Fashions Of The Past: Haute Couture And More From Ancient India  

Fashions Of The Past: Haute Couture And More From Ancient India  Photo:
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  • An introduction to the complexities of clothing in ancient India could nurture new perspectives of Indian history and society.

    Some common features across space and time can be discerned. A very intriguing feature is the gender neutrality of the basic dress.

Kalidasa wrote, many centuries ago, of the marriage of Lord Shiva with the mountain princess, Parvati— an occasion to remember for celestials and humans alike. The toilette and dress of Parvati is described in loving detail, as is the dress and ornamentation of Lord Shiva. The description is from the Kumarsambhavam; the flapping of Lord Shiva’s dukula with a border of flying swans and the clothes and ornaments of princess Parvati, as she readies for the marriage ceremony, brings the scene alive in front of our eyes.

To fully understand and appreciate an age gone by, we need to know its sights, sounds and smells. What did people look like, what did they eat, where did they live and, most importantly, what did they wear? How can they be seen in the mind’s eye? In this land of Jambudvipa-Bharat Khande, we have to always go back a long way to understand the origins of our culture and civilisation.

The Indus-Saraswati civilisation has yielded but a few examples of preserved textiles and the numerous terracotta figurines, too, are often unclothed. Small fragments of textiles preserved in corroded metal, however, testify to the use of cotton, flax, silk, leather etc. Dyeing facilities have been found and so have fragments of madder-dyed red cloth. So, cloth was definitely dyed in different colors including blue with indigo and yellow with turmeric.

Men probably wore the “dhoti” or the antariya, and a chadar over the left shoulder; turbans have also been found represented. Women wore “skirts” or antariyas, short and long, as well as decorated belts or what were called kayabandhs or mekhalas in a later age. There was much jewellery worn and elaborate hairstyles and head dresses were sported too.

A short note on silk in the sub continent is in order here. Silk is supposed to be the exclusive cultural heritage of China. However, new remains found inside copper alloy ornaments from Harappa and Chanhudaro have indicated that silk derived from the wild silk moth was used in the Indus-Saraswati civilisation around 2450-2000 BCE; this corresponds to the earliest appearance for silk remains in China. Similar remains have been found at Nevasa in Maharashtra dating back to 1500 BCE. The idea of exclusive Chinese origin of silk may, therefore, need revision.

The next period for which we have reams of literary evidence is, of course, the Vedic age. As we draw nearer to the present, there are a variety of sources of hard evidence to supplement the literary ones. The Mahajanapada period— that of the Mauryans and Sungas, Satvahanas , Kushans and the Guptas— can be understood from representations in sculpture and paintings. These are the two most important sources we have for the fashions and textiles of the past.

First, a word on the variety of textiles used for clothing across this time.

The basics remained the same: cotton for the commoners, as from the preceding millennia, and other finer and more expensive types of cloth for the rich. Very fine cotton such as the “tulapansi” of central India was also used by the prosperous. Cloth from hemp or “sana” was of three kinds: sana hemp, jute for sacks and true hemp (called “bhanga” in Sanskrit and today’s “bhangela” of central India). Buddhist, Jain monks and farmers wore sana hemp or saniya as a cheap and easily available option. The sana valkala was worn by brahmins in the Ramayana, and Ram and Lakshman had changed into valkal from silk before leaving for their vanvaas (forced exile).

There were other varieties of bark which were finer and more expensive such as the “dukula”, made by beating the bark of the dukula tree, and the even finer “Kshaum”—made from the bark of the linseed plant.

The silks were kauseya of the eastern provinces, which was the pre-Chinese indigenous silk from wild silk worms, and not the bombyx mori.

There was also mulberry silk or patrona silk, the process of making which could have been learnt from China. It was made artificially and then transformed into “patta”; “pat” (Assam and Bengal) and “pattu” (Tamil Nadu) are the modern names of this textile.

And, of course, there was Chinese silk or “chinamsuka” which was imported from China. Then there were netra, lalitanuja and vada or tussar silk. The krimiraga or suvarna was the golden moonga silk from Assam. A special variety was jatipattika, long pieces of moonga silk with embroidered jati flowers which were royal gifts and used on ritual occasions. Amsuka was a general name for extremely fine cloth.

Textiles were dyed and printed. Resist dyeing and hand printing has been mentioned by Megasthenes as a common sight during the Mauryan period as has glazed cotton. Interweaving of silk and gold and silver wires in beautiful patterns was common long before the Mauryans, and used for covering both the lower body and the upper body. Felting of fibers instead of weaving was also a generally used technique.

Now for the clothes themselves.

Both men and women wore the lower body cloth or “antariya” and the the upper body cloth called the “uttariya.” The antariya was secured at the waist with a sash or kayabandh. These were the three basic items of clothing but jewellery was used in abundance. Since the clothing can be described by using a few basic categories, figures from the Maurya/Sunga period can be used to generally understand dress in Ancient India.

Male Dress

Fashions Of The Past: Haute Couture And More From Ancient India  

Look at Figure One above.

The sketch is of a Mauryan Sunga figure from Bharhut and fairly illustrates the basics of male dressing in Jambudvipa for many centuries. This figure shows the clothing of the rich courtier or royal personage or prosperous setthi. There were variations of this for other sections of society.

Uttariya: The upper part of the body was draped with a long unstitched cloth, either around the shoulders, over one shoulder or as the wearer’s fancy took him.

Ushnisha: This was the turban, the “mauli” or the later “pagdi” which could be tied up with the long hair of the wearer or be used just as a piece of cloth, wound in many different ways around the head.

Antariya: This was the unstitched piece of cloth worn around the waist, again, in many styles. The dhoti or “kaccha” stye, where the cloth was wrapped around the waist and then one end brought up between the legs and tucked in for greater convenience, is shown here. It is pleated in the “macchavalaka” or fishtail style.

Kayabandh: A cloth wrapped around the waist. Here is the “kalabaku” or a sash with many strings.

Jewellery: Men wore jewellery around their necks, arms and across the chest, apart from kundalas in the ears and waistbelts of gold or silver around the waist. This figure wears the “baju” or armlet, kangans on each wrist as well as karnikas in the ears and a “lambanam” or long necklace around the neck. He also wears a short “kanthahaar.”

Stitched cloth or a choga-like costume also existed due to the interaction with the Persians, Greeks and Kushans. The kanchuka was the stitched dress worn by men and women alike, differing in lengths and designs.

Fashions Of The Past: Haute Couture And More From Ancient India  

Figure Two is from the Kushan period and shows an antariya which is strikingly like the dhoti of modern India. It evolved more than 2,200 years BP, in the Kushan period.

Female Dress

Fashions Of The Past: Haute Couture And More From Ancient India  
Fashions Of The Past: Haute Couture And More From Ancient India  

Look at Figure Three.

This is also a Mauryan Sunga figure from Bharhut.

Uttariya: As in male dressing, the uttariya was worn across the upper part of the body. It could even be wrapped around the head with another one across the shoulders or arms . Here, the figure wears a printed cotton uttariya crosswise on the head. The same style is seen in Figure Four which has, however, another uttariya disposed around the arms.

Choli or Cholaka: This was an optional blouse worn on the upper part of the body, with or without a little apron in front in later years. This can be seen in Figure Seven below. During Vedic times, a “pratidhi” or breast band was worn straight or crosswise across the breasts.

Antariya: There were many styles of wearing this. Here, in Figure Three, is the “kaccha style” with the ends taken up between the legs, of fine cotton with fluted ends in front. The fish tail or “macchavalaka” style ( can be seen in Figure One), the fan-shaped “talavantaka”, the four-pointed “chaturnakha”,and the multiple folded “sattavallika” were some of the other styles of wearing the antariya. The “bhairnivasini” was one of the earliest styles, a tubular cloth held up in gathers around the waist by a girdle. The lehenga style, shown in Figure Seven— in which the antariya is wrapped like a skirt around the hips— is popular even today. Figure Four shows a simple short antariya.

The “nivibandha” was the original knot tied to hold the antariya together. There could also be a “kati sutra” around the waist for the antariya.

The textiles varied with the person and the occasion.

Figures Five and Six, below, show the early evolution of the saree from the Kushan period. It is, quite astonishingly, like the saree of today.

Fashions Of The Past: Haute Couture And More From Ancient India  
Fashions Of The Past: Haute Couture And More From Ancient India  

Kayabandh and Mekhala: These were worn around the waist, the former of cloth and the latter a piece of beautiful jewellery. In Figures Three and Four, the kayabandh is an embroidered flat cloth band, “patina style”, worn in a looped knot. Other styles of the kayabandh included the simple sash or “vethaka”, the “muraja” with drum-headed rolls at the end or the many stringed one called the “kalabaku” (can be seen in Figure One), As was seen in Figure Three, the “mekhala” is a six-stringed hip belt of gold or silver beads.

Fashions Of The Past: Haute Couture And More From Ancient India  

Jewellery: The Indian love for jewellery and gold is attested to by Megasthenes in the fourth century BCE and Yijing , Xuan Zang and Al Biruni in later centuries. The head and hair, neck, chest, arms, wrist, fingers, waist , legs and feet all had distinctive and exquisite pieces of jewellery to decorate them. There were many varieties of these and were made using silver, gold, copper, beads, precious and semi precious stones with specific significance. Jewellery played an important role even in the earliest stories. Ram send his ring to Seeta, through Hanuman, during her captivity as a message of hope and she sends her “chudamani” back to him, calling him to deliver her from Raavan in the Ramayan. Shakunatala, who lost her husband’s ring, had to pay dearly for it in the Abhigyaan Shaakuntalam.

Figure Seven is from Ajanta, Cave One, showing a Gupta period princess. Here, it will be used to attempt an illustration of some of the wide and glorious profusion of jewellery worn in Ancient India.

Head: The “Sitara” was an ornament, worn on the forehead, made of gold or precious stones. The “kirita” is similar to a crown or a tiara. The princess wears a lotus-shaped hair ornament of gold with the petals studded with pearls and precious stones, the “chudamani.” Something like this must have been the “chudamani” sent by Seeta to Ram from her captivity in Raavan’s Ashok Vatika.

Ears: Here, the figure wears a ring type ear-ring with probably pearls strung on. There were other styles of ear ornamentation such as the “jimiki”, the “kanaka kamala”, “kanchala”, “karnika”, (see Figure Four) “kundala”, “pravatra” and “talapatra” among others.

The fingers have one simple “angulia” or ring but there were other rings such as the “arsi” or the “ratnangulia” studded with precious stones.

Neck: This figure wears a “muktavali” made of pearls and a “lambanam”— a long necklace hanging down to the stomach. The short necklace was a “kanthahaar” (see Figure One). The “phalak hara” was a special style of necklace with slab-like gems at intervals. (see Figure Three, the “phalakhara lambanam”). There were the stringed necklaces with names according to the number of strings— “ekavalli”, “chaulari”, “satlari” etc. There was also the “tarahara” and the “hemasutra” (a golden chain with precious stones in the middle), the “vibhushan” and the “nishka”, or coin necklace, still popular in the South.

Arms: The princess wears “keyura” or “parihasta” i.e. armlets on each arm. Two “kanganaa” or “valayas”; one simple, one ornamented, are worn at each wrist.

Figure Three illustrates the “mekhala” worn at the waist.

Decorating one delicate foot of the princess, in this figure, is the “nupur” or the anklet which could be hollow or filled with gold pieces, pearls or precious stones. Who can forget the “nupur” of Kannagi which played such a tragic role in her story in Madurai? Figure Three shows the “kara” worn at the ankle.

Dress differed for soldiers, ascetics, tribals and forest dwellers and between the city and the village— although the basic antariya and uttariya could always be discerned. An interesting class was the female soldier, especially of Mauryan times. Phrygian influence resulted in a long sleeved tunic with fitted trousers and a Phrygian conical cap with ear flaps. There was also the crossed-at-chest belt, the “vaikaksha”, worn with metal buckles, a shield and a sword. This was probably how the personal guard of Chandragupta Maurya was dressed.

The poor wore less jewellery, cheaper cloth and could dispense with extras like the “kayabandh” altogether. Clothes and jewellery were markers of societal position, which has remained a feature of society till today. It has not even been completely obliterated today, in spite of the denim “jeans” revolution.

In Ancient India, people wore clothes according to their position and role in society. Soldiers were different from ascetics who were different from prosperous setthis and royalty or common farmers and artisans. Clothes also had ritualistic and a social significance.

This short exposition is but an introduction to the complexities of clothing in Ancient India. Some common features across space and time can be discerned. A very intriguing feature is the gender neutrality of the basic dress. The variations and twists given to dress by women or men cannot hide the fact that the three items of dress— the uttariya, antariya and kayabandh— were common to both the sexes. The same unstitched piece of cloth could be worn equally by a man or a woman. Contrast this with Victorian England, for instance , where the cumbersome skirts and whalebone stays of women were impediments to free movement in strong contrast to the trousers and breeches worn with waist coats and vests by men. An indication as to how differently the roles of both the genders were visualised in these two societies?

Contemporary efforts for a new understanding of Ancient India could truly profit from this perspective.

The illustrations have been sketched by artist, Shruti Kumar. Her work can be viewed at Creations@Claykriti

After two decades in the Indian Revenue Service Sumedha Verma Ojha now follows her passion, Ancient India; writing and speaking across the world on ancient Indian history, society, women, religion and the epics. Her Mauryan series is ‘Urnabhih’; a Valmiki Ramayan in English and a book on the ‘modern’ women of ancient India will be out soon.

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