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Page  3  of  5

South Asian Cotton Textile Industry

Part 2



Salman Minhas


Cotton trade – the early beginnings

Roman Cotton Toga Parties: Around 200 BC Roman ships docked at ports on the Southwest coast of India to pick Indian fabric from which their coveted togas were fashioned. Roman emperors paid fabulous sums for the prized Indian cotton [Muslin], which was known as mal mal khaas. Pliny complained of the trade deficit that the Roman empire was running with India. The Romans called this mal mal khas as ‘woven air’ or `vetri venti' or woven winds.

Europe & love for Calico: The hunt for spices led the Europeans also to the southwestern coast of India in AD 1500 to Kozhikode, also called Calicut, in northern Kerala. Calicut was a famous cotton-weaving centre and it is remembered as the place of origin of calico, to which it gave its name (i.e., Calicut). Calico refers to an all-cotton fabric woven in plain, or tabby weave and printed with simple designs in one or more colours.

Calico originated in Calicut, India. By the 11th / 12th century, Hemachandra, an Indian writer, mentions chhimpa, or calico prints, decorated with chhapanti, or a printed lotus design. The earliest fragments to survive (15th century) have been found not in India but at Fustat, in the neighbourhood of Cairo in the 15th century. The calico examples are resist-dyed (in which parts of the fabric to be left un-dyed are covered with a substance that resists the dye) and block-printed, and are of Gujarati manufacture. In the 17th and 18th centuries calicoes were traded between India and Europe. Printed calicoes were generally used for hangings and bedcovers, as well as for dresses in England.

Chinese & southeast Asian connection: In AD 1300 Marco Polo records the exports of Indian textiles to China and South East Asia from the Masulipattinam (Andhra) and Coromandel (Tamil) coasts in the "largest ships" then known. It is conjectured that the initial development of this trade accompanied the spread of Indian cultural influence in South-East Asia. John Guy in the "Arts of India, 1550 - 1900", points out that "textile patterns on sculptures of Indian deities in central Java and elsewhere in the region very probably reflect the prestige cloths in circulation in the late first millennium".

The Chinese traded in textiles extensively with India during 1300-1800 in the times of the Ch’ing & Ming dynasties. Cochin, in Kerala, still has buildings that show this Chinese influence. At the Khmer capital of Angkor at the end of the thirteenth century, preference was given to the Indian weaving for its skill and delicacy. Prestige trade textiles such as Patola (double ikat silk in natural dyes) from Patan and Ahmedabad, and decorative cottons in brilliant colourfast dyes from Gujarat and the Coromandel coast were highly sought after by the Indonesian-Malaysian royalty and wealthy traders of the Philippines. The port city of Surat (in Gujarat) emerged as the major distribution point for Patola destined for South-East Asia, and was frequented by the ships of the Dutch East India Company. Wearing the Patola was the exclusive right of the Indonesian nobility.

The Dutch East India Company was the main distributor of Patola to local rulers in the East Indies. As part of the incentives offered to win local trading concessions and co-operation, embroidered bedspreads and wall hangings made in Satgaon, the old mercantile capital of Bengal, (near modern Calcutta) were also distributed. Quilts of embroidered wild silk (tassar, munga or eri) on a cotton or jute ground, combining European and Indian motifs were commissioned by the Portuguese who had been attracted to Bengal as traders by the quality of the region's textiles. Cambay also produced silk embroidered quilts. Textiles from Golconda and further south also found favour in Europe and South East Asia. In the early 1600s, Dutch and English trading settlements were established in Golconda territory.

Produced in the Golconda hinterland, were the famous kalamkaris. These were/are finely painted cotton fabrics and were bought or commissioned from the port city of Masulipattinam. Buying at source enabled the Dutch and English merchants to procure these textiles at rates thirty per cent lower. ‘Palampores’ were/are painted fabrics based on the "tree of life" motif that had become popular in the Mughal and Deccan courts.

Chintz appears in European market and soon disappears: The attractiveness of fast dyed, multi-coloured Indian prints on cotton (i.e. chintz) in Europe led to the formation of the London East India Company in 1600, followed by Dutch and French counterparts. By the late 1600s, there was such overwhelming demand for Indian chintz (whether from Chittagong in Bengal, or Patna or Surat, that ultimately French and English wool and silk merchants were able to get the governments to ban the import of these imported cottons from India - the French in 1686, while the English followed in 1701.

The British East India Company also traded in Indian cotton and silk fabrics, which included the famous Dacca muslins. Muslins from Bengal, Bihar and Orissa were also popular abroad.(Muslin-a very thin cotton material).

Centres of textile trade: For the land based Silk routes and international trade, the textile centres of trade were located in Northern and Central India. These areas were the kingdoms of the Rajputs and the Mughals, each with their own unique specialization. Kashmir was well known for its woollen weaves and embroidery [so-called paisley motifs – or the Mango designs]. Cities like Benaras, Ujjain, Indore and Paithan (near Aurangabad) were known for their fine silks and brocades. Rajasthan specialized in all varied patterned prints and dyed cloths. Fine collections of Indian Textiles can be seen in the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad and in the Crafts Museum in Delhi)

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