Pahari Embroidery: The bold cholis of Himachal Pradesh

Choli, Early 20th century, Probably Mandi (Himachal Pradesh). Courtesy: Sushmit.
Choli, Early 20th century, Probably Mandi (Himachal Pradesh). Courtesy: Sushmit.

For a long time the embroidered Pahari cholis did not get the same amount of recognition as their counterparts, the painterly rumals or coverlets. But these cholis with their distinctive characteristics could not be pushed into obscurity. Their vigour and spontaneity as well as their mysterious role in a mismatched land are slowly being appreciated and taken as one of the major styles of embroidery in India.

These bodices or blouses called choli maintain a set pattern of construction. The front is shaped generally with a deep V neckline. The sleeves are kept short with gussets for ease and a rectangular apron like segment, called petia, is joined at the waist. All the cholis are backless and are tied with the help of cords, doris.  They are generally made of a dyed, indigo or madder red, coarse cotton (khaddar like) fabric, although few of fine mill made cotton also exist in bright scarlet. The shade of the dye could vary from deep terracotta to subtle buff or deep navy to softer cobalt. The surface is embroidered with bold motifs in floss silk threads depicting various flora and fauna, like elaborate ‘pan-buta’, cypress trees, elephants, peacocks and doves. Various stitches are employed such as surface darning, herringbone, chain stitches as well as button-hole stitch for insetting small mirrors. There are also examples showing embroidery executed in the phulkari and bagh repertoire, with multi-coloured geometric motifs over a bright red background. Small mirrors are also used at places as embellishments.

With the temperature of the hills inclined towards the shorter stretches of mercury, one would immediately wonder their functionality. According to Subhashini Aryan, cholis always formed a part of the attire in Himachal Pradesh, but the backless versions are not indigenous to the hills. They were adopted from the Rajput migrants from Rajasthan and Gujarat to the foothills of the Shivaliks. After years of observation, she also establishes the point that embroidery is more popular in the foothills than the upper reaches of the hills in Himachal Pradesh, where woolens are worn throughout the year.[1] In the miniature paintings, the cholis worn underneath the gossamer peshwaz seen on the royal ladies and their attendants are of a different kind. Even the costumes of the divine protagonist, Radha, are similar, probably due to the common inspiration point, which is, the royal court and harem of the period. As opposed to the rich silk and satin blouses of the royal court, these humble coarse cotton cholis, were hardly seen in the paintings. From the very few, one miniature painting from the Alice Boner collection currently housed in the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, showing Raja Shamsher Sen of Mandi with male companions in woman’s attire ( RVI 1295)[2], one of the companions is seen wearing a similar choli embroidered with floral design and birds. Raja Shamsher Sen, who was often discredited for having company of people from the marginalized sections of the society, is evident from this painting with two mysterious cross-dressing men.[3]  In another painting from Mandi, from the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck collection housed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, showing Krishna with a cluster of gopis ( M.77.19.23)[4], similarly constructed choli with a petia is seen on each gopi. Although, here the cholis appear to be made of woven material rather than embellished with embroidery. At this point, it will not be incorrect to conclude that, these cholis probably belonged to a more folk demographic.

Apart from the cholis, there are also a host of other products made with the similar embroidery style, such as chaupar (dice-board game), caps, gaumukhis (rosary covers) and qamarbands (waistbands).


[1] Subhashini Aryan. Folk Embroidery of Western Himalaya. (New Delhi: Rekha Prakashan, 2010), 34-35.

[2] Rosemary Crill and Kapil Jariwala. The Indian Portrait, 1560-1860. (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd.,2010), 138-139.

[3] Ibid

[4] B. N. Goswamy and Eberhard Fischer. Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India. (New Delhi: Nyogi Books, 2009), 204-205.



Aryan, Subhashini. Himachal Embroidery. New Delhi: Rekha Prakashan, 1976.

                              . Folk Embroidery of Western Himalaya. New Delhi: Rekha Prakashan, 2010.

                              . Unknown Masterpieces of Indian Folk and Tribal Art: From the Personal Collection of K.C. Aryan. Gurgaon: K.C. Aryan’s Home of Folk Art, 2005.

Bhattacharyya, A.K. Chamba Rumal. Calcutta: Indian Museum, 1968.

Goswamy, B.N. Indian Costumes in the Collection of the Calico Museum of Textiles. Ahmedabad: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1993.

Grewal, Neelam and Amarjit Grewal. The Needle Lore: Traditional Embroideries of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. New Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1988.

Handa. O.C. Textiles, Costumes and Ornaments of the Western Himalaya. New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company, 1998.

Pahari Embroidery: The bold cholis of Himachal Pradesh

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