The Hidden Power of Textiles in the Mughal Empire
Adorned in azure, embroidered silk with gold brocade and precious stones cascading down his sleeves, Babur took his first step into Hindustan. The year was 1526 and through his military prowess, the Mughal Empire was born.
When we think about the Mughals, grandeur and grandiose are two words that come to mind. We think about the lavish intricacy of the Taj Mahal or the bejeweled excess portrayed in Jodhaa Akbar. The Mughals definitely had opulent taste, but they were renowned for being strategic, steadfast visionaries.
For over 300 years, the Mughal dynasty administered the Indian subcontinent as a single nation under one ruler. Their legacy has left a permanent mark on our modern-day society and culture.
One of the largest industries under the Mughal patronage was the textile industry. Although it served as a major economic asset to the empire, South Asian textiles also served as significant cultural, political and metaphorical embeds in the Mughal court.
Emperor Babur was the first emperor of the Mughal Dynasty. He wore silk embroidered jawalkat gowns and studded quaba coats with wide collars tied at the middle of the body. At his waist , a kamarbandh with gold tipped ends hanged loose. A conical Kulah turban wrapped around his head, adorned with gold and precious stones.
His bundled attire was an ode to the harsh climate of the Mughals' ancestral Persia and Uzbekistan.
However, his preoccupation with battles and invasions led to insufficient sartorial reform. Consequently, there wasn't any patronage of regional textiles and craftsmanship.
As Emperor Akbar ascended the throne, things started to shift. His policy was cultural synthesis and true to his beliefs of unity, Akbar paved the way to reduce differences in clothing in his court and within the common people.
Luxury silks and gold brocade were still being imported from Persia and China, but they were only being used as khila in the court, a monetary payment used for securing loyalty from retainers.
Akbar wanted to forge Hindustan as a mainstay in the international textile industry. He wanted to show that Hindustan was one. To increase communal fraternity, he began to acknowledge regional craftsmanship and adopted fine Bengal cotton, Rajputana tie-dyed sashes and Kashmiri wool in his court.
Under Akbar and Jahangir, the Mughals embraced diverse South Asian textiles for their sensory values, political symbolism and metaphorical richness.
Kashmiri pashmina and its softer counterpart tus , which came from wild antelope, was unparalleled for its lightness, warmth and softness. As a political tool, the Emperor sent them to Nawabs, rulers of regions of Hindustas, to ask them to reduce their pride and unify the subcontinent under one ruler.
Mulmul cotton from Bengal was renowned across Asia, Europe, Africa, and was heavily favored by the Mughals in the 16th century. They highlighted the luminosity of the skin and cooled the body on hot summer days. Vibrant muslin was used in the courts for floor and tent coverings. They were noted for their transcendental qualities as people called them atan and tansukh. Muslin’s simple elegance provoked humility and symbolized ethical righteousness. Therefore, rulers and kings embraced these fabrics to allude to the public that they too possessed such gentile qualities.
After his ascension, Akbar also commissioned for Rajput style turbans and jamas, which used the Rajasthani Bandhani tie dye techniques. By the 16th century, the court adopted the chakdar jama , a translucent cotton gown originating from the Rajput Mewar Kingdom. It was a coat with 4 to 6 pointed ends, flowing below the knees. The jama had 2 overlapping lapels at the chest and was fastened on the left side. It’s sheerness allowed the skin to shine through.
At the waist, the Mughals wore a thin muslin band adorned with gold brocade overlay.
Over time, the chakdar jama became a staple between Mughals and Rajputs in both upper and middle classes. It served as a way to erase religious differences and class divisions, and promoted more solidarity among the people and the regions of Hindustan.
At that time, both Mughal men and women wore similar attire, a translucent jama with tight trousers. Whilst men wore a kamarbandh and turban, women would wear an ankle length vest over their jama adorned with rich gold and silver zari. This was known as the Peshwaz and in our modern times, we have adopted it as the anarkali.
The Mughal patronage of humble regional cloths was crucial in forging strong political unity and fraternity across regions. South Asian fabrics continue to play important cultural, economical and spiritual roles in our community. The industry provides livelihoods to many artisans, it brings together communities during festivals and it helps us connect with a greater force through rituals and celebrations. If we can embrace more regional artisanal textiles into our everyday lives, we can pave the way for more South Asian unity in a post-Mughal world.