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PAPERMAKING In India, paper came into use relatively late. In the Hindu tradition, from the ancient Aryan Brahmanic oral transmission of the Vedas, nothing was written until about the sixth century b.c. In South India, the earliest portable writing materials were tadpatra (palm leaves), bhurja patra (beaten birch bark), and cotton cloth. Perhaps for religious reasons, parchment, made from the inner lining of the stomach of a calf, which was commonly in use in the Christian and Arab world, was not used in India.

The earliest mention of paper in India is in the records of the Cairo Genizah, a repository of Jewish manuscripts that cover the period from a.d. 1000 to 1250 These documents note that many Jewish traders were closely linked to Western India and that paper was sent as a present from Aden to India. It seems clear that paper first came to India through trade and was used long before it was actually made there. It appears to have been brought as a commodity into Gujarat by Arab merchants who sailed along the west coast of India. Inscriptional references of the thirteenth century attest to settlement by Arab traders in the ports of Cambay, Prabhas Patan (Somnath), Junagadh, and Anahilvad (Patan).

The earliest use of paper was to record religious scriptures, particularly in the Jain tradition. The Jain kings of the Chalukya period (10th–13th century) were great patrons of learning who established libraries. Commoners also gained merit by commissioning copies of sacred texts. After the Muslim conquest of Gujarat in the early fourteenth century, the number of manuscripts increased. Palm leaf was no longer in use in western India by the latter half of the fourteenth century. In other regions, it was used well into the sixteenth century, and in Orissa as late as the nineteenth century for religious texts. Abu Hamid al Gharnati in his Tuhfat ul Albab, written in 1162, notes that "Indian paper" compared favorably with that made in Iraq and Khorasan.

In Kashmir, however, the craft of papermaking is believed to have been introduced by Zain ul-Ab-ud-Din in the fifteenth century upon his return from Samarqand, where he had been taken hostage by Timur. The emperor appears to have brought back craftsmen trained in the Persian tradition. From Nowshera, papermaking spread south to Sialkot and into North India.

Local lore in Khuldabad claims that Chinese craftsmen, among them papermakers, who were at the court of Sultan Muhammad ibn Tughluq (r. 1325–1351), moved with the court when the capital moved south from Delhi to Daulatabad, renamed Deogiri. The paper made there, possibly already in the fourteenth century, appears to have followed the Chinese tradition, with some local differences.

The first recorded use of paper is in Barani's Tarikh I Firuzshahi, where he refers to a firman that Sultan Balban (r. 1266–1286) ordered to be washed in order to annul a decree. This indicates that paper was not only strong but also valuable.

Raw Materials and Technique

The raw materials used for paper were never fresh fibers. Paper was made from discarded items of everyday use, for example, ropes, fishing nets, and gunny sacks, all made from sunn hemp (crotolaria juncea).

The rags would be chopped into small pieces with a hatchet and soaked in water for three to four days. They would then be washed, preferably in river water, by two men standing in the water with a cloth tied around their waists like a hammock. The rags would be scrubbed vigorously to release dirt. The washed rags would then be placed in a clay pot embedded in the ground and retted in a mixture of six parts crude carbonate of soda and seven parts quicklime. This system of cold retting broke down the fibers. After eight to ten days, the rags would be washed again and macerated either by rubbing on a roughened surface or by stamping underfoot. In the nineteenth century the dhenki was developed; a wooden stamper with a long horizontal beam, it could be operated by two men. The rags were then left out to dry in the sun. The entire laborious process would be repeated again three times to achieve the required whiteness. A small quantity of fiber was put into a clay pot, mixed with water, and shaken vigorously to check for an even dispersion of fibers, which was essential to the process. Country soap was added to serve as a bleaching agent, and then the pulp was made into cakes and dried in the sun.

When ready for use, the pulp was soaked in a small cylindrical vat, or kundi, and was trodden with bare feet to make a gruel. This was put into the main vat and left to soak overnight. The next morning the papermaker, or kagzi, squatted facing the vat and stirred the pulp vigorously with a bamboo pole to evenly disperse the fibers. He would lay the pole across the vat and place the sacha, a rectangular wooden frame with triangular ribs, on top of it. He would then spread the chhapri, a grass mat woven using hair from the tail of a horse, over the sacha, keeping it taut with two deckle sticks. The kagzi would hold the sacha with the deckle sticks loosely in his thumb and forefingers and dip the frame almost vertically into the vat; turning it horizontally in the water, he would lift out some pulp, shaking it gently to and fro. This shaking in all directions ensured a biaxial interlocking of the fibers, which made the paper strong. The sacha would be lifted out of the water and placed back on the bamboo pole; the excess water was allowed to drain away, and then the deckle sticks were removed. The chhapri with the thin film of pulp would be lifted carefully and couched on a cloth stretched on a wooden board. For each sheet he made, the kagzi put a small stone in a clay dish to keep tally. After 50 sheets, another cloth was spread on the pile. Between 150 to 200 sheets were made in a day. The piles were then pressed between two boards and left to stand overnight. The next day, the sheets were peeled apart and pasted onto a wall plastered with lime mortar, using a brush.

When the paper was dry, it was scraped with a pumice stone to remove grit and was sized using either rice or wheat starch. This not only rendered the paper impervious but also strengthened it. Finally, the paper was burnished on a concave wooden board with an agate embedded in clay, a marble roller, or even a conch shell.

The best-known papers of the sixteenth century were the Sahebkhani of Ahmedabad, the Khash I Jahangiri of Sialkot, the Daulatabadi, and the Kashmiri, which was famous for its soft, silken texture, reputed to come from waste silk cocoons beaten into the pulp.

Papermaking in the Modern Era

With industrialization, a horizontal mechanical beater called the Hollander beater took some of the labor out of the process, which otherwise remained largely unchanged into the early years of the nineteenth century. In 1825 a Mr. Marsham of Serampore imported a papermaking machine. In 1850 Charles Wood, secretary of state for India, passed an order requiring all paper for the government if India to be supplied from Great Britain.

This edict was a great blow to the craft of papermaking. Waste paper was added to make the process easier, and the quality rapidly deteriorated. Mahatma Gandhi attempted in the early years of the twentieth century to revitalize the craft. Paper was made using waste cotton fiber rags, and orders were issued requiring government files to use only handmade paper. But there was little concern for quality.

Sanganer, Kalpi, Wardha, Ahmedabad, Junnar, Daulatabad, Gosunda, and Pondicherry, all centers long reputed for their fine paper, declined rapidly. In the last decade of the twentieth century, the Indian government redefined handmade paper, permitting paper that was made entirely by machine using waste cotton fiber, but that was cut by hand, to be sold as handmade paper. This immediately improved sales as prices dropped, but as there was no regard for quality, the craft was still threatened. An attempt is being made in Daulatabad to revive the original tradition, but it has yet to prove sustainable.

Neeta Premchand


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Joshi, K. B. Paper Making (as a Cottage Industry). Wardha: All India Village Industries Association, 1938.

Mehta, Makrand. Indian Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Historical Perspective. Delhi: Academic Foundation, 1991.