The community-based production of handcrafted textiles across the Indian subcontinent has fostered generations-long engagement with techniques and materials that are rooted in the ancient caste system, a hierarchical social order that accords communities with specific jatis or castes based on their traditional occupations. This system enforced strict demarcations, confining people to their designated social groups, professions, and status.
Over the years, the centuries-old caste-based division of labor has continued to underpin the formal arrangements of textile practices that emerged as a response to increasing commercial demands, overseas trade, and royal patronage. We see this most prominently in the 16th and 17th centuries when establishments such as karkhanas or imperial workshops and weavers’ associations reorganized prevailing systems of textile production, granting groups of artisans better access to raw materials, new technologies, and, ultimately, greater economic and social mobility. In this topic, we explore two examples that emerged simultaneously in different parts of the subcontinent.
Mughal karkhanas: cross-cultural interactions
While karkhanas were operating in the Indian subcontinent since the 13th-century Tughlaq dynasty, textile production in these workshops became especially popular during the time of the Mughal emperor, Akbar, in the 16th century. Akbar set up karkhanas in Lahore, Agra, and Ahmedabad, which hosted entire communities of weavers, embroiderers, dyers, and printers who produced textiles exclusively for the needs of nobility as well as for trade. In these workshops, artisans were provided with the tools, equipment, raw materials, and capital to produce exquisite silks, Pashminas, and muslins, among other textiles. Master weavers were invited from other regions, especially Safavid Iran, to train these local artisans in specialized techniques such as brocade and carpet weaving. The karkhanas effectively served as spaces that encouraged the exchange of ideas and technical practices among artisans of diverse backgrounds. These interactions led to valuable innovations and prominent cross-cultural influences that reflected in the making and the appearance of the textiles. Brocade and carpet designs produced by the Mughals, for instance, were aesthetically similar to Safavid textiles depicting Persianate motifs, such as hunting scenes (shikargah), scrolling vines, and other floral designs. These textiles became so popular within and outside the subcontinent that textiles soon became the most valued commodities in the karkhana system—which also produced a range of craft items, manuscripts, and paintings—and one of the most important sources of revenue for Mughal rulers.
Weavers’ associations: hubs of urban development
Around the same time, southern India saw the emergence of a very different system of work for textile artisans. Here, the Vijayanagara, Chola, and Nayaka rulers encouraged several communities of weavers to migrate to the newly built towns in their kingdoms, offering them patronage and residential spaces to live and work. These migrant weaver communities settled around important temples, which eventually formed the locus of the town’s cultural and social life. As a result, the history of these South Indian towns is intricately linked to the emergence of weavers’ associations. These groups loosely resembled workers’ guilds, controlling the production and trade of certain crafts and representing the political, social, and economic interests of their members in courts and markets. Weavers’ associations functioned in similar ways, providing raw material, training, and financial assistance to weaving communities. In addition to producing textiles for their royal patrons, they were also commissioned by priests to weave for temple deities, a task that granted them upward social mobility.
Their proximity to the temples further inspired them to incorporate decorative elements from temple architecture into their textiles, including motifs such as Yali, Rudraksh, and temple borders. Furthermore, these associations facilitated networks of communication between master weavers and merchants, allowing textile artisans to participate directly in domestic and overseas trade. Over time, these associations contributed to the transformation of these towns from religious centers into hubs of commerce, trade, and urban life.
Factors such as migration, patronage, and trade have influenced many forms of existing, caste-based textile practices across the Indian subcontinent. In addition to the literal reorganization of labor, these influences can also be evidenced by cross-cultural confluences in technology, technique, and design vocabulary. Contemporary systems of work in the subcontinent have evolved across generations, with aspects of their structures and pedagogical setups dating back centuries. While the intergenerational nature of such community-based textile production has encouraged distinct relationships between makers and their practices and has kept age-old traditions alive, its ties to the caste system have also resulted in the severe economic and social marginalization of certain textile communities that have been deemed “lower caste.”
Discrimination on the basis of caste was legally abolished in India in 1950, and newer generations of some textile communities have begun to move away from their inherited occupations in pursuit of better opportunities. Despite the legal measures taken to safeguard the rights of marginalized groups, however, the caste system continues to be prevalent in the subcontinent, impacting the economic and social lives of several communities. Regardless, textile artisans also remain preservers of ancient traditions and practices, with many taking pride in the inimitability, complexity, and uniqueness of their work.
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Drawing from articles on The MAP Academy