Resting quietly in a Gurdaspur Gurudwara in Punjab is an exquisite piece of cloth deeply connected with Sikh history. It is believed that this cloth was embroidered by Bebe Nanaki, sister of the Sikh Guru Nanak Dev and presented to him during his wedding in the 15th century. What is incredibly fascinating about this artefact is the rich legacy surrounding the style and the artwork, the beginnings of which take us to Himachal Pradesh. About 90 kms from Gurdaspur, set amidst the Himalayas is the Chamba valley that lends its name itself to this centuries old art from.
The ‘Chamba Rumal’, or the Chamba handkerchief is famed for its exquisite embroidery and miniature size. What is remarkable about this handicraft is the representation of religious epics, delicately interwoven into the fabric. While tales from the Puranas, the Mahabharata and Ramayana were commonly depicted on this cloth, the art form itself finds mention in Buddhist literature from 4th century BCE. The Jataka Tales note the popularity of the craft around the areas of Pathankot and Chamba, which is believed to have continued till the 18th Century.
Chamba was a large kingdom ruled by Rajput kings. Raja Umed Singh (1748-1768 CE) was a benefactor of the ‘Chamba Rumal’ art form and this patronage continued under his successors. In 1907, Raja Bhuri Singh of Chamba established training centres for women and this popularised as the ‘Do-Rukha Tanka’ or the double satin stitch cloth. The ‘Do-Rukha Tanka’ technique consisted of a dual stitch, wherein both sides of the fabric were stitched simultaneously, creating a similar depiction on both sides of the cloth. A silver coin was paid to these women as daily wage. Even women from the royal household were involved in embroidering these rumals. The Raja presented these rumals to the British officials in 1911 leaving them stunned by their beauty. Thereafter, these rumals came to be known as Chamba Rumals.
Popular culture notes that young girls were encouraged to learn the art form in their early teens as their skills in embroidery would play an important role in ‘finding a suitable groom’.
The designs on the rumal are first traced onto the fabric with fine charcoal or brush. This is followed with embroidery using silk floss thread. Popular colours used in this art form include red, yellow, green, blue, crimson and purple. Also popular are representations of animals in motion, such as leaping tigers, running goats, cantering horses, fleeting rams, jumping deer, cows, calves, horses, elephants, snakes etc. These designs are embellished by floral motifs and geometric designs.
Other popular themes comprise the Raslila, where the blue-bodied Lord Krishna is seen leading the admiring gopis in dance . The marriage of Krishna and Rukmini, Lord Vishnu seated in a lotus, the elephant-headed god Ganesh, Ashta-Nayika, Minjar-Mela (a famous festival of Himachal Pradesh), the gods Vishnu and Laxmi, women playing musical instruments and men smoking hukkas are commonly depicted too
Today, these rumals are used as a cover for offerings in temples. A circular rumal, the ‘Chhabru’ is hung behind the deity and a rectangular wall hanging, the Chandoa is draped behind idols. While these rumals were once used to cover wedding gifts, it is now customary for local brides to have it in their wedding trousseau.
The art form fell into decline when it lost the royal patronage that it once enjoyed. Today, it has been revived among the women folk of Chamba and the Delhi Council of Crafts is working towards developing this art form. It seems to be working. Today a Chamba Rumal could cost anywhere between Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 25,000.
DID YOU KNOW
The Victoria and Albert Museum houses a piece of Chamba Rumal depicting the Kurukshetra War.