Textiles as Heirlooms
Textiles as Heirlooms
(Fig. 1) Tipu Sultan’s mulmul jama with gold embellishments (Victoria and Albert Museum 1968 IS).
(Fig. 1) Tipu Sultan’s mulmul jama with gold embellishments (Victoria and Albert Museum 1968 IS).

After repeated visits over the years, to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in South Kensington, in particular in the India galleries an object that caught my eye every time is a white mulmul jama with tiny embellishments done with ‘muqqaish’ or flat golden wire ¾ also known as kamdani or baadla. The label of this exhibit reads as “This robe is said to have belonged to Tipu Sultan of Mysore (d.1799), although there is only anecdotal evidence for this. The late Mughal style of the robe and its decoration do tally with an 18th-century date”.  What baffles me is that the caption remains unchanged, as if it were written about a thing of beauty, sometimes later in eighteenth century, while attempting to white-wash history. Other than “Tipoo sahib’s dressing gown brought by the late Col. William”, as provenance on the official inventory, no context is provided, nothing about the man, was he a ruler, a nobleman or just a pleb? There is nothing on the human reality behind the object, the context or the events of his life, no information about the fine fabric or its maker, or where the textile was woven, or that it was part of an industry that was deliberately eliminated and nothing about its embellishment either.

(Fig. 2) Tipu Sultan – The Tiger of Mysore.
(Fig. 2) Tipu Sultan – The Tiger of Mysore.

The ‘storming’ of Serangapatam is an event written about at length in history1. That Tipu Sultan- the ruler also known as the Tiger of Mysore, with sword in hand, was brutally killed after waging four wars over a period of thirty-two years against the East India Company, was probably the most important victory for the EIC.  An account by Baird who had set out to find and identify Tipu’s body from among the heaps of dead and injured men on the ill-fated day in 1799 wrote2 “His dress consisted of jackets of fine white linen”. Below, he wore “loose drawers of flowered silk, with crimson cloth of silk and cotton around his waist (a cummerbund), a handsome pouch with a red and green silk belt (a patka) hung over his shoulder, his head was uncovered, his turban being lost in the confusion of the fall; he had an amulet on his arm, but no ornament whatsoever”.

(Fig. 3) Tipu Sultan’s silk taveez or amulet case, worn on the fore-arm (National War Museum, Scotland M.1960.272.1)
(Fig. 3) Tipu Sultan’s silk taveez or amulet case, worn on the fore-arm (National War Museum, Scotland M.1960.272.1)

That it was a mulmul (fine white cotton) jama (tunic) almost definitely from Bengal, not a silk or zari kimkhwab (silk woven with real silver and gold wires), an ornately embroidered jacket or a prized gem or jewel that was taken by Edward (son of Robert) Clive, the governor of Madras and brought to the emperor in England as undisputed proof of Tipu’s death can perhaps best be relatable to Baird’s account of what Tipu was wearing as he went down during the final battle.  It is also interesting to note that Clive decided to take (or loot) as specimen, a used garment with no intrinsic value3, as trophy of the victorious, which is perhaps why it eventually found its way to V&A, rather than Powis Castle, that later became the repository of several invaluable Indian artifacts.

The Historic Textile Tradition

(Fig. 4) FUSTAT FRAGMENT: Indian printed trade cloth fragment found in old Cairo, (Image source: Wikimedia)

The earliest reliably dated textiles from any culture in the world were undisputedly the Indian trade textiles (including ‘Fustat fragments’, as a large number were discovered in old Cairo) found in the Indus valley and date from 3000 BCE, long before such techniques arose elsewhere. Cottonseed and fibre remains were discovered in Mehergarh (6000 B.C.) Baluchistan, and in Mohenjodaro, Sind, Pakistan where dyeing vats, clay spindles and bronze needles dated around 2500 BCE were found. Handloom and local khādī fabric further became a symbol of defiance or swaraj (self-rule) in the early 20th century and a notable part of the Indian independence movement. Hand-spun and woven textiles and ornamentation hold major cultural significance to the sub-continental societies, even today. The unstitched or draped cloth continues to hold importance during rituals and worship for Hindus, just as for Muslims it is the prescribed attire ihram for Hajj, while the funeral shroud for both communities is usually uncut unstitched raw cotton cloth.

The tradition of textile exchange in the sub-continent dates back to centuries. Gifts of clothing attended every major life cycle ritual in preindustrial society, and the creation of political alliances among Hindu and Muslims kings, alike. Textiles served as symbols of power when the conquering emperor would send a set of garments to the ‘conquered’. To immediately give a used (even if worn only once) set of clothing, belonging to the victorious emperor, to the other side was a symbol of protection, (and wearing them, the ultimate form of submission). No such garments were ever bestowed to the marauding English side, but in the knowledge of this age-old tradition, Clive’s seemingly trivial act is historically very significant.

Textiles and clothes have historically symbolized status and hence the private ateliers or karkhanas of emperors, produced fabric and garments exclusively for the royal families.  For instance the very finest white cotton meant exclusively for royalty was the mulmul e khaas.  Dress also recorded a change of status or rank (as in armies); its `transformative’ use, in which the moral and physical being of the wearer/recipient was perceived to be actually changed by the innate qualities of the cloth or the spirit and substance it conveyed; and its use as a pledge of future protection4.

The word ‘khilat’ derives from Farsi, Arabic and Hebrew and originally meant something passed on, especially a cast-off garment. However, even new textiles or garments, fell in this category. A textile might be a token of friendship, as in the case of dupatta-badal behen (a close friend with whom an exchange of scarves signifies the status of a sister), or an alliance such as a wedding, an expression of gratitude, respect or as remembrance of a significant event.  Rulers and important persons traditionally bestowed numerous Khilats on special occasions like births, birthdays, accession to the throne, and even death5. Many important Mughal miniatures illustrate such practices, when the king or crown prince was weighed against gold and silver objects and textiles of real gold zari, on their solar and lunar birthdays, which were then divided among faqirs and the needy.

My grandmother, in her journal, recounts how the ruler of Bhopal, Her Highness Sultan Jahan Begum, on the occasion of the birth of her granddaughter Princess Sajida Sultan in 1915, distributed khilat to the wives of all the officials at court, where at the time her own father was Accountant General.

(Fig. 5) Source: Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri ca 1615 (Copyrights: Trustees of the British Museum 22779001)

Bestowing clothing can also figuratively or literally transfer a condition such as authority or a contagious air and dust-borne disease like small pox. The tradition of investiture of textiles or garments was popular in ancient Greece (at times to immunize babies and children against epidemics), and in the Islamic world long before the Sultanate or the Mughal period.  However, in Iranian-influenced cultures like Mughal India, fine garments given in political settings established relationship between the superior giver and the recipient, whose acceptance acknowledged submission, establish hierarchy or continued succession. Gifts of apparel might draw on one or all of these functions.  On the contrary, the refusal of a textile bestowed among friends could be seen as an affront or insult whereas refusing the same from a monarch would have been considered treason.

(Fig. 6) 15-16 ca woven cotton vest, inscribed in ink and gold Collection: Victoria and Albert Museum T 59 1935

However, one could never be sure of the true spirit of a khilat. Deadly khilat tales and myths are aplenty, and literature that explores them explains6 that poison laden textiles were used on rivals when intertwined social expectations were accidentally or deliberately inverted or overturned, as in biblical tales and Greek legends. Khilats of note also include fifteenth and sixteenth century talismanic vests from the Sultanate, Mughal and Ottoman periods where prayers and entire verses from the Quran were written in the tradition of illuminated manuscripts, with calligraphic medallions on the chest and shoulders. These delicate inscribed woven cotton vests would be worn under battle dress for protection. Its quite probable that for reasons of longevity, prayers were later inscribed minutely or as representative numerals on smaller and smaller pieces of fabric and encased in silver amulets or taveez worn around the neck or in the hair and/or the upper left arm close to the heart, as in the case of Tipu Sultan of Mysore.

Textiles as components of Rites and Rituals

In the subcontinent even today the gift of textiles on the occasion of birth and marriage is de rigueur.  The mother of the bride and groom often receive gifts of clothing on the occasion from close friends and family members as ‘hath bharey ka jora’.  This ostensibly commemorates the consolidation and extension of the family through marriage. Clothing, jewelry and food are considered the most important components of wedding rituals.  Joras or ensembles stitched or otherwise are given by the family of the girl for the groom to wear on the wedding day, and a whole variety of them (no less in value than what is being given in the girl’s own dowry) are presented to the in-laws, as ‘lain-dain’ or ‘give and take’, a practice clearly symbolic of the sustenance of any new relationship. The quality and quantity of the same was considered an acknowledgement of the status of the groom’s family, a courtesy and somewhat of an insurance towards how the new bride would be welcomed in the home of her in-laws. These gift-giving obligations continue with births, deaths and occasions during marital life.

An informal conversation many years ago with an elderly friend of the family, who was of Mughal lineage, described that brides in their family traditionally wore plain red silk kurta and farshi pajamas on their wedding (nikah) day, but that they were laden with the entire jewelry in their dowry from head to toe, as if to confirm the gold wealth (and security) that the girl was bringing with her.  However, for the valima or the feast hosted by the groom’s family on the following day they wore the clothes brought by the groom’s family, and appropriate jewels.

(Fig. 7) Begum Sajida Sultan of Bhopal later the Begum of Pataudi - Copyrights: K L Syed & co. 1938-40

The production of wedding trousseaus in the sub continent began the day a girl was born, and under instructions from their mothers and grandmothers, she would learn how to embroider, stitch and sew and produce a range of linen and homeware including bed covers, table runners and handkerchiefs.  The silver and the crockery would also begin to be ordered and collected over the years, and carefully put away in the hope-chest. As girls approached marriage the first point of reference for them remained the heirloom trunks of their mothers and grand mothers.  As the old wedding paraphernalia was examined, in a number of instances the daughters would end up wearing the wedding clothes of their mothers, or even their grand mothers, with some reinforcement and refreshing of the real zari (made with real silver & gold plated wire) gota and kinari (gold ribbons and lace). And any number of new ensembles custom made at the workshops of karigars largely took inspiration from embellishments of family heirlooms. Thus the girl on the threshold of womanhood adopted the ‘style’ of female family members, albeit with adaptations.

This practice continued till the early part of the 20th century when fashion or trends began to emerge, which also began to behighlighted in the nascent print media. Magazines like the monthly Mirror (1951-1972) which started out as a social magazine not only carried some of these trends in society pages but also included photographs of newly wed couples, while advertisements were restricted to hair oils, soaps and creams.

By the late 1960s ‘self-trained’ designers appeared on the scene, these were middle and upper middle class women with a refined aesthetic, who set up workshops and employed tailors and kaam walas, and began producing formal and bridal wear and trousseaus.  Other than being trendsetters and having vast networks that were the source of their clientele they successfully patronised the preservation of old craft forms. It may be recalled here that in the late 19th century Lahore together with its sister city of Amritsar were established centres for real zari embroidery, as has been documented by Vandhana Bhandari; and Karachi by then had had a large influx of migrant karigars from UP, with refined skills in zardozi or embroidery in silver and gold thread, once popular on masnads (floor-coverings) and royal tents, saddle covers and elephant howdahs, as it did on clothing once the preserve of kings, nawabs and nobility. One is lucky to find even today, a very small number of craftsmen who trace their lineage to the karkhanas of Delhi and Lucknow, and observing their skills of ‘shahi kaam’, it appears very much attached to their DNA.

Textiles and the Social Contract

Gifts of clothing remained top of the list of items brought home by the rising number of Pakistani migrants and workers abroad, with an emphasis on the famed do-ghora boski of Chinese origin, English woolen suit-lengths and foreign saris for kinsmen and women, thus ‘objectifying’ social relationships as observed by Emma Tarlo7 and other anthropologists.  As she notes, “Gifts of clothing bind together individuals and groups, ratifying agreements, confirming commitments, ascribing social value and protecting future interests”.  Thus the chain of social relationships in the sub-continent is built via textiles.

As advertising took centre stage in the decades of 1970s and 1980s and print media became the harbinger of international trends and together with television and film (particularly Bollywood via satellite) had a great influence on how women wanted to present themselves or project their self-image.  Not much different from the rest of the world, this led to revolutionary changes in the wardrobe of Pakistani women who consciously or otherwise embraced ‘fashion’ which compelled them to constantly change the image that they aspired to.  More recently, the herald of social media platforms has accelerated this phenomenon at a dizzying pace.  What started off as a window into the lives of celebrities and stars, has seen the individual transform themselves and transition into the choice-spot of the celebrity, rather than a mere follower. The self has willingly taken the spot light and clothing has become ‘costume’, once the preserve of stage.

(Fig. 8) Sharmila Tagore & Nawab Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi at their wedding Dec 1969

This change in pace led to high street or ‘fast-fashion’ or what some of us saw as disposable clothing, which currently is being re-evaluated globally. In recent times there has been an almost obsessive preoccupation of people with weddings and wedding garments, and the planning and at times ‘theatrical’ production of which begins months prior to the actual nuptials, and at times even well before a proposal of marriage. The rare practice of wearing heirlooms continues sporadically by the brave amongst us, can best be explained as anti-trend. Heirlooms were notably highlighted more recently when Kareena Kapur married Saif Ali Khan of Pataudi, and opted to wear her grand mother-in-law Begum Sajida Sultan of Bhopal’s elaborate wedding farshi gharara (which had also been worn by Saif’s mother), albeit restored and rejuvenated by the couture queen Ritu Singh, a pioneer of heritage inspired clothing who has done extensive research and published books on the subject.  The spirit behind this appeared to be in equal measure, a confirmation of succession, as it was the traditional practice to invoke the blessings of ancestors.

(Fig. 9) Saif Ali Khan & Kareena Kapoor at their wedding

Though the era of kings and noblemen is now gone, and exceptional handwork is no longer the preserve of any class of people, fashion has taken over the patronage of look-alike embellishment in varying price ranges, depending on the patrons and their ability to spend.  Newer copies of zardozi are now done in copper and steel wire, and glass and plastic beads glued on for 3-D effects have now replaced gems and precious stones and the vast variety of hand stitches once done with couching and flattening techniques. The ‘pastel bridal’ outfits in an ocean of same-ness, with mermaid cuts and fish-tails and over-the-top crystal and machine embellishment costing 6 or 7 figures are a case in point.  These ‘fancy’ dresses may seem to be on-trend but have very little value or use, after the event; thus relegating these extravagant costumes into the ‘disposable’ category.

Every now and again there is a faint revival of interest in clothes with the traditional handwork, especially when there is an orient inspired runway collection seen at Dior, Versace or Chanel; some sort of perceived validation from direction West, coercing them to re-consider the value of their own inimitable heritage, with or without the context.


  1. Mainly from a western perspective
  2. Letter Baird wrote to Gen Harris, ‘The Despatches, Minutes and Correspondence of Marquis Wellesley’, as quoted by William Dalrymple, Anarchy , page 360.
  3. Tipu Sultan’s famous octagonal throne covered in gold sheath, with tiger-head finials and the Huma bird atop, was immediately dismantled and divided as booty by Wellesley’s officers.
  4. The English equivalent terms would be ‘to give the shirt off one’s back’ or ‘to vest power’ .
  5. In Muslim tradition on the fortieth day, few used clothes of the deceased are given to close family members and a number of newer unstitched one are distributed among the destitute.
  6. Maskiell, Michelle & Mayor, Adrienne, 2001/01/01, Killer Khilats, Part 1: Legends of Poisoned “Robes of Honour” in India and Part II: Imperial collecting of Poison Dress Legends in India
  7. Emma Tarlo, ‘Clothing Matters’, Dress and Identity in India.

Fatma Shah is a freelance consultant with more than twenty years experience in Economic Development and Finance. Since 2018 she has been a volunteer curator at APWA Crafts with a motivation to revive interest and promote a wide range of artisanal products. In 2010 she formed Jadeed, an arts management platform, and has curated a few exhibitions and events.  Having a keen interest in art, literature and cultural heritage she occasionally writes about the visual arts and artists, cultural heritage and reviews books in her areas of interest.

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