Both men and women covered their upper bodies in ancient India with a garment called an uttariya. An uttariya was an unsewn cloth or scarf. Made commonly of cotton, the uttariya could also be made of animal skin, linen, or—for the wealthiest people—silk. Some writings from early India, written in the ancient Sanskrit language, refer to garments being made of the bark of the tree of paradise or the filaments of lotus flowers. The uttariya always accompanied other garments. Men wore them with a type of wrapped garment called a dhoti, and women wore them with a sari or an antariya, a wrap around the lower body.
No matter the fabric, uttariyas were light and delicate because of India's warm climate. The delicate material used for uttariyas did not last long, and no examples of the actual early garments have survived for historians to study. Costume historians must rely on the depictions of the ancient form of the garments on existing sculptures and in remaining literature.
Uttariyas could be draped over the left shoulder to cover the chest, thrown loosely over the shoulders, tied in place across the wearer's back, or held by a belt at the waist. Although men wore the uttariya to cover their upper bodies from the earliest years of Indian civilization, women did not typically cover their upper bodies until the fourth century c.e. At that time the uttariya became an important garment to preserve the modesty of women. Women would use the uttariya to cover their breasts in public, and some began to use a portion of their uttariya as a veil to cover their heads.
Uttariyas could be made of the simplest, plain cloth for those of modest income. But wealthy Indians often wore highly decorated uttariyas made of brightly dyed cloth of red, blue, or gold, among other colors. The uttariyas of the wealthy were also adorned with studs of pearls and other jewels, embroidery, and painted designs.
Like the dhoti, the sari, and the turban, the uttariya remains one of the garments from ancient times that is still worn in modern India.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Goswamy, B. N., and Kalyan Krishna. Indian Costume in the Collection of the Calico Museum of Textiles. Ahmedabad, India: D. S. Mehta, 1993.
Mohapatra, R. P. Fashion Styles of Ancient India: A Study of Kalinga from Earliest Times to Sixteenth Century A.D. Delhi, India: B. R. Publishing, 1992.