Cloth and Culture

Articles, Indian Mythology 4 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, August 26, 2012


Cloth is an indicator of culture. It indicates the presence of a farm – for sheep or cotton or silkworms. It indicates the presence of a spindle for spinning yarn and a loom for weaving cloth. Then there are the dyers, the embroiderers and the tailors who take fabric to another level. As cloth is woven and clothing stitched, the human understanding of the world creeps into the threads and the folds and the stitches.

In India, there were naked gods and naked goddesses. Naked gods were ascetics – the sky clad ones, the Digambars, their nakedness an expression of their desire for nothing. Naked goddesses on the other hand were embodiments of the wilderness, the raw and untamed Yoginis, Matrikas, Mahavidyas, sexual and violent at the same time. Cloth was given to the men to turn the hermit into the householder and cloth was given to the women to domesticate the forest and turn them into field. Cloth civilized man and tamed the earth. Even today, in Goddess temples, such as the one of Vaishno-devi in Jammu, offerings of red veils with gold edges are made as the devotee seeks to see her not in her naked ferocity but as a demure bride and loving mother.

Shiva, that face of God which destroys through indifference, wears no cloth. If he is not naked, then he drapes himself with animal hide, either flaying wild animals alive or simply taking skins of animals dead on the forest floor. Vishnu, that face of God that preserves through engagement, is associated with fabric – the finest muslin and silk.

According to one of the many folklores found amongst the Padmashali weaver community of Andhra Pradesh, the first thread emerged from the navel of Vishnu, the same navel from which sprung Brahma, the father of all living creatures. This thread was given by Bhavana Rishi to the weavers so that they could weave cloth for the gods. Thus fabric is the gift of Vishnu, the lord of civilized conduct. And this association with the making and selling of cloth has made the Padmashali very respected members of society. So important was the role of the tanti or weaver that esoteric practices like Tantra used the vocabulary of the weavers to explain the nature of the world. Thus the consciousness and matter became the warf and the woof of the cosmic loom, creating the fabric of life.


  • Raghav Venkataraman

    the first thread emerged from the navel of Vishnu” – nice illustration too.
    Will you reveal the secret of where you learnt to illustrate or that was also a self taught art?

    World awakens/ made and survives when Vishnu is awake. And the threads start the journey. What happens when he goes to sleep. If it is pralaya, why is it depicted with Markandeya’s vision of Krishna in a leaf rather than just Vishnu in deep sleep (instead Vishnu is depicted almost always eyes half closed) ?

    • devduttp

      Self taught illustrator…for other information you have to read

      • Raghav Venkataraman

        Self taught illustrator” – you are cool!

        Bought, read and giving out my copy as free copy to friends and relatives. Like “Jaya” the most.

      • Tejaswini Patwardhan

        I am a big fan of your. Got some of your kiddie books for my 6 year old daughter. She loved them. Also, because she is learning Bharatnatyam, your explanation of mudras was very exciting for her. Thanks ! Looking forward to reading more from you !!