episode #151 craft of ancient India

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The traditional crafts manifest themselves in the temple architecture of the region as well as in the ubiquitous household products crafted with ingenuity from local materials and skills.  

For centuries, in eastern India, babies have been swaddled in soft kantha quilts made from old clothing such as frayed saris and dhotis, layered and stitched together. And when guests paid a visit, special kantha rugs would be spread on the floor. Kantha is more than one thousand years old, dating back to the pre-Vedic times (prior to 1500 BC) in ancient India, and although it was traditionally a utilitarian, functional style of embroidery, it also had – and continues to have – a unique way of portraying and celebrating life events. Kantha refers to both the style of running stitch as well as the finished cloth, and the craft was mainly practised in east Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) and west Bengal, where thrifty women of all ages took discarded clothing, soft and worn by use, and layered them with simple running stitches.

Today kantha is found on everything from stoles and kurtas, sarees, shawls and purses, to linen, quilts and bedcovers – all crafted to meet an increasingly global demand. International designers have also started using kantha in their collections in the past decade or so. In 2015, British brand Burberry Prorsum presented kantha in a collection called “Patchwork, pattern and prints”. Since ancient times, India had numerous trade links with the outside world and Indian textiles were popular.

In the Vedic age, we find numerous references in the Vedas of artisans involved in pottery making, weaving, wood craft etc. The Rig Veda refers to a variety of pottery made from clay, wood and metal. The Rig Veda consigns to a mixture of pottery made from terracotta, wood and metal. There is an allusion to weavers and weaving, wood craft etc.

Ancient Indian scriptures contain informed techniques of the woodworker – including advice on how to cut the tree to propitiate tree spirits, and the recognised proportions for a particular sculpture. In Vedic period started to flourish also metal works – a traditional copperware of Kashmir displays high ornamentation with a profusion of stylised floral and leaf forms, religious symbols (such as the mihrab or prayer arch), geometric and calligraphic patterns, as well as elaborate hunting scenes. The indigenous metalworks of Ladakh, Tibetan metalwork, Thattar ka Kaam- sheet metal work of Kullu, brassware of Moradabad and silver wares, damascening and metal engraving of Udaipur.

In the Mauryan age we find great development in the field of sculpture – more than 84,000 stupas are said to be built in India, with the celebrated Sanchi Stupa, which has gorgeous stone carving and relief work. The early sacred texts of art and architecture, such as the Mayamatha and the Shilpa Shastra sets out the desired measurements and techniques for sculpting as well as requirements concerning the quality, colour, texture, maturity, and even gender (tonal qualities of stone) of stone. The famed Taj Mahal is a fine example of the pearly clarity, luster, and fine texture of the marble utilized to maximum effect. Numerous sculptures from Bharhut, Mathura, Amravati, Vaishali, Sanchi, etc. show female figures adorned with a display of jewellery, which continues to inspire contemporary jewellery making.

The Gupta age saw fast development in the field of handicrafts and art forms. The period gave rise to achievements in architecture, sculpture, and painting that “set standards of form and taste [that] determined the whole subsequent course of art, not only in India but far beyond her borders” [J.C. Harle (1994). The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent].

The Mughal period was the golden period in the history of Indian art, craft and culture. The Mughals brought with them a prosperous heritage. The Mughals introduced methods like tile work, glass engraving, carpet weaving, brocades, enamelling, etc. 

Eight crafts were connected with the working of gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, brass, iron, and precious stones or jewels. A variety of types of crafts associated with cheek, zinc, antimony and red arsenic are also stated. Technological facts about iron work had made huge development and iron pieces have been determined in large numbers. The Telangana area of Andhra seems to have been the affluence in this respect and in accumulation to weapons, balance rods, sickles, ploughshares, razors and ladles have been discovered in the Karimnagar and Nalgonda districts of this area.


Crafts of India

Ancient Indian crafts

Ancient Indian craft of kantha

Traditional crafts of India

Gupta Empire

Gupta dynasty


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