Gujarat Textiles: Canopies for the Goddess

Canopy, matani chandarvo, for goddesses
Unknown workshop in Jambusar (India), early 20th century
Cotton fabric, painted and printed, mordant dyed red and black, additionally painted yellow, orange and pink, 210 x 232 cm. Museum Rietberg Zurich.
Gift of Eberhard and Barbara Fischer

Canopies for the Goddess, mata no chandarvo, is the name created for this large-scale exhibition of illustrated Gujarat textiles from, India. These large-format textiles mark sacred places used specifically for the veneration of goddesses. These printed or painted cloths tell the deeds of the 20-armed goddess Vihat, the buffalo-killing goddess Khodiyar, or Bahuchara Mata, who is often depicted riding a giant cockerel.  The men of the semi-nomadic community of the Vagri have been producing these beautifully worked illustrated textiles for many generations in Ahmedabad, one of the oldest and most important textile centres in the world.

Mata No Chandarvo

For generations, beautiful, intricately decorated mata no chandarvo have been produced in the city, the economic heart of the federal state of Gujarat. Ahmedabad is regarded as one of the world’s major textile centres: in this region people have been cultivating cotton for 3,000 years, and many production, weaving, dyeing and printing techniques were perfected if not invented here. Until only a few decades ago, Ahmedabad was the most important city for the manufacture of textiles in the whole of India. 

The Vagri Caste

 The producers of these Gujarat textile artworks are exclusively men from the Vagri caste, a semi-nomadic group, who lead a socially marginalised and precarious life as ragpickers, landless seasonal agricultural workers, peddlers and ropemakers. Those who buy their painted cloths usually come from other underprivileged groups such as road sweepers, donkey drivers or camel and sheep herders, all people who in former times were excluded from visiting orthodox Hindu temples. 

As rag-pickers, seasonal workers, peddlers and ropemakers, they lead a socially marginalised and precarious life. The buyersof the textiles are also underprivileged groups such as street cleaners, donkey drivers or camel and sheep herders, all people who in former times were excluded from attending orthodox Hindu temples. The ‘temple cloths’ are gifts to their goddesses, offered to obtain well-being, children and success, and protection from illness.

The Vagri use them to decorate their simple shrines, made from pounded earth and otherwise devoid of religious images, and to make the canopies and tent walls that mark out the boundary of the sacred district, separating it from its mostly inhospitable surroundings. The Gujarat textiles also serve as invitations to the goddess to come there to perform her rituals.

Printed with Woodblocks

The cloths, which are printed with woodblocks, are dyed using an ancient technique called Turkey red, a name which refers not to the colour but to the process, which was once thought to have originated in the Levant. During the Middle Ages, Europeans adopted this technique which used the roots of plants of the madder (rubia) genus, from the Rubiaceae family, as a dye. The dyed textiles are resistant to strong sunlight and to fading from frequent washing.

The process is essentially as follows: at first the cotton cloth is freed from the sizing fluid, then the pattern is printed or painted on it with mordant. To obtain black, the mordant used is an elutriated iron compound, whereas for red an alum mordant is used. After any superfluous mordant has been carefully cleaned off, the textile is dyed with alizarin (a naturally occurring chemical compound, formerly and sometimes still derived from madder but now also obtained synthetically), by prolonged boiling. The result is that only in those areas that have been treated with mordant does colouring occur; everywhere else the textile remains white. 

Size of Chandarvo Cloths

The chandarvo cloths are rectangular cotton fabrics approximately 3.5 metres long. In the centre, one particular goddess is always depicted, for it is to her that the cloth is dedicated. Each goddess can be easily identified by her appearance, her attributes and her mount: the goddess Vihat, for example, has twenty arms, and Khodira a trident with which she kills a wild buffalo demon, while Bahuchara is always represented riding on a cockerel. 

The painted goddesses are all venerated as ‘mother’ (Sanskrit, Gujarati mata). Some of them correspond to the great Hindu goddesses such as Kali or Durga, who are venerated in the temples. Others are deified shepherdesses of former centuries whose husbands excelled as ballad singers and to whom magic powers are attributed. 

The cloths are gifts from humans to their goddesses, made in the hope of being granted well-being, children and success, and protection from illness. They decorate the walls of shrines built from pounded earth, which are devoid of cult images, and serve as canopies and tent walls to separate the sacred district from its often inhospitable surroundings. They also provide a sign for the goddess so that she knows where to settle during the ritual. 

Goddesses Linked to Nature in the Gujarat Textiles

Goddesses who are linked with trees, rivers and lakes, and extreme weather, are implored for assistance in periods of drought. Other goddesses are asked to help with epidemics which they have the power to stop. And finally, there are goddesses like Meladi, who are ‘made of dirt’. For those who venerate her, she does all the disagreeable work for which the high-born gods consider themselves too good. Thus she is the patron of rubbish collectors and washerwomen. 

Sacrificial ceremonies are performed to beseech these mother goddesses for help. People dance, sing the goddesses’s songs, and slaughter a black animal for them, most frequently a goat, which is brought by a priest. During the ritual the priest falls into a trance and is possessed by the goddess. The goddess then grants well-being and success, protects from illness and gives children. To show their gratitude for her help or as requests for assistance in the future, people make gifts of chandarva cloths with her image. 

The exhibition of Gujarat textiles shows a selection of these extraordinary textiles from an important collection, recently given to the museum by its  former director – Dr Eberhard Fischer. It is an unique opportunity to explore   the techniques and production processes, the religious iconography and ritual use of these important cloths.

Canopies for the Goddess is from 13 December 2013 until 14 April, 2014 at Museum Rietberg, Gablerstrasse 15,
 CH-8002 Zürich, Catalogue in German, or English, is available.