The fact that India has a rich handloom tradition is not unknown. From Kani in Kashmir to Kasavu in Kerala, from Gujarati Patola to Manipuri Phanek — India is home to many handloom traditions. These colourful, handwoven fabrics are not only an integral part of our heritage, but have extensively contributed to the lives of the people engaged in the creation of them. These are communities that, historically, have been dedicated to the handloom industry, with their lives and livelihoods intertwined in the very patterns that they create. On National Handloom Day, we look at some of India’s prominent weaver communities.

JULAHA

This community derives its name from the Persian ‘julah’, which means a ball of thread. Many Julahas themselves associate the words ‘jaal’ (net) and ‘jils’ (decorated) to the name of their community. These artisans are known to incorporate of bold colours in their weaves. Mostly found in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, Julahas are spread across other regions as well, such as Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, and Maharashtra. In fact, the term Julaha is often used as an umbrella term for weavers as well. Most of them are Hindus, while there are also Muslim Julaha communities like called Ansari or Nurbaf. Punjab and Chandigarh is populated by members of this community who follow Sikhism (also called Ramdasis), and many are animists, who worship their ancestors. Regardless of the different religious associations, most Julahas are followers of Kabir, and a few have even gone on to embrace the teachings of the Buddha.

READ | Revitalising an endangered tradition

ANSARI

The Ansaris trace their history back to the hijri, when the Prophet Mohammed migrated from Mecca to Medina. The literal meaning of Ansar is ‘supporters’, and as the name suggests, Ansaris were those who helped and supported the Prophet in his travels. A huge Urdu-speaking community, the Ansaris (also known as Momin in Maharashtra) are found throughout South Asia, especially in North and West India (with Varanasi as their centre), Sindh in Pakistan and Terai in Nepal. Besides Urdu, these craftsmen also speak the local dialects, or a mixture of the two — for instance, the Ansaris in Rajasthan speak a curious mix of Urdu and Hindi called Madri.

Primarily an urban community today, most Ansaris are politically active in Bihar, enjoying great social and financial mobility. On the other hand, many are working as unskilled labour manufacturing bidis for a living. In Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, they are still engaged handicraft — weaving gold and silver zaris; they also excel in weaving the famous Banarasi brocade, and have been given Geographical Indicator (GI) rights to safeguard their interests.

SALVI

Deriving its name from ‘sal’, meaning ‘loom’, the Salvi community is also called the Patiwala or the Patua community. Primarily found in Rajasthan and Gujarat, the Salvis are most recognized as creators of the famous Patan Patola weave from Gujarat. This complex textile combines the processes of tie-and-dye with weaving to make Ikat. They are particularly well-known for making an indigenous variant of the complicated double Ikat, in which the warp and weft are tied, then resist-dyed carefully before being put on to the loom.

Like the brocade sari weavers, the Salvis too have been given GI rights for the Patan Patola. This endeavour has not only made it easier for the original (made with 8-ply silk in Patan) to be distinguished from its copies, but has also encouraged the community to strive to retain their heritage.

PANIKA

Also known as Panka and Panikar, the Panika are a Hindu community of weavers who are found in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. A socially and economically backward community, they are known to be Kabirpanthis and even Sakta (Shakti) worshippers. Their sole means of sustenance is the handwoven cloth called Pata, which is a thick handspun cotton. However, over the decades they have also developed a unique weave that is a combination of cotton and silk. They only use natural dyes, usually made from the roots of the ‘aal’ tree (Indian mulberry) in shades that range from deep reds to dark browns.

The designs are influenced by the tribal customs of the Odisha-Chhattisgarh region.

DEVANGA

Primarily from India’s southern regions of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the Devanga community is known for its super-fine quality of cotton textiles. Members of this caste claim to have descended from the Hindu sage, Devala. According to mythology, Devala Maharishi was supposedly the first one to weave a cotton cloth and present it to Lord Shiva. A part of the community, which lives in Chhattisgarh, is also said to have originally woven various textile products from Kosa silk, which is now mostly made in Champa.

Traditionally, men are engaged in weaving the loom, women in dying the yarn and spinning the thread. Their weaves are mainly used by the lower caste communities and tribals of the region.

PADMASHALI

Also spelt as Padmasali, people of this community are identified by different names in various regions of India. The name Padmashali comes from two words — ‘padma’ that means ‘lotus’ and ‘shali’, which means both ‘weaver’ and ‘spider’. This Telugu-speaking, Hindu community is largely found in Andhra Pradesh. It is a sub-caste of the Devanga community, which split after religious differences. The Devanga community are followers of Shiva while Padmashalis follow Vishnu.

This community claims to have descended from Markandeya rishi. According to mythology, Markandeya supposedly wove the first fabric from the fibres of the lotus flower to clothe the gods.

Currently, members of the Padmashali community and its various sub-categories weave cloths using materials ranging from cotton to silk.

KOSHTA

Koshta, or Koshti, is a Marathi and Telugu community of Hindu Kabirpanthis and Lingayats. Artisans of this community are spread over north and Deccan India, in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. They speak their distinct Koshti language, with words borrowed from Sanskrit, Marathi, Khari Boli, Bundeli, Chhattisgarhi and variants of Hindi.

A sub-category of the Padmashali and Devang communities, the Koshtas also believe they are descendants of Markandeya rishi. One lore associated wiith them is that when the deities were pleased with Merkandeya rishi for the cloth he produced, the sage was given the hand of Surya’s daughter in marriage as a reward, with a giant and a tiger as dowry. But the giant was unruly, and Markandeya killed him. It was with the bones of the giant that the saint fashioned the first loom.

The Koshtas have been long known for their silk-bordered cloth — a white cloth with red silk border.

KASHMIR KANI WEAVERS

The word ‘Kani’ means ‘wooden bobbins’ or ‘small sticks’, and corresponds with the intricate and arithmetic-based weave from Kashmir. Kani weaving requires immense skill and patience as the famous Kashmiri shawls are woven into intricate patterns, with coloured threads woven on a meticulous, coded motifs drawn by the master craftsman.

To achieve this, weavers need to be really good in math as Kani weaving follows an arithmetical graph. Traditionally, women were not associated with this craft. However, today, many looms, which have today become mechanised, employ both young boys and girls. Since Kani shawls are highly coveted, they have been given a GI status to safeguard not just the weave but also the community.

While these are some of the main handloom communities of India, this list is by no means exhaustive. Owing to technological advances and increase literacy, many weavers are either shifting to power looms or leaving the profession entirely. However, the state and central governments have been trying to encourage more and more members of these communities to continue the handloom tradition by creating various avenues for the exposure of the textiles and recognize their skills through awards and providing them GI rights.

FOOTNOTE

Navina Lamba is associated with www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. Sahapedia offers encyclopedic content on India’s vast and diverse heritage in multimedia format, authored by scholars and curated by experts — to creatively engage with culture and history to reveal connections for a wide public using digital media.