Muslin and "jamdani" once more
When patronization could bring back the fabled fabrics

Perveen Ahmed


ONE of the earliest texts that mention muslin are the classical writings of the 2nd century A.D. by an unknown Egyptian Greek trader, who gave valuable and trustworthy accounts in his book "Periplus Maris Erythraei." The Erythreai Sea is the name given by the Greek and Roman geographers to the Indian Ocean, including the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The first English translation of the classical geographical travelogue was done by Mr. Mc Crindle in 1879 and records thus. "Returning to the coast, not far from the three marts we have mentioned, lies Masalia (Masalipatam) the sea board of a country extending inland. Here immense quantities of fine muslins are manufactured. From Masalia the course of the voyage lies eastwards across a neighbouring bay.

Besides such accounts of the recent recorded past, it is a fact that weaving on the loom was known to the people of the subcontinent before the arrival of the Aryans, as indicated in one case by a fragment of cotton fabric adhering to a pottery vase excavated at Mohenjodar (2400 BC) although that was of a coarse quality.

The Rig-veda (1500 BC) mentions that trade in cotton wool and cotton fibres brought revenue to the kings. It also mentions that ancient centres where cotton cloth was woven, among which were Madhura, Aparanta (Koncan) Kalinga (north Sircas) Banaras, Vanga (East Bengal) and Vatsaden (north of Allahabad.). Moreover the fact weaving did exist is endorsed in numerous other ancient writings. There is no lack of certainty in the descriptions of the Greek traveller Nearchus (313-336 BC) who wrote that." The Indian cotton was either of a brighter white colour than any found elsewhere, or the darkness of the Indian complexions makes their apparel look so much whiter."

In the mists of antiquity are also the classic inferences to the fine cotton muslin in which the Egyptian mummies of 5,000 years ago are wrapped, and some say these could be from ancient Bengal. Certainly as early as 302 BC when the Greek envoy Megasthenes visited the court of King Chandragupta (Sandrocottus) his description of Indian people dressed in "flowered robes of fine muslin" reflected the art of loom weaving at the time. Soon after, the Greeks who came to North India with Alexander in 326 BC expressed amazement over the cotton fibre which they had never seen. They described it as 'wool taken from trees, rather than sheep.'

However anthropological proof of weaving has to a great extent been deductive, drawing upon information describing the activities of neolithic man, and his descendants through the bronze, copper and iron ages. An interesting statement is made by Isaac Taylor in his book, "The Origin of the Aryans". He says "From the Rig-Veda it would appear that wool rather than flax was the material employed by the weavers. Bone needles are found in the early deposits of the neolithic age, as at Laibach; and our verb 'to sew' can be traced to Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Teutonic and Slavonic languages."

The chronological sequence of weaving textiles for obvious reasons of its lack of durability, has been a researcher's dilemma. The accounts given by travelers to the Indian continent have however often given meticulous details about the people's dress. Thus if one is to go through the revealing descriptions from "Periplus of the Erhythreai Sea" and follow it by Megesthanes records of King Chandragupta's court and again read on in the travelogue of Chinese historian Hieun Tsiang in the 7th century A.D. moving on to Alberuni in the 11th century, one finds a continuity of the textiles produced and, perfected in different parts of the country through the ages. Abul Fazal's Ain-e-Akbari, is perhaps our most informative recent account of woven loom textiles developed under the Muslims and records by Abul Fazal in Ain-e-Akbari describe the intelligent patronage of Emperor Akbar. The delicate muslins of ancient Dhaka were used for both male and female attaire in the Moghul court and the province of Bengal flourished both in commercial trade and agriculture at this time. In 1628 we find the writings of Italian traveller Manrique, which describes the patronage of the court of Emperor Shahajahan, and later Emperor Aurangzeb, who received annual tributes of these fine cloths from their governors in Bengal and which were so special as to cost ten times the price of any other cloths made for Eurpeans or others in the Empire.

We are further informed that Muslim merchants in 1887 protested against the monopoly of the East India Company's hold on weaver's throughout East Bengal (48, 000 persons), which was done by issuing permits which prevented the weavers from taking on work from private traders. The entry of Muslim immigrant-travelers and traders proceeded the of Islam (11th century AD) to the subcontinent by at least a hundred years. Even though it was not till the early 1200s AD that Muslim conquerors settled in Bengal, contact with Arab traders, and Persian and Turkish religious mendicants had already taken place via the coastal ports in the Bay of Bengal and through the northern western land route.

Muslim rule which commenced in Bengal in 1268 with the reign of the Tughlaks, the area of western Bengal then called Lakhnauti, and in the eastern part called Bangalas was receptive to the message of Islam which spoke of social equality. By the time of the first independent Sultan Shams-uddin Ilyas Shah in 1342 an area considered to be a Sultanate was declared, although it did not constitute the entire region of Bengal as we know it after the British held their sway. The excellence of cotton mulmul or muslin produced on the Dhaka loom was raised to an art par excellence by Moghul patronage, and achieved a uniqueness which has remained unparelled among handloom cloth all over the world. When woven for royalty the muslin was called Mulmal Khas (king's special) and the viceroys who placed orders for the Emperor gave it poetic names such as Ab-e-rawan (running water), Shabnam (evening dew) and Sharbati (winelike). The pinnacle of perfection came in the evolution of a special weave with motifs 'embroidered' along the weft and this fabric was named 'jamdani' which became renowned as the figured or flowered muslins. Dhaka jamdani, more than any other woven craft, became synonymous with Muslim weaving skills. The origin of the word Jamdani has no substantiated etymological explanation, but it is a Indo-Persian word and in its strictest meaning describes 'jama' or clothing.

A marvellous craft, handed down through the ages got fresh stimulus under Muslim love of pomp and finery. It must be understood that mulmul, the plain white, striped and checked muslins were produced since long on the Dhaka looms in different qualities for the local populace and figured muslins were woven under order for the richer classes. Hence the word 'mulmul kha's (special mulmul) and 'Sarcar-e-Ale' (the great ruler) were coined when mulmul was woven on order for royalty, but mulmul was always a popular material in India for wearing comfort and beauty. Although fine cottons were also produced at Mosalipotam in South India at this point in time, (under Muslim rule), Dhaka muslins exceeded in delicacy and ware far superior in texture so as to become legendary.

As we seek to find the cause of the decline of muslin in the 18th century and disappearance by the 19th century we find ample indicators pointing to the loss of a rich cultural heritage. The debilitating actions by the colonising power had commenced a long while back as we learn from GCM Birdwood's record. "In 1641 Manchester cottons were still made of wool. But in vain did Manchester attempt to compete on fair free trade principles with the printed calicoes of India, and gradually Indian chintzees so generally worn in England, to the detriment of the woolen and flaxen manufactures of the country as to excite popular feelings against them, and the Government yielding to the clamour passed the law in 1721 banning weaving of all printed calicoes whatever." The British policy to protect its own textile manufacture led to a general stoppage of import of the fine cottons including muslins from Dhaka. Results of this policy became further obvious by 1793.

Many factors caused the loss of one of the world's greatest living treasures. The Dhaka muslin which had been introduced into England between 1666-1670 had by 1787 begun to suffer the negative effects of the mechanised spinning and weaving methods of British manufacture. The company's trade to Europe, particularly to Versailles, Hamburg and Lisbon was badly affected by the wars England was fighting with France. After the French Revolution the demand for fine muslin cloths at the French court ceased. Another important factor was the export of raw cotton to England, resulting in a severe scarcity of cotton raw material in Begal; the price of cotton rose sharply leaving the weavers with no margin of profit on their production. The Dhaka weavers, who were employed full time in this occupation, became unemployed due to the failure in exports of the finer qualities of mulmuls or muslins to Europe, America, Ceylon, the Gulf of Persia and Arabia, Manila and China, and the disappearance of Moghul patronage at the court. In the Dacca arang in 1796 there were 1,600 weavers, but they were suffering under the oppressive 'advance loan' conditions of the Company's officials. Sonargaon, which in 1833 had a population of 5,000, was the centre for manufacturing flowered muslins (jamdanees) done mainly by Muslim weavers in the town and surrounding villages and numbered about 1300 weavers, according to the Company registers. The coercive policies of the British through their 'gomastas' and 'amlas' had begun to take its toll, and weavers begun moving out of their profession and tried to eke a living out of their agricultural land. Writing in 1839 Mr. James Taylor in his book "Topography and statistics of Dhaka" noted that the produce of the Dhaka looms chiefly consisted of "flowered muslins (jamdanees) and Khasidas (Khasiada needle work on muslin) but the quantity was small compared to what it was in former years." Indeed the population of Dhaka declined as a result of unemployment and Dr D B Mitra states in 'The Cotton Weavers of Bengal' that "In 1800 the inhabitants of Dacca were 2,00,000, but the total would not be more than 68,038 in 1839."

Muslim patronage of loom fabrics by the Nawab family continued till very recent times but the material referred to is jamdani and not the old fine muslin. We may therefore deduce that there was no high quality 'Dhaka muslin' produced after the 1890's since, by then, the cultivation of cotton had been completely substituted by indigo and jute plantations, which the British rulers found a much more lucrative trade item. The fabled muslin disappeared because the unique raw cotton was no longer available. This fact can give culture activists a point to ponder for surely if cotton plantations are again revived, the gifted Dhaka weavers can still produce the muslin of old.

Perveen Ahmed wrote this article as part of a larger research study of which these are extracts. She is Chairperson "Karika" and a pioneer in crafts development since 1974.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, August 3, 2001



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