Elephants under the Starry Sky: The Embroidered Mantle of the Chakhesangs

A contemporary 'Elephant-cloth', cotton, embroidered (Machine), Lt. 212; Wd. 100 cm, gifted by Sentimongla Aier Ngullie. Model: Priyanka Bharadwaj. Photograph by Renu Dhiman
A contemporary ‘Elephant-cloth’, cotton, embroidered (machine), Lt. 212; Wd. 100 cm, Gifted by Sentimongla Aier Ngullie. Model: Priyanka Bharadwaj, Photograph by Renu Dhiman.

With a myriad of fascinating shawls and wrappers that belong to different Naga groups, one of the most alluring mantles is adorned by the Chakhesangs.  Popularly referred to as the ‘Elephant cloth’ (a name obtained because of the prominent elephants in the central field), was the privilege of only the wealthy members of the group. The vividly embroidered animals and birds that dominate this grayish-black textile immediately stand out from the rest of the textiles from this region, posing hundreds of questions about its origin and inspiration.

Weaving textiles is only done by women throughout the extensive Naga community, mostly using a back-strap or loin loom. It is considered a taboo to even touch the weaving implements by men. The only exception to this is the tüsngkotepsü, the warrior shawl of the Aos, where the central white band is painted by men. Both cotton and wild nettle are spun into yarns for various textiles and dyed with natural vegetable dyes. Although, bazaar dyes became popular from the 1920’s[i] because they offered several colour choices and in brighter shades. Embroidery is very rare in this region and earlier reference to embroidery by scholars on the subject, was basically describing the motifs achieved by supplementary wefts and not actual needle-work. Today, in various government run emporiums, there are examples of tüsngkotepsü, the Ao mantle, with the central band having embroidery either by hand or machine which is a recent innovation. Therefore, the embroidery in the ‘elephant cloth’ is a surprising exception and considered by many as not an indigenous technique of the region. Scholar, Marion Wettstein, writes that she was reported during her research that the earliest examples of this mantle were received as gifts from the Meitei rulers of Manipur.[ii] This explains the presence of embroidered elephants and horses, the royal animals of the Meitei rulers. The mantle was later adopted by the Chakhesangs and on its entirety together with the technique is now claimed indigenous to the group.[iii]

The Chakhesangs, formerly known as Eastern Angami, is an amalgamation of three groups, Chokri, Kheza and Sangtam, represented respectively in the three syllables ‘cha-khe-sang’. The group occupies a large geographical area not only in present day Nagaland but also neighbouring Manipur, which makes many other tribes and villages fall under the umbrella of Chakhesang. Therefore, due to the complex and multi-cultural nature of the group, there are several names for the same mantle. Hapidasa, chi-pi-kwhu/chipikwü, shaphi lanphi or khape kade sa are various names for the same mantle. The Maos, another Naga group also wears a variation of the mantle.

The back-strap loom allows only a limited width, due to which three or two lengths have to be joint together to achieve the desired size.  Over the surface, embroidery is done employing a flat stitch or Romanian stitch using red, green, yellow and white cotton or wool/acrylic threads. The embroidered motifs depicts horses for speed, elephants for strength, bison or buffalo for bravery, peacocks for beauty and constellations for the height of the sky.[iv] The production of this mantle has a deep connection with the tradition of ‘Feast of Merit’. In order establish oneself in the society, a member had to arrange three feasts at different stages for the benefit of the entire village. On the successful completion of each feast, the benefactor was accorded with ranks and honour, including the right to wear certain designated textile and adornment. The ‘elephant cloth’ is one such textile. Among the Chakhesangs, the privilege of wearing a shawl with chipikwü designs was awarded to only those who had given these three Feasts of Merit.[v] The mantle had to be embroidered during the course of the feast, wherein few women would join in to complete the task before dusk. Motifs accumulated with successive feasts and the offerings made in them.

'Elephant cloth' or Hapidasa, 20th century, Cotton; embroidered, Nagaland, Lt. 180; Wd. 117 cm. Collection: Sushmit. Photograph editing: Deepak Singh Negi.
‘Elephant cloth’ or Hapidasa, 20th century, Nagaland, Cotton; embroidered, Lt. 180; Wd. 117 cm. Collection: Sushmit. Photo edit by Deepak Singh Negi.


[i] Julian Jacobs, The Nagas: Hill Peoples of Northeast India, Society, Culture and the Colonial Encounter. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1990), 44.

[ii] Marion Wettstein, Naga Textiles: Design, Technique, Meaning and Effect of a Local Craft Tradition in Northeast India. (Vienna: Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2014), 106.

[iii] Aglaja Stirn and Peter van Ham, The Hidden World of the Naga: Living Traditions in the Northeast India and Burma. (New Delhi: Timeless Books, 2003), 159.

[iv] Akha Kaihrii Mao, “Meaning and Significance of the Traditional Moa-Naga Shawls,” in Objects: Identities: Meaning, Insider Perspectives from North East India, eds, Dharitri Narzary Chakravartty and Surajit Sarkar, (New Delhi: Ambedkar University, 2015), 68-72.

[v] Lotika Varadarajan, “Fabric and Tradition: Textiles of the Northeast”, Marg, A Magazine of the Arts, Volume 62, Number I, September 2010.


Other references:

Peter van Ham and Jamie Saul, Expedition Naga: Diaries from the Hills in Northeast India, 1921-1937, 2002-2006, New Delhi: Timeless Books, 2008.


Elephants under the Starry Sky: The Embroidered Mantle of the Chakhesangs

Earthen Vows: Terracotta Sculptures of Central India

Votive Elephant. Terracotta. Dhamna village, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh. Artist: Devideem Prajapati. Photograph courtesy: Sushmit.

Elephants such as the one above, adorned in elaborate trappings detailed with numerous bells were traditionally offered to goddesses in their respective forest realms for a prosperous harvest. According to Jane Perryman, these elephants were a speciality of Masora village (now in Bastar, Chhattisgarh) created by a single family. Several tribal groups who inhabit in and around the area would commission these images solely for ritual purpose. Over the years, with initiative of an NGO, the skills required for making such detailed terracotta was imparted to a few more. The production that resulted out of this was then marketed in big cities and craft fairs to an urban clientele who bought them for decorative use. Now, the same images fetched more money in these new found markets which seemed impossible for the humble tribal customers.  Therefore, there was a reduction in demand for large pieces (could go up to a height of four feet) which were earlier quite often commissioned by the locals.[1] This also explains the production of such elephants today in Dhamna village, far away from its initial place of origin.  The artisan made it because it was beautiful and easy to attract customers without any knowledge of its purpose. Nevertheless, the craft survived but without its original context or patrons, which was also partly due to separation of Chhattisgarh from Madhya Pradesh.

The Hatere or Harere kumbhars in a small village called Dhamna in Chhatarpur District of Madhya Pradesh create a huge repertoire of terracotta products ranging from pots and utensils of daily nature to votive objects of high artistic value for local religious festivals. The potters here use a small terracotta plate instead of a wheel. Sometimes for bigger sizes, a spoked wheel is used. Today, most of it is done by an electrically powered wheel.

Animals such as horses and elephants have always stood for prosperity and played an important role as votive images. Striking sculptures of tigers were offered to goddesses Dhate Sara Mata and Mauli Mata to prevent illness and female monkeys, bendri, were created for family bliss.  Earthen oxen offered to Bhora Dev promised a good harvest.[2] During the Boliki festival which falls on the date of Makara Shankranti (14th January) each year, clay horses are created by the Hatere kumbhars and sold in the local fairs in Khajuraho. These horses are associated with Lord Shiva and are bought by villagers for rituals to gain blessing for their male child. Vows are taken and the earthen horse is packed with other food offerings on a box, to be opened finally on Vasant Panchami. The food from the box is then distributed among the boys and the idol of the horse is immersed in the village pond.[3] For a girl child, a small terracotta bowl called maliya is used for the same. Elephants associated with Goddess Lakshmi symbolising abundance and prosperity, are made for Diwali festivities as well. They are sold not only in markets but also traded door to door of rich landed households in exchange for grains and money. These elephants are depicted in rich detailed trappings and embellished with diyas (lamps) and pots.

Sharada mata
Sharda Mata. Terracotta. Dhamna Village, Chhatarpur village, Madhya Pradesh. Artist: Devideem Prajapati. Photograph courtesy and collection: Janaki Turaga.

Other captivating artefacts of religious nature created by these potters comprise a stylised image of Sharda Mata or Goddess Sharda. Sharda Mata is the principal mother goddess of the town of Maihar. In fact the name, ‘Maihar’ comes from ‘Ma ki har’ meaning mother’s necklace. It is believed that Shiva while carrying the body of Sati around the world, her necklace dropped at this place and a temple germinated at the spot. Another popular piece is the composite mythical being, Kamdhenu or Surabhi. This divine wish-fulfilling bovine goddess is partly made by hand and party using a mould. Traditionally, images of Kamdhenu would be offered at the local Shiva temples during the Shivratri celebrations.

Kamdhenu or Surabhi. Terracotta. Dhamna Village, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh. Artist: Devideem Prajapati. Photograph courtesy: Sushmit.

With the advent of new cheaper mass produced plastic and aluminium vessels and also changing lifestyles, the demand of terracotta products in the traditional markets declined over the years although not completely gone. This demand however diminishing, sustained the livelihood of traditional potters but never been enough to flourish. Hence, few of them who still continue their profession, evolved their product range with new subjects and themes. They would sell these in big cities in craft fairs to be used as decorative pieces, fetching them a fair amount of money, which otherwise is impossible in traditional markets.  Now, various animals which inhabit the vast forested lands of the region such as tigers and porcupines occupy the table of their stalls.  Alongside, village belles engaged in various daily activities such as grinding grains, tending to their child, playing chaupar (board-dice game) or fetching water are also frozen in terracotta.  According to artisan, Devideen Prajapati, these themes are inspired from things around and reflect the traditions of Bundelkhand, Bundelkhand parampara, which he emphasised with pride.


[1] Jane Perryman. Traditional Pottery of India. (Great Britain: A & C Black Publishers Ltd.), 130.

[2] Ibid, 134-135.

[3] Stephen P. Huyler. Gifts of Earth: Terracottas and Clay Sculptures of India. (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1996), 91-92.


Earthen Vows: Terracotta Sculptures of Central India

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 (Acc.no. 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 (Acc.no. 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

An Enchanted Forest: The Art of the Kondhs

Bronze deity
Votive figure, Late 19th to early 20th century, Kuttia Kondh, Clay base and metal alloy, Ht. 10.5 cm. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Kondhs or Kandhs, are one of the largest tribal groups in Odisha, inhabiting the entire area around Ganjam and Phulbani districts till the forested lands of Telangana. They are also found in the Koraput, Kalahandi and Belangir districts. Divided into many sub-groups, the prominent amongst them are the Kuttia Kondhs, Maliah Kondhs and Dongaria Kondhs. The Kondhs were notorious in the pages of history books, for their spine-chilling practice of human sacrifice as well as for their fierce resistance against the invading British into their forested lands. In the recent years, the Dongaria Kondhs of the Niyamgiri hills unitedly fought against the mining giant, Vedanta, trying to illegally exploit the bauxite reserves lying beneath their hills. It resulted in a heroic victory for the Dongaria Kondhs. This resilient fight to protect their forests and hills inspires the rest of the world, teaching everyone the importance of living in harmony with nature.

To ensure good crops and immunity from all disease and accidents, the Kondhs offered human (Meriah) sacrifice, to the Earth Goddess, Tari Pennu or Bera Pennu. It was also believed by them, that the shedding of blood from the sacrifice onto the soil brought out the deep red colour in the turmeric that was to be cultivated. For the sacrifice, the victim referred to as  Meriah, had to be purchased only then it was acceptable to the Goddess or had been born a victim, that is, the son of a victim father, or had been devoted as a child by his father or guardian. Grown men were most esteemed because they came with a high price. Children were purchased too, and reared by the family with care until their gruesome fate.[i] Ten to twelve days prior to the sacrifice, the victim was prepared by shaving his head. Series of rituals are performed by the Zanee (priest) through the medium of Toomba, a Kondh girl under the age of seven. On the final day, the victim was paraded (intoxicated with opium) in full view of the village to a thick forested area which was never axed. Smeared with oil, clarified butter, turmeric and wild flowers, the victim was then slaughter or strangulated on a forked pillar. Wherein, the members of the village cut off flesh from the body (sometimes while still alive) leaving aside the head and bowels, to be buried under the soil of their fields.[ii] This practice of human ‘Meriah’ sacrifice was banned by the British in around mid-19th century.

Gourd Mask 1
Meriah Mask, 20th century, Kuttia Kondh, Gourd, crab-eye beads, metal, Lt.27 cm, Acc. no. 64.841. Courtesy: Dr. Verrier Elwin collection, National Museum, New Delhi.


The ban triggered the preservation of the relics related to the sacrifice such as knives, chains, bowls used during the rites and even bits of human flesh stored in bamboo containers. Some of the villages were fortunate to possess skulls of the victims sacrificed earlier. These skulls and the other paraphernalia were used during the buffalo sacrifice which was all that the government permitted. Buffaloes were considered inadequate by the tribe members and initially a lot of reluctance was shown on the use of this new substitute. But over the years, these skulls and other relics were destroyed or stolen, resulting in the failure of the priest in slaughtering the animal. It was believed, the cause was the improper method. Fortunately, the solution came as a dream at night to the Kuttia Kondh priest, with the Earth Goddess saying, “The head is destroyed; make a new head in its place. Sacrifice, dance and then kill the buffalo. Then, and only then, will I be pleased and accept your offering”. Thereafter, masks made of gourd shell according to the pattern chalked out in the dream were created and used during the buffalo sacrifice (now called Meriah) to be offered to the Earth Goddess.[iii]

Sacrificial Pillar 1
Sacrificial Pillar, 20th century, Kuttia Kondh, Ganjam District (Odisha), Wood (carved), Lt. 221 cm, Acc. no. 91.145. Courtesy: National Museum, New Delhi.


The forked wooden sacrificial pillar formed an important linkage to this banned ritual. Later, replicas were made to be installed in their homes. These pillars were dedicated to Illu Pennu (House-God) and used during buffalo sacrifice. These were never destroyed and were kept with pride within the household. Carved out of wood, their designs were revealed in a dream.[iv] According to the report of J. Campbell (deputed by the British Government to stop the practice), there were sightings of wooden effigies of elephants where the victim was slayed tied to the proboscis of the animal. The last recorded human sacrifice, was in Ganjam in 1852, although, few suspicious attempts continued till 1880s in various places.[v]

Bronze water buffalo
Water Buffalo, Late 19th or early 20th century, Kuttia Kondh, Clay base and metal alloy, Ht. 10.3 cm. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Kondhs maintain very strong animist beliefs with different animals and birds having their own symbolism and role. Bronze figurines of peacocks, chameleons, serpents, crabs, horses, deer, tigers, elephants, human figures and musicians were cast using the cire perdue (lost-wax technique) process to be used as playthings as well as alter pieces. The core of the figure was shaped in clay and then thin wax treads were laid diagonally forming a rough lattice work. The wax threads were made by means of a bamboo tube having a moveable brass plate with perforation, through which the wax is pressed. Then, a final clay mould is casted with a vent. The molten metal is poured through the vent, which takes the place of the wax. After this, the clay mould is broken to reveal the figure within. The main production cluster for these figures was Belugunta, near Russellkonda in Ganjam. These bronze figures were also used as playthings to amuse the groom and formed an important part of the bridal procession.[vi]

Bronze peacock
Peacock, Late 19th to early 20th century, Kuttia Kondh, Clay base and metal alloy, Ht. 12.3 cm. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Appearance of particular animals in dream could mean specific implications, such as, a deity demanding sacrifice or a calamity and disease on its way. Peacocks are generally considered inauspicious and believed to bring misfortune. Bronze effigies of peacocks were buried under the sacrificial posts.[vii] Bears guaranteed good harvests and buffaloes signified wealth.

Apart from animal figures, Thurston records Mr. J.A.R. Stevenson findings, that the Kondhs of Gumsur, to represented their deities Jara pennu, Linga Devata or Petri Devata as well. These deities were kept in their houses, along with the animal figures. On the outbreak of skin diseases, these figures were sprinkled with the mixture of rice, milk and turmeric, and animal sacrifices offered according to the suggestion of the Zanee (priest), which is eaten later.[viii]

Kapragonda 1
Kapragonda, 20th century, Dongaria Kondh, Cotton (woven, embroidered), Lt. 160; Wd. 70 cm, Acc.no. 97.107. Courtesy: National Museum, New Delhi.


An exquisite embroidered wrapper draped over their plain white saris, is adorned by the women of the Dongaria Kondhs. This wrapper called kapra gonda is given as a proposal gift to the girl by her suitor, embroidered by his sisters or female members of his family.[ix] Among the tribes of Odisha, except for the Saoras, weaving and spinning of cotton was considered a taboo. Hence, the fabric for the wrapper, a plain weave coarse cotton is procured from the weavers of the Domb and Pano community living alongside the Kondhs.[x] This fabric is then embroidered in a way that it looks like it is woven, using running and pattern darning stitches depicting various geometric patterns in orange, vermilion, yellow, mauve and green threads.

The women of the Kondh tribe immensely love their hair-pins. The hair styles of these women can be considered no less than a work of art. Earlier hair-pins made of bones of sambhar and porcupine quills[xi] were used, until the same made of modern materials were introduced.

I would like to thank the National Museum, New Delhi, for the photographs of the Kondh artefacts. I would also like to extend my gratitude to Anju Sachdeva, Deputy Curator of the Anthropology Department, National Museum, for always encouraging me with my research on the ethnographic artefacts.


[i] Edgar Thurston and K. Rangachari. Castes and Tribes of Southern India. Vol. III. (Madras: Government Press, 1909), 371-373.

[ii] Edgar Thurston. Madras Government Museum Bulletin, Vol. IV, No. 1, Anthropology. (New Delhi: Asian Educational Service, 2004), 51-52.

[iii] Verrier Elwin. The Tribal Art of Middle India: A Personal Record. (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1951), 138-139.

[iv] Ibid, 170-182.

[v] Edgar Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India, 375-380.

[vi] Ibid, 391-392.

[vii] Edgar Thurston. Ethnographic Notes in Southern India, Part II. (New Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1975), 511-513.

[viii] Edgar Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India, 392.

[ix] Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan, eds., Crafts of India: Handmade in India. (New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporation, COHANDS, 2007), 230.

[x] Verrier Elwin, 25-28.

[xi] Ibid, 11.



Nayak, Radhakant et al. The Kondhs: A Handbook for Development. New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 1990.

Jena, Mihir K. et al. Forest Tribes of Orissa: Lifestyle and Social Conditions of Selected Orissan Tribes, Vol.1. The Dongaria Kondh. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd., 2002.

Jena, Mihir K. et al. Forest Tribes of Orissa: Lifestyle and Social Conditions of Selected Orissan Tribes, Vol.2. The Kuttia Kondh. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd., 2006.


An Enchanted Forest: The Art of the Kondhs

The Divine Niche: Embroidered Ganesh-sthapanas of Gujarat

Ganesh-sthapana 1
Ganesh-sthapana, 20th century, Kanebi, Saurashtra. Private Collection.

In the bygone days, arrays of items were embroidered by a bride to be, which would form a part of her trousseau. Among all these treasured articles, the most easily recognisable is the pentagonal Ganesh-sthapana.

The project of embroidering articles for the trousseau starts at a very young age with the other women of the family always lovingly lending a hand. It generally commences with the embroidering of the Ganesh-sthapana, a symbolic prayer to the Lord of obstacles for the successful completion of the mammoth project. Ganesh-sthapanas play an important role at the time of the wedding. It is installed in the family homes of the bride and the groom respectively three days prior to the wedding. Various ceremonies or pujas would be performed in front of it and when the wedding is finally completed, it would be taken with the rest of the trousseau.[i] This major role is one of the reasons, which makes it a treasured article for every woman and no matter what, never parts with it easily.

Most of the Ganesh-sthapanas are embroidered by the Kanebis of Saurashtra. Although in the recent years, other groups have also taken up the tradition. A coarse cotton fabric which is dyed in yellow or a lighter shade of orange is used for the sthapana. Plain white is also used as it symbolises purity. The fabric is shaped into a pentagonal form intended to depict a niche or a shrine. This pentagonal piece is then given to a local draughtsman who would sketch out the theme with a small twig or match stick.  After this the women would embroider along the lines with floss silk threads (heer) or cotton threads of various colours. There is no limitation to the type of stitches used. A single piece can show multiple techniques.  It is also embellished with mirrors (ranging from small to tin mounted big mirrors) and narrow bands of gota. The lower side of the sthapana is often decorated with leaf shaped pendants (patte) in mashru, bandhani or sometimes embroidered. There are also beaded versions (moti-bharat) of the sthapanas in the same format.

Lord Ganesh with his two acolytes Riddhi and Siddhi are lovingly embroidered, either in an abstract or slightly natural form. None of the Ganesh-sthapanas are the same, making it a highly individualistic work of art.  The spaces around him are filled with parrots, peacocks, cows, his vahana, the mouse, attendants and devotees, all venerating the Lord. S.S. Hitkari in his monograph, entitled, “Ganesh-Sthapana: The Folk Art of Gujarat”, has not only documented some of the rare and interesting examples of the craft, but also decoded many symbolism that are associated with the embroidered motifs.

Ganesh appears on a square format sthapana or chauras as well made for a similar purpose. In Saurashtra he is also depicted on door valance (torans) and lintel decoration (pacchit patti) in the same delightful manner.

ganesh-sthapana 2
Ganesh-sthapana, Contemporary, Kharak, Saurashtra. Courtesy: Sushmit.


[i] Hitkari, S.S. Ganesha-sthapana: The Folk Art of Gujarat. (New Delhi: Phulkari Publication, 1981), 23-24.



Elson, Vickie C. Dowries from Kutch: A Women’s Folk Art Tradition in India. USA: University of California Press, 1979.

Fisher, Nora, editor. Mud, Mirror and Thread: Folk Traditions of Rural India. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 2006.

Gillow, John and Nicholas Barnard. Indian Textiles. New Delhi: Om Books International, 2008.

Hitkari, S.S. Ganesha-sthapana: The Folk Art of Gujarat. New Delhi: Phulkari Publication, 1981.

Rivers, Victoria Z. The Shining Cloth: Dress and Adornment that Glitters. United Kingdom: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1999.

Sheth, Suresh. The Arts of the Kharak Community and Crafts of their Region-Saurashtra. Ahmedabad: Rajkalp Mudranalaya Pvt. Ltd., 2014.

The Divine Niche: Embroidered Ganesh-sthapanas of Gujarat

Lac-coated dolls of Eastern India

Lac-coated dolls, Nabarangpur, Odisha. Courtesy: Sushmit.

In many parts of India, dolls in the form of bride and groom or king and queen (Raja-Rani), are popular and also used during specific festivals. The search for everlasting conjugal bliss is expressed through these dolls where they are worshipped and sometimes an entire wedding for them is enacted. All of it in the hope that the serene orchestrated relationship of the dolls is replicated in real life.

Nabarangpur and Balasore districts of Odisha are famous for the creation of these dolls. Artisans from the Sankhari community residing here manufacture these dolls out of fine clay and coat them with lacquer collected from the local forests. Their form is kept simple with just a basic indication of limbs and other features. The detailing is done by the use of lac, which adds the eyes, jewellery and garb to these dolls. In Balasore district, these lac-coated dolls are called jaukandhei. They are again in the form of a couple and are believed to be a hybrid of a similar custom practiced by the tribes residing in Mayurbhanj.

lac 2
Jaukandhei dolls. Balasore, Odisha. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Lac is an insect resin that is collected from the trees growing on the local forests. In olden days, it was sufficient, but today with diminishing interests of the craftsmen towards it caused by low returns, it is slowly on a decline. Now lac has to be also sourced from outside. The artisans still continue this crafts and other than these dolls, toys in the form of parrots, bulls and elephants are also made for children to play with. The famous lacquered boxes, lakho-pedi, which comprises a square shaped structure of a box with a lid, all made of bamboo, with the entire surface covered with lacquer in bright shades of orange, chrome and black. The designs are an echo of the floor decorations or alpona with floral sprays and geometric arrangements. These are sold in village fairs as well as during major events such as the Ratha Yatra fesitival.

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Lac-coated dolls. Nabarangpur, Odisha. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Similar dolls are made in West Bengal coated with shellac (a processed form of natural lacquer). In olden days they were made by the Nuri community of Ilambazar in Birbhum. Due to shortage of raw materials and a decline in the demand, the craft almost vanished. But due to the personal endeavour of Rabindranath Tagore, the craft caught the fancy of the students of Shantineketan. Today, the craft production has shifted to Panchrol and Kharui Bazaar in Medinipur East district, adopted by the conch shell workers[1]. Dolls made here too share the same minimalist approach of depicting the subject. Votive dolls of goddesses such as Shashthi, Durga and Manasa are created as well as other toys for children.

Goddess Shashthi, shellac coated doll. West Bengal. Courtesy: Sushmit.

[1] Tarapada Santra. Folk Arts of West Bengal and the Artist Community. Trans. Shankar Sen. (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2011), 104-107.

Lac-coated dolls of Eastern India

Lacquered Jicaras of Mexico

Lacquered jicara, Unknown Artist. Contemporary, Mexico. Private Collection.

Dried rinds of gourds have been used by many cultures around the world as a versatile utilitarian vessel; for storing food articles and condiments, as drinking bowls,as well as resonators for musical instruments. These gourd vessels are immensely popular in Mexico, but here, the love for colours and artistry has translated these humble vessels into objects full of life and expression. This art of lacquering gourd vessels traces its history to an ancient time, even before the arrival of the Spaniards. Although, the technique and style have absorbed many new ideas since then, but the vibrancy and vigour of these lacquered or painted vessels is unmistakably true to the soul of Mexico.

Gourds or the fruits of the calabash tree, as said earlier, are used for making vessels from time immemorial. The local and popular term used for these gourds is jicara (a corruption of the Nahuatl word, xicalli). The dried rinds of these gourds are used as vessels, perforated ones as strainers and even as a protective head cover. The surface is elaborately worked upon, for instance, the vessels from Oaxaca and Tabasco are incised with intricate figurative and geometric designs. But the popular form of surface decoration is lacquer work, done by the gifted artists from the coastal states of Guerrero, Michoacán and Chiapas.[i]

The process of preparing these vessels is a long one, involving numerous days or even months. The first step is to choose the gourd, as they are found in different shapes and sizes, and let it dry out. Then they are cut into halves and soaked in water. This will make the inside rot, which will be scooped out and discarded. The prepared outer surface will be then applied a coat of oil from toasted seeds of chia (salvia hispanica)[ii] or aje, an oil extracted from an insect called scale bug, mixed with powdered earth, tierra. After which two more coats are applied of ground mineral paste and left until the surface hardens. The harden surface is painted with various floral and figurative motifs. A final coat of oil is then applied to seal the lacquer, making it heat and water resistant.[iii]

Lacquered jicara, Unknown Artist, Contemporary, Mexico. Private collection.

The surfaces are brought to life by artists, depicting gamboling rabbits, deer, tigers, birds perched in branches with plethora of blossoming flowers and motifs inherited from the colonial past. Today, the use commercially available colours have replaced natural pigments and the use of gold and silver has resulted in dreamlike effects.

I would like to thank my dearest friend, Snorre Westgaard, for introducing me to this craft. I would also like to extend my appreciation to Humana People to People India, for letting me see their collection and write on them.  I also thank my friend, Rafael Sequeira, eminent archaeologist, for helping me with the local terminology related to this art.


[i]Chloë Sayer. Arts and Crafts of Mexico.(London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), 84.

[ii]Ibid, 84-85.

[iii]Ibid, 85.

Lacquered Jicaras of Mexico

Owls of Natungram

Painted Owl, Natungram, West Bengal. Courtesy: Sushmit.

In eastern India, especially West Bengal, owls or pencha are considered auspicious. It is the dedicated vahana (vehicle) of Goddess Lakshmi, the bestower of wealth. Out of many delightful toys that are carved by the wood artisans of Natungram, Burdwan District, the owl forms one of the iconic images of rural West Bengal.

The artisans chose different sizes of cylindrical logs or branches according to their requirement. Then, the desired shape is chiseled out and finished with a sand paper. The surface is then painted with bright colours transforming into Radha-Krishna, raja-ranis, village belles and of course, the owls.

The owls are found in various sizes. For a more sophisticated urban clientele, the surfaces of few are left plain with just a coat of wood varnish. Even though this particular craft is an age old tradition and had been catering to rural  fairs or melas for a long time, there is a sort of modernity in the way the wood artisans handle a log, transforming it in just few quick chops. Their minimalist approach is just precise in what they intend to portray.

Wooden Owl, Natungram, West Bengal. Private Collection.



Ranjan, Aditi and M.P. Ranjan, eds. Crafts of India: Handmade in India. New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporations, COHANDS, 2007.

Sen, Prabhas. Living Traditions of India: Crafts of West Bengal. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1994.



Owls of Natungram

Amidst fragrant jasmine blossoms: Syrian Wood Intarsia

Pen-stand amidst frankincense. Syria.
Pen-stand amidst frankincense. Syria. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Syria has always been a nurturing cradle of civilizations from time immemorial. Its prosperous cities of Damascus and Aleppo are no strangers to the pages of history, either as a centre stage for major world events or an important point in ancient trade routes. Waves of ideas and inspiration arrived here transforming the Syrian way of life into a unique and multi-faceted culture and its hospitality ever welcoming and warm. Whenever, I ask my Syrian friends about home, a blanket of nostalgia would surround them. With a smile they would talk about the old streets of Damascus, with its air filled with the sweet fragrance of jasmine and freshly baked breads glazed with olive oil and zataar, people relaxing in old coffee houses, the hamams and souks selling almost everything one needs. A picture worth living.

The city of Damascus is famous for its crafts, to a level that it has literally stamped its name on many of them. The famed blades of ‘Damascus steel’ with markings of flowing water were forged here, with wootz or iron ingots bought in from India. The inlay work in metal with intricate foliate patterns and calligraphy came to be known as damascening work, which later travelled to India and played an influential role in surface ornamentation of Mughal arms-armours and decorative arts. In India this elaborate work in gold that decorated the surfaces of many exclusive articles, came to be known as tehnishan or tehbuland (true damascening) and koftgari (false damascening). The luxurious damask (again owing its name to the city), woven in silk or brocaded, is also a product of the gifted weavers of this city. Another important craft which the city is attributed to and the main focus of this entry is wood intarsia, known far and wide among art connoisseurs.

Inlaying wooden objects using techniques of intarsia and marquetry with various shades of wood, mother of pearl, bone or ivory, and plastics (commonly used today) is an age old tradition in Syria. The earliest examples are found in the artefacts recovered from the tombs of the Pharaohs in Egypt. In fact, Syria and Egypt not only were the originators of this craft but also retained its own unique style and characteristics. It is from here, that the craft travelled westwards to Spain and Italy and eastwards to India via Iran.[i]

Jewelry box, Syria.
Jewelry box, Syria. Courtesy: Sushmit.

A host of products were made ranging from boxes of varying sizes and shapes, rehls (Qur’an stands), pen stands, mirror frames, tables and furniture. The surface is entirely covered with a strict geometric design and layout, with rhombuses and elaborate arabesque. Although, bigger artefacts do display intricate floral and foliate design, with cypress trees and vines (eslimi). Two types of process can be applied owing to the nature of the product. For a rather cheaper souvenir market, a faster process of marquetry is applied wherein rods of different coloured wood and plastic are arrange into a singular bundle with a pre-conceived design and glue together. Then it is cut using a motor saw into thin slices or veneers which are glued to surface of the wood. After which the prepared surface is rubbed with a sand paper and applied a coat of varnish. The other method a more time intensive process is generally used for expensive furniture and trunks. This involves each perfectly calibrated piece of wood, mother of pearl or bone to be delicately inserted individually into the design that is carved out on the surface that is to be ornamented.

Syrian marquetry and intarsia is a pride of the nation, often gifted to guests and friends as a small of token of their rich culture. Its beauty and intricacy is admired all over, although with the ongoing conflict and displacement of people among who are also craftsmen practicing this ancient craft, the future appears dark. Skill once lost can never be replaced, so one can only hope for a faster peace process in this god gifted country.

In Iran, this craft came to be known as khatam-kari or hatam-bandi, which was employed for the elaborate qalamdans (pen boxes) and other boxes with central cartouches displaying princes in leisure or engaged in chauganbazee (game of polo). From here, this craft migrated to India, believed to have been brought by the Parsis. The Pettigaras of Surat are engaged in making the most exquisite boxes called the Petigara pettis with surface decorated with marquetry technique locally called sadeli. The craft of inlaying wood is also practiced in Hoshiarpur in Punjab and Mysore in Karnataka.

Box, wood intarsia with mother of pearl. MId 20th century, Egypt. Collection of Snorre Westgaard.
Box, wood intarsia with mother of pearl. Mid 20th century, Egypt. Collection of Snorre Westgaard.

I dedicate this entry to my dearest friend, Mudar, for making me see and experience his beautiful country through his eyes. I also pray that this state of unrest, a maddening nightmare, that has engulfed Syria and its people come to a sooner end.


[i] Johannes Kalter. “Urban Handicrafts” in The Arts and Crafts of Syria, Collection Antoine Touma and Linden-Museum Stuttgart. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1992), 72.

Other References: (For Indian Marquetry)

Chattopadhyay, Kamaladevi. The Glory of Indian Handicrafts. New Delhi: Clarion Books, 1985.

Jaffer, Amin. Luxury Goods from India: The Art of the Indian Cabinet-Maker. New Delhi: Timeless Books, 2002.

Ranjan, Aditi and M.P. Ranjan, eds. Crafts of India: Handmade in India. New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporations, COHANDS, 2007.

Saraf, D N. Indian Crafts: Development and Potential. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., 1982.

Amidst fragrant jasmine blossoms: Syrian Wood Intarsia

Mirrors and Peacocks: Embroidery of Haryana


Embroidered backless cholis with narrow petias. Hissar (Haryana). Collection of Namita Malik.

Unlike the phulkaris and baghs of Punjab, which maintained a highly controlled geometric format, the similar technique in Haryana with lesser rigidity, created  motifs that were full of life and spontaneity.

With a wide distribution of the Jat and Bishnoi community apart from the main territory of Haryana, the embroidery shares similarities with the ones done by the above communities residing in the western districts of Rajasthan as well, namely, Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Barmer. Women from Hissar, Sirsa, Rohtak and Karnal, embroidered on a narrow coarse woollen or cotton cloth (khaddar) with floss silk threads with delightful motifs of frolicking peacocks and peahens, jewellery and vegetation. Dyed cotton threads were also used extensively. A splendid late 19th century cotton skirt from Hissar which is embroidered with dense repeats of wheat motifs in golden yellow floss silk can be seen in Rosemary Crill’s book on Indian embroideries.[i] The shishedar or chemas phulkari which used inserts of mirrors within highly stylised floral and figurative embroidery was also very popular. The mirrors were earlier made and obtained from Karnal.[ii]  Although, the use of mirrors was not restricted to only shawls and odhanis (head cover) but extended to embellish skirts and cholis.

[i]Rosemary Crill. Indian Embroidery. (New Delhi: Prakash Books, 1999), 124-125.

[ii]Neelam Grewal. The Needle Lore: Traditional Embroideries of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.  (New Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1988), 58-59.

Embroidered Shawl/Odhani, Hissar (Haryana). Collection of Namita Malik.
Mirrors and Peacocks: Embroidery of Haryana