Textiles, South Asian

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The large geographic region of South Asia consists of many diverse nations, each distinguished by their varied religions, geographic and climatic conditions, peoples, and diverse cultural, economic, and political and social dynamics. The countries that constitute South Asia are: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. (Tibet, administratively an "autonomous region" of China, is also usually included.)

Throughout recorded history, textiles have played an important role in the social, cultural, and economic life of South Asia. Cotton, as well as many dye plants, is native to the Indian subcontinent, facilitating the development of many textile techniques. Distinctive dress forms evolved from lengths of unstitched cloth. Furthermore, much of this region lies along or occupies great historic sea and land trade routes whereby textile products were disseminated along with great cultural exchange and the spread of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.


Bangladesh historically occupied an important position linking trade between South and Southeast Asia. Its cottons were traded throughout Asia, Persia, and Africa. Once largely Buddhist and Hindu, beginning in the thirteenth century, the country became predominantly Muslim. Bengal (the region now divided between Bangladesh and India's West Bengal Province) was affected politically and economically by the arrival of the British East India Company in the eighteenth century, which led to increased religious, economic, and political polarization and class conflicts. East Bengal became independent (as East Pakistan) in 1947, and broke away to become the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971.

Bangladesh has long been famous for its high-quality woven cottons, silks, and jute production. Especially famous were the ultra-fine muslins of Dahka (or Dacca). Plain, striped, checked, and figured saris woven of fine muslin threads were often given poetic names to describe their cobweb-like lightness and softness. Jamdanis are figured cloths, where small images are woven or inlaid in an embroidery-like weaving technique called discontinuous supplementary weft. Equally famous silk brocade saris have also been woven in present-day Bangladesh.

In rural areas, there were varieties of tribal backstrap weavings formed into clothing. Two-piece clothing worn by women, consisted of the mekhala, or saronglike lower-body wrap, and the riah, or upper-body breast cloth. Women also wove and wore chaddar, or head cover/shawls. Men wore the dhoti, or loin cloth, a shoulder wrap and occasionally a simple untailored jacket stitched from several pieces of hand-loomed fabric.

The kantha is a famous embroidered textile from Bangladesh and Bengal. Made from layers of worn saris and dhotis, these thin blankets were embroidered with figures and scenes of everyday and religious life, then quilted in tiny white stitches. Although kantha vary in style and color scheme by region, a characteristic feature is a central lotus medallion.


Pakistan is an ancient land with a fascinating multicultural history. Remains of woven and dyed cottons have been found among the third millennium b.c.e. Indus Valley settlements located in present-day Punjab and Sind regions.

Many ethnic and tribal groups of Pakistan wear slightly varying garments of vastly different names. There are numerous names for head covers, upper body garments, and lower. From the Sind area, a woman's embroidered headcloth is named bochini or abocchnai; in Punjab all-over embroidered headcloths in geometric patterns were phulkari bagh or chope, while the figured embroidered ones were called sainchi. Women generally wear three-piece sets consisting of drawstring-waisted salwar (sometimes spelled shalwar), long over-tunics variously called kameez, pushk, or cholo, and head covers. A long embroidered wedding blouse is called guj or chola, depending on the region and community. Men formerly wore the kurta, a collarless long-sleeved upper body garment over salwar drawstring trousers, or over the lunghi, a sarong-style lower-body garment. In the twenty-first century, men typically wear Western-style trousers. The malir, or bhet or bukhano (depending on the community) was an important male wedding cloth that could be worn over the shoulder or as a turban. In cooler regions of both India and Pakistan, men wear an outer coat called choga.


This vast landmass is home to numerous languages, religions, tribal groups, and diverse communities. Cotton is native to India, as are many dye plants including indigo and madder, and the cultures of India have produced exceptional skills and creativity in textile arts. Due to India's religions, social customs, textile skills and products, hereditary castes of crafts workers, and the role of women in producing dowry textiles, the textile arts and diverse forms of Indian dress are distinctive, impressive, numerous, and ancient. Specific forms of dress, employing characteristic textiles, were intricately intertwined with and dictated by factors such as region, urban or rural setting, caste and social station, ceremony or religious activity, and historical time period.

Trade, invasions, and imperialism brought many changes to Indian culture, including textiles and dress. The introduction of Islam beginning in the thirteenth century, and the establishment of the Delhi-based Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century, brought new types of fabric and new garments. Rich dress and splendid outward appearance was preferred, and the Mughals rewarded their administrators and loyal military staff with lavish dress. Simultaneously, in the fifteenth century, Europeans opened sea routes that challenged the longstanding routes of Arab traders who had heretofore monopolized the trade between Asia and Europe. The Portuguese established themselves in south India and made Goa the seat of their power and trade. The Dutch Netherlands East India Company understood the intrinsic aesthetic and symbolic value of Indian textiles and utilized them in exchange for spices with present-day Indonesia. Textiles played an important ritual role in many of the diverse cultures of the East Indies islands, and so Indian trade textiles (for example, the silk ikat known as patola cloth) were in strong demand there. The British East India Company traded largely between India and England, and eventually established British domination of the subcontinent, exerting power in part through subservient local rulers. Maharajas (kings), maharanis (queens), and their Islamic counterparts, the Nawabs, demanded elaborate courtly dress to declare their elite status. These courts generated large demands for woven silks, gold and silver brocades, embroideries, and jewels. Wealthy merchants and traders also dressed in similar splendid style.

British rule in India, and its economic effects, had a profound impact on Indian-made cotton, textiles and clothing. Homespun thread and yarn was displaced by imported British factory-spun thread, while foreign markets for traditional Indian cotton trade goods, such as muslin and chintz, were also undercut by British manufacturing might and discriminatory trade rules. One tactic of Indian nationalist opposition to British rule in the early twentieth century sought to counter the domination of British mill-woven goods in favor of self-reliance through making and buying Indian khaddar (handspun, hand-loomed cottons) and other hand-made goods. Factors intrinsic to local culture also led to the preservation of many textile types and techniques.

In both India and Pakistan, marriages are occasions for the production of ceremonial and decorative textiles and special dress. In northwest India and twenty-first-century eastern Pakistan, textiles and dress are important items in the dowry that a bride brings to her new home. Brides' families prepared decorative textiles such as torans (doorway hangings), chaklas (decorative squares), dhraniyo (quilt covers), and quilts called rilli as part of the dowry. New clothing sets were also made, including the garments to be worn for the marriage ceremony.

Early records show that textiles were closely linked with ritual and purity, and early texts describe unisex upper- and lower-body garments of hand-loomed, wrapped cloth, as well as tailored garments. Woven cotton, wool and silk were commonly mentioned for clothing and trade. Ways of dressing by wrapping cloth is seen in ancient sculptures as well. The dhoti, or male lower garment, and loin cloth have been tied in similar fashion for thousands of years. In ancient India, the fibers, quality of a fabric, and the ornamentation materials and methods constituted a well-understood visual language to convey the status of the wearer. Garments woven with gold thread were referred to as zari, and if particularly heavily woven, they were called kinkhab. Tie dyed-garments were referred to as bandanna and diagonally tie-dyed clothing was called laheria for the specific designs resulting from the process.

Dress in traditional India varied greatly by climate and region, religious group, and community, and also by fiber, method of construction, and type of imagery or ornamentation. Saris continue to be identified by regions of production and outstanding visual characteristics. An Indian woman can name countless regional weaves and describe the main characteristics of saris by their names, such as Baluchari Buttidar, Varanasi (heavily brocaded weaving, also called benarasi; common designs include the mango, moon, vines, and small flowers), Himroo, (brocaded weaves from the central Deccan area), and Patola (double ikat silk woven in Patan, Gujarat; designs consisting of repeated geometric grid-like patters and striped borders), to name a few.

Forms of dress have evolved dramatically in India to reflect the dynamic social shifts that have occurred, as well as external influences, changing styles and influences of globalization through new styles, materials, economic development and attitudinal changes. Where urban women throughout India once wore the sari, by the 1970s many had adopted the Muslim and Punjabi style of dress consisting of salwar and kameez worn with a dupatta, a long head cover/shawl. In the mid-1980s, a movement called the "ethnic style" reflected a new interest in the aesthetics of rural embroideries, by applying commoditized embroidery elements to the bodice of the kameez. Combinations of embroideries from diverse groups with Indian-made fabrics like block print, recycled saris, or hand-loomed fabrics were sometimes styled into dress echoing contemporary Western styles. The dress of men in rural areas changed from wrapped lengths of cloth called the dhoti, or lunghi, to the wearing of trousers, and from loose upper body garments to more traditional western shirts. Many rural women shifted to wearing synthetic-fiber saris, which were cheaper and easier to care for and had a more contemporary association. By the 1990s, many urban women abandoned wearing saris and salwar-kameez, adopting instead casual, Western sportswear and wearing more traditional salwar-kameez or saris on special occasions.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is located in the Indian Ocean, southeast of the subcontinent of India. The textile arts of Sri Lanka are very similar to those of southern India. Rulers from the south brought artisans and established handicrafts production around 300 b.c.e. Indigenous weavers made primarily cotton goods, while the higher caste weavers of south Indian origin wove cloths with gold thread.

The indigenous population of the greater part of Sri Lanka is Sinhalese. Historically, Sinhalese women bared their breasts and wore white, or red or white with redstriped cotton lower garments that were draped like a dhoti, pleated and tied with a knot at the waist. When working, women bound their breasts with the thanapatiya, or breast bandage. Buddhist monks and nuns wear yellow, brownish, and maroon kasaya, or robes.

The Tamils of northeastern and eastern Sri Lanka dress in saris and Western dress, as do the people of Tamil Nadu in India. Sinhalese men are frequently bare-chested and wear checked cotton or synthetic sarongs. On formal occasions, men wear white shirts and European-style jackets. Contemporary women's dress was greatly influenced by the Dutch as well, with the wearing of Javanese batiks and prints wrapped sarong-style and topped with long-sleeved, low-necked blouses.


The Maldives is a chain of small islands lying in the Indian Ocean off the southwestern coast of India. The earliest settlers of these lands immigrated from India and Sri Lanka perhaps more than 2,500 years ago. The Maldivians have long been fishers and traders. Maldivian cowry shells (which were widely used as currency in ancient times), coir fiber from coconuts, and fine cottons attracted trade with Arabs who first introduced the Islamic faith in the twelfth century. In the hot, humid climate of the Maldive Islands, people traditionally were bare-breasted but wore lower body wrappers of very fine cotton. Men wore light-colored lunghis and women wore the saronglike garment called feyli, which was started below the navel and fell to the ankles.

In the seventeenth century, a devoutly Islamic sultan imposed regulations that women cover their breasts and wear burugaa, the Dhivehi word for burqa, Hijab, or veil. After several sultans' rule, the women's Islamic dress code disappeared and did not reemerge until the mid-1980s. Since this time, many Maldivian women have felt pressure to don the burugaa, and the issue of whether or not to wear Middle Eastern-style Islamic dress is hotly contested. On the main island of Malé, men wear Western-style clothing and many women wear dresses topped by shiny synthetic fabric overcoats and head scarves. For festive occasions, modern Maldivian "national dress" for men consists of a white shirt and light-colored check or plaid lunghi, and for women, a solid-colored dress trimmed with white accent bands at the skirt bottom.


Nepal is a Himalayan kingdom that unites numerous formerly independent principalities. The population is roughly divided into Tibeto-Burmans in the mountainous north, and Indo-Aryans in the southern lowlands; these populations are further divided into numerous ethnic groups, with many different cultures, languages, and religious beliefs. Nepal's diverse climate and geography also yields diverse fibers ranging from yak hair in the north to sheep's wool, silk, nettle, hemp fiber, and cotton in the tropical areas. While at one time people produced their own fibers and garments, barter trade with India and Tibet led to new sources of textile materials and ready-made clothes. In the early twenty-first century, hand-loomed fabrics have largely been replaced by ready-made garments and mill-woven goods.

Distinctive textiles of Nepal include dhaka, an inlaid tapestry-woven cloth used to make caps, or topis, and rari, thick, rain-proof woolen blankets made from several lengths of hand-loomed fabric. Although most traditional Nepalese textiles have been or are in danger of being displaced by manufactured imported fabrics, the demand for hand-loomed dhaka fabric, created on jacquard looms, remains high. There is also increasing interest in the hemp fiber clothing.


Tibet, the northernmost of the South Asian countries, occupies the northern slopes of the Himalayas and the high Tibetan plateau. Historically, Tibet has been largely isolated from foreign influences, but traded with China (as well as with India, via trans-Himalayan caravan routes). Consequently, numerous aspects of Chinese culture are visible through the silk weaves, images, symbols, and some basic garment forms throughout much of Tibet's textiles and dress. Generally Tibetan people wear long, side-closing robes called phyu-pa for the sleeveless type and chupa for the long-sleeved robes, long sleeveless vests, jackets, sashes, aprons, and hats, with long fleece coats and high boots in cold weather. Types and qualities of materials were dictated by (and proclaimed) the wearer's status in Tibet's once highly stratified society. Garments are made of brocaded silk, wool, cotton and fleeced-lined hide.

Pastoralists of both genders wear leather robes, with the fleece side against the skin. In hot weather, men pull the robes back over one or both shoulders and tie the sleeves at the waist. Sewn by men, these hide garments are called lokbar. Women's lokbar are frequently trimmed with colored cloth bands at hem and cuffs. Buddhist personnel wear garments with distinctive details to indicate hierarchy and roles. The shape of the hat distinguishes monastic orders. The Buddhist monk's common garment is called kasaya. The inner kasaya is yellow and the outer one is deep red/maroon. Worn in pairs, the large rectangular kasaya are topped with a cloak in the winter. High-ranking lamas wear yellow silk, often lotus flower–brocaded robes, embroidered vests, tall brocade boots, and golden hats appropriate to their station when traveling. Religious festivals, performances and ceremonies call for special dress, masks, and headgear.

Among the most distinctive Tibetan fabrics are those used in women's aprons, called bangdian, which consist of three or four parts stitched together. Rectangular and trapezoidal, these aprons are usually made of hand-woven cotton with contrasting color stripes.

Due to increased Chinese immigration into Tibet and sweeping social changes, the ancient hierarchical rules that once dictated rigid Tibetan forms of dress have disappeared. Globalization in the form of more readily available Chinese garments and mill-woven and brightly printed cottons has led to changes in dress. Frequently, women in the early 2000s wear printed blouses under their chuba or lokbar, and urbanites generally prefer more subtle color schemes and streamlined silhouettes. In response to the flood of Chinese goods, many Tibetans are making efforts to not lose their traditional dress and weaving skills.


Bhutan is a Himalayan Buddhist kingdom that historically has been linked through religion to its neighboring countries of India and Tibet and through trade to China. It has been and remains relatively isolated from the rest of the world. The population is diverse, including ethnic groups of Tibetan, Assamese, Burmese, and Nepalese affinities and significant numbers of Tibetan refugees and Nepalese immigrants. The dress of these groups varies, reflecting their distinctive cultural origins.

In Bhutan, textiles are symbolic of wealth. They serve functional and decorative purposes in the home, in religion and ritual, are given as offerings or gifts, and are made for dress. Women weave hand-woven textiles that often have complex striped warps, brocade weaves, and inlaid (or supplementary) weft patterns, while men tailor and embroider. Some of the supplementary weft patterns seen in Bhutanese weavings are similar to motifs also seen in Southeast Asian textiles. The chief fibers are silk, cotton, and wool, with synthetic fibers and colors now readily available. At one time, wealthy families produced their own spun and dyed fibers, but synthetic colors and mass-produced fibers have contributed to more colorful and rapidly changing fashion subtleties.

Although Bhutan is composed of many diverse populations with their own forms of dress, a national dress has been established to visually communicate unity. Bhutanese national dress for women is the kira, while the gho, or go, is the national dress for men. The kira is a large, hand-loomed rectangular cloth that is wrapped about the body and held in place with a kera, or belt and pins at the shoulders. A khenja, blouse, and a slip, are worn under the kira, and the dress set is accompanied by a jacket and ceremonial shoulder cloth called adha. The blouse cuffs are folded over the jacket cuffs. Patterns and styles abound, each with specific descriptive names. Gho (or go), the male dress, is similar to the Tibetan chuba in that it is a tailored, long-sleeved, asymmetrical closing robe. However, the gho has large turned-back contrasting sleeve cuffs and is raised from the ground to just below the knees and held in place with a kera. Men wear knee-high socks and a tego, or shirt, under the gho. The folded-up portion at the waist of the gho serves as a multipurpose pouch. On special occasions, over the gho men wear a swag-like, ceremonial shoulder cloth called kumney. Other garments include three-panel woolen cloaks called charkab and pangkheb, or carrying cloths. Additionally, many forms of archaic dress survive for use in religious dances and festivals.

See alsoTextiles, Southeast Asian Islands; Textiles, Southeast Asian Mainland .


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Victoria Z. Rivers