Kunbi- Goa’s Tribal Heart

Kunbi- Goa’s Tribal Heart

The land of sun, sand, beaches and holidays, Goa is so popular that most know of its Portuguese past. But how much do we know of its tribal heart?

As you wind your way through Goa, you will catch a glimpse of Goa’s ‘tribal’ past in the form of the unique red checkered sari, that some of the local women wear. The simple garment, that has changed with the times is one of the few actual reminders of the tribes that lived in the hills around Goa. Almost lost till some time ago, today there is a small movement to revive the craft of making these saris and get them recognised as a heritage textile of Goa.

The Indo-Portuguese history of the coastal state of Goa is well-known, but not much is known about its textile heritage. The red checkered sari which is adorned by the original settlers of Goa is the oldest weave of Goa.

Any folk dance of Goa, be it Dhalo or the Fugdi is incomplete without the red checkered cotton sari which is commonly known as a Kunbi sari or the Adivasi sari. This six-yard sari, locally referred to as the Kapad which was predominantly worn by women belonging to the tribal communities of Goa, has no pallu or drape. It is simply pleated at the waist and what would normally be the pallu is drawn across the chest and back over the right shoulder to form a knot locally called a dethali. Traditionally, no blouse was worn with this sari.

A group of tribal women who are part of Adivasi Sangathan, Quepem, in traditional Adivasi sari at an event in Panaji, Goa | Hemant Parab

Tribes and their textiles

It is hard to imagine Goa as a tribal stretch, but it is actually not surprising given the thickly forested Western Ghats that surround it even today. There are three main tribes which are considered to be the indigenous communities of Goa— the Gaudes, the Kunbi and the Gaulys or Dhangars.

The Kunbi, one of the oldest communities of Goa, are further divided into Velips and Zalmis. As this red checked sari was predominantly worn by these tribes, the fabric came to be named after them. The Kunbis themselves get their name from their past. Both Rohit Phalgaonkar, a Goa based historian and Vinayak Khedekar, a folklorist and former member-secretary of Goa’s art institute- Kala Academy, who are helping to revive this weave agree that the word ‘Kunbi’ is the corrupted form of the word ‘Kulmi’. The Kulmi were the original inhabitants of Goa who settled in the hilly areas near the Western Ghats.

The tribals of Goa have been closely linked with the land and they formed the bulk of the labourers who worked in the fields and plantations till the mid of the 20th century CE. In fact, visit Margao city and you will still find women porters known as ‘Bhadels’ wearing these colourful saris.

Convenient to wear and work in, the Kunbi sari or the Adivasi sari is still popular among the farming and working class women in Goa.

Interestingly till 1940, these saris were worn without blouses, but the colonial Portuguese government passed a law making it compulsory to wear a blouse.

Samples of different types of Kunbi or Adivasi saris of Goa | Hemant Parab

The Colors of the Earth

The basic colour palette of the Kunbi sari is symbolic and the material for it was locally sourced.

The red colour stands for the soil, fertility and vibrancy and the dye for it was derived from the wild fruit locally known as ‘jafflinchi fala’ (fruit), found in the forests of Goa. Along with red, the fabric was also dyed in yellow and lilac (which was mainly worn by widows). The yellow dye was derived from haldi or turmeric and the blue most likely came from some stones.

The chequered pattern is the most common design in the Kunbi sari | Hemant Parab

What stands out in the Kunbi sari is also the simplicity of the design. These saris do not have any motifs. They only have a pattern of checks or squares. Interestingly this pattern varies across communities. For instance, the saris worn by the Christian Gauda ladies have big squares whereas for the other tribes the squares are small. Also, the men from Christian community earlier used a loin cloth known as kasthi and a head scarf made from the same textile.

In his book Moda Goa fashion designer and writer, Wendell Rodricks gives an interesting perspective on the Kunbi sari. He draws parallels with fabrics woven by other communities. For example Rodricks gives the reference of the ‘Telia Rumaals’ of Andhra Pradesh, which sport the same three colours symbolizing the trinity, and also represents the three aspects of human nature according to ancient Indian medicine: cream stands for ‘satvic’- (withdrawn and an introvert); red stands for ‘rajas’- vibrant and powerful; blue-black stands for ‘tamsic’- brooding and possibly violent. Ancient Indians believed that a balanced combination of the three created a complete being, human or godly. Rodricks states,

In a richer interpretation, a gold thread woven into a sari can fill squares of the mandala or ‘navagraha’. Many saris communicate a spiritual message with a border resembling the archway of temple entrances. Often this is in a staggered Cubist pyramid form or a triangular Far-Eastern pagoda spire form.”

Rodricks also quotes the famous textile historian Jasleen Dhamija from her book Woven Magic. In this, she has written extensively on the symbolism of the checkered pattern and claimed that it has far deeper meanings,

The single line crossing another line creates a ‘chowk’ (a meeting point or a place). A square or plaid pattern is created when two equidistant parallel lines, horizontal to the ground, cross, two parallel lines moving vertically skyward to create an enclosed sacred space called the ‘mandala’ and a checked pattern. The geometry of two pairs of horizontal and vertical lines creates the nine houses of the planets, collectively called the ‘navagraha’, each with its own jeweled representations, called the ‘navaratna’.”

The ingredients to make the dyes for the Kunbi sari are easy to access in Goa. They are a simple mix of toddy, iron filings and vinegar. It is important to note that there are variations within the Kunbi saris. The ‘Sado’, for instance, was exclusively worn at weddings. What made this sari special was the fact that it was made from jute fibre which was used for weaving. But this weave was stopped in 1933 and was replaced by artificial silk or rayon.

This distinct red checkered fabric of Goa is also offered to deities and is part of religious rituals. As mentioned in Rodrick’s work Moda Goa,

The annual Veerbhadra ritual held in the month of March-April during the Shigmo festival in the temple town of Ponda, in the South Goa District is incomplete without the use of this fabric. During this ritual, groups of men dress up as Veerbhadra, a fierce avatar of Shiva and perform a ceremonial dance with swords. This fabric forms a part of the ceremonial attire of the dancers. Also the local tribal deity ‘Betal’ at Poinguinim, on the Goa-Karnataka border is decorated with this fabric.

Ironically even though the Kunbi sari has so much religious and social significance, there are no handlooms left in Goa where this sari can be woven. The traditional knowledge of creating this weave is almost lost. To make matters worse, there is also hardly any documentation available on the origin of this red-coloured, checkered sari.

However, today revivalist like Phalgaonkar and Khedekar are working hard to document this textile and make people aware about it before it is lost in the pages of history.

Tribal ladies who are part of Adivasi Sangathan, Quepem at an event in Panaji, Goa  | Hemant Parab

It is noted that from 1930s and 1950s, three families from Goa—Shettigars of Candolim, Rasquinhas of Bastora and the Kamats were involved in the business of handlooms. The dyes and yarn were imported from various countries during the Portuguese rule. But after Liberation in 1961, getting these imports was a tough task and it took a toll on the weaving business.

While there are no looms in Goa where this sari is woven, it is produced in the neighboring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu albeit using chemical dyes. Now, efforts are on by the like-minded people from Goa to declare this ‘kapad’ a heritage textile of Goa.


Arti Das is a Goa based journalist who has written for several publications on art, travel and heritage.

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