How India's 'vibrant' history decided our fashion sense today

Not for us the muted pastels or the many-washings-later look so popular amongst our erstwhile colonisers.

 |   Long-form |   16-05-2016
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Eat as you like but in dress be guided by the taste of others, is the instruction in the northern half of the country. The southern half, which includes the eastern and western corners, frowns upon the northern dictum dismissing it as vanity. Nevertheless, dress and appearance have always been important, second only to food.

Popular imagination sees India as vibrant land and its people arrayed in rich, bright colours. Not for us the muted pastels or the many-washings-later look so popular amongst our erstwhile colonisers. From the accounts of the earliest eyewitnesses, Alexander the Great's men, we know a fair bit about dress sense in 326 BCE.

amazing-beards_051616032841.jpg Do I dare, pink, green, blue and yellow-striped beards!

They cover their persons down to the feet with fine muslin, are shod with sandals which, we know were of white leather with high heels - a style known today as the wedge, and coil round their heads cloths of linen (cotton) - turbans (note the popular myth that turbans were introduced by Muslims is not true). They hang precious stones as pendants from their ears, and persons of high social rank, or of great wealth, deck their wrist and upper arm with bracelets of gold. They frequently comb, but seldom cut, the hair of their head. The beard of the chin they never cut at all, but they shave off the hair from the rest of the face, so that it looks polished - a fashion statement that existed well before the Amish and the Salafist Muslims claimed it as a signature style. The beards were dyed with a variety of colours.1

Think white garments and turbans gleaming against dark skins, and, do I dare, pink, green, blue and yellow-striped beards! Not just the henna-coloured beards seen today.

The luxury of their kings, or as they call it, their magnificence, is carried to a vicious excess without a parallel in the world. When the king condescends to show himself in public his attendants carry in their hands silver censers, and perfume with incense all the road by which it is his pleasure to be conveyed. He lolls in a golden palanquin, garnished with pearls, which dangle all round it, and he is robed in fine muslin embroidered with purple and gold.2

Purple and gold were already imperial colours. Purple and not red, unlike Air India's maharaja! Phoenicians, that is, the modern day Lebanese, extracted the colour from snails and it was known as Tyrian purple. It was exorbitant. Indian purple however was affordable as, according to Ktesias, it was extracted from a tree dwelling insect, probably the lac-insect, and from a flower that grew near the river marshes. The dye was superior to the one produced by the Persian Empire and did, as a result, brisk international trade. The Roman Empire bought the dye from India. Julius Caesar's magnificent purple cloak was in part made-in-India.

1,800 years after Chandragupta, Queen Elizabeth I passed a law forbidding the wearing of the colour by anyone but close relatives of the royal family. In India of 326 BCE, however, there were no restrictions on the use of purple garments. Alexander received a 100 Indian ambassadors. They all rode in chariots and were men of uncommon stature and of a very dignified bearing. Their robes were of linen and embroidered with inwrought gold and purple.3

It is well worth remembering that Indians were then tall people, far taller than Alexander and his Greeks and Macedonians. By the end of their conquering sojourn the Greek clothes were in tatters. Alexander's army bid India adieu dressed in cloth woven in barbaric looms wherewith to cut out such dresses for themselves as were worn by Indians. A backhanded insult, were such a definition possible, for they had taken pains to glorify the produce of those barbaric looms.

Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, famous for her grand appearances, would have referred to notes left behind by Ptolemy, her great grandfather - a-couple-of times - removed. Emperor Chandragupta Maurya would have taught them a thing or two.

Behind his palanquin follow men-at-arms and his bodyguards of whom some carry boughs of trees, on which birds are perched trained to interrupt business with their cries.

Marching along amidst the scent of perfume and clouds of frankincense were buffaloes, panthers, tame lions, elephants, multitudes of brightly coloured birds as well as songbirds. Chandragupta's favourite bird was the hoopoe. He carried it on his wrist, and amused himself with it, and never tired gazing with admiration on its exquisite beauty, and the splendour of its plumage.

Royal garments are one thing and those worn by the masses quite another. The impression gained from the old writings is that regular clothes were white in colour or perhaps simply unbleached cotton. Hieun Tsang, the Chinese monk who came to visit the land of the Buddha, in the 7th Century has left behind descriptions of the manner in which the lengths of unstitched fabric were wound about the bodies: Their clothing is not cut or fashioned; they mostly affect fresh-white garments; they esteem little those of mixed colour or ornamented.4

The men wind their garments round their middle, then gather them under the armpits, and let them fall down across the body, hanging to the right.

The robes of the women fall down to the ground; they completely cover their shoulders. They wear a little knot of hair on their crowns, and let the rest of their hair fall loose (how pretty is that?). Some of the men cut off their moustaches... (note moustaches are beginning to be fashionable).

In case you have been left wondering, it is the dhoti-chadar and the sari being described, clothes that remain in fashion even today! Silk was in use quite definitely. The product of the wild silkworm was known as Kiau-she-ye - the Chinese name for the fabric. There were also garments woven of hemp as well as fine goat hair. Was Hieun Tsang speaking of pashmina, I wonder? The fine hair of wild animals was woven into fabrics as well and considered very valuable.

In north India, he says, the air is cold and the people wear short and close fitting garments. Fitting! The operative word remains in common north Indian parlance. The king of the country (there were many Hindu kings who owed allegiance to Harsha Vardhana, then emperor) and the great ministers wear garments and ornaments different in their character. They use flowers for decorating their hair, with gem-decked caps; they ornament themselves with bracelets and necklaces. Rich merchants, observed the monk, went bare-footed though a few wore sandals. They stained their teeth red or black, bound up their hair, pierced their ears and wore ornaments in their noses (note nose rings were not introduced by Muslims to India - again a myth like the story of turbans).

Styles varied. Some wore peacock feathers, some necklaces of skull bones, some went naked, and some garments of bark or leaves. While some pulled out their hair and cut off their moustaches; others sported bushy whiskers and braided their hair on the top of their heads. The colours worn were red or white and to the Chinese monk's eye their use appeared inconstant.

The robes of the Buddhist schools were by now red or yellow fashioned in styles called the Sang-kio-ki and the Ni-fo-si-na. The use of saffron colour amongst the non Buddhist Indians has not found documentary evidence yet. One, however, finds mention of the red robes of sannyasis which probably referred to the earthy red dust that soiled their garments. This geru soil, now relegated to the painting of earthen flower pots, has been discarded by the modern renouncer and replaced by a saffron chemical dye.

By 1030 CE, Al Biruni finds that Indians used turbans for their trousers! It is a quaint description for a dhoti, the material being the same. Besides those who were happy to be dressed in loin cloths there were others who wore voluminous pajamas or salwars: trousers lined with so much cotton as would suffice to make a number of counterpanes and saddle-rugs. These trousers have no (visible) openings, and they are so huge that the feet are not visible. The string by which the trousers are fastened is at the back.6

The chadar remained, as before, a covering for the head and chest but, says the scholar, this too like the trousers is buttoned at the back. Buttons? This is the first mention of their use in India as is the use of clothing that has been stitched. The women, he says, dress in kurtakas with short slashes on both the right and left sides. Modern kurtas and kurtis appear not to have changed since then. Men used cosmetics, wore earrings, arm-rings, golden seal rings on the ring-finger as well as rings on their toes - articles of female dress according to Al Biruni.

At the height of civilisation, men have been known to use make-up and jewellery attracting the ridicule of those still using brawn to climb the rungs of success as they perceive it. The Eastern Roman Empire, where Byzantine art - of which personal ornamentation was an integral part - flourished, was destroyed by the western empire that, convinced of its own moral excellence, sought to impose its culture. That was the projected reason though it was prompted by nothing more than greed. The story of India's rise and fall is not very different.

Historian Will Durant places the story of dressing and civilisation in perspective: The Englishman does not make British civilisation, it makes him; if he carries it with him wherever he goes, and dresses for dinner in Timbuktu, it is not that he is creating his civilization there anew, but that he acknowledges even there its mastery over his soul.7



2. Ibid

3. Ibid


5. Ibid

6. Sachau E.C., India by Al Biruni, National Book Trust India, 1983

7. Durant W., Our Oriental Heritage, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1942


Manoshi Bhattacharya Manoshi Bhattacharya @chittagong1930

Physician and author now working with nutrition in Indian diets.

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