In those days when there was no discovery channel or BBC; people learnt about distant lands through the travels of brave travelers who undertook perilous journey across thousands of miles. Travelling was certainly not easy in those days when there were no airplanes, motor vehicles or diesel powered ships. Travelling was also not possible through personal endeavor only; often travelers undertook voyage under the patronage or sponsorship of religious institutions or funding from Kings. For these travelers who mainly travelled on foot, caravans or by ships, India was always a favored destination for number of reasons. Stories of the great wealth of India had reached far and wide, the abundance of Buddhist literature and monasteries also invited the travelers to come to India. So we may say India was an attractive destination because of both material and spiritual reason, and thus we find a number of travelers visiting India at different times. Hsüan-tsang, Ibn Batuta, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, Francois Bernier all visited India in different times and left for us a reliable picture of life in India in those times.
It was a pleasant morning in February 2010 when we visited the Baronagar temples. A couple of hours of boat-journey along the Ganges brought us from a ‘ghat’ near Hazardurai, Lalbagh to that of Baronagar. After a short climb to the shore, the magnificent sight of neatly kept four-temples complex—famously known as ‘Char Bangla’—came into our view. More were to follow.
Working in Gujarat in social development
Baluchari sarees are hand-woven in richly dyed silk, depicting stories from ancient India, including from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The famous characters of Ram, Sita, Krishna and Gopis are displayed exuberantly along the borders, and whole scenes are presented on the large pallus. Some designs include kings, noblemen and graceful dancing girls with celebratory scenes and ceremonies.
The tradition of Baluchari Sarees originates from a village called Baluchar in Murshidabad District in West Bengal. Over two hundred years ago Murshidkuli Khan, the Nawab of Bengal patronized this weaving tradition and the Baluchari art flourished. Over the years there was decline in Baluchar and many weavers gave up the profession. In the twentieth century, Subho Tagore, a famous artist, made efforts to revitalise the rich tradition of Baluchari weaving. He showed Akshay Kumar Das, a weaver of Bishnupur, the technique of jacquard machine weaving. Akshay Kumar Das then began using the Baluchari designs to weave sarees in Bishnupur with jacquard looms.
Baluchari styles are now part of the weaving tradition of the town Bishnupur. Bishnupur was the capital of the Malla dynasty and different kinds of crafts flourished under the patronage of the Kings. Bishnupur is also famous for the terracotta temples of the Malla Kings. The temples are covered in detailed scenes that are a major influence for the designs and motifs of Baluchari sarees.
The Baluchari saree designs are first sketched and then copied on to punching cards which are used in the jacquard loom to weave the pattern. The cards have punched holes which correspond to the design. Thousands of punched cards are required for one saree design. Where there is a hole punched this raises a hook carrying the warp thread to be woven with the weft thread. These hooks can be connected to more than one thread, allowing multiple weaving of a repeat of a pattern.
The vivid colours, intricate fine silk designs and deep traditions combine to create the elegant beauty of the unique Baluchari Sarees.
Photographs by the author.
Gautam Patel graduated from London School of Economics in Development Management, which included a study of local governance in rural West Bengal. Currently working in Gujarat in social development. Email firstname.lastname@example.org