A brief history of India’s rich cultural heritage



By Dhairya Kapur

The story of textiles in India is one of the oldest in the world. The earliest surviving Indian cotton textile dates back to around 4000 BC and dyed fabrics from the region are documented as far back as 2500 BC. You will be surprised to know that India’s textiles were so central to its identity abroad that in ancient Greece and Babylon, ‘India’ was synonymous with ‘cotton’.

India’s textiles are embedded in every aspect of its identity. The global trade systems were formed on the export of Indian fabrics, and the handloom industry in India continues to exist even today.

India’s rich natural resources for making and decorating textiles are without a parallel and a big reason for this is the diverse geographical regions and climates that provide a huge range of plant fibres and natural dyes for the cultivators, weavers, dyers, printers and embroiderers of the great and diverse Indian subcontinent. Over a period of time (a few centuries), most regions developed specialities based on local resources such as the golden silks of Assam, the fine cottons of Bengal, the red dyes of south-east India among others.

Cotton and silk are/were the raw materials most associated with Indian textiles. India supplied cotton cloth to the world for centuries. The country also produced an astonishing variety of hand-made fabrics for domestic use until industrialisation changed how cottons were made and sold. The ancient Romans called India’s finest cottons as ‘woven winds’ because of their airy lightness. The country’s cotton fabrics range from the sheerest muslin to robust pieces for everyday use; despite such rich tradition today we see decline in traditional textiles and this art is rarely seen nowadays.

One of the important reasons for the decline of this industry was the industrial revolution after which Britishers began making machine-made goods which were cheaper and Indian producers could not compete with them. Another reason was the import duties levied by the British on cotton.
The British, who came as traders attracted by rich Indian textiles and spices, among other things, intentionally reduced India’s status from that of an exporter to importer. Heavy export duty was imposed on Indian handicrafts which eventually led to decline of handicrafts.

An interesting aspect associated with Indian handicrafts is ‘gold’ and ‘silver’. The kings, nawabs and the elite class relished lavish decoration, so embroiderers used thin strips of silver or gilded silver called “zari”, these could be in the form of fine wire or wrapped around a silk core to make thread. Metal-wrapped thread woven on a loom to create luxurious fabrics were stitched onto cloth.

India’s natural dyes, especially blue and red, which have been renowned for millennia, played a crucial role. Blue dye was so closely associated with India that the ancient Greeks took its western name — Indikos (indigo) — from the country itself. Red dyeing with fixing agents was known to the Indus valley civilisation, by about 2500 BC.

At present, the Surat textile market in Gujarat, which produces the most textiles in India, is called the “Textile City of India.” The city’s textile turnover is around 5 billion rupees every year. The market is an ideal location for dress materials for both retail and wholesale shopping.

After knowing all this, one gets curious: where can we see this stuff today? so the answer is “The Victoria and Albert Museum” situated in London which is the world’s leading museum of art and design, housing a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects that span over 5,000 years of human creativity.