The Spotted Skin: The Madurai Sungadi

Sungadi (Sari), wax resist dye, Lt. 5.5 metres, Weaver: Tmt. R. Jothimani, Purchased online from Co-optex, Photograph: Renu Dhiman

In the minds of the people, tie-dyed textiles popularly known as bandhani or bandhej is generally associated with the arid landscape of Western India, comprising the modern states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. The picture of a village belle fetching water in her pots, her head covered with a colourful bandhani odhani (head-cloth) fluttering in the strong desert breeze is often generated in one’s mind. It is difficult to associate a space beyond these areas, where tie-dyed textiles would exist. On the contrary, in the past, tie-dyed textiles were quite popular in the southern region of India with flourishing centres of production. There are paintings in the ‘company school’ tradition showing many communities from the southern states wearing tie-dyed fabrics.

The coastal belt of Southern India has a rich history of fine quality cotton textiles, which is quite often over-shadowed by the dazzling brocaded silks. The mastery of production of cotton textiles was a result of an influx of weavers from the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh into Tamil Nadu that spans over hundreds of years. The local weaving groups of Tamil Nadu are the Kaikolars and Saliyars who primarily weave a coarse count cotton. The refinement of weaving fine count cotton textiles came with the migration of Kannada Devangas from Karnataka. In the sector of silk textiles, the weaving technology was enhanced only with the flowing in of weavers from Andhra Pradesh and majorly due to the exodus of Saurashtrians, known as Pattunulkars, meaning one who weaves silks.[i] Today, with the silk textiles becoming a more lucrative trade article, more and more cotton weaving groups are shifting towards silk weaving, although the mastery of silk weaving is still held strong by the Saurashtrian settlers.

In 1866, John Forbes Watson had painstakingly compiled an eighteen volume book, called, “The Textile Manufactures of India” which contains 700 invaluable samples from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan. In the Volume V and IX, titled as, ‘Garment Pieces for Women’ and ‘Muslins, Silk and Other Piece Goods’ respectively, he has documented samples labeled as spotted and printed muslins.[ii] These samples are clearly of the tie-dyed repertoire and interestingly, they were produced in centres such as Cuddapah, Madras and Trichinopoly. Unfortunately, none of these centres today, produce tie-dyed textiles.

Today, the only centre in Tamil Nadu, which produces tie-dyed textiles, especially saris, is the temple city of Madurai. The Saurashtrian settlers based in Madurai have preserved this craft till date and continue producing a tie-dyed sari called the sungadi. The reason for their migration is not certain, but it is said that they were invited to settle in Madurai, by Tirumal Nayak, who ruled Madurai from 1623 to 1659.[iii]  Another version of the story narrates their exodus during the eleventh century to escape the onslaught of the invading armies from the north especially those belonging to Mahmud of Ghazni. They probably moved southwards and reached Madurai via Maharashtra and Vijayanagar. As mentioned earlier, along with the knowledge of weaving silk, they brought with them the alluring textile tradition of tie-dyed cloths to be worn as saris and turban to the Southern region.

Sungadi or sungudi, is the patterning of the cotton sari with ringed dots that are achieved by tie-dyed technique. The tie-resist (pulli katturadhu)[iv] is employed to pattern the field of the sari while the border and pallav (the terminal end of the sari) is dyed in a bolder contrasting colour using wooden clamps for resist, called katta katradhu[v]. The border in the traditional sungadis often has a narrow woven zari panel with either rudraksha or annapakshi (wish fulfilling bird/swan) motifs. It is said that the Saurashtrians of Madurai maintained a close contact with the bandhani craftsmen in Gujarat and only the already knotted saris were dyed in Madurai.[vi] With lack of expert knot-tiers, complicated and intricate patterns were achieved by wax resist technique with the help of wooden blocks to stamp the motif laced in wax on to the fabric. They were later boiled in the desired dye for the wax to melt and reveal the intended pattern. In Madurai, women generally ties the knots but today, to cut down cost and meet market demands faster, the use of wax resist as well as screen print options are widely employed.

Sungadi, the name probably derived from the tie-dyed chunadi, a head-cloth worn in Northern India, became a daily wear sari for many women in Tamil Nadu. It is preferred due to its fine cotton and appropriate texture for the hot and humid weather. Although one can still buy an authentic Madurai sungadi, the future is not very bright with lot of cheap imitations.

Sungadi (Sari), tie-dye resist print, gifted by her brother from his first salary to Geeta Athreya in the 1970s.
Sungadi (Sari), tie-dye resist print, gifted by her brother from his first salary to Geeta Athreya in the 1970s.


[i] Martand Singh and Rta Kapur Chishti, Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond. (New Delhi: Roli Books Pvt. Ltd., 2010), 245.

[ii]  In Volume V, sample no. 197 (Madras) and sample no. 198 (Cuddapah); In Volume IX, sample no. 344 (Trichinopoly), sample no. 345 (Trichinopoly), sample no.346 (Madras), sample no. 347 (Madras), sample no. 348 (Madras), sample no. 349 (Madras), sample no. 350 (Cuddapah), Courtesy:

[iii] Veronica Murphy and Rosemary Crill, Tie-dyed Textiles of India: Tradition and Trade. (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1991), 107.

[iv] Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan, eds., Crafts of India: Handmade in India. (New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporation, COHANDS, 2007), 328

[v] Ibid

[vi] Veronica Murphy and Rosemary Crill, 109

Other references:

John Forbes Watson. The Textile Manufactures and the Costume of the People of India. Varanasi: Indological Book House, 1982.

Krishna Nanditha. Living Traditions of India: Arts and Crafts of Tamil Nadu. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1992.


The Spotted Skin: The Madurai Sungadi

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