Chandarvo: Textiles for Goddesses

Prof. BN Goswamy

If one were to come upon, suddenly, a piece of paper with these lines scribbled on it, I wonder what one would be able to make of it even if one knew some Gujarati:

“Vadibhai 24.177
Chandarva navakhanda 72” pano 4 mitar lamba ek pania
Sara rang ma, saama modha ni banyo
Bakra 3, pada 3, sikotar 2
Pava 2, sandhani 2, bethak vihat 2, hadkai 1
Rupaya 31.20 baanaana
Chandarva nang ek no bhav rupaiya 103.”

But things begin slowly to fall into place when one begins to decode it: with help, of course. It is an order placed by a client with a printer/painter, specifying details of what should be depicted on the chandarvo — textile with ritual representations of the goddess — that he is ordering. After recording the client’s name and the date, it says the rendering should be in nine columns/registers, height 72 inches, length 4 metre; everything should be in good colour; the face should be frontal; there should be three goats, three water buffaloes, three renderings of the Mother Goddess Shikotar; two seats with (the goddess) Vihat and (the goddess) Hadkai; an advance of rupees 31.20 has been paid; the rate is one hanging for 103 rupees.

But, as I said, for decoding, one needs help, as virtually nothing in the document is familiar to ‘outsiders.’ The names of the goddesses — Shikotar, Vihat, Hadkai — sound so alien; the need for a specific number of goats and buffaloes to be depicted remains unclear; why the main goddess should be seen strictly as facing the viewer, is unexplained. My own limited understanding of it all came from a relatively slim volume in German that was published some thirty years ago and has remained something of a benchmark. For it broke virgin ground and established fresh standards of research in the field. Tempeltucher fur die Muttergottinen in Indien — meaning ‘Temple Textiles for the Mother Goddesses in India’ — was part of its rather long title, the subtitle adding “rituals, production, and iconography” in the context of printed and painted fabrics of Gujarat. Three scholars were involved, each distinguished and by now widely known: Eberhard Fischer — tireless researcher and friend of India who served long years as director of the famous Rietberg Museum in Zurich — who worked out and established the ‘system’ of documentation with rigour, and his two Indian colleagues, Jyotindra Jain and Haku Shah, who knew the ground from close. Reading that book was like travelling with the three — some through the villages and towns of Gujarat and almost being able to hear them talk to the printers/painters of these sacred textiles: plying them with endless questions, examining their tools, exploring their minds, recording every single process and stage of production. But also documenting the miserable conditions in which they lived and worked: singularly remarkably, though, without losing any part of the faith that these textiles serve and sustain to this day. 

That was some thirty years ago, as I mentioned. But the occasion for my recalling that work is the fact of a new, and considerably expanded, version ….. Temple Tents for Goddesses in Gujarat, India, is how the new book is titled, with Eberhard, having made substantial additions to the earlier studies, and included fresh material, appearing also as its ‘editor’ apart from being the lead author. Here we see the sacred textiles all over again but learn even more about them: a catalogue of all items now in the collection of the (Rietberg) Museum, the ethnographic background of these textiles, the technique of their production, the iconography employed, the ritual use, the festivals, the different workshop styles, and so on. 

Mata Ni Pachedi, 20th century, Gujarat, India, Cotton, natural dyes, L. 230 cm, W. 141 cm, TXT.01285

It is a rich, densely textured world that the work, pictured above from the collection of the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), leads us towards and into, especially the subterranean stream of goddess worship that flows parallel to, but underneath, the worship of the ‘high-born’ great goddesses that one meets in the classical context. Among the underprivileged communities that make and use these textiles — the locals often call them Mata ni Pachhedi, the Mother’s All-embracing Wrap, so to speak — there is awareness of the great goddesses like Durga and Lakshmi and Saraswati, but real worship centres around regionally revered, almost autochthonous, goddesses like Khodiyar, Gel Mata, Meladi, Bahuchara, Shikotar, Momai, Vihat. One sees the remarkable expanse of these simple cotton pachhedi/chandarvos in the image: rectangle upon concentric rectangle, spaces occupied by animals that the goddess rides and receives as sacrifice, devotees moving about performing service, riches on display, crowds thronging, music being played, mountains being crossed, terrains covered: everything presided over by the resplendent, dominant figure of an ishta goddess. In these….. textiles, one meets lowly-placed Vaghris who print and paint, block makers, bleachers, dyers, builders of unostentatious shrines, acolytes who go into trance, priests who shiver when the goddess descends into them, devotees who bring offerings from long distances and sing and dance. It is a noisy, raucous world at the core of which there is faith, and remarkably quiet moments of concentration. 

There is outstanding documentation in all this. And it is all preceded by a fine introduction in which Eberhard Fischer recalls his early days as a student of anthropology at the Basel University where Alfred Buehler, that iconic figure, was one of his teachers. It is there that he learnt a lesson which every researcher who goes out into the field needs to keep close to his/her heart. The lesson? We must never forget that everything around us is changing so fast that it is constantly teetering at the edge of disappearance, being lost forever “from global memory.” The need therefore is to study and document all that can be documented, collect all that will not be there tomorrow. Time is of the essence. What did the poet say? “Waqt chamkeeley saanp ki maanind/ yoon phisalta saa nikal jaata hai/ kih mujhey kuchh yaqeen nahin hota.” Like a slithering snake it is passing right in front of our disbelieving eyes. 


The essay was originally published in The Tribune, Chandigarh and it is being reproduced here with the permission of Prof. BN Goswamy and The Tribune.  This has now been adapted to feature an artwork from MAP, and thus slightly modified. The part that has been removed from the original essay is replaced by ….. and the part that is added to the essay is in italics, (to make it relevant to the image from MAP).

Prof. BN Goswamy is an Indian art historian and critic, best known for his scholarship on Indian miniature paintings, particularly Pahari painting, and is the author of over twenty books on arts and culture.

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