Tales of far magic unrolled, British Museum

Aug 07 2016 Tags: Expert, Out & About, Textiles

Lord Krishna, Kaliya, the serpent demon and verses from the drama, Kali-daman by the Assamese saint Shankaradeva are just some of the intricate motifs depicted on the exquisite Assamese woven textile currently on view at the British Museum.

‘It is one of the most important textiles in the Museum’s collection,’ the head of the South Asian section at the British Museum, Richard Blurton, explained. ‘The 17th century weavers used immensely sophisticated weaving technology,known as lampas which is now extinct in India.’

Tales of Thread is being treated to a personal tour of the story behind the Vrindavani Vastra, or Cloth of Vrindavan, the central piece of the exhibition, Krishna in the Garden of Assam. The story, it turns out, is as complicated and full of characters as the cloth itself.

The Vrindavani Vastra is a lampas cloth, or woven silk, dating to the 17th century. It is made up of twelve individual strips of cloth which have, later in their lives been stitched together. These twelve strips were woven in the Assam region of north-east India. At over nine metres long, it is the largest of its type to survive. Extraordinarily complicated and accomplished, the Vrindavani Vastra endures as a testament of the value of such artisanship, to the eye, to culture and to the human spirit.

Traditionally woven by men, who learnt the technique from their fathers, the skills of weaving with double weft and double warp threads – lampas – is now extinct in Assam, though a cottage industry of much simpler weaving run by women still survives. It is, however, under threat as machine/digital weaving techniques become more cost effective.

In Assam the individual strips of cloth with their Krishna imagery were probably used to wrap manuscripts. Later, at an unknown date they were taken to Tibet and stitched together to make the 9.00m plus textile we see today. Across the top of the now very large cloth, strips of damask and brocade, from China, were added. In Tibet it was used in a Buddhist monastery at the small town of Gobshi, near Gyantse in southern Tibet. From here it was acquired in 1904 by Perceval Landon, the correspondent of The Times who was reporting on the Younghusband Expedition sent from British India to Tibet. Landon in turn gave it to the British Museum in 1905.

The luxurious cloth is composed of twelve richly-coloured panels,using four different designs. These depict scenes from the life of the Hindu god Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the great male deity, Vishnu. Many of these scenes show his trials against demons in the Vrindavan forest. The scenes are depicted through both illustration and word : the text fragments were copied by the weavers from dramas centred around Krishna , by the 16th century saint Shankaradeva.

The transformation of the Vrindavani Vastra is evident in its evolving functions: from protecting manuscripts when in Assam, to interior decoration or partitioning, suggested by metal hoops at the top of the fabric when in Tibet.

Blurton and his team visited Assam during the annual festival of Ras Lila that celebrates many of the characters depicted on the cloth to share images of the textile and commission masks for the displays.

The exhibition, Krishna in the Garden of Assam, is free and is open to all at the British Museum, London, until August 15th 2017. Room 91.

Visit the British Museum online resource to see the Vrindavani Vastra and the more than 3, 500, 000 objects. Follow the link to view the database entry for this magnificent Assamese textile.

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