Shitalakhya’s Jamdani A tale of a wedding gift
“The Luckia or Seetul (silver) Luckia, as it is sometimes called from the transparency of its water, is, as regards scenery, one of the finest rivers in the country”¹
“Tranquil and smiling, [Shitalakhya] the most beautiful of all the rivers of eastern Bengal”²
Nature precedes culture, but when the two meet, the bond is inseparable. The story of the Shitalakhya river and Jamdani, the diaphanous gem of a fabric, epitomises this link between nature and culture.
The legend goes that when providence brought Brahmaputra from the Himalaya to where Langalbandh is today, he heard about the legendary beauty of Shitalakhya who was flowing nearby, and rushed to see her. Alerted by the clamorous advance of the mighty Brahmaputra, a shy Shitalakhya took the shape of an old woman to dissuade him. But eventually her true identity was discovered by Brahmaputra, following which they tied the knot. One may tie this millennial myth to the urban legend to suggest that Jamdani was a marriage gift to Shitalakhya from Brahmaputra.
As we translate the Puranic myth into natural sciences, we know that the sangama between Brahmaputra and Shitalakhya was the interplay of tectonic shifts and geomorphological processes. If European versions of the maps of Bengal and surrounding regions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are considered even partially correct, we can assume that Shitalakhya was once the mighty Brahmaputra itself. In its earliest historical incarnations, Brahmaputra flowed in two (or more) channels, one by the name of Great Brahmaputra (Groote Barrem Pooter of van Den Broucke) and another running parallelly as Shitalakhya (Lecki of van Den Broucke). In the earlier setting, the Great Brahmaputra had served its historical role by giving rise to, and sustaining Bengal’s oldest urban development in Wari-Bateshwar during 400-100 BCE, whose reverberations persisted well after this period. By the fourteenth century, the later reincarnation of Brahmaputra in the form of Shitalakhya started playing a more prominent role in reshaping the Bengal delta’s culture, commerce and connection to the wider world.
From the point of view of material culture, one item that was defined by both the flows of the Brahmaputra was the fine cotton fabrics famed as muslin. For millennia, muslin was the world’s most sought-after high-end tropical garment. The legendary story of its quality has been chronicled by many contemporary observers. One of them is that a muslin turban of 60 feet in length was so fine that one would scarcely know it was in one’s hand and could be placed in a coconut shell of the size of an ostrich egg. One outstanding remnant that still revokes the legend of the muslin is Jamdani. The Shitalakhya is inexorably linked to its unparallel quality and taste and corresponding backward linkages, production process, local cultural resonance and global circulation.
There is a fine line between the classical muslin era and the medieval Jamdani era, but possibly the Jamdani variety of muslin emerged during the heyday of the Sultani period, especially after the 13th century, reaching a climax in the Mughal period during the time of Jahangir and empress Nurjahan. Throughout this period Jamdani, aided by the most formative force of the Shitalakhya, represented an “exquisite delicacy” with a revolution in design assemblages that was unmatched by any other.
Shitalakhya’s foremost links to Jamdani comes from the deep-historical process of the formation of the eastern fringes of the Himalayas 50 million years ago that became a source of soil-enriching minerals carried by the Brahmaputra. Being a channel of the mighty river, Shitalakhya was a beneficiary of this unique soil ecology, that contained silica, mica and calcareous earth mixed with iron. The quality and quantity are further enhanced if the soil is loamy, or if it contains maximum moisture and heat. These formative ecological features of the Shitalakhya basin were ideally suited for the cultivation of the cotton that were used for the crafting of Jamdani, known as kapas. The nourishment of kapas plant was aided by the freshness of sea air. A favourable combination of geological and climatic conditions offered the Shitalakhya basin a production site for cotton, unique to this region. This is reflected in the fact that British attempts to cultivate the kapas elsewhere failed completely. As late as early nineteenth century, kapas was the “finest cotton” in the world, as asserted by John Taylor, the foremost expert on colonial Dhaka. The locality of Kapasia on Shitalakhya still bears testimony to the cultivation of this special cotton.
Jamdani’s production process entailed Shitalakhya’s ecological regime. It had a high and wooded bank, which never overflowed and that it was “remarkable for the purity and coolness of its water.” Since water was needed for processing cotton and other production contents, the water of Shitalakhya had something to do with Jamdani production. It is also well known that for dyeing, bleaching water with appropriate mineral content is crucial. There were also many processes of weaving which were dependent on the right level of humidity and moisture. For example, lack of humidity could cause warp breakage. The moisture that was created out of the vapour of Shitalakhya was “not only suitable but rare” for the condition in which Jamdani could be woven.³
The implements for weaving Jamdani were also naturally available in Shitalakhya and other neighbouring river basins. Taylor lists 126 different implements, including maku (shuttle) and shana (reed), required to prepare the finest Jamdani. These were either made of bamboo or reeds. Most of these implements are still used by Jamdani weavers. The local ecology also inspired Jamdani designs that included flowers and plants.
The Shitalakhya’s role as a provider of uniquely suitable ecology for the production of Jamdani was extended by the communicational facilities that it offered via the Meghna, which in turn presented Jamdani to the wider world. The Moroccan world traveller Ibn Batutta in 14th century, some Chinese travellers in 15th century, and the Mughal imperial author Abul Fazl in 16th century—all praised the muslin of Bengal extravangantly. In particular, Sonargaon was mentioned by Abul Fazl and Ralph Fitch as a place “where the finest cotton cloths are made.” In the twilight of the Mughal empire, Jamdani continued to be marketed through commercial routes of Italy, Iran and Arabian seaports, in addition to those across the Mughal empire itself.
By the early nineteenth century Jamdani production met with its lowest ebb, losing touch with its original quality and quantity. Instead, jute production became predominant, culminating in the establishment of the Adamjee jute mills on the Shitalakhya in 1950. The Adamjee is discontinued but now replaced by hundreds of other factories and production lines. The continued infiltration of pollutants has not only ended the legendary clarity of Shitalakhya’s water, but has also reduced its oxygen to a level at which fish and other living entities can hardly survive. However, there have been some welcome efforts in recent times to restore the past glory of muslin and Jamdani. The recognition of Jamdani as a Geographical Indications (GI) product by the WTO also highlights the links between Jamdani and the unique ecology of Shitalakhya that it sustained historically.
But any measure to restore muslin and Jamdani, must first restore the ecology of Shitalakhya. Both the old/great Brahmaputra and the Shitakhya have been disconnected from the elemental mineral ingredients of the Himalayan mountains. Unless the Shitalakhya is reconnected to the eastern Himalayan fringes directly to get the natural ingredient, and the water quality is restored to its 1850 or at least 1906 level, any restoration measures will meet with merely superficial success. Only when we are able to restore the original ecological properties and network of the Shitalakhya, may we hope to find her lost wedding gift, that is to say, our dear Jamdani.
Iftekhar Iqbal is at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam and studies the environmental and intellectual history of Southern Asia and Bangladesh
¹James Taylor, A Sketch of the Geography and Statistics of Dacca (Calcutta, 1840)
²Francis B. Bradley-Birt, The Romance of an Eastern Capital (Simla,1906)
³Samāja o aitihya (Dhaka 1967), p.152
4Francis Bradley-Birt (1906) has left a wonderful narrative of Shitalakhya’s myth, ecology, beauty, serenity, mundane life and trade and commerce that manifested themselves as day and night rolled into each other. A deeper analysis of Bradley-Birt’s narrative (chapter 12 of his book is devoted to this) might offer a sketch of the last stages of pre-polluted Shitalakhya. Asking for a return to the 1840 level when James Taylor commented on Shitalakhya would be too long a shot.
“The Luckia or Seetul (silver) Luckia, as it is sometimes called from the transparency of its water, is, as regards scenery, one of the finest rivers in the country”¹ “Tranquil and smiling, [Shitalakhya] the most beautiful of all the rivers of eastern Bengal”² Nature precedes culture, but when the two meet, the bond is inseparable.…