Containers of confluence: imagery on painted and printed textiles

Have you ever looked at a piece of cloth and wondered how its design came to be? Most patterns and motifs we see on many textiles today have far reaching histories that transcend geographic boundaries.


Video transcript and image captions

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Terms to know

A textile tradition where cotton textiles are traditionally hand-painted with pictorial narratives through a bamboo pen known as kalam, kalamkari emerged across the Coromandel coast in southern India and the state of Andhra Pradesh has long been considered its focal centre. Concentrated largely around the town of Srikalahasti, kalamkari’s other major centers of production include Machilipatnam (formerly Masulipatnam) and Madurai. While the exact point of origin for kalamkari remains unknown, the oldest surviving samples of the craft are dated from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. 

One of the two major ancient Indian epics written in Sanskrit, it is believed to have been composed by Valmiki in c. 300 B.C.E. It narrates the life of the Hindu god Rama, detailing his fourteen year exile in the forest, the kidnapping of his wife Sita by the king of Lanka, Ravana, and his triumphant return to Ayodhya after the defeat of Ravana.

The longest Indian epic poem, traditionally attributed to the legendary sage Vyasa and compiled into its extant recension sometime between the 3rd century B.C.E. and 3rd century C.E. The narrative was originally composed in Sanskrit and is divided into eighteen parvas (books).

A fine variety of yarn obtained from the fleece of Changthangi goats native to Mongolia, China, Nepal and Ladakh, pashmina—originating from the Persian pashm, meaning “wool”—is also known as cashmere, an anglicized name for Kashmir where the fibre was woven into shawls. Pashmina is substantially warmer, softer and lighter than sheep wool, making it a luxury material for durable apparel worn in cold climates.

The process of stamping designs and patterns on base fabrics such as cotton or silk using dye-soaked, hand-carved wooden blocks. The technique is central to a variety of printing traditions across India in which blocks are used to create a range of designs composed of floral and religious motifs, geometric forms, and calligraphy. 

A deity in the Hindu pantheon regarded as the creator of the universe, he is a part of the trimurti along with Shiva and Vishnu. He is traditionally represented with four faces and four arms, holding an alms bowl, prayer beads as well as a book. His consort is the deity of knowledge, Saraswati.

From The MAP Academy Glossary

Additional resources

To learn more about South Asian Art History, visit The MAP Academy

Sylvia Houghteling, “Painting with Dyes in Early Modern South Asia” (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Indian Chintz: A Legacy of Luxury (from the V&A)

The Floral Fabric that was Banned (from the BBC)

Chintz, calico, pyjamas: How India’s Indian Ocean textile trade rose in the east and set in the west


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Cite this page as: The MAP Academy, "Containers of confluence: imagery on painted and printed textiles," in Smarthistory, August 17, 2022, accessed June 14, 2024,