Gandhiji's gift for Princess Elizabeth's wedding!

On the 10th July 1947, the Buckingham palace announced the betrothal of Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. 1947 was the worst of all years of post-war austerity. A group of labor MPs questioned the whip of extravagance of royal celebrations. Atlee writes to the palace inquiring about the unpatriotic origins of the “Lyons silk” that had been used for the bride’s wedding dress so that he could reassure his critics in Parliament.

“The wedding dress contains silk from chinese silk worms, but woven in Scotland and Kent. The Wedding train contains silk produced by Kentish silk worms and woven in London. The going away dress contains 4-5 yards of Lyons silk which was part of the stock of the dressmaker Norman Hartnell (He clarifies that while some of the silk worms were chinese, they were “nationalist” silkworms, not communist )

20th November 1947 was the day of the ceremony. Few months later, the Board of Trade asked if the royal wedding dress might go on a tour to advertise British materials and workmanship – the much debated dress was now considered a national triumph! It was on a display at St James Palace alongwith all the wedding presents, but the Queen felt otherwise. She did not wish to part with her wedding dress.

Gandhiji presented this handwoven knitted shawl..
With this accompanying note..

Thillayadi Valliammai

Amongst a lot of injustice against South African Indians, one was the judgement of Justice Searle in 1913 to nullify all the marriages if not celebrated according to Christian rites and registered by the Registrar of marriages. And at one stroke, Indian Hindus, Muslims and Zoroastrians were affected; the wives were degraded to the rank of concubines, and their progeny were deprived of their right to inherit the parent’s property.

This insult to womanhood made the Indian women folks in South Africa to join the struggle. Many of them were Tamils, (Tamil labourers from Madras Presidency worked in coal mines in Natal and Transvasal). The women’s bravery were beyond words – one of them was pregnant, some of them had young babies in their arms. Even Kasturba joins the struggle and lands up in jail. In the Maritzburg jail, they were harassed and the food was of the worst quality, and had a laborious hard task of laundry.

During this time, a tamil “coolie” as he calls himself, by the name of Balasundaram meets Gandhi in his office, asking help to file a law suit. His upper body is full of flogging wounds, and his towel tied at his hips. Gandhi asks him why he doesn’t put the towel over his shoulder, he replies that “the shoulders wont be there the next day” – Gandhi files a case for him against the Government, and Balasundaram gets a judgement in his favour in that case.The first time ever, the laborers get one in their favour, by the way!

Soon Gandhi, Balasundaram and a young girl of 16 years, named Valliammai were jailed in relation to the disobedience movement against this law, in 1914.

She was a tall girl, but the three month jail term makes her so ill. They decided to release them on health grounds, but her health was so bad that she had be wrapped in a bed sheet and had to be carried by Gandhiji and Balasundram back to the Tolstoy farm.

She was on her deathbed, But the clarity and bravery simply inspired the Mahatma. She said if she had another chance she would offer her life again for Satyagraha movement. In his writings he says:

“Valliamma you do not repent of your having gone to jail?” I asked.
“Repent? I am even now ready to go to jail again if I am arrested,” said Valliamma.
“But what if it results in your death?” I pursued.
“I do not mind it. Who would not love to die for one’s motherland?” was the reply.

On her deathbed, she asks Balasundaram to narrate a song. He does that, and hearing that she passes away.

Gandhiji is saddened and later write, “The loss of Valliammai would perhaps affect me more than that of my elder brother (Lakshmidass).” Gandhiji promised her that he will learn tamil, and asks Balasundaram to transliterate the song in English.
And made it the last song as a part of his daily prayers.

Do you know which song is this? A Thevaram song of Thirugnana Sambandar (8.051) called the “Achho pathigam”

முத்திநெறி அறியாத மூர்க்கரொடு முயல்வேனைப்
பத்திநெறி அறிவித்துப் பழவினைகள் பாறும்வண்ணம்
சித்தமலம் அறுவித்துச் சிவமாக்கி எனைஆண்ட
அத்தனெனக் கருளியவா றார்பெறுவார் அச்சோவே

Btw, The Cooptex building at Egmore, Madras is named after her – Thillayadi Valliammai building!

Mata ni Pachedi

Block-printed and painted using mineral colours on cloth. The painting is divided into 11 horizontal rows, featuring linear parades of priests wielding knives, sacrificial goats, devotees rich and poor, horse-drawn carriages, musicians, birds and animals regal and ritual. Seated on a goat in her temple, in the centre of the fifth row, is Meladi Mata. Below her is Jogani Mata on a tree. c.1940. Artist unknown. 73 x 105 inches (185 x 266 cm). Mineral and vegetable colours. Private collection.
Source :

In order to become truly one nation and one people we need to understand the rich strands of our culture. The arts of India are among the greatest aesthetic achievement, and Gujarat had a very rich textile tradition.

In this blog, we focus on the kalamkari work of Gujarat, the form of a backdrop to the mother goddess, the literal meaning of Mata ni pachedi and the canopy of mother goddess, called as Mata no Chandarvo

The temple cloths are made as votive offerings during the time of Navarathra, the nine-nights festival celebrated after the rains. The vaghari community, who were denied access in to temples due to their caste, made these backdrop or canopy for mobile temples. Exactly like Thangkas, the buddhist scrolls.

The Vaghari community have the surname of chitaras (painters). Mata ni Pachedi usually depicts mother goddesses as mataji, mostly with the use of black, maroon colors. The Bua, or the the priests of the goddess, praises her with songs and also have a round earthen pot with barley shoots. This pot is immersed on the ninth day, after taking it in a procession. Peasants, tribes offer these cloth to her when their wishes are fulfilled.

Visat mata on her Vahana, Source : Sahapedia

This multi-colour temple cloth of recent times is in the kalamkari style ( and I can see the similarity of thanjavur kalamkari and thombais here), surrounded by block printed floral motifs. The center figure is the avenging goddess riding on a buffalo, and from her crown springs sprouting corn. She is depicted as having multiple hands and weapons – sword, spear, dagger, trident, arrows etc.,
In her form as Bahuchara, she is four armed – sword, spear, bell and cup of blood

Tara books has made a beautiful handmade cover and textile book on this art. They got the blocks done specially for this, and the book has a special cloth cover too. A group of tailors in Chennai created the panels of the book using cotton cloth, and the main cloth panel in this books was done by Mr. Dakshinamurthy, who works with Kalakshetra now. This book was also displayed in a special vitrine at the V&A Museum in London, as part of the India Festival,

Technique used

  1. Natural materials used for drawing and dyeing, for example black kasim made out of rusted iron fermented with jaggery
  2. Very fine outlines and filling of colors done with kalam (brush)
  3. Rock dust, red earth, lime, turmeric are used as a base for the colours
  4. Predominantly wooden blocks are made as outline in the cloth, and the colours are filled in for black and red (Iron and alum are used for black and red)

Kalakshetra’s natural dyed Kalamkari sarees

Chemical dyes might come in zillion sophisticated formulations. But you can’t match the depth and uniqueness of colours derived from nature.

Mrs. Rukmini Devi Arundale started the Natural dyeing unit of Kalakshetra in 1970, and the person she chose to head it was Mrs. Shakunthala Ramani. I had an opportunity to interview Late Mrs. Ramani two years back and she enthusiastically showed her books on Kolam, and spoke a lot about her hobby, batik painting.

The Kalamkari unit of Kalakshetra was established in April 1978 with the sponsorship of Crafts Council of India and a small grant of Rs.50000/- from the social welfare board, to provide employment to women.

Mrs. Shakunthala had trained Mr. Prabhakar, who heads the pen kalamkari unit currently. Mr. Dakshinamurthy who heads the block printing department is a store house of information on natural dyeing and printing.

Here’s a video of an interview with Mr. Dakshinamurthy, on what differentiates a Kalakshetra Kalamkari as against the rest!

Interview with Dakshinamurthy sir, why Kalakshetra’s kalamkari is unique..

I have summarised the key points here:

  • No figures of Gods and goddesses in sarees or dresses – only floral or other prints are used
  • Gods/Goddess, mythological stories only for panels
  • 100% natural dyes
  • The block printing follows the Machilipatnam style and the pen kalamkari follows the Sri kalahasti style
  • While the original machilipatnam style uses dark colors for background, Kalakshetra sticks MOSTLY to beige background
  • The key colors used are maroon and black on the foreground

Thanjavur Kalamkari

The art of kalamkari took a southern flavor when the artists of sikkilnaickenpet made the temple wall hangings, thombais (used in temple cars) and as “asmangiri” (canopy cloth) – the colour of jet black is a secret composition even today.

Spotted a panel at Thiruvavaduthurai temple, traditionally these mutts helped to preserve this fine art!

Depicted in the panel is the Pradosha Shivan mounted on his Rishaba! And don’t miss the flying angels, a Victorian touch too..

Calligraphy in sarees

“The word is sacred. Sacred is the word” – “Sada sowbhagvathi bhava”

Saw a fantastic bridal heirloom Paithani saree at the Prince of Wales museum with the above words woven in the pallu!

Pic : A paithani saree with woven words of ” Sada Sowbhagavathibhava” at Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai

The practice of calligraphy in weaving is not something new to us- be it in Benares where they use Urdu or Devanagari scripts in a motif or Kabir’s poem!

A calligraphic logo in a benares saree!
Screen printed calligraphic text of the famous song “harivarasanam” in a kerala kasavu saree!

Did you see the video of Sabyasachi making a beneares lehenga for Deepika’s wedding which made news – , the above words were woven in her lehenga!


You thought croptops were the fashion of today?

By 1930’s the royal household women of Baroda wore this sleeveless waistcoat richly embellished, known as “fituhi”- above their blouses. It was made of brocade, tissue, chanderi and the fine fit was just like an european corset.

Image credit : CSVMS Museum, Mumbai

And was done by the tailors of Baroda itself, more the small fitting pockets too! Maharani Chimnabhai II used to wear this, and this waistcoat is from the royal collection of Royal Gaekwar family of Baroda.

Image credit : CSVMS Museum, Mumbai

Kodalikaruppur sarees

The famous Kodalikaruppur Sarees from Tamilnadu

Tanjore Painting original from Madras Museum – The Tanjore king Sivaji and his wife Saitamba Bai – The uniqueness of this painting is the gold gilt and gem setting and painted with ivory!

There are more than 10-12 karupurs in and around thanjavaur and trichy. The place we refer is the one near kollidam (trichy)- Kodalikaruppur, a village which was called as Neela Meghapuram earlier, which is surrounded by rich silk weaving areas of Kumbakonam and Thirubhuvanam.

The place was famous for its fine yarn woven into dhotis, sarees and angavastrams. The weaving was so fine that it attracted the Thanjavur royalties, and a new line of fabrics were produced for the king’s household.

Kodalikaruppur is actually the advanced weaving technique attributed to this village – the introduction of ornamentation on cotton ground woven fabric alongwith gold brocade! This was further embellished with natural dyes applied by kalam or the engraved wooden blocks.

The origin of this fabric is attributed to Raja Serforji of Thanjavur (1798-1832) who announced that a contest would take place to choose a best woven saree to be given as present to his queen for her birthday. A Kavarai chettiar creates this Karuppur prototype – specific characteristic being kalamkari being done on the shimmering textual quality (cotton interspersed with zari or metallic yarn) in the jamdani figures portions of the saree.

Hadway notes that the colours were predominantly in shades of black and red. The famous pallu motif is a take off from the Persian candle stand design.

The Persian candle design incorporated in a contemporary linen saree!

Source : Internet

Mission Mundu

Malabar was a province of Madras State – and had 3 districts Palghat, Calicut and Cannanore. The Basel Evangelical Mission, a religious missionary establishment in Germany set its base in Karnataka when East India Company permitted entry to all Europeans in 1833. The Mission workers entered Kerala through South Canara and Coorg, and established themselves in Cannanore.

The Basel Mission’s activities started on 21st Aug 1834 – with three missionaries Johann Christoper Lehner, Christian Lehnard Greiner and Samuel Heibich – converting natives to Christianity. In 1844, they started a small handloom weaving factory in Mangalore.

The Basel Mission Centre

A trained specialist came from Germany and introduced the first fly shuttle loom in 1851. The dyeing of yarns was done here, and out of the rind of cashew nut tree and an extract of heartwood of the catechu tree -they introduced the famous Khakhi dye!

The then Superintendent of Mangalore found this ideal for the Uniforms. Another indigenous product was the “Shikari” cloth by the Mangalore weaving unit, again this cloth was used for uniforms. Due to this success, they started the Cannanore unit in 1852 and Calicut in 1859. It was a landmark of the hand loom industry and was known as the Common Wealth Trust (India) Ltd.

Spinning unit at the Basel Mission weaving centre – Source : Internet

Trained carpenters from Germany made the local “frame looms” – and this helped them to weaver heavier furnishings and dress materials and they were called Malabar looms. The dhotis woven in the mission factories were called “Mission Mundu”

Basel Mission weaving unit, Calicut

Floral motifs in Kanjivarams

Motifs offer a new dimension to the visual appeal of a traditional sari, upholding a unique creative expression within the craft. Plant and floral motifs have held a place of importance in textile designs since ancient times. They have been painted, printed and woven, drawing inspiration from the richness of the natural environment.


One of the most prized gift to an Indian woman continues to be a richly brocaded handwoven sari, illustrating the central role of the beautiful drape. Over the past 500 years, silks from Kanchipuram have formed a fundamental part of the cultural tradition of the South Indian world. The sheer beauty of the fabulous silks of the South, with jewel toned colours enriched with threads of gold – the Zarigai pattu – has  overwhelmed people. When we look at Tanjore paintings, temple murals and paintings of the royalties, we understand how the weavers have adopted and perfected temple art into weaving patterns in textiles. Kanjivarams showcase the beautiful incorporation of golden thread by way of zari – thin strips of metal wound around a fibre core (a red strand of silk).

There are striking differences in the way motifs are woven into sari designs in different parts of India. Kanjivaram weavers have derived these symbolic patterns into meaningful motifs suiting the nature of their traditional weaving methods. They describe them with the eye and hand of an artist and you can observe a variety of different motifs woven in supplementary warp or weft threads along the borders and enhancing the mundhanai or pallu. These motif designs are usually small and repetitive. The repeating patterns are descriptive, taken from nature, items of jewellery or everyday objects, and fit well into the overall design. Sometimes they also adorn the body of the saree as butas or buttis depicting a floating design element.

The remarkable motifs inspired from the architecture of a thousand temples and the natural environment of Kanchipuram are seen in the most recognised woven patterns of mangagopuramrudraksham and kamalam. Trees and plants have always played an important part in the myths and customs of India. Many parts of a tree, including its flowers, seeds, and sometimes even its wood or bark, are considered holy, and associated and identified with Gods, planets and months, among other things.

A traditional textile like a kanjivaram conveys to the knowing eye a great deal, not only about the artisan’s skills, but also about the roots and inspirations of the designs.


The temple motif has remained a distinct part of the design vocabulary of Dravidian and Deccani weavers since ancient times. The Dravidian style places importance on the towering gateways of South Indian gopurams, and one glance at this structure provides the entire history of the temple. The mere sight of the gopuram or Gopura Darshanam is an alternative for those who don’t have the time to enter the temple and offer complete worship to the deities – as  cited in a Tamil verse Gopura darshanam koti punyam.

The handloom tradition has imbibed this design, its meaning and value. The rows of large triangles, interlocked in korvai, resemble the temple gopurams and are referred to as reku (a bundle of grass) or mottu (flower buds) in the case of smaller triangles.

Indian culture cherishes flowers, and they also represent the female principle. It is in this aspect that, even today, malai matrudal – the exchange of flower garlands – is one of the first and most important rituals in a South Indian wedding. The thazhampoo is a heavily scented yellow flower with sharp petals that grows along river banks in Tamil Nadu and is used in hair ornamentation.

The temple design is interpreted as a reku in the dhotis and saris of South India, and it narrates the story of the sari as a key contributor to our identity and culture. If the reku is smaller, it is referred to as pillayar moggu.



Fabrics and weaving – particularly their motifs – inspired new concepts in spiritual thinking and contemporary material culture, and also defined the course of advancement for other arts and crafts. One such motif is the manga which is ubiquitous in a kanjivaram, as well as other craft traditions around India. This motif illustrates how even the simplest shape can be put together in an extraordinary way with varied contrasts by the clever use of indigenous weaving techniques.

The Sthala Vruksham is the mango tree of the Ekambareshwar temple, the main Shaivate shrine in Kanchipuram. One can still see the fossil of a 3,500-year-old mango tree in the temple premises, whose four branches are said to have yielded four different types of mangoes. This temple is one of the pancha bhootha shrines representing the Prithvi Lingam (earth), the deity is referred to as “ekamban” (one who manifested himself as a pillar of light) and also the one who resides under a mango tree (Eka Amram).

The mango motif is a perennial favourite of craftsmen all over India. In kanjivarams, it is woven in different sizes; not just on the border and mundhanai but also as small buttas dotting the body. The motif is referred to as kalga and ambi in northern India, and the iconic paisley internationally. A legendary design, used as prints and for embroidery, the motif was a part of the Persian repertoire made famous by Mughal art and fostered in the Kani shawls of Kashmir. The mangoes of South Indian sari designs are stockier and more stylised, while the Kashmiri version and the paisley have longer curves retaining their characteristic shape.



Skanda Purana mentions that rudrakasham beads originated from the tears that Shiva shed when the tripurars were destroyed. Tripurars were devotees of Shiva, but because of their atrocities, Shiva had to destroy them. It is also mentioned in mythology that when Parvati wanted to adorn herself in jewels, Shiva reached up and rudraksha fruits fell from heaven into his hands by the dozen. And she wore them as earrings, necklaces and bangles. The commonly held belief is that the beads dispel the evil eye and avert misfortune. Rudraksha beads are considered sacred by the followers of Shaivism, and they are worn during meditation and also used a japa-malas (rosaries). Rudra is the Vedic name of Siva and Aksha means tears.

This motif looks striking when woven along the border of a sari as an accompaniment to the main thematic design. Sometimes bigger rudraksham motifs are woven in the body as buttis too. This design element is yet another example of how weaver communities assimilated attributes from the physical environment and mythology, contributing immensely to the unique identity of the regional weaving traditions that we observe today.



The pundarika or lotus has been regarded in India as a manifestation of the divine, and associated with the Goddess of wealth Lakshmi, Saraswathi and also with Brahma, the creator. Unlike the lotus motif in Varanasi brocades, in Kanchipuram it is adapted as a kamalam – a small, but stylised eight-petal floral motif which invokes the Goddess of wealth. Like in Indian classical music, a sari’s design is always governed by a certain language of form and layout, retaining the weaver’s individual expression.


The concept of showcasing flowers is inspired by common sources of art, but their visual interpretation in the kanjivaram tradition stands out. Garlands of flower petals referred to as arumbulavangapoomadhulam(pomegranate), and sampangi ( Champaka) give fluidity to designs on the borders. Thuthiripoo is a corruption of the word utharippu meaning loose flowers, and this motif is used in between border compositions, lending delicacy and elegance to the drape.



These floral creeper designs elegantly link motifs and buttis. One can see a resemblance between the floral patterns on the sari and those adorning the South Indian temple lintels. The term kodi visiri in Tamil aptly describes the gentleness, and the way the tendrils cling and wind themselves around the surrounding trees.

A kanjivaram sari displays the unique design element of the creeper, fanning out along the borders or as a pattern of the mundhanai. Their patterning styles are unique, and they are precisely and intricately represented on the drape. One can see how the shape and size of the kodi visiri motifs synchronises beautifully with the overall design and its symbolism.



As we have seen, traditional weavers frequently derive inspiration from nature and their immediate environments; animals, birds, creepers and leaves, flowers and foliage, fruits and seeds and sometimes from ancient crafts like basket weaving. The regional artist communities of South India visually captured some of the most identifiable and unique weaves from basketry. The weave referred to as a paai madi is a panoramic view of the tabby weave.

Panai maram or the palmyra tree, is native to Tamil Nadu, and the leaves of the tree are used to make baskets, fans and other objects. The thick stalk of the leaf is cut into strips and used for making baskets. The basic structure of the weave in a kottan (Chettinadu baskets) is traditionally called the gundumani weave – the basic one up- one down plain weave. In this weave, the warp and weft are aligned so that they form a simple criss-cross pattern.

The ability to plait fibres together is not new to Tamil Nadu. The fine silk mats called pattu paai of Pattamadai in Tirunelveli district  are incredibly intricate and made of a special kind of grass called korai.

We also see the basket weave in cotton lungis, referred to as  payyadi lungis, which were once exported to Southeast Asian countries. The paai madi weave in a kanjivaram usually forms part of the ground fabric of a sari, playing with colour and contrast, and is sometimes depicted richly in zari in the mundhanai.



Mokku or moggu is the Tamil word for a flower bud. The jathi malligai is a part of everyday ritual – adorning a woman’s hair, forming garlands for gods and bridal couples. Malligai poo or jasmine is the single most used flower in Tamil Nadu, and these delicate long buds are always represented as buttas on the body of a kanjivaram. Referred to as ‘rain drops’, these were traditional designs which made the art of weaving truly original, drawing on local culture.The kanjivaram sari weaves together mythology, history and culture, rooting the textile tradition in its South Indian context, and telling stories through its motifs and symbols. The plant and floral motifs we have explored in this edition of Varna Sutra are a unique tribute to the natural world. Each of these motifs, apart from its aesthetic appeal on the silken drape, also lends the sari its rich symbolism.


As we trace the origins of the Patra Pushpam motifs – from plant to weave – we are struck not only by how beautifully nature influences design, but also by the way in which the kanjivaram weave interprets nature within its own context. By juxtaposing intricately executed botanical drawings against the kanjivaram’s interpretations of them, we observe that the motif is not a literal rendition of the plant or flower, but a uniquely stylised and msore elemental version, that fits seamlessly into the kanjivaram layout and embellishment. This skilful stylisation and adaptation of the motif, to stay true to the aesthetic of the craft, is a reflection of the power of design language to retain its authenticity while drawing inspiration from diverse cultural and mythological contexts. The weaver’s sensitivity to the traditional design and grammar of the kanjivaram is evident in the artistic, beautifully abstract rendering of the natural world on the sari’s drape.


Note : This is an excerpt from the Blog I wrote for Kanakavalli

The brilliant hand illustrations and pic credit goes to Kanakavalli.

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