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V&A Publishing

Muslin in India

fig. x Embroidery on an abba (detail). Kerman, 1850–70. V&A: 1299–1874.

Fabled muslin

The fineness of the cloths is difficult to describe, the skin of the moon removed by the executioner-star would not be so fine. One would compare it with a drop of water if that drop fell against nature, from the fount of the sun. A hundred yards of it can pass through the eye of the needle, so fine is its texture, and yet the point of the steel needle can pierce through it with difficulty. It is so transparent and light that it looks as if one is in no dress at all but has only smeared the body with pure water. Thus wrote the fourteenth century Indian Sufi poet and scholar Ab’ul Hasan Yamīn ud-Dīn Khusrow about Indian muslin. This is a textile woven through the culture of the subcontinent. The Sanskrit epic Mahabharata mentions that gifts brought to Yudhisthira, included muslins from Ganjam, the Carnatic and Mysore. Court costumes at the court of Emperor Harsha, who ruled northern India from 606-647 CE, were described by the Indian poet Bīabhaīa (Bana) in the seventh century; they included muslin robes decorated with flower and bird motifs. Stone sculptures from as early as the second century represent figures in

transparent, clinging fabrics that reveal the both the body beneath and the sculptor’s skill. The legendary presence of muslin is also recorded in the tales of travellers and historians from at least the fourth century BCE. Megasthenes, the Greek historian and ambassador to court of Chandragupta Maurya who conquered and united most of the subcontinent, wrote of the Indians whose ‘robes are worked in gold and ornamented with precious stones, and they wear also flowered garments made of the finest muslin and richly flowered muslin’ and of Indian ‘philosophers’ who, after living as ascetics for 37 years, ‘array themselves in fine muslin, and wear trinkets of gold on their fingers and in their ears’. The Chinese traveller Yuan Chwang (Hsien Tsiang), visiting India in the first century CE described cloth compared to the light vapours of dawn. In the ninth century, two Arabian travellers recorded that in India, ‘they make Cotton Garments in so extraordinary a manner, that no where else are the like to be seen’, adding that, ‘These garments are … wove to that degree of fineness that they may be drawn through a Ring of a middling size.‘


fig. x Abba. 1850–70. V&A: 1299–1874.

External trade

The author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea mentioned trade by Arab and Greek merchants between India and the Red Sea port of Aduli and beyond to Egypt and Ethiopia in the second century CE. He notes that cloth including muslins was exchanged for ivory, tortoiseshell and rhinoceros-horn. Barygaza (Bharuch, Gujarat), an ancient port for luxury goods, exported calicoes, muslins and other cottons, both plain and ornamented with flowers, made in both the local region and in more remote provinces of India. Near the river Ganges, he wrote, there is a market town of the same name; Through this place are brought malabathrum [the leaf of Cinnamomum tamala, used as a cooking spice] and Gangetic spikenard [a variety of valerian, used in Ayurvedic medicine and in perfume] and pearls, and muslins of the finest sorts, which are called Gangetic. The hand-made textiles of Bengal were traditionally made for local markets, but before the arrival of European merchants a substantial secondary trade catered to other markets both within and beyond India. The Romans expanded trade with India, sending as many as 120 ships a year to Indian ports. At Arikamedu, in south eastern India, ’certain commodities such as muslin were manufactured … presumably to Roman taste and specifications’. Bengal muslins were given such poetic names as textile venti (woven winds) and nebula (mist). So much was spent on such luxury goods in the Roman period that Pliny the Elder, like the Victorians later on, complained about the drain of bullion to India; hoards of the gold coins used by Romans to buy goods have been found in the Deccan and south India. After the Muslim invasions of India, the trade with Arabia increased, and ships sailed regularly

from Bengal to Jeddah, port for the holy city of Mecca and its pilgrim fairs. In the early fifteenth century, another Chinese voyager, Ma Huan mentioned ‘five or six varieties of fine stuffs’ after visiting Bengal and that Bengal muslins were highly prized in China. A hundred years later, the Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires recorded that Bengal muslins were exported to Thailand and China. John Guy notes that at Pagan in Burma, (Myanmar) mural paintings of the eleventh to fourteenth centuries show princely figures dressed in ‘fine diaphanous white fabric [which] is presumably the much-prized Bengali muslin’, and very fine, draping

fabrics that may be muslin are represented in sculptures in different parts of SouthEast and East Asia. Large quantities of muslin were also exported to the Middle East, most of which was under Ottoman rule from the sixteenth century onwards. Most notably, muslin was favoured for the turbans worn in different styles by the Sultan and by many Ottoman officials; the word ‘turban’ is derived from tülbent, the Turkish name for muslin. Some large turbans survive in museum collections or on tombs, either in cloth (often, though, re-made in more recent times), or copied in stone, and also appear in many illustrated manuscripts.

fig. x Embroidery on an abba (detail). Kerman, 1850–70. V&A: 1299–1874. fig. x Embroidery on an abba (detail). Kerman, 1850–70. V&A: 1299–1874.


Documentary evidence for the Indian textile trade to the Ottoman Empire begins in 1476, a period when traders from the Middle East and South Asia could move freely in the Indian Ocean, before the arrival of the Portuguese. The earliest records refer to Deccani merchants in Turkey, but one European traveller reported that as many as 400 Turkish merchants were based at Diu (Bandar-i Rum) when he was there between 1503 and 1508, and he saw others in Surat. Soon after, though, the Portuguese came to dominate shipping and the movement of textiles, mostly through the Persian Gulf. Muslin was certainly among these textiles: for example, the customs regulations for the Iraqi port of Basra, drawn up after the Ottoman conquest in 1546, mention the import of muslins, including those of the highest quality. At first, the Ottomans attempted to oust the Portuguese, allying themselves with the Sultan of Gujarat and others, but after 1550 they grudgingly accepted their presence. In the early seventeenth century, Dutch and British shipping entered this maritime trade, often sailing via the Red Sea route, while an overland route through Qandahar and Isfahan, used particularly by Armenian merchants from Iran, took Indian goods including textiles to Aleppo in northern Syria. One reflection of their efforts is found in an official inventory of all the goods available on the Istanbul market in 1640, carried out as part of an attempt to control prices. This lists more than 20 types of muslin in some detail. The first, which had gilt decoration, was of exceptional quality, noted as “suitable for the Sultan”; the piece or pieces examined were one cubit and three “knots” wide and 24 cubits long and weighed 116 dirhams, and the very best were valued at 1,600 silver pence. As with the Romans, Indian textile


exports were on a scale that caused some Ottomans concern that more money was flowing out to India to buy muslin and other goods, than was returned from sales of merchandize to India. Some alleviation of the trade deficit came about when demand for cotton in Europe stimulated production for export in the Anatolian and Syrian provinces of the Ottoman Empire, where cotton had been produced from the Roman era. Nonetheless, the Ottoman weaving industry could not compete with the expensive, fine quality Indian muslins which always found buyers among the upper classes. In 1616 Sir Thomas Roe (1581-1644), ambassador to the court of the ‘Great Mughal’ Emperor Jahangir, mentioned the ‘fyne’ cloth of Bengal traded by the Portuguese, and described the Emperor’s ‘Coate of Cloth of gould without sleeues vpon a fine Semian (possibly a vest) as thin as Lawne’. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-89), a dealer in luxury goods and informal ambassador from Louis XIV to the court of the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan, made six voyages to Asia between 1637 and 1668. He reported that the Persian ambassador in India presented the Shah on his return to Persia with ‘a coco-nut the size of an ostrich’s egg, enriched with precious stones; and when it was opened a turban was drawn from it 60 cubits [approximately 60 metres] in length, of a muslin so fine that you would scarcely know what it was that you held in your hand’. Ladies at the French court were later astonished to see ‘a thread so delicate, which almost escaped from view’. Francois Bernier (1620-1688), a physician who travelled to Bengal with Tavernier in 1665, and found a position at the court of the Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi, noted that Bengal supplied not only India, but the Middle East and Europe with textiles:

‘There is in Bengale such a quantity of cotton and silks, that the kingdom may be called the common storehouse for those two kinds of merchandise, not of Hindoustan or the Empire of the Great Mogul only, but of all the neighbouring kingdoms, and even of Europe. ‘ Bernier noted that there was a large trade in Bengali cotton to ‘the whole Mogol Empire, as far as Lahor and Cabol’, and as far as Japan, ‘which the Hollanders alone export’.


The most detailed account in English of muslin production was written in 1851 by James Taylor, who supplied Bengali muslins to the Great Exhibition. Subsequent accounts rely heavily on Taylor, including John Forbes Watson, in his accompanying text to The Collections of the Textile Manufactures of India. Taylor in turn used Edward Baines’ 1835 history of the British cotton industry. He also used personal observation and the official records to which he had had access as Resident, or chief, of the East India Company factory at Dacca (modern Dhaka). Nineteenthcentury writers were very much concerned with classifying and quantifying, revelling in the statistics of production, trade and measurements of quality, although Watson, in a companion volume, also attempted to identify systematically how muslin was used in India, listing different kinds of muslin turban for example, who wore them, their colours, methods of winding them and even the number of folds. Forbes Watson’s volumes are the most comprehensive collection of Indian muslins then in production. Watson (1827-1892, who became Reporter for the Products of India at the India Office in London, determined on making systematic collections of the

fig. x Embroidery on an abba (detail). Kerman, 1850–70. V&A: 1299–1874.



Sample pages from Muslin, by Sonia Ashmore. Published November 2012. ISBN 9781851777143