Lambani Embroidery: Gypsy Magic

Exquisite hand-embroidered wonders in vibrant colours, decorated with dazzling mirrors and deeply rooted in tradition – this is the unique art of the Lambanis. A tribal community of gypsies or banjaras, the Lambanis are known for their spectacular handcrafted embroidery, which tells their story.

Go deep into Karnataka and it is in the town of Sandur, near the popular historic site of Hampi, that you will find the Lambanis. This is where they found their home centuries ago and from where they have practiced their vivid art form ever since. Free-spirited, lively and celebrating folk culture, the artwork of Lambani is a true representation of its creators.

A Lambani Woman
A Lambani Woman

While the Lambanis are an essential part of Indian tribal culture, not much is known about their history. A semi-nomadic tribe, also known as Lamanis, Lambadis or Banjara Lambanis, they are said to have travelled across Central Asia and through the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, before settling in Rajasthan and Gujarat and a few regions of Central India. The gypsies of Rajasthan and Gujarat, such as the Rabaris are known for their famous embroidery and mirror work, but the story of the Lambanis is not quite so well known.

Some believe the word ‘Lambani’ comes from the word ‘Lavanah’ which means ‘salt’ as they are said to have been salt traders or pastoralists. Others believe that the tribe traded in grains, wood and other commodities, and moved from place to place, transporting these goods. It is also said that they formed a part of the Mughal armies, especially during the rule of Emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century, and helped his army export goods to Southern India.

Sandur State on a map with Madras Presidency
Sandur State on a map with Madras Presidency|Wikimedia Commons

However, there are varying theories about how and when they moved south, deep into the Deccan. Today, a major part of their population is found in Sandur, in Bellary district, in Karnataka. Sandur was once a princely state ruled by the Ghorpade royal family of the Marathas. According to one theory, the Lambanis are said to have migrated to this part of the country with the invading armies of the Marathas, but no one knows exactly when.

Visit the town of Sandur today and you are sure to be wowed by the Lambani women. Embroidery is intrinsic to the ethnic costumes of the nomadic Lambanis. For years, the women have been creating exquisite hand-embroidered pieces of clothing within their community, but today their work is reaching a far wider audience and is gaining universal appeal.

A Lambani woman dressed in the traditional attire
A Lambani woman dressed in the traditional attire

Dressed in their traditional attire, in a long skirt or ghaghra and a choli or a top which is embroidered with bright coloured threads and decorated with mirrors, these women practice their unique art of embroidery here in Sandur. They usually work in small groups and learn the fine skills passed down to them across generations. The Lambanis live in small settlements known locally as tandas, usually located on the fringes of the town. Interestingly, their homes are as beautiful as their apparel and their art form. Lambani homes are also ornamented with colours and works of embroidery.

Traditionally, the Lambani women practised their unique brand of embroidery to make their own traditional clothes. They made dresses and bags, which are an important part of the bridal trousseau and festivals or rituals in the community. A burst of colour and vivid patterns made with embroidery and embellishments dominate the Lambani style.

A cushion cover with Lambani embroidery and mirror work
A cushion cover with Lambani embroidery and mirror work|Peepul Tree

Lambani embroidery uses as many as 14 types of stitches. The warp thread of the fabric is deftly lifted with a fine needle and the women make different patterns parallel to the weft thread. This provides the illusion of an extra weft weave. The base cloth is usually handwoven, over which embroidery is done in a variety of colours. Vibrant colours such as red and blue dominate the colour of the base fabric. You can see a stunning network of geometric patterns like squares, circles, triangles, rectangles, and diagonal and parallel lines in the embroidery.

Dyed cotton thread is used for the embroidery. Embellishments like beads, cowrie shells and coins are used to decorate the edges of the pieces. It is believed coins ward off evil, while cowries represent Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity.

A Lambani runner with mirror work
A Lambani runner with mirror work|Peepul Tree

Another interesting aspect of their craft is applique work, which involves stitching patches or pieces of fabric onto the base fabric. Crafting each piece is time-consuming but it is a symbol of their love, labour and legacy.

A Lambani Necklace 
A Lambani Necklace |Peepul Tree

While traditionally the Lambanis were limited to making ethnic garments, their craft is now seeing a great revival. The Lambanis are now making various contemporary products with their beautiful embroidery, such as cushions covers, bags, wall hangings, head covers, neck pieces, dupattas and more. In fact, the Lambani embroidery of Sandur has even received the Geographical Indication Tag of India.

Traditional Lambani collection is available on Peepul Tree
Traditional Lambani collection is available on Peepul Tree|Peepul Tree

A non-profit local organisation, Sandur Kushal Kala Kendra, is closely working with Lambani women to support their craft. But it is also through initiatives like Peepul Tree that the Lambani women are now gaining immense support and promotion. At Peepul Tree, you can find a wide range of traditional Lambani products, such as beautiful neckpieces, cushion covers and table runners.

The Lambanis celebrate life and culture, and it is truly amazing how their unique handcrafted work reflects their indomitable spirit.

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