsh landscape. In contrast, eastern India is lush and full of color, and, Shanghvi says, the women there favor simple white saris with a gold or red border.

A dazzling gold brocade from Benares appears. Delicate white-on-white embroidery speaks of the urban sophistication of Lucknow, near New Delhi. Soon Shanghvi’s table is piled high with fabrics in astounding colors and shades I cannot describe. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a leading expert on Indian crafts who writes about Indians’ love of color, pointed out that even white here has five tones—ivory, jasmine, August moon, an August cloud after rain, and conch shell. India feels, to me, like a collection of countries reflected in its textiles.

I have come to the subcontinent in December, at the beginning of the cooler months and the wedding season. In fabric shops everywhere I go, I find women engaged in the serious occupation of buying saris not just for the bride and her attendants but for all of the guests, who often number close to a thousand.

Since ancient times, textiles have been associated with important rituals and social occasions in India. Sacred sculptures are traditionally clothed, and strips of cloth are hung on trees and poles as offerings around Hindu shrines. Cloth is given when a baby is born and when a man reaches 60 and renews his marriage vows with his wife. Textiles became political when Gandhi’s call for hand-spun Indian cloth—and thus less reliance on British goods—turned into the rallying cry for independence in the 1940’s.

In fact, India’s history is so interwoven with textiles that it is hard to separate the two. Cotton and silk are in- digenous, and when weavers discovered how to make colorfast dyes, Indian fabrics were the envy of the world. One of Alexander the Great’s commanders, upon arrival in the subcontinent, marveled that Indian cloth "rivaled sunlight and resisted washing." The closely guarded secret of the dyes led the British to establish trading posts in Gujarat in 1613 and Madras (now Chennai) on the southeast coast in 1640. The Dutch and the French followed with their own ports nearby. Gujarat and the southeastern provinces of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh remain important textile centers to this day.

Gujarat’s arid climate and susceptibility to droughts and floods have always made agriculture here uncertain. During the summer monsoons, when the grasslands north of Bhuj become an inland sea and farming has to be abandoned, embroidery and beadwork flourish as means of making a living. Northern Gujarat, western Rajasthan, and neighboring Sind in Pakistan remain three of the world’s richest areas for folk embroidery. Bhuj and the old port city of Mandvi in Gujarat are also centers for bandhani, or tie-dye work. Bandhani shawls are part of the common dress of western Indian women.

Today I’m bumping along a dusty dirt road in the Rann of Kutch, north of Bhuj, in Mike Vaghela’s air-conditioned car. He owns the Garha Safari Lodge outside Bhuj and seems to know everyone, including the chief of the Muslim Mutwa village of Dhordo, just 20 miles from the Pakistani border. After tea and an exchange of pleasantries, I am introduced to the chief’s niece, Sofia Nani Mita, 25, who speaks a little English and is considered one of the most accomplished embroiderers here.

"Oh, no, no," says Mita at the effusive comments of her uncle. She defers to her grandmother, 82, whom she considers the better craftsman. She shows me a kanjari (blouse) her grandmother made, then a piece of embroidery she is working on. The stitches are remarkably small and complex, created with tiny needles in an open chain stitch, also characteristic of the Sind. The patterns are abstract and geometric and done in vibrant colors—red, green, blue, yellow, orange, pink, and black. They are similar to the embroidery of Afghanistan. (The Mutwa, goat and camel herders, migrated from there more than 350 years ago.) Both pieces are astonishing.

"Many of the women in the village are just doing work for the tourist trade," she says, "but I’m trying to do something—[she struggles for the right word here] different as well. You see?"

Mita disappears into a neighboring hut. (There’s a satellite-TV dish sticking out of the thatched roof.) She returns with a long strip of black cloth with four-inch by four-inch designs on it. It’s a kind of "notebook." Mita explains that she is interviewing the older women of the village and recording their special stitches, "so we will keep the traditions."

As in other villages in the Rann of Kutch, women here do their finest work for their dowries and less- time-consuming work on bags and quilts for sale to tourists and collectors. Sewing machines and synthetic fabrics, however, are dras- tically changing the styles and traditions, along with cable TV, which airs the latest Bollywood soap operas. A. A. Wazir, a textile collector in Bhuj, bemoans the arrival of cable TV in the Rann a few years ago. "Very bad for the tradition. Very bad," he says.

A thousand miles away, on India’s southeastern coast outside Chennai, Visalakshi Ramaswamy, an interior designer and textile expert, echoes the same sentiments. "Now, with the Jacquard loom, you can scan any picture into the computer and create program punch cards for the loom," she says. "Last year, ’Cinderella skirts’ were the rage among young girls. Every eight-year-old wanted a skirt with the story of Cinderella woven around the border."

Ramaswamy tells me that southern Indians have the reputation of being more reserved and religious than their northern countrymen. The waves of Muslim invaders never penetrated as far south as Chennai, so the beautiful Hindu temple complexes nearby remain intact. Temples, which require religious wall hangings and banners, became creative hubs for craftsmen and remain so today. Sri Kalahasti, a popular pilgrimage site 80 miles north of Chennai, is the home of Gurappa Shetty and his son J. Niranjan, master textile artists whose work is collected throughout India. Sri Kalahasti’s tradition of kalamkari, painted narrative and religious textiles, gave birth in the 17th century to chintz, the glazed cot­ton once coveted by European royalty.

This morning, we are heading south of Chennai toward Kanchi-puram, one of the most sacred cities in India, with some 125 recognized shrines. Kanchipuram is a household word for the most desired silk wedding saris in India as well as cottons in brilliant checks and plaids. Typically, Kanchipuram saris have patterns of brightly contrasting colors—maroon and green, peacock blue and pink—and gold or silver thread woven into the borders. "Often, Kanchipuram silk is considered superior because each thread is composed of six fine twists of silk instead of three," Ramaswamy says. The added weight of the silk is said to make it fall gracefully over a woman’s body, creating curves where there should be and hiding others.

About 60,000 of Kanchipuram’s 188,000 residents are weavers, and they live in clusters of family work compounds, as they have for hundreds of years. We stop at one compound. The low cement houses contain small rooms where some men are working, tying knots on pieces of string as a guide to the designs on handlooms. Others are using a computer to punch the cardboard strips that shape the designs on Jacquard looms.

In another dimly lit room, a woman works at a semiautomatic Jacquard loom, which fills the space. Her toddler sits quietly on the bench beside her. The design cards rattle as they move along the top of the loom, directing the horizontal threads that control the design and freeing the weaver from the tedious job of manipulating knots. Still, moving the small spindle by hand through 2,400 threads (the fabric’s width) is hard work—which will earn this woman about $2 a day. (The six-yard sari, which takes about two weeks to produce, will sell for about $70.) It is as if all of her and her family’s creative energies are involved in producing this remarkable cloth, and their surroundings are unimportant to them.

During my travels in India, I’ve found myself almost unconsciously leaving my dull, Western clothes behind me in hotels: khakis, a white shirt, a beige cotton jacket. It is impossible not to be seduced by the fabrics of India. Here in Chennai, I finally succumb to buying a sari. Mine is from Arani, near Kanchipuram, in a shade of purple-green called tender mango, which is said to resemble the color of the young shoots of the mango tree. I don’t know if I will wear it, but I will never tire of looking at the fabric’s dancing colors in the light. It is alive—a sprout of transplanted mango in my bedroom.

The Textile Society of America, in Earleville, Maryland, (410/275-2329; and the Textile Museum, in Washington, D.C., (202/667-0441; organize textile tours around the world, including in India. Other Indian textile resources in this story are listed below.


The Indian Textiles Co. Luxurious, high-end fabrics from all over India, collected by owners Sushil and Meera Kumar. Shop and showroom are in the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel in downtown Mumbai. (Apollo Bunder; 91-22/2202-8783).

MarketPlace The vision of Indian social worker Pushpika Freitas, this 20-year-old Chicago-based nonprofit works with women in the slums of Mumbai, marketing their products in the U.S., and, along with Indian partner share, promotes community development. Reasonably priced clothing and home furnishings. (800/726-8905;

Mehta & Padamsey Textile designer Meera Mehta has a superb sense of color and works with weavers around the country. (Fort Chambers, C Block, Tamarind St., Fort; 91-22/2265-0905).

Studio Aavartan The boutique of handicrafts expert and design consultant Bela Shanghvi. (Ness Baug, Annex 1, Shop No. 1, Nana Chowk; 91-22/2387-3202)

WomenWeave Charitable Trust U.N.-supported nonprofit that seeks to improve Indian women’s lives by marketing their handloomed products. (83 Gool Rukh, Worli Seaface; 91-22/5625-8709;


Calico Museum of Textiles A mecca among textile museums, with one of the world’s finest collections of antique and contemporary Indian textiles, including rare tapestries and costumes. It is constructed from parts of old village houses and is located in Shahi Bagh Gardens, about three miles north of Ahmedabad. (91-79/2786-8172).

Kala Raksha Cofounded by Judy Frater, former associate curator of the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., this trust supports local artisans and preserves traditional crafts in Kutch, including embroidery. (Parkar Vas, Sumrasar Sheikh; 91-2808/277-237;

Museum Quality Textiles A. A. Wazir and his sons have been collecting embroidery and textiles that are true to their shop’s name for more than 25 years. (107/B-1, Lotus Colony, P.C.V. Mehta School Marg, Bhuj; 91-2832/224-187;


Garha Safari Lodge A good base just outside Bhuj for exploring the handicrafts and textile traditions of the diverse Muslim, Hindu, and Jain people in rural Kutch. Owner Mike Vaghela can arrange village tours. (Rudrani Dam, Bhuj; 91-79/2646-3818; doubles from $60)


Dakshinachitra Historic houses from south India have been transplanted to this beautiful 10-acre site by the sea to introduce visitors to the cultures and craft traditions of Tamil Nadu and other provinces. The American-born founder, anthropologist Deborah Thaigarajan, continues to expand exhibits and education programs. Artisans work on-site and sell their wares. (East Coast Rd., Muttukadu, Chennai; 91-44/2747-2603;

Kalamkari Research & Training Centre Run by master textile painter J. Niranjan Shetty. (Plot 4, Shirdi Sai Temple, Chennai Rd., Sri Kalahasti; 91-984/959-9239).

Nalli Chinnasami Chetty Five incredible floors of fabrics from throughout the south—Kanchipuram silks and saris, cottons and ready-made clothes—and packed with Indian shoppers. Most salesmen speak English. (9 Nageswaran Rd., Panegal Park, T. Nagar, Chennai; 91-44/2434-4115; Nalli also has shops throughout India and a U.S. outlet in Mountain View, California (650/938-0700).

Garha Safari Lodge

Museum Quality Textiles

A. A. Wazir and his sons have been collecting embroidery and textiles that are true to their shop’s name for more than 25 years.

Kala Raksha

This trust supports local artisans and preserves traditional crafts in Kutch, including embroidery.

Calico Museum of Textiles

Studio Aavartan

The boutique of handicrafts expert and design consultant Bela Shanghvi.

Meera Mehta

Textile designer Meera Mehta has a superb sense of color and works with weavers around the country.

The Indian Textiles Co.

Luxurious, high-end fabrics from all over India, collected by owners Sushil and Meera Kumar. Shop and showroom are in the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel in downtown Mumbai.

Textile Museum

Located off the usual tourist track in the Kalorama neighborhood, this small museum is dedicated to fostering an appreciation for the artistic value of textiles from around the world. Originally founded by George Hewitt Myers in 1925, the Textile Museum is housed in two buildings, one of which is the former residence of the Myers family, built in 1913. The museum’s collection includes more than 19,000 pieces dating as far back as 3,000 B.C., with highlights including oriental rugs, Islamic textiles, and pre-Columbian Peruvian textiles. Past exhibitions include Constructed Color: Amish Quilts and Contemporary Japanese Fashion: The Mary Baskett Collection.