Warding off the evil eye: talismanic textiles

Do you have a lucky outfit, or a favorite accessory that you always wear when you have to take an exam, appear for an important interview or participate in a competition? You’re not alone! Learn about how textiles, especially in the Indian subcontinent, have long been associated with properties believed to protect wearers from bad luck, the evil eye and even physical harm.


Video transcript and image captions

To learn more about Textiles from the Indian Subcontinent, sign up for MAP Academy’s free online course

Terms to know

Shisha Embroidery
Derived from the Persian word shisheh, meaning “glass.” Also known as mirror-work, it is an embroidery technique in which small mirrors are secured to the fabric by stitching along their edges. It is believed to have originated in India in the seventeenth century, during the Mughal period. 

An embroidery tradition historically practiced and inherited by the women of Punjab in India and Pakistan. Literally meaning “flower work,” phulkari is a counting-thread embroidery recognized by its neat, regular patterns of geometric and natural motifs. Embroidery is traditionally considered an integral skill for women in the region, and phulkari garments are closely associated with major events in their lives, particularly marriage. In the medieval and colonial periods, girls would initially learn to embroider small garments like odhinis for themselves, and as they grew older, produce chaddars to be handed down to younger generations of women in their families. Phulkari shawls are often gifted on wedding days, especially by maternal relatives.

Woven in silk and originating in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Ashavali sarees feature intricate
brocade work known as kinkhwab, made using metallic gold and silver threads known as zari. The brocade weaving technique in the conventional saree length and width was adapted from that originally used in narrow strips worn as patkas in royal courts, in turbans, in canopies of royal pavilions or attached to garments.

Patan Patola
Double ikat textiles woven in silk with meticulous attention to detail, Patan patola are named after the town of Patan in Gujarat, where they are woven. Historically, these fabrics were highly coveted in parts of India and Southeast Asia. Known for their masterful weaving, sharply defined patterns with geometric layouts and richly dyed colors, patola are considered to have social and ritual significance in several communities and regions.

Above from the MAP Academy Glossary

Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest known living religions and has its origins in the distant past. It developed about three and a half thousand years ago from the ancient Indo-Iranian religion that was once shared by the ancestors of nomadic herding tribes that later settled in Iran and northern India. Zoroastrianism thus shares a common heritage with the Vedic religion of Ancient India and Hinduism. It is thought to have taken root in Central Asia during the second millennium B.C.E., and from there spread south to Iran. 

The Jain faith is one of the oldest faiths in India. Its presence is attested since the 6th–5th century BCE. This was the time when Mahāvīra preached in the eastern part of India, then known as Magadha. Since then the faith has been present on the Indian subcontinent, without any break. There is no way to historically pinpoint when it began; virtually no archaeological Jain ruins predate this time in India, but the earliest evidence there suggests that Jainism was already a well-established faith. Today the Jains form a significant minority in Indian society, even though they make up hardly one percent of the total population, and have important diaspora communities in the UK, North America, Singapore, Belgium, etc.

Hinduism is neither monotheistic nor is it polytheistic. Hinduism’s emphasis on the universal spirit, or Brahman, allows for the existence of a pantheon of divinities while remaining devoted to a particular god.

Islam was founded by Muhammad (c. 570–632 C.E.), a merchant from the city of Mecca, now in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Mecca was a well-established trading city. The Kaaba (in Mecca) is the focus of pilgrimage for Muslims.

Additional resources

Learn more about South Asian Art History from The Map Academy

Shivani Kasumra, How Talismanic Shirts Combined War and Literature (from The MAP Academy)

Avalon Fotheringham, “A Warrior’s Magic Shirt” (from the V&A)

Elizabeth Anne Haldane, “A Testament of Faith: An Indian Talismanic Shirt” (from the V&A) 



From our partner, The MAP Academy 

MAP Academy logo

Cite this page as: The MAP Academy, "Warding off the evil eye: talismanic textiles," in Smarthistory, August 17, 2022, accessed July 15, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/warding-off-the-evil-eye-talismanic-textiles/.