The Magic of the Backstrap Loom
photos: niaz zaman & amiya kanti chakma
To retain or revive traditional weaving, the right incentive must be given as well as the realisation created that indigenous weaving is not only a functional product but also a work of art and the preservation of a unique culture.
Backstrap weaving was carried out extensively in the north-eastern regions of Bangladesh by the Manipuris in Sylhet as well in the Chittagong Hill Tracts by the Chakma, Khyang, Khumi, Chak, Tanchangya, Tripura, Pangkhoa, Bawm, Marma, Mro, and Lushai. These indigenous groups would not only make their own costumes on the loom, they would also make other household or ritual articles on it. However, as these peoples have had to adapt to changing circumstances – because of the opening up of the region to Bangalis as well as the incursion of inexpensive machine-made products – their costumes have changed and with it the unique textiles handwoven on backstrap looms.
Despite the political turmoil and social changes, however, indigenous textiles woven on the backstrap loom are still made by some indigenous communities. Some communities weave products mainly for their own use or ritual purposes. Others mainly weave products such as shawls and blankets for commercial purposes. However, most groups have given up weaving their intricate, traditional textiles as they are too labour-intensive. Because many indigenous groups have been deprived of their traditional way of life where the land had been theirs to use, many indigenous people have turned perforce to wage labour. Weaving was for many women something that they did between household chores or between helping with jum, traditional slash-and burn-cultivation. However, with less land for jum cultivation available, indigenous women have had to look outside the home for work. This has deprived them of the time they could spend on weaving. Furthermore, as growing numbers of girls go to school and then college, they have no time for weaving and, as with many other crafts in Bangladesh, with no recognition given to domestic crafts, they would rather do other things. Backstrap weaving is physically challenging – because the tension is maintained on one end by the weaver’s body – and time-consuming. The younger generations would rather explore alternative livelihood options to traditional weaving.
Initially, all products made on the backstrap loom were functional – even the Chakma a/am – a repertoire of patterns – and the Khyang lukhu – an elaborate headdress. These were not pieces for display, but pieces that had a purpose. Today, however, they are like collectors’ items and command a high price but, as often happens, weavers do not have ready buyers in their localities. Unable to sell these products, they fall back on what is easier. Thus, on any one day, one can see, next to the bus stops in the Bandarban area, women sitting with piles of blankets, or, on the open grounds in front of the Chakma Raja’s residence in Rangamati, Chakma women selling shawls.
Though the Manipuris, settled in the north-eastern region of Bangladesh, as well as the indigenous communities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts have different lifestyles, women’s traditional costume in both regions consists of a sarong woven on the backstrap loom. However, the colours and designs are different. There are also some pieces particular to an indigenous group which are not found among others.
The Manipuris consist of the Meitei, Vishnupriya and Pangan ethnic and religious communities. The Meitei are descendants of the Manipuris who migrated over time and settled down in north-eastern India and Bangladesh. They are Hindu but have their own gods as well. The Pangan, who are believed to be descendants of Pathan soldiers who settled in the region and married, are Muslim. The Vishnupriya are descendants of Assamese who settled in the region and are Hindu. Despite differing in ethnicity and religion, these three groups share some common features of costume. The garment worn traditionally by Manipuri women are a sarong, called phanek by the Meitei and !aheng by the Vishnupriya, a phurit (blouse similar to a sari blouse), and a phidu or enaphi (orna or wrap). Some Manipuri women still wear the khaonphi, a sarong tied higher up under the arms. The phidu is thicker and is worn by married or elderly women, while the enaphi is finer and is worn by younger women. The enaphi – like the later sari – is not woven on the backstrap loom but on the throw shuttle loom. Manipuri men wear the gamchha (a knee-length, checked sarong) also called panch hati because it is five cubits long. On top they wear shirts. Pangan women wear saris and blouses, and in public don a burka. Pangan men wear clothes similar to Muslim Bengali men.
Weaving is a home-based activity, undertaken by women in between other household chores. Nowadays, Manipuri women also weave for commercial purposes. However, when done at home, this is largely to make quilts, known as !asingphi or kashmira.
Popular Manipuri designs include the jhao gachh, shefali phul, and the temple design known as moirang phi because of its association with the princess Moirang Thoibi. In order to make designs in the loom, the weaver uses a pointed instrument to ’embroider’ designs much as in the jamdani. The phanek that Manipuris weave have bright contrasting colours for the body and the borders. For everyday wear plain borders are woven, but, for special occasions, the
‘temple motif’ is chosen.
Originally the yarn used was cotton, but now in addition to cotton yarn, old sweaters are purchased and unravelled for their polyester yarn. The climate also determines the type of weaving that will be undertaken. Thus weavers use wool and polyester yarn to weave shawls, phanek, and kashmira for winter. In summer they use cotton yarn to weave phanek, gamchha, and phidu. Originally, they would purchase their cotton from the Tripura community, but now they buy yarn in the market.
The Chakmas, who are largely settled in the areas around Rangamati and Khagrachhari, are the largest indigenous group in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The traditional costume of Chakma women consisted of pinon, hadi, si!oom, and khabang. Till the fifties, Chakma women wore a pinon, a sarong, round their waist and a hadi or breast cloth tied around their chest. The si!oom, a loose stitched upper garment, was generally worn when they went to the forest for jum cultivation or to collect twigs. The khabang is a before appearing in front of elders.
With the increasing number of Bengali settlers in the area, Chakma women started feeling uncomfortable in public. To counteract the gaze of the outsider, they either gave up their traditional wear for the sari and blouse or added a garment to their traditional wear. Today, when Chakma women wear their traditional outfit they do so with a blouse and a hadi worn across the left shoulder to cover the bosom, more like an orna than a breast cloth. Though most Chakma men wear shirts and western trousers, many continue to wear knee-length lungis or sarongs.
In the past Chakmas cultivated cotton and coloured the thread themselves with dyes from various plants. Traditionally the pinon is black with fine lines of dark blue and with red bands towards the top and the bottom of the garment. On one side of the pinon is an intricate border known as sabugi or chabugi, woven in different colours. When the pinon is wrapped round the waist and tucked in, the sabugi falls on the left. Nowadays pinons are woven in different colours, with designers planning a set of pinon and hadi for their affluent or clothes-conscious customers.
The designs on the hadi are to be found on the a/am or a/om, the traditional sampler that every Chakma girl is supposed to weave before her marriage. At the Tribal Museum in Rangamati, three old a/ams are on display. The a/am woven by Kumar Ramonimohan Roy’s wife consists of 115 border patterns. The other two consist of 97 and 68 respectively. Older a/ams are woven in black, red, and white yarn. Newer alams are woven with additional colours but with fewer borders. Alam weaving is difficult because there are so many designs to be woven. The weaver uses a porcupine quill to count the strands in the design she wishes to copy. Weaving an a/am is similar to weaving a Mro wanklai or Khyang lukhu, both of which are composed of multiple border patterns.
In addition to traditional garments, Chakma women weave shawls. In the late 1950s, these shawls were made of cotton or fine rayon. Today they are generally made of recycled wool, with simple motifs and designs. Chakma women also do some ritual weaving for merit on the occasion of K.athin Chibar Dan, which takes place in November after the rains subside. On this occasion, Chakma women gather together to gin jum cotton, spin it into yarn, dye it, dry it, weave it into cloth, and then sew it into a ceremonial robe. The robe is then formally presented to a monk. Chakma Weavers also weave the tangon – a length of cloth ranging from 10-14 feet, with one border design repeated throughout – for merit. The piece is then given to a Buddhist temple as an act of piety. The weaver will not weave the same pattern ever again. The Tanchangya too have a similar tradition of weaving what they call the tankwai.
In addition to garments and ritual weaving, Chakma weavers also weave the borgi or gilaj, which consists of two lengths of cloth stitched down the middle to serve as a blanket. Originally woven from jum cotton, these days the borgi is generally woven of recycled woollen yarn.
The Marma are the second largest indigenous community, and live mainly in the areas of Rangamati, Khagrachhari, and Bandarban. Some Marma are also to be found in Cox’s Bazar and Patuakhali. In the past they used to grow and process the cotton needed for their weaving. They would colour it with natural dyes.
Today, Marma women, like other women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, have started to wear Burmesestyle blouses and Burmese printed thami or sarongs. Marma men wear Bengali garments or western trousers and shirts – or suits. Most Marma have stopped weaving traditional garments, but continue to weave shawls and blankets for the market.
The Tripura live in the areas of Rangamati, Khagrachhari, and Bandarban, but are also to be found in Chittagong, Noakhali, Comilla, and Sylhet. As with other indigenous groups, in the past they used to grow and process the cotton needed for their weaving. Today, they buy the yarn needed. Traditionally, Tripura women wore a knee-length black and white rinai (sarong) and risha (breast cloth). The original colours of the risha were red and black, though nowadays, perhaps because of the popularity of the Chakma hadi, many more colours are being used. Designs too are very similar to those of the Chakma hadi. While in some areas Tripura women still wear rinai and risha, as with other communities, they have started to wear blouses rather than a breast cloth.
Tripura men wear dhoti or lungi with a shirt. Traditionally, Tripura women also wear distinctive jewellery: round silver circlets in the lobes of their ears, which stretch the lobes, as well as a pointed piece piercing the upper ear. Around their necks, they wear several strands of beads.
Apart from weaving their own garments, Tripura women also weave blankets and shawls.
The Mro – who used to be and still are occasionally referred to as Murang – live in the area of Bandarban, many of them deep in the forest. Unlike the other groups which have mostly given up usingjum cotton, the Mro, like the Khumi, still grow and process the cotton needed for their weaving. They continue to colour it with natural dyes.
Mro women used to wear the wanklai, a short sarong barely falling 9-11 inches below the waist. The intricate woven design of the wanklai falls at the back when the garment is worn. This design varies in width, the newer wanklai having fewer designs than older ones. Traditionally, the wanklai was held up by a silver girdle.
The upper portion of the torso originally remained uncovered, though, with the increasing number of outsiders, as well as the conversion of Mros to Christianity, Mro women have started wearing blouses and T-shirts. In the past, before Mro women gave up the wanklai, they would cover the upper body with a coloured cloak bought in the market. Mro men used to wear a short loin cloth known as dong. Bare-bodied Mro youth were famous for their top knots and the flowers in their ears. Today, however, in areas where there are outsiders, neither men nor women go about uncovered. Men wear shirts and lungis or western dress, trousers and shirts or T-shirts, while women wear blouses and thami, Burmese sarongs. In the interior, however, women, especially older ones, still wear only the wanklai.
Apart from weaving the wanklai, Mro women also weave child carriers known as wonpotpung and blankets, which they call wonma, as well as shawls.
Unlike the other textiles of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the wanklai combines weaving with
’embroidery’. Thus, as the wanklai is being woven, the weaver takes a sharp pointed tool – which would normally be a porcupine quill – to draw short lengths of coloured yarn through the warp. The end result of this manner of weaving is to produce the effect of both weaving and stitching. Unlike other examples of backstrap weaving in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the wanklai is woven on the reverse side.
The wonma is woven in three panels, which are joined after the pieces have been completed. To ensure evenness, the panels are hung from a rafter and sewn together.
The Tanchangya are scattered in the areas of Rangamati, Khagrachhari, and Bandarban. In the past they used to grow and process the cotton needed for their weaving. Traditionally, Tanchangya women wore five pieces of garments: saloom (a full-sleeved white blouse, with a woven design at the neck), pinon (sarong), hadi (breast cloth),jadui or kamaifizuni (waist cloth), and madahang (head gear). The Tanchangya pinon is similar to the Chakma pinon but without the sabugi. Tanchangya men wear dhoti and long-sleeved shirts. Today, as with other groups in public, Tanchangya women wear only three pieces: a pinon, a blouse, and a hadi draped in front serving as an orna.
In addition to clothes, the Tanchangya also weave the alamkani, a collection of designs, similar to the Chakma a/am. They also weave the tankwai – what the Chakma call tangon – a length of cloth ranging from 10-14 feet, with one border design repeated throughout and given to the Buddhist temple for merit.
The Bawm are to be found in both Rangamati and Bandarban. In the past they used to grow and process and dye the cotton needed for their weaving. Bawm women would wear powanmen, short sarongs with elaborate designs,powanai (breast cloth), kochnai
(blouse), and lupung (headgear). Bawm men would wear knee-length shorts and shirts. Nowadays Bawm men tend to wear traditional Bengali garments or shirts and trousers, while Bawm women wear blouses with printed or striped sarongs, reaching to the ankles.
Though Bawm women have stopped weaving their own garments, they weave blankets out of recycled wool.
The Pangkhoa live in the deep forests of Rangamati and Bandarban. They would grow and process the cotton needed for their weaving. Pangkhoa women used to wear colourful knee-length khqjel
( sarong) and men equally colourful kengiel (sarong). They would also wear an elaborate shawl on special occasions as well as a bier, a wrap for the head. Women would wear breast cloths. Today, like the Bawm, Pangkhoa women normally wear blouses with printed or striped sarongs, reaching to the ankles. For cultural occasions they wear ankle-length white sarongs with multi-coloured bands and matching long-sleeved blouses with similar patterns. Pangkhoa men wear traditional Bengali garments of shirt and lungi or shirts and trousers.
In addition to weaving their own garments, the Pangkhoa today also weave blankets. While they still use some jum cotton, they generally use recycled wool.
The Chak are scattered in the area of Bandarban, mainly in Naikhonchhari. In the past they used to grow and process the cotton needed for their weaving. Traditionally, Chak women would wear nqft; a kneelength, horizontally striped sarong, a breast cloth and head-gear. Nowadays they wear blouses, with the breast cloth draped over their bosom and shoulders like an orna. The traditional colours of the Chak nqfiÂ· are maroon, black, white, and orange. Chak women are distinguished by their large earrings that stretch and distort the earlobes. Chak men wear dhoti, shirts, and a head-gear.
Unlike many of the intricate weaves of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Chak cloth is rather plain. However, Chak weaving is almost lost, with both men and women wearing clothes bought from the market.
The Khyang live in the area of Bandarban, many of them in the Ruma Upazilla. In the past they used to grow and process the cotton needed for their weaving. Traditionally, Khyang women would wear a pun
(sarong), a khrang (blouse), a langkat (breast cloth) and a lukhu (head gear). The khrang is made of two lengths of cloth – with an elaborate woven design – stitched along the sides with an opening left for the arms and the neck. Lengths of yarn are attached to the opening in front in order to fasten it. The lukhu is also made of two lengths of cloth stitched together at one end to form a hood and down the middle to the other end. Under the hood Khyang women might store something such as betel nut. The rest of the lukhu is then wound around the head. The lukhu that a woman wears will go with her to the funeral pyre after her death. Khyang men would traditionally wear a khe (a tiny piece of cloth to cover their private parts), a baichu (a white shirt) and a bong (turban). Nowadays in public Khyang men wear lungi or western trousers. The Khumi live in the area of Bandarban. Like the Mro, they still grow and process the cotton needed for their weaving and colour it with natural dyes. However, the yarn they spin is finer than that of the Mro. Traditionally Khumi women used to wear exquisitely woven short sarongs known as nina and nika (blouses). Elaborate silver girdles would hold up their nina. They would also wear headbands and decorate their coiffeur with flowers and hair ornaments, including combs. Khumi men would hang small pieces of cloth over their private parts. Today, like other indigenous groups of Bandarban, men wear shirts and trousers or lungis, while women wear blouses and Burmese sarongs.
The Lushai, perhaps the smallest ethnic community in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, live in the area of Rangamati and Bandarban. In the past they used to grow and process the cotton needed for their weaving. Traditionally, they would use four colours for their garments: white, black, red and yellow. Lushai women would wear puan (sarong) and korchai (blouse). Lushai men wear puwanbi (dhoti) and korchung (shirt).
Today, like other indigenous groups of Bandarban, Lushai men wear shirts or T-shirts and trousers or lungis, while women wear blouses and Burmese sarongs. For ceremonial and cultural occasions, women wear costumes very similar to that of the Pangkhoa: ankle-length white sarongs with multicoloured bands and matching long-sleeved blouses with similar patterns.
Most backstrap weaving that is being done in the Sylhet region or in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is functional. A few expensive pinons and intricate alams or khrang are being woven but these are difficult to sell because local people do not often have the means to buy these expensive garments. To retain or revive traditional weaving, the right incentive must be given as well as the realisation created that indigenous weaving is not only a functional product but also a work of art and the preservation of a unique culture. A finely worked Chakma alam, or a Khyang khrang, or an elaborate Mro wanklai should be able to retail at a high price as a work of art. While there is still a need for functional crafts, it is possible to raise the craft of backstrap weaving to an art form and pay the backstrap artist what her work is really worth.
1. Chakma, Manjulika and Niaz Zaman. 2010. Strong Backs, Magic Fingers. Dhaka: Nymphea Publication.
2. Fraser, Barbara G. and David W. 2005. Mantles of Merit: Chin Textiles from Myanmar, India and Bangladesh. Bangkok: River Books.
3. Haque, Enamul. 2006. “Textiles of Ethnic Communities in Bangladesh.” Textile Traditions of Bangladesh. Dhaka: National Crafts Council of Bangladesh.
4. Roy, Arshi D. 2005. Indigenous Textiles of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Rangamati: Charathum Publishers.
5. Van Schendel, Willem, Wolfgang Mey and Aditya Kumar Dewan. 2001. The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Living in a Borderland. Dhaka: UPL.
6. Zaman, Niaz. 2011. “Traditions of Backstrap Weaving in Bangladesh.” Survival on the Fringes: Adivasis of Bangladesh. Philip Gain (Ed). Dhaka: SEHD.Niaz zaman has published widely in Bangladesh and abroad on fibre art and weaving. Her publications include The Art of Kantha Embroidery, the first book on the nakshikantha, and Strong Backs Magic Fingers, about indigenous backstrap weaving in Bangladesh, which she co-authored. She has also contributed to Textile Traditions of Bangladesh (NCCB), Kantha: Embroidered Quilts of Bengal (PMA), the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: South Asia and Southeast Asia, and Sui Dhaga: Crossing Boundaries through Needle and Thread (India International Centre and Wisdom Tree).
Leading Image : Chakma pinons on display Rangamati, Bangladesh
photos: niaz zaman & amiya kanti chakma To retain or revive traditional weaving, the right incentive must be given as well as the realisation created that indigenous weaving is not only a functional product but also a work of art and the preservation of a unique culture. Backstrap weaving was carried out extensively in the…