In the land of the five rivers - Punjab, the colourful traditional embroidery work phulkari, represents a ‘living’ tradition that can be traced back hundreds of years and it continues to this day.
Phulkari literally translates to flower work (phul: flower; kari: work) and is an age-old tradition of embroidery that involves stylized thread-work inspired by nature.
Banabhatta, the court poet of King Harshavardhana in 7th Century CE, in his Harshacharita or ‘Life of Harsha’ describes the wedding dress of the king’s niece. The cloth is said to have had dense floral patterns which was worked on from the reverse side, quite like the phulkari. There is also reference to the importance of the embroidery in the recitations of Sikh Guru, Nanak Dev (1469-1538 CE), the founder of Sikhism. He regards this as an important part of feminine duty.
Women are said to have worn an embroidered odhni (or head scarf) with phulkari work embroidered by themselves. Young girls are said to have embroidered their wedding odhni under the guidance of their mothers and grandmothers. Practice was done with cotton yarn and then the girls would move on to silk . Amongst upper middle class families in Punjab, a bride’s trousseau would contain fifty phulkaris, many of which would be gifts to the groom’s family.
The base cloth for phulkari’ was mostly hand spun cloth or khadi which was dyed at with colours like madder-red, chocolate brown, indigo-blue and black. This was embroidered using bright colours such as golden-yellow, crimson, orange, green and white. The colours for dyeing were initially extracted from organic materials such as leaves, flowers, barks and roots. The raw materials were locally grown cotton while the silk thread for the embroidery was brought from Kashmir, Afganisthan, China and Bengal.
The phulkari patterns are mostly inspired from nature. The most popular designs include stylised bitter gourds, mustard flowers, golden yellow marigolds, jasmine buds, flowering trees, blooming flowers and chillies. Animal figurines such as birds, peacocks, domestic and wild animals are also common. Often, innovations like stylised human figurines with stories from local folklore like the legendary romance of Sohni-Mahiwaal were also used.
Following the birth of a boy, it was a customary to begin a Vari da Bagh (one of the many forms of phulkari) with the newborn’s grandmother placing the first stitch on the embroidery. It was a grand project which took up to a year to complete. This bagh was handed over to the boy’s bride on their wedding day.
The thread for embroidery is mostly yellow/gold on a red ground which symbolised fertility. Other varieties like Chope and suber are wedding phulkaris and are embroidered by a maternal grandmother for the weddings of their granddaughters. The chope is draped around the bride after her last bath (before the wedding) while suber is worn at a particular stage of marriage ceremony known as phera.
Today, the phulkari weave is synonymous with Punjab with the technique still practiced in many parts of Punjab and Haryana. An authentic phulkari could cost anywhere between Rs. 15,000 to Rs.50,000.