Attire of the Gods

Then weave for us a garment of brightness:
May the warp be the white light of morning,
May the weft be the red light of evening,
May the fringes be the falling rain,
May the border be the standing rainbow.
Thus weave for us a garment of brightness,
That we may walk fittingly where birds sing,
That we may walk fittingly where the grass is green,
O our Mother the Earth, O our Father the Sky.”

Quoted by Miller as recorded by Herbert J. Spinden, Songs of the Tewa

Perhaps our fascination with weaving has been dampened now that mass produced woven fabrics inundate our markets and closets, yet an encyclopedic survey of the history of weaving highlights the awe with which the craft was regarded historically. Myths and folklore from around the world ascribe this intricate art to the realms of magic, otherworldliness, and divinity.

Across civilizations and cultures, the theme that weaving was to the ancients a “gift from the Gods” persists. Amaterasu, the first among Shinto gods attributed with the creation of the cosmos, is believed to have bestowed on to humans this essentially divine skill. No wonder, Athena, the goddess of wisdom and crafts, regarded a mortal weaver Arachne’s claim to having weaving skills surpassing that of Athena’s an act of extreme hubris. Again, in the Chinese tradition we have accounts of the weaver goddess floating down from the heavens on a shaft of moonlight flaunting to the court officials her seamless robe woven entirely on the loom without the aid of needle and thread. Subsequently, in Orthodox and Catholic Christian traditions we come across patron saints of weaving.

It is not surprising then that the woven fabrics especially exquisite brocades crafted with gold, silver and silk threads were reserved for the royals as either descendants of the gods or their appointees, and that the royal courts provided the exclusive setting worthy of housing these opulent brocades.

The Indian tradition stands no different in this regard. Mentions of handloomed silk in the Mahabartha and the first millennium Buddhist scriptures indicate that the rich woven silk sarees crafted with unmatched artistry were reserved for the privileged. Centuries later, as the Mughals came to rule the region, they exhibited the same veneration and enthusiasm for the fine brocade fabric referred to as “attire of the gods.” Such was their fascination with the Banarsi that the craft was awarded patronage under which artisans were encouraged to hone and perfect their skills; some even travelled to China to learn from the master weavers there. The result of this confluence of Indian, Persian, and Chinese traditions was, among others, the exotic Tanchoi and kimkhab (a little dream) brocades. Consequently, the craft continued to flourish and inspire, the artisans proliferated and prospered, and the artistry was handed down generation after generation.

To those with modern democratic sensibilities such associations of a product with affluence, power, and privilege might be repugnant. But in all practicality, just like in our times, this exclusivity was most likely linked to affordability. With the wealth concentrated at the top, as it is now, a fabric woven with the finest of materials taking as much as six months to a year of highly skilled labor was understandably beyond the reach of commoners.

The tides, however, have now turned, and having lost the patronage of the rulers and the state, the Banarsi silk weavers are struggling to survive. As more affordable synthetic options have become available to the public, the demand for this high-end product is dwindling heralding its imminent demise. It is now up to the connoisseurs of quality, and authenticity to preserve this ancient craft—gods’ gift to humanity.