Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday on 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.