Beautiful, tribal motifs in earthy hues of maroon and brown delicately woven into soft cotton fabrics – this defines the identity of Kotpad town in Odisha. The town, in Koraput district, is known for its handwoven, dyed fabrics. But what makes this weave stand out is its special bond with nature.
The state of Odisha has one of the richest handloom traditions in India. Among them is Kotpad, a unique weaving tradition that is the preserve of the Mirgan community. Visit the town and you will notice that no ritual or ceremony is complete without the locals dressing up in the beautiful and vivid weaves that have made this town famous.
While not much is known about the origins of this tradition, it has been passed down for several generations. This rich weave was once merely traditional wear for the local tribes such as the Bhatra, Durua, Paraja, Maadia and Koyan, among others.
In an age where the textile industry is moving towards sustainability and eco-friendly technology, Kotpad has plenty to offer. For years, the process has remained entirely natural and organic and uses no chemicals at any stage. The cotton yarn for Kotpad is handspun, and treated with cow dung, ash and castor oil, while the dyeing and processing is done by using the root of the locally grown Aal tree or the Indian Madder tree. It is this natural dye, with its beautiful colours that makes Kotpad textiles so charming and special.
But the natural nature of the fabric comes at a price. The dyeing process is tedious and time-consuming – it takes 15-20 days to dye the yarn. Interestingly, only women are involved in the dyeing process. The men of the community are the weavers. The yarn is first washed and starched. It is then left to dry on wooden rods before being treated with castor oil, which helps the colour of the dye to bind better with the yarn.
The next step in the treatment of the yarn before dyeing is the application of cow dung. It acts as a bleaching agent and ensures that the dye is properly absorbed by the yarn. After this, the yarn is once again hung out to dry. It is then washed with ash water and given a final wash, usually at a local pond.
The next step is dyeing with the roots of the Aal tree. It is one of the most important steps in Kotpad production and one of the defining characteristics of this textile. The best time to dye the yarn is between November and March, when there are no rains.
The dye solution is made of a powder of Aal roots mixed with castor oil and water. Roots of the Aal tree or the Indian Madder tree are dried, crushed and ground into a powder to make a deep, red dye. The yarn is soaked in the dye solution and then boiled in the same solution. Shades of red, maroon and brown are produced, depending on the strength of the solution and the age of the Aal used.
Other natural dyes used in this process are harda (a dried fruit) and iron sulphate or kumar pathhar, while heerakashi or ferrous sulphate is also used to strengthen the dye. The use of natural material also ensures that the fabric causes no harm caused to the body while the fabric does not lose its sheen. It also provides a cooling effect, making it comfortable to wear in humid conditions.
The dyed yarn is finally dried and washed before it is woven. Kotpad still uses the traditional form of weaving, using pit looms made of wood and bamboo.
Shades of red like scarlet, maroon and dark brown, along with off-white are the dominant colours used in the Kotpad weave. Traditionally, Kotpad weavers make saris or pata, gamcha (upper cloth) and tuval (lower garment worn by men). However, today, dupattas and stoles are also made. Kotpad saris come in a great variety, based on the ritual occasion for which it is made and the wearer.
Kotpad motifs are equally fascinating. The tribal motifs are inspired by nature and their local surroundings. Leaves, animals, rivers and farms are common themes in Kotpad weaves. When expertly done, it is almost as if these artisans are using their craft to communicate with the natural world.
But like many other traditional crafts, Kotpad has its own challenges. For a craft that depends on natural elements, environmental degradation and climate change is a major threat. Due to this, the Aal tree is under threat. Also, the younger generation is turning to other means of livelihood, which is seriously threatening the survival of this craft.
Kotpad handloom received the Geographical Indication tag of India in 2005. But it is through the efforts of platforms like Peepul Tree that dwindling regional crafts are being brought into the mainstream and promoted on a national platform. The Kotpad products on Peepul Tree are sourced from a National Award-winning artist, Padma Shri Gobardhan Panika. He and his family are keeping alive the legacy of Kotpad – the rare and unique weave from Odisha.
On the work she is doing with weavers in Kotpad, Archna Nayar, Head of Design and Product at Peepul Tree, says “What really stands out for me is just how laborious the making of the Kotpad is. Making each piece, even a stole, takes months, from start to finish. This and the fact that all the material used in this handwoven fabric is natural and locally sourced.”
Nayar believes that Kotpad is one of the rarest of India’s weaves. She says, “ We really need to nurture this weave and this is what we are doing at Peepul Tree as we work with the weavers and encourage them to go back to original motifs and designs. The beauty of Kotpad is in the fact that each piece is unique and rooted to the traditions of the tribes in this region."
Kotpad is a weave that takes time, effort and patience to make. But the result is well worth the effort. Drawn from nature and the world around them, and celebrated by tribes, this weave truly embodies the rich legacy of India’s weaves.