Muslin : A riverbank craft revisited

Muslin : A riverbank craft revisited

As a resident of Bangladesh, it is quite hard to imagine that many years ago, a kind of cotton fabric made by the local people of this place attracted the whole world. This fabric, once called Bangla Kapor (Cloth of Bengal), Dhakai or Gangetiki is now more commonly known as ‘Muslin’ (Karim 1963; Eaton 1993). Its extreme delicacy and transparency were incomparable. The belief among the European travellers was that, the fabric was made by mermaids, fairies and ghosts of Bengal (Anonymous, 1851: 1; Islam, 2016: 82). According to some old accounts, muslin was ‘woven under water’ (Ure, 1836: 46). These accounts create a mysterious vibe in the story of muslin. Moreover, the story took a dramatic twist as the practice of manufacturing it ceased and the plant species behind the finest quality of muslin became extinct around 150 years ago during the British colonial period. In this article, I will focus on why the practice was unique to Bengal, particularly the region adjacent or close to the current location of Dhaka. What was the role of the landscape of this region with its association with rivers and was there a connection between the practice of muslin weaving and human habitation? Lastly, I will argue that it is worthwhile to revisit and reread this cultural practice and philosophy behind which can shed new light in theorising counter-settlement and dealing with the current challenge of climate change among many others.
Historical Accounts and the Colonial Reading of Muslin:

The earliest references to cotton weaving in Bengal are found in the Rig Veda (1500 BCE), Asvalayana Srauta Sutra (800 BCE), Megasthenes’s Indika (300 BCE) or in Ptolemy’s Geographia (1st century CE). In the Periplus of the Erythrian Sea (1st century CE), it is mentioned that a lot of muslin was exported to the Roman Empire, Persia and other places along the silk route during that time in exchange for gold (Anonymous, 1912: 47, 71). Muslin was of high demand among the high rank people in Rome and Persia at that time. In Pliny’s account there are mentions of Roman ladies of high rank wearing this type of cotton (Islam, 2016; Pliny, 1855). In the 4th Century, Fa Hian, a Chinese Buddhist monk and traveler mentioned muslin trading between Ceylon and Bengal (Anonymous, 1851). Yuan Chwang, another Chinese traveller of the 7th Century (629-45 CE) referred to this cloth as “the light vapours of dawn” because of its extreme transparency (Islam, 2016: 17). Between the 7th and 8th Centuries, trade flourished with the Middle East and the mention of muslin trade can be found in the accounts of a number of Muslim travellers and scholars. “Much cotton is grown in this country and trade flourishes…” as mentioned by Marco Polo in 1272 CE (Anonymous, 1851: 116). The Portuguese replaced the Arab traders in the early 16th century and succeeded in establishing trade in various parts of the province of Bengal towards the end of the 16th century (ibid.: 118-119). In 1666, the East India Company arrived and established a factory in Dacca. The French and Dutch were also involved in muslin trading in 17th and part of 18th century (ibid.: 128). But following the interventions of the East India Company, in 1757 and in 1765, the British finally took control and established colonial power in the Indian Sub-continent. From then, the British were in the leading role of muslin trade for the following decades.

Figure 3: Local women preparing the raw cotton under colonial supervision in late 19th century (British Library)

A Descriptive and Historical Account of the Cotton Manufacture of Dacca published in 1851, is one of the earliest published accounts on the history of Dhaka’s muslin. The author name is not mentioned but a careful reading reveals that most of the information are taken from the manuscript Account of the district of Dacca by the Commercial Resident John Taylor written in 1800-1801. The book (1851) starts with the opinions of the press on muslins of Dacca being exhibited at the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace, London in 1851.
“It is much to be doubted if we in England have anymore delicate and beautiful goods than the muslin of Dacca” (Illustrated London News, August 2, 1851)
“The cotton gin for the cleaning the wool and preparing it for spinning, the spinning wheel, and the looms there seen exhibit the rude, simple implements with which the natives of India, by dint of manual dexterity, are able to manufacture fabrics more delicately fine than can be produced by the aid of all our complicated mechanism, ingeniously as it is contrived, and most skillfully executed. The muslins of Dacca, of which specimens are exhibited, resemble a spider’s web in fineness of texture, for a whole breadth may be drawn through a finger ring.” (Morning Post, June 13, 1851)

Figure 4: A muslin weaver of Dacca, etching by Charles D’Oyly (British Library)

“The muslins of India, marvelous as they are in themselves, are still more so when we consider the rude and simple-looking machinery with which they are produced by the patient and finely-fingered Hindoos… these elegant and gauze-like tissues, which are termed ‘woven air’.” (Morning Herald, July 3, 1851)
It is evident from these accounts, the visible and objective description of the muslin as a product, where muslin is compared with ‘spider’s web’ or ‘gauze-like tissues’. With the ‘Imperial gaze’ the product has been described, imported and celebrated in other parts of the world. It is not hard to find the similar attributes that Edward Said identified in the oriental paintings of Gerome and Delacroix – a subset of realism, fanciful picturesque representation, a moral superiority to judge, primitiveness, barbarism, uncivilised indigenous tradition and so on (Said, 1979 and 1987: 90, 92). With the use of attributes like, ‘delicate’, ‘fineness’, ‘woven air’, ‘elegant’, ‘beautiful’, these depictions also indicate a sacred, divine, ethereal, intangible aspect – a kind of ‘spirituality’ in the making of muslin in Bengal. However, a complete opposite picture is revealed in the same book, when it attempted to provide the details of its manufacturing process.
In section no. 8, ‘Process of weaving plain and flowered muslin as practiced by the weavers at Dacca’ of Account of the District of Dacca, Taylor describes the making process as a production line starting from the plant to the fabric under six steps with images that are codified in English alphabets. After being harvested in April/May, the karpas (cotton with seed) was collected and then combed (with the jawbones of boal fish or wallago attu) and rolled and teased (dhun). The separated cotton was then preserved inside the skin of cuchia fish (Gangetic eel) (Anonymous, 1851: 18). After being prepared in this way, the cotton was spun and woven. During the spinning process, young women spun the finest thread, early in the morning or at late afternoon (Ibid.: 19). The weaving process consisted of several steps – winding, preparing yarn, warping, reed to warp, warp to loom and then weaving with the loom (Ibid.: 25). Following the detailed description of the making process and the drawings from the book, figure 1 shows the linear reading of the muslin weaving process, starting from the plant to the fabric like a ‘production line’.
Non-linear Reading of Muslin:
While the transparency of Bengal muslin was celebrated all over the world, its making involved the engagement of bodies and the use of local materials of a particular place. The main site of its making was twelve miles south of present Dhaka city, along the Meghna and Sitalakhya Rivers (Anonymous, 1851). There were three possible reasons for this: the plant, the atmosphere and the engagement of human bodies. The plant, Phuti Karpas in Bengali, (Gossypium Arboreum var. neglacta) thrived only along the Meghna and a segment of the Sitalakhya (Islam, 2016; Anonymous, 1851: 11). It was a particular species of cotton that was dependent not only on the seasonal inundations of the monsoon but also on a number of other factors including the proximity of the sea, the rate of temperature change between warmer river water and colder sea water and the chemical composition of the sediments deposited during the seasonal inundations (Islam, 2016: 52-54). The harvest time of the cotton plant was April/May, and the making process started from May. June to September (Ashar-Srabon-Bhadro) was the monsoon season and the total making process, spinning and weaving, was highly dependent on the monsoon-fed landscape. Bamboo and wood were the most commonly used materials. All the devices (spindle, heed, loom, etc.,) were produced and prepared locally. Other materials used in the production process–the bone of boal fish, skin of cuchia fish, banana–coconut fibre, coconut shell, dry wild-grass, reed, etc., were also sourced locally.
During the spinning process, the finest thread was spun when air humidity was high, usually in the early morning or in the late afternoon, and only by young women. For similar reasons they often placed bowls of water near their looms, or sited their looms and spinning wheels near flooded areas or on moored boats. As the process was done entirely by hand, it required high precision to maintain the precise thinness of the thread. Without sufficient humidity (for example during the other times of the day besides morning or late evening and other time of the year besides the monsoon season), the thread could be easily damaged. Which also explains why spinners often did the spinning process on moored or moving boats, to get extra humidity from the surrounding waterbodies. The ambient moisture conducive to the spinning and weaving of muslin resulted from the presence of forests and surrounding bodies of water. The presence of water in the atmosphere brought by the monsoon was one of the reasons for the unique muslin produced in Bengal. This is evident in the naming of different types of muslin, like Abrawan (flowing water), Shabnam (evening dew), Samander Laher (wave of the sea), Tanzeb (the body), Jamdani (floating flower) etc. They captured and named different conditions/forms of water. There are several sequences in the weaving process that were done mostly in outdoor areas. These processes were highly dependent on the monsoon atmosphere. The third reason as to why this location was important in the making of muslin was the engagement of human bodies with it. While the weaving part was mostly done by men, the spinning was done generally by women. The precise tension and moisture imparted by the fingers with the presence of high humid atmosphere were necessary to carry out the spinning process (Anonymous, 1851: 18). Elsewhere in the book Cotton Manufacture of Dacca (1851), it says – “Like most of the native artisans of Bengal, the Dacca weaver is of a slender and somewhat delicate form of body. Deficient in physical strength and energy, he is, on the other hand, endowed with fine sensibility of touch, and a nice perception of weight; while he possesses that singular command of muscular action which enables him to use his toes with almost as great effect as his fingers in the exercise of his art.” (Anonymous, 1851: 36) Here, the underlying tone suggests that the skills of the Bengali weavers are like ‘spiritual’ blessings being bestowed over the weaver’s body. Rather, I would argue that these skills were not a blessing or gift, rather these are gained experiences through years of practice and engagement by embodying the practical knowledge of the landscape and the environment. All these entanglements/layers – temporal or seasonal requirements, materiality, sensory and spatial features that are explained above, juxtaposed on the linear drawing to explore the complexities of the practice on this monsoon-fed landscape (figure 2).
Underlying Philosophy and an Alternative Reading of Habitation:
Muslin weaving in the monsoon landscape offers an alternative reading of human habitation. Spinners often sang while working on boats and if the weather was misty, passing travellers brought back tales of muslin being weaved by mermaids singing in the mist (Islam, 2016: 82). The weavers often flooded the pit beneath their looms that originate in the myth that the muslin was ‘woven under water’ (Ibid.: 82). To Europeans, the plant, atmosphere and the engagement of the human body in the making of muslin were esoteric and difficult to document and understand. But to the people of Bengal, they were parts of everyday practice. Is it possible that this practice is a mode of habitation? Can it be said, that the boat was an integral component of dwelling, given that the people of this part of Bengal spent months on them (during spinning). Perhaps moored, perhaps in movement, searching for the morning dew, for that extra humidity… Perhaps boats were not a mere part of dwelling, floating extension of firm ground; rather boats together with firm ground if there was any, were a part in the milieu of ‘wetness’. In this monsoon landscape where much is submerged during the rain, when the lines of riverbanks are erased, when towns established by the European colonisers are washed away by the changing course of rivers, what is the point of reference? Does this open up a new imagination that shifts us from a divided landscape of lands and waters to a ‘ground of wetness’, a ground that requires a new vocabulary of habitation? (da Cunha, 2019)
In a report published by BBC in 2021, a senior journalist Zaria Gorvett mentions that the knowledge of muslin making was forgotten and ‘the legend of the loom was no more’. I argue that besides muslin weaving, we forgot something else that is more important to realise. The nonlinear reading of muslin practice as described above, tells us more about the local imaginations and intellectual practices within the entanglement of human and non-human relations, than just a transparent fabric out of a legendary loom. It indicates a different way of imagining habitation in the milieu of ‘wetness’ within which it was possible for the Bengali people to weave the muslin fabric. Landscape architects and thinkers Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha coin the term ‘wetness’, to refer to a mode of thinking (and also habitation) that acknowledges the ubiquitous condition of water (Mathur and da Cunha, 2020). In other words, it invokes a nondualistic moment or condition. Thus, the ground of wetness is not just a physical ground, but also a conceptual ground that embodies the way of life, beliefs, and practices. The local imaginations embedded in the muslin practice work against the linear logic of colonial rationality. While linearity is connected with industrial development, order and Kantian phrases of ‘Pure Reason’/’Practical Reason’, these local engagements denote an apparent disorderliness. Amitabh Ghosh mentions in his book The Circle of Reason, about these complex entanglements of weaving practice as ‘disorderly beauty’ (Ghosh, 1986). While there is a mystical undertone in Ghosh’s terminology, one can deduct from this, the ‘disorderliness’ as the binary opposite of colonial order/rationality/pure reason, something that is spiritual and not scientific.
Now coming back to the notion of wetness as derived from the muslin practice, we find logical reasoning behind every step of its making process. These logics are evident even when cotton weaving is referred in the ancient Hindu sources like in Rig Veda or in the Institution of Manu. The 1st Book of Rig Veda Hymn 105, v.8, which is one of the four sacred canonical texts of Hinduism thought to be derived from 1500 BCE mentions, “cares consume me Satakratu, although thy worshipper, as a rat gnaws a weaver’s thread” (Watt, 1885; Wilson, 1928). Commentators interpreted that Rat’s temptation was probably the starch, in which the threads had been steeped to improve their tenacity and strengthen the fabric (Wilson, 1928). For thinnest muslin thread this strengthening was crucial. Furthermore, in the Institution of Manu/ Asvalanya Srauta Sutra, Book VIII, no. 397 (800 BCE), it says, “Let a weaver, who has received ten palas of cotton thread, give them back increased to eleven by the rice water, and the like used in weaving; he who does other-wise shall pay a fine of twelve panas” (Wilson, 1928). This reveals the actual measurement of using rice water by the weavers/spinners which is also mentioned in John Taylor’s detailed accounts. There are many instances of such precision employed by the weavers, which were not just ‘bestowed’ upon them, but rather which they acquired from their long involvement with the ground/landscape and by accumulating practical knowledge about it. Thus, the logics intrinsic in the muslin practice challenge the view that the weaver’s practice or way of thought is spiritual thus far from scientific or practical. At the same time, it is also distinct from pure/practical reason of enlightenment or colonial rationality. Therefore, the ground of wetness is neither ‘disorderly beauty’ nor does it conform to ‘concrete reasoning/rationality’. It is more like ‘soft’ reasoning as it always negotiates, it bends before it breaks. Nonetheless, it is true that the disruption of linearity contradicts the oppressive qualities of concrete reasoning and the logic of domination. Amitabh Ghosh is right in identifying that this complex non-linear/soft ‘fractal kind of reason’ was vulnerable under the colonial domination (Ghosh, 1986). It is no wonder, that muslin weaving experienced its tragic end through the death of the very cotton plant species during the colonial period. Not only because the colonisers forcefully coerced the weavers and farmers to cultivate indigo or opium or their self-serving administrative operations (imposing tax on muslin trade etc.), by engineering the landscape through different acts and laws, framing/controlling the rivers for sake of permanent land, killed the valuable species Phuti Karpas along with the muslin practice in Bengal. As a result, a large number of Bengali weavers and spinners died during the great famine of 1770. Concomitantly and over time, we have forgotten how to engage ourselves with the specificities of this monsood-fed place that was once performed by our ingenious weavers.
The reading of muslin weaving practice in this way calls for a redefinition of the dwelling culture of Bengal and to see outside of the rigid dichotomy of land and water, rootedness and detachedness. It challenges the conventional view that the architectural culture of Bengal is naturally rooted in the ground or in fixed location. This investigation shows that the dwelling culture of this region is not solely rooted in ground, but also woven in a very complex way with the landscape. This study demonstrates alternative narratives of habitation and addresses the emerging field of the history of environment and architecture. It highlights that environment is not only the techno-scientific construction and reconstruction of natural forces, but also a philosophical way of defining our human position on earth, both economically and ecologically, by understanding human labour (i.e. the muslin weavers) through a completely different framework that is beyond the binaries (i.e. rationality and spirituality, land and water, rootedness and detachedness) and its social values as it was shaped by the environmental forces. Currently, as we are dealing with the threats of climate change and sea-level rise, revisiting local practices and imaginations can help to counter the universal homogenisation of languages, frameworks and concepts that are now taken-for-granted parts of our daily lives. Let’s remind ourselves, Bengalis did not just settle, they wove.

Labib Hossain is a doctoral student in the History of Architecture and Urban Development program at Cornell. His focus is on the traditional practices in monsoon landscape that can offer an alternative reading of human habitation, one that challenges the dry/permanent ground and serves to open a new imagination.

Leading Image : Figure 1: Colonial reading of muslin weaving, starting from the plant (left) to the fabric (right), (above sketches are from Descriptive and Historical, 1851; the bottom sketch is prepared by author)

As a resident of Bangladesh, it is quite hard to imagine that many years ago, a kind of cotton fabric made by the local people of this place attracted the whole world. This fabric, once called Bangla Kapor (Cloth of Bengal), Dhakai or Gangetiki is now more commonly known as ‘Muslin’ (Karim 1963; Eaton 1993).…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *