Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt: The Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A catalogue of Newberry's block-printed textiles by Ruth Barnes (published Oxford, 1997).

Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt: The Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


Pfister’s consideration of Indian textiles traded to Egypt was specifically based on a study of their designs, although he also included an introduction with a discussion of the historical trade, in par­ticular as observed by early European travellers, and a summary of technical details. The internal division of his publication therefore followed the thematic discussion of motifs. He began with the representation of humans and animals, and quickly moved on to the varieties of plant ornaments. These in particular he linked to architectural designs, but also to images represented in Jain painting, specifically in manuscripts. Pfister also tried to separate indigenously Indian Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain iconography and design elements from Islamic or Central Asian motifs, and used the Hindu and Jain traditions as chronological guides [1]. He believed that evidence for the presence of either the indigenously Indian or the Islamic tradition could be used as an indication of date. In reality the two cannot be divided as clearly as Pfister believed. But regardless of whether we accept his attributions or not, the general content of his discussion is still valid. It would be unnecessarily repetitive to establish once again that certain designs are part of the Indian, and in particular Gujarati, repertoire of motifs. Our account in this chapter is in this respect based on his work. To avoid repetition, the full range of specific motifs is not discussed in detail here. This role is fulfilled by the catalogue entries themselves. Instead I attempt to complement Pfister’s discussion and approach topics that he has only touched on very briefly or left out entirely.

Although there are a great many different designs, the vast majority is based on floral representations. These may vary from repetitive patterns of small, eight-petalled rosettes to highly ornate, and quite realistic, vines and flower-heads. There is no reason to associate either type with an early or late date, as the archaeological data and the radiocarbon results have given evidence for both [2]. There are a few examples of animal representation, as in the peacocks of [EA1990.257], and a rare image of a (fragmentary) rider and elephant [EA1990.250] [3]. The only animal that appears with some consistency in all collections of Indo-Egyptian textiles is the goose.

The designs can roughly be divided into two groups. There are designs that are successfully combined to form a pattern over a wide, continuous field. These may be small rosettes or diamonds, but they may also be large, ornate medallions. Secondly, there are designs that are es­pecially suitable to be contained in bands. The continuous vine, often represented with tendrils and leaves, is one of these, and it is often used to fill a band that marks a border or otherwise divides the fabric. A highly conventionalized version of a tree motif is used specifically as a border to follow a sequence of bands, as in [EA1990.579]. The shape represents a single leaf of the Ficus religiosa, a tree sacred to both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The catalogue calls the image a bodhi leaf. Arches and rows of ornate trees are other examples of band patterns. The two groups of designs are often combined in one fabric, with a large central field filled with a continuous design, and border bands either on all four sides, or at the narrow ends.

Small continuous designs

Small-scale continuous patterns are made by block-printing consecutive identical motifs to create a large field. One of the most common motifs is the eight-petalled rosette. Occasionally it is the only motif, as in [EA1990.104] and [EA1990.119]. Far more frequently it is combined with other motifs: s-shapes, quatrefoils, single dots, or small circles and lobed diamonds [EA1990.105]. The statistical analysis has shown that there are 108 entries for eight-petalled rosettes, 39 for s-shapes, and 142 for quatre- foils. The six-petalled rosette is used much less frequently; there are only 18 entries for it. Typically these motifs are combined to form a coherent, repetitive pattern, often in their regularity resembling a grid. Most commonly the rosettes’ petals are rounded off at the top, similar to the actual petals of a daisy. In some instances, however, the rosettes have a precise circular outline (e. g. [EA1990.28]), and therefore a more geometric appearance.

It is remarkable that the majority of the small-scale continuous patterns are dyed blue. In the pattern group that combines, in one form or another, rosettes, s-shapes, quatrefoils, lobed diamonds, and small circles to form a wide, repetitive pattern, there are 69 fragments that are blue, while only 11 mordant-dyed fragments have the corresponding motifs [4]. Only one textile in the group that has been dyed both blue and red has any direct similarity to this motif group [EA1990.983]. If one expands from these specific design similarities and looks for the presence of small-scale repetitive designs generally, including, for example, the linked chevrons of [EA1990.30], EA1990.31, EA1990.32, EA1990.33, EA1990.34, EA1990.35, EA1990.36, and EA1990.37] and the ‘snowflake’-like design of [EA1990.43, EA1990.44, EA1990.45, EA1990.46, EA1990.47, and EA1990.48], the contrast is less dramatic: 107 are dyed blue, 54 are mordant-dyed. It is remarkable that, although small-scale motifs do also appear in the polychrome textiles (blue and red), they are rare. Two examples, other than the one already mentioned, are [EA1990.1092] and [EA1990.1093]. This confirms the general impression given by surveys of other collections [5].

The motif group discussed above (rosettes, s-shapes, etc.) always has the design in white against a blue or brownish red ground. For all blue textiles this means that the resist (represented by the white areas) has defined the image, rather than the background. The blocks therefore had the positive image projecting in relief, with the background of the design carved away. The same seems to be true for the 11 mordant-dyed examples with similar motifs, as the fabric was apparently not printed with the mordant, but with a resist. There also are mordant-dyed fabrics with continuous small-scale designs, however, which were clearly printed with the mordant, then dyed, rather than stamped with a resist. None of these directly repeats designs found among the textiles dyed blue, and generally the patterns are defined by the mordant, i.e. appear red on the natural ground [6].

From organic to abstract designs

Most of the motifs have their origin in organic forms, rather than geometric designs. Even where the source is not immediately obvious, comparisons may reveal the original source. One example is a motif I have called a ‘quatrefoil’, as in [EA1990.16] or [EA1990.24]. Initially it looks like two star shapes superimposed on to each other, the smaller one with a blue outline, the larger one white against the blue background. However, the motif takes on a more specific shape when one looks at [EA1990.983], the blue, white, and red textile mentioned above as the only example with the small, repetitive rosette and quatrefoil pattern among the polychrome textiles. Here the two superimposed stars have become more organic and rounded, similar to leaves. I see this directly related to a quatrefoil design that is frequently found among the mordant-dyed textiles. A good example of it is [EA1990.842]; one textile similar to this has been radiocarbondated to 1460 CE +/-70. Characteristically the motif has four heart-shaped leaves and a floral centre; the leaves are red (or brown) with light outlines. Fig. 2 illustrates the relationship between the variations.

A similar diminution of a pattern can be seen in the textiles [EA1990.141] to [EA1990.147]. These blue and white fragments have two patterns that are closely related. A small and a large version of a design of linked squares covers the surface, every second row also including squares filled with star or flower shapes. The small version can only be read as an abstract pattern, of squares that have a white frame, a central line, and two dots on either side of it [EA1990.143]. The large version of the design reveals, on the other hand, that the motif is based on a figurative representation. [EA1990.146] shows a central pole and two pairs of animals on either side, one above the other. The animals could be hares below, and ducks or geese above. The example from the Newberry Collection shows this representation in a highly stylized form, but the evidence from other collections proves the interpretation to be factual rather than speculative. Pfister published a fragment from the Tattersall collection now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (acc. no. T.253-1958) which unmistakably shows two pairs of animals confronting an ornamental pole, possibly representing a tree (Pfister 1938: Pl. XXXVa). The pair above may represent stags or gazelles, the pair below are birds. He relates this textile, as well as two others he published (pls. XXVc and XXVe), to a silk fragment found by Stein at Ts’ien-Fo-tong (Stein 1921: iv, pl. CXI). The fragment shows two pairs of dragons flanking a curving pole. He claims, in other words, that the image is related to the motif of the central tree flanked by animals which is a common Central and West Asian motif that travelled widely both to East and West (Pfister 1938: 70). The design is, of course, used in Middle Eastern as well as Byzantine representations, and it was especially favoured as a textile motif.

Pfister only discussed the large design and gives no evidence for the small version. However, we now know of several collections that have examples of both. The Kelsey Museum, University of Michigan, has fragments of both (Barnes 1993: 48-9, cat. nos. 16, 17), the examples from the Newberry Collection are presented here, and most significant, because dated, is the evidence from Quseir al-Qadim.

The large motif is occasionally drawn by hand, when the result is often not entirely successful. There is one such fragment in the Newberry Collection [EA1990.147], as well as one found at Quseir al- Qadim (Vogelsang-Eastwood 1990: 59, cat. no. 69). The presence at Quseir al-Qadim of both the large and the small version of the motif is evidence of its early use in the design repertoire. The largest Quseir al-Qadim fragment with the clearly figurative design is Vogelsang-Eastwood’s cat. no. 53; it also includes an elephant in each of the squares usually filled with a single flower-head. This particular version of the design, with an elephant vigorously walking from left to right, is close to the Tattersall textile mentioned above (Victoria and Albert Museum T. 253-1958).

A third group of textiles also shows that designs can be related to each other while displaying widely different degrees of elaboration. Most of these textiles are found in the polychrome group, although several fragments are also dyed with mordant only. None of the examples in the Newberry Collection is dyed with blue alone, although examples do exist in other collections. The polychrome group starts with [EA1990.1114] and extends to [EA1990.235]. The mordant-dyed textiles are [EA1990.823] to [EA1990.826]. The polychrome group gives evidence for the development of the design. If one looks at the two versions at either end of the spectrum, the smallest and the largest and most elaborate, e.g. [EA1990.1117] and [EA1990.1140] respectively, it is hard to see any relationship, let alone similarity, between the two. But if one takes a selection from the middle of the group, e.g. [EA1990.1118] to [EA1990.1126], and considers these as the ‘average’ pattern, a step-by-step relationship can be visually developed, both towards the smallest, rather tadpole-like version, and the large leaf shapes of the most elaborate variety.

The pattern is made up of curiously shaped plant forms, with a stem and flower- or fruit-head that is framed by several dotted circles. The background is completely filled with white tendrils and small leaves. While some of the examples show evidence of block-printing in their repetition of design, others seem to have no repeat, and resist and mordant were probably applied by hand [7]. The technical peculiarities and complexities of one version of these textiles was discussed in the previous chapter. The mixed technique and the type of design are certainly old; the radiocarbon dating for [EA1990.1123] has given a date of 1450 +/- 50, and the design of one textile found at Quseir al- Qadim corresponds exactly to it. The same design is also commonly found on the large maa' cloths exported to Sulawesi (see Varadarajan 1983: fig. 13); we will return to these in a later chapter. Certainly the textiles that display a version of this design are historically among the most interesting for us, not only because of the single fragment that has survived from Quseir al-Qadim, but because the design was also common on textiles exported to South-East Asia, and was produced for that market until quite recently.

If one follows the pattern towards the diminutive form, as can be seen in the sequence of [EA1990.1115], [EA1990.1114], and finally [EA1990.1117] (in that order), the plant forms become increasingly unrecognizable as organic in origin. They are merely small, white elongated shapes set into a blue ground. The background, as well, is filled with small dashes of brush strokes, rather than with tendrils and leaves. This particular design has also been found on a large textile exported to Sulawesi; the cloth is not likely to be older than the nineteenth century (Khan Majlis 1991: 420).

One other peculiarity should be mentioned in connection with this pattern. It is a design that has a specific direction, as is particularly obvious from the large version that shows elaborate plants. This is a further distinction that can be made between designs: are they to be looked at from a particular point, do they have a base and a top, or are these missing? Most of the small-scale continuous designs are clearly patterns that can be seen from any direction, without a base and top. However, if plants are elaborated, with a defined stem or trunk and flower-head with leaves, they demand to be seen from a specific point. The importance of the viewpoint can change, depending on the size and therefore readability of the design. Both the blue and white design of [EA1990.141] to [EA1990.146] and the blue, white, and red designs of [EA1990.1114] to [EA1990.235] are examples of this. Once the design has become so small that its organic source is no longer apparent, the direction is unimportant.

Large continuous designs

As the previous discussion has already shown, the division into small and large continuous designs is meaningful only up to a point, as several motifs change size. Keeping in mind this compromise, the grouping still remains useful to a degree, as certain designs typically fall into one of the two categories. The textiles that immediately come to mind when considering large-scale patterns, are linked medallions and cartouches [EA1990.744], circles [EA1990.712 and EA1990.713], or ornate squares [EA1990.710 and EA1990.711]. These examples are all mordant-dyed. Linked circles also appear in [EA1990.1099] and [EA1990.1102], both examples blue, red, and white. Another version of linked patterns is found in [EA1990.297] to [EA1990.306], and [EA1990.509] to [EA1990.513]. All these designs have in common an ambiguous appearance: with [EA1990.1099], for example, one can see the pattern as linked circles, overlapping circles, or linked quatrefoils, depending on the focus one decides to take. This shift of focus is also evident in the last group mentioned above ([EA1990.297] to [EA1990.306], [EA1990.509] to [EA1990.513]): here one is even uncertain whether to see the pattern as white on red, or red on white. In no way is the ambiguity visually disturbing, rather it contributes to the pleasure of looking at the design. The viewer feels attracted rather than confused by the pattern puzzle. As Pfister (1938: 44) has already pointed out, a similar approach is commonly found on border bands, which may have a reversible row of crenellations or stylized trees (e.g. [EA1990.400], [EA1990.586], [EA1990.633], [EA1990.660]).

Other designs may emphasize a continuity of pattern where the motifs fit tightly into each other, as in tile work [EA1990.207]. Examples of medallions or quatrefoils that complement each other in this manner are the large blue fragment [EA1990.247] and its mordant-dyed equivalent [EA1990.320], as well as the red and brown [EA1990.764] and [EA1990.765]. Exceptionally close to tile work is the fragment [EA1990.331]. Pfister illustrates a similar design and argues for a Near Eastern rather than Indian origin (1937: 77-8, pl. XXXIIId). While it is true that very similar pattern arrangements are characteristic of Near Eastern tiles in particular, Gujarati architectural patterns can be similarly geometric (Ill. 14).

Also to be considered here are medallions that were intended to be in the centre of the textile field, and possibly reproduced in part in the four corners. Complete textiles with large central fields survive from the nineteenth century, and these show the possible design arrangement one might also have found on the complete Indo-Egyptian textiles (Irwin and Hall 1971: no. 39, pl. 23, and no. 190, pl. 90) [8]. It seems that in India they were used specifically for domestic furnishings, but printed textiles with this type of overall layout are still produced as dress fabric for export to the Yemen, where they are worn by women as body-covers. Examples for the medallions among our fragments are the blue and white [EA1990.191] to [EA1990.194], [EA1990.219], [EA1990.220], [EA1990.223], [EA1990.226], [EA1990.243], and [EA1990.244], as well as the red, white, and blue [EA1990.947] to [EA1990.949]. This type of large medallion was almost certainly intended to be placed at the centre of a large fabric. Half-medallions may be placed next to border bands [EA1990.973]. We only have fragments surviving, but characteristically the medallion is made up of circular bands of large petals. In effect, the medallions take the form of very large rosettes, where the petals usually are elaborately decorated, either filled with half-rosettes [EA1990.243] or ornamented with dots of different arrangements, thus creating patterns [EA1990.226]. Although these large motifs certainly were part of an overall, linked, and continuous design field, rather than, for example, part of border bands, they were not necessarily repeated, but were probably intended as a large focus for the centre.

A second version of the medallion often takes an oval shape [EA1990.190]. It may be surrounded by a border and have two trefoiled finials, as in the latter textile and in [EA1990.218]. These examples, and similar ones illustrated by Pfister (1937: pl. XXIa), show that the design usually appears on panels that have rows of tabs as borders. In all 49 entries refer to tabs; these textiles were probably used as hangings over windows, doorways, or niches. Large versions of these cloths could also be used as outside awnings. The oval is set against a background of small-scale designs. The large shape, as well as its backdrop, frequently seems to be made by hand-applying resist, rather than block-printing. The borders and tabs, on the other hand, usually are printed.

The tabs have a standard form. They usually have a framed outline, often further defined by a continuous vine [EA1990.173]. The inner shape is always filled, most frequently with a stylized tree [EA1990.182] or a central rosette surrounded by vines and leaves. Axial symmetry is apparently preferred, although exceptions do occur [EA1990.187]. If the interior of the tab is not filled with an organic design, but with an abstract pattern, this usually takes the form of diagonal lines of small crosses [EA1990.175, EA1990.176]. This design is, in fact, similar to window grilles, both in Indian and Islamic buildings (Ill. 15). Another ornament found in the tabs may also have its source in an architectural motif. It is made up of three elements: a small stepped pedestal, followed by a cartouche, and superimposed with a trefoil. This is particularly common in the tabs that are dyed both blue and red [EA1990.1073] [EA1990.1074], [EA1990.1085]. If indeed there is a link between the tab designs and architectural ornaments, it is an oddity that the tab motifs are always seen upside down.


Apart from either small or large designs that formed part of an overall, continuous pattern, there are designs that are clearly intended to fit into bands. While it is not impossible that some textiles had only one continuous pattern and were to be used for dress material without a border, many fabrics had an overall layout defined by bands, frequently followed on the outside by rows of small trees or other regularly arranged motifs.

The band is rarely a single row of motifs, but usually a group of narrow and wide bands. Frequently a border of dots separates the bands; these may also be called a pearl border. A continuous vine is one of the most frequently used designs to fill a band; usually leaves or tendrils are added. [EA1990.24 and EA1990.25] illustrate well how this vine design may be interpreted. It is stylized to a regular, ondulating s-curve which is only identified as an organic design by the addition of leaves and tendrils. A narrow, curving stem is usually attached to the vine (as in [EA1990.25]), with three turned leaves or tendrils emerging. If vine and leaves are not connected (as appears in [EA1990.24]), the separate leaves are tucked into the curve of the vine. There is little difference between the blue and the mordant-dyed vine motif in this abstract, stylized treatment, e.g. [EA1990.930] and [EA1990.941] which are close to the blue versions. In both cases, the design is created by the white, which represents the resist applied.

The stylized vine can have a particular elaboration which is also found in both blue and red examples, although it survives more frequently in the red textiles. Examples are [EA1990.111] (blue) and [EA1990.532] to [EA1990.539] (red), as well as several of the subsequent catalogue entries. The vine is no longer a solid line, but is broken up into a paired curve of parallel dots; the leaves and tendrils are no longer connected to the vine, and they are indicated by separate curving lines. The design, therefore, has lost even more of its naturalistic source. Again the pattern is defined by the resist, i.e. is white on either a blue or red ground.

Another, much simpler version of the vine motif shows two vines as interlacing, with a very small, simple rosette placed directly on to the vine in each curve [EA1990.786]. This interlace survives in particular among the mordant-dyed fragments, and again it is white against the red background.

Rosettes are also common motifs found in bands. These may be very small and identical, as in the row of six-petalled rosettes of [EA1990.790]. Eight-petalled rosettes often are combined with paired, trumpet-shaped leaves [EA1990.801 and EA1990.803]. Larger rosettes may be encircled with pearl borders and linked [EA1990.531]. More elaborate rosettes frequently are arranged as sets of four, with slight variations, and a repeat occurring after the fourth. The execution is usually very carefully done, and the dye quality is exceptionally good. Examples of this are [EA1990.206], [EA1990.215] (blue), and [EA1990.332], [EA1990.546], and [EA1990.548] (red); again the resist defines the design. The spaces between the rosettes and the borderline are usually filled with small trefoils. As can be seen from the two blue examples referred to, a line of dots may curve around the rosettes, possibly a stylized version of the vine motif, and therefore related to the vine with dotted stems described above. Rows of rosettes defined by the mordant, and hence red, can be seen in [EA1990.327] and [EA1990.329]. They are typically surrounded by pearl roundels (Barnes 1993: 75).

It is not possible to discuss all designs, nor would it be particularly meaningful. But to sum up the discussion of border patterns, one further design combination should be brought up, as it is characteristic of the material and appears in most collections: it is a band arrangement with ovals and small clusters of rosettes ([EA1990.197, EA1990.198, EA1990.200, EA1990.203, and  EA1990.205], as blue and white examples; EA1990.673, as a mordant-dyed example). Unlike most border patterns discussed so far, where either the colour of the dye or the natural white fabric ground defines the pattern, here the design is apparent through both, i.e. the image is not clearly white against a blue or red ground, nor is it definitely blue or red against a white ground. The mordant-dyed examples of this design often are remarkable for their fine shading of pink, red, and purple (see also Barnes 1993: 68).

Imitations of other techniques

North-western India, where the majority of our textiles are likely to have come from, is also well known for its tie-dyed textiles, which are prepared by either the plangi or ikat method. Woven and then tie-dyed cloth (plangi), in India usually referred to as bandhani [9], has designs knotted into the fabric prior to dyeing, while for ikat textiles the motifs are tyed into either warp or weft, or both, prior to weaving. The ikat technique is highly developed in parts of India, as well as Central and South-East Asia (Bühler 1959, 1972). In Gujarat itself, one of the finest types of ikat cloth, the double-ikat patolu, is still produced in Patan, and probably was once woven in other centres as well (Bühler 1979: i. 263-4). Bandhani cloths also are much in demand; they are made today in Rajasthan and Gujarat [10]. Both types of resist-dyeing are imitated in the block-printed textiles.

Numerous of the textile fragments have rows of small, white squares with a dyed centre, arranged in a variety of patterns, as in [EA1990.54] to [EA1990.56], [EA1990.73] to [EA1990.79], which are dyed blue, [EA1990.391], mordant-dyed brown, as well as [EA1990.644], [EA1990.655], [EA1990.794], and [EA1990.795], all dyed red. These little squares imitate the tie of a genuine bandhani (Ill. 16). A total of 28 entries show some evidence of these designs. While it is known from current practice that ‘fake’ bandhani is printed, and that the genuine tie-dyed cloth is therefore sold with the knots still in place, to prove its correct identity, it cannot be certain that the historical fragments were made to delude the buyer. The bandhani designs are often combined with other motifs that are clearly not simulating the technique, as, for example, [EA1990.78], where a wide band of small rosettes and diamonds is set between two bandhani areas. Nevertheless, it must be emphasized how similar the genuine and the block-printed versions of bandhani can be, if not in the overall design, yet at least in the appearance of the small knotted shape. Typical bandhani patterns can be seen in [EA1990.76] and [EA1990.77]. The pairing of alternating geometric shapes, of inverted hook and star, or the arrowhead with the hour-glass shape, is commonly found in all the collections of Indo-Egyptian material. Similarly, the use of three rows of bandhani knots to form a grid, each compartment containing an eight-petalled rosette [EA1990.54 and EA1990.55], is also found in other collections (Barnes 1993: 47). One textile in the Newberry Collection, though, is more unusual [EA1990.392]. It has overlapping, linked circles, similar to [EA1990.1099], which has been discussed above. Here the circles are defined by small dots, however, with a larger dot at the centre of each. It is very likely that they were done in imitation of a fine bandhani.

The ratio of blue- to red- or brown-dyed fragments with bandhani designs is interesting in the Newberry Collection. From previous experience in other collections, I had assumed that the great majority of fragments surviving was dyed blue, while mordant-dyed examples did occur, but were not frequent. This assumption was not borne out by the evidence in this collection. There are a total of 28 textiles that have some bandhani-simulated designs, often combined with other patterns. So far, no example of a polychrome (blue, red, and white) fabric with a bandhani design has come to my attention. At Quseir al-Qadim, one genuine bandhani was found, done on red (and yellow?) silk (Vogelsang-Eastwood 1990: 38, cat. no. 14), proof not only that simulated tie-dye textiles were exported, but that genuine bandhani fabrics also found their way to Egypt. Modern printed bandhani is still exported to the Yemen and can be bought in the markets of Sana'a and Ta'izz, and probably elsewhere as well.

One group of fragments is related, although it has very different characteristics. The fragments [EA1990.57] to [EA1990.72] all have geometric, rather than organic, designs made up from very small dots; in [EA1990.71] the dots are in addition arranged into (fragmentary) script. The dots are very fine in all instances, and they lack the central blue dot that characterizes the bandhani designs. There is no evidence for the use of blocks, and it is very likely that the resist was applied by hand. It is possible that the constructing of the pattern from small dots had its inspiration in either tie-dye, or another form of resist-dyeing. The group is unique, and I am not aware of similar fragments in another collection. In general fibre, spin, and thread-count do not differ from the common norm, but one textile [EA1990.68] is s-spun. We cannot be certain that these textiles are Indian.

The patola of Gujarat were very much in demand as luxury trade items to South-East Asia, where they eventually had a formative effect on many of the indigenous weaving traditions, in particular on the ikat designs of the area (Bühler 1959; Bühler and Fischer 1979; Barnes 1989; Maxwell 1990). There is so far no positive evidence that they were also part of the textile trade that went to the western part of the Indian Ocean and on to Egypt, although it would be surpris­ing if they were not exported into the Islamic heartlands as well (Bühler and Fischer 1979: i. 278). However, we do have some block-printed textiles that are definitely inspired by the technique of the patola. Four fragments, in particular, repeat the technical peculiarity of a double-ikat, where the pattern is built up from small blocks which reflect the ties initially applied to warp and weft: the various diamond shapes and elaborate rectangles of [EA1990.606], [EA1990.945], [EA1990.1025], and [EA1990.1026] all have the stepped characteristics of the ikat textiles (Ill. 17). In no way do these textiles approach the luxury quality of the silk patola, and it would not be possible to confuse the two types of fabric, but it is nevertheless interesting that the technical peculiarity of one highly complex resist-dye method has inspired the designs of another production method.

Trees and animals

In the section on band ornaments it was mentioned briefly that small trees are often placed in rows along the outer border of the textiles. They usually are very stylized, and often alternate with stylized pillars or single flowers, as in the blue and white [EA1990.169], the red [EA1990.541], [EA1990.543], [EA1990.545], and [EA1990.546], and the red, blue, and white [EA1990.940] and [EA1990.941]. [EA1990.942] has trees alternating with beaded arches. A very carefully designed, elaborate version of the alternating tree and pillar motif can be seen in [EA1990.161], where it appears in a band, rather than outer border, but is clearly related.

In addition to these tree representations, there also are trees in wider bands, as in [EA1990.360] to [EA1990.362]. These three examples are mordant-printed and dyed red on a white ground. Two types of trees are shown, one with a closed crown, the other with long, separate leaves, similar to a plantain. The iconography of the trees is very similar to tree representations in Jain manuscripts, as will be discussed in the following chapter on provenance and the relationship between our textile designs and motifs in other media. A far more elaborate version of trees in a band is in [EA1990.950], but again it shows an alternation of flowering shrubs and trees with their crowns closed. Altogether there are 101 textiles which have, in one version or another, trees represented. Flowering shrubs and bushes also appear in [EA1990.823] to [EA1990.826] (red), and [EA1990.1128], [EA1990.1129], as well as [EA1990.1137] to [EA1990.1141] (all red and blue), although these are ultimately related to the stylized flowers that precede them in the catalogue, as has been discussed above.

Animals are only rarely represented. The stylization of pairs of animals, from a symmetrical representation to an abstract square with white dots ([EA1990.146], [EA1990.145]), has been mentioned. Occasionally birds may be present, as in the symmetrically placed peacocks that flank a central pole ([EA1990.165] and [EA1990.257]). A similar design, although stylistically different, appears in the border of [EA1990.167], where two birds stand opposite each other on either side of a central ornamental pole, probably representing a tree. It is unclear whether the structure that separates them from the next, identical pair of birds, is architectural or, more likely, a very abstract version of a tree. A third, highly abstract form also has been identified as a bird by Pfister (1937: 78, pls. XXXIIIb, c, e, f). Two related fragments are [EA1990.346] and [EA1990.690], and a minute version is [EA1990.345]. If Pfister’s identification is correct, the birds represented are heraldic and double-headed with their talons extended, like the Austrian Imperial eagle. Pfister identified the textiles he illustrates as Near Eastern rather than Indian, which is a reasonable assumption. The double-headed eagle ultimately goes back to the Roman Imperial image, but its use continued through the Byzantine era and was accepted into the Islamic world as well. Most recently, since the eighteenth century the image has been familiar from the Theresia-Taler silver coin which became common currency in the Near East.

One textile [EA1990.250] shows the backs of two elephants, as well as possibly two fragmentary figures. The piece is closely related to two fragments in the Textile Museum, Washington, and the Benaki Museum in Athens, respectively (see n.2 of this chapter). All three fragments may once have been part of one fabric. Both the Washington and Athens fragments include human figures, and these may also have been part of the original fabric of the Newberry fragment. If this is correct, it would be the only example we have in this collection of the (fragmentary) presence of human figures. In general, figural representations are rare in the collections of Indo-Egyptian material. Gittinger has published one fine fragment from Cleveland with the outlines of a human face, probably drawn by hand, and stylistically close to Gujarati manuscript paintings. She also included three fragments with human figures in her chapter on Indo-Egyptian textiles in the Textile Museum (Gittinger 1982: figs. 31, 32, p. 52) [11]. One of her fragments is very close to a fragment from the Benaki Museum, illustrated by Pfister (1938: pl. Ic). Human figures, quite often very large, do appear in the Gujarati block-printed textiles exported to Indonesia (Guy 1989: 53, 57). Those textiles will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 11.

The goose, hamsa, is the one animal represented repeatedly. It is a favourite animal in north-western Indian art generally, and frequently appears in Jain manuscripts and temple carvings (Pl. 15, Ill. 18). Its use in textiles was alluded to in a brief publication by Coomaraswamy (1927: 36-7). He gives both literary and pictorial references to the presence of the hamsa; at Ajanta, Cave I, one sees a lady wearing an upper garment that is covered with rows of single hamsa, and numerous Jain manuscript pages show hamsa-laksana (i.e. goose-figured) robes. Both in the manuscripts and in the actual textiles the representation is identical: the hamsa is shown with a small crest, and is usually walking [EA1990.807]. Often two or more hamsa appear together, one turning its neck to the one behind. Not only is this design common in all collections of Indo-Egyptian textiles, but it is also prominently represented in the Gujarati printed textiles formerly traded to Indonesia [EA1995.61] [12].


A total of 39 fragments have inscriptions on them, usually in Arabic, and almost all of them block-printed rather than drawn by hand. One large textile [EA1990.887] shows crescents which contain a short inscription in Turkish, and [EA1990.379] has one in Persian. Usually the script is fragmentary and cannot be read, but there are exceptions where it has been possible to make out the meaning. It is usually an evocation of God’s greatness or a blessing for the wearer of the fabric. Only two fragments, no doubt once part of a single textile ([EA1990.871, EA1990.872]), have a longer inscription. The design of the two fragments is strongly Persian in style, although the inscription is in Arabic and reads: ‘He who does not consider the consequences [of his actions] is not in control of his destiny.’

In some cases a design may be inspired by Arabic script, but actually not have any meaning. [EA1990.215] to [EA1990.217] are fragments with large designs clearly influenced by neskhi script, but transformed into vegetal designs with leaves sprouting from the interlaced lines [13]. [EA1990.1093] may be Indian Arabic script characteristic of the fifteenth century, and [EA1990.1191] shows pseudo-writing that may have been inspired by Arabic, but is reversed. There is no indication of the use of decorative script to identify the place or period of production, although one manufacturer’s or workshop stamp is found on [EA1990.1222]. It has not been possible to identify this. In other words, the function of script in the printed textiles is generally restricted to a blessing. It is for an entirely different purpose from the tiraz fragments that have survived in the Islamic world. There is no reference to a specific political identification; of course one would not have expected anything else from fabrics made exclusively for a commercial market, much of it for export.

Occasionally, the textiles bearing script may be used to assist with the problem of dating. For example, [EA1990.150] to [EA1990.152] have writing that is related in style to the Fatimid period, and therefore might be placed early in our chronology. It is important to note, of course, that apparently the Indian craftsmen could use a script that was acceptable in a different geographic and cultural context, mainly in Fatimid and Mamluk Egypt.


To conclude this chapter on the designs of the fragments, I would like to consider whether one can make some general remarks about composition of patterns, as well as their placement on the textile, and about the overall visual appearance. It is the nature of block-printing that the design has a repeat. As has been discussed in the chapters on technical details, the blocks used typically had a width of 7 cm. and a length of 14 cm. if rectangular, or between 6 cm. and 10 cm. per side if the block was square. Within these measurements the design is arranged. A repeat does not inevitably imply a symmetric design; [EA1990.140] is an example of the absence of symmetry. But there is no doubt that symmetrical repeats are common in our textiles.

Two forms of symmetry occur. The first can be observed in the continuous designs, which do not require a specific viewpoint and can be looked at from any direction. They are radial-symmetric. Examples of the type are both small-scale designs of continuous rosettes and diamonds, e.g. in [EA1990.90] to [EA1990.92], as well as large, linked medallions ([EA1990.712], [EA1990.713]). The second type of symmetry is characteristic of the borders and band designs. Here the axis of symmetry is at right angles to the border [EA1990.213], but a further axis may lie parallel to the borders, in the centre of the band ([EA1990.200] to [EA1990.203]). Frequently the border bands have various rosettes as their main motifs; these are usually repeated after four variations ([EA1990.206], [EA1990.215]).

The axial symmetry has been briefly discussed by Varadarajan (1983) and Bilgrami (1990). A general cultural analysis of the mathematical principles in symmetry is found in Washburn and Crowe (1988). Bier (1992) has written about plane symmetry as an organizing principle of Islamic carpet design. No doubt a similar analysis could be done on the Indian textiles. However, it seems to me that this area of investigation is not absolutely necessary for presenting the collection, and I leave it to someone who has a particular interest in the relationship between geometric perception and the mathematical rules that govern it.


[1] Of course Buddhism was no longer active in north-western India. Nevertheless, many of the textile motifs had also been part of Buddhist iconography and were retained because they shared their significance with other Indian religions.

[2] See Vogelsang-Eastwood (1990: 34, 41, 43, cat. nos. 1, 22, 27, 28). Her cat. nos 27 and 28 are extremely fragmentary and it is hardly possible to make out their design from their appearance alone; however, when seen next to the Newberry fabric [EA1990.247], which is clearly related, a thick vine and lotus pattern becomes visible.

[3] This textile is closely related to one fragment in the Textile Museum (TM 6.88) and to a second one in the Benaki Museum (B.16275).

[4] Examples for the blue fabrics with white designs are [EA1990.9] to [EA1990.29], and [EA1990.84] to [EA1990.125]. The relevant mordant-dyed textiles are [EA1990.277] to [EA1990.279], [EA1990.290], [EA1990.469] to [EA1990.473], [EA1990.478], and [EA1990.503]

[5] See Gittinger (1982: 30-57) and Barnes (1993).

[6] See [EA1990.474] to [EA1990.476], and [EA1990.492].

[7] The catalogue entries give further information about the dye method and sequence. As rule of thumb one can assume that the large-scale versions of the pattern were resist- and mordant-drawn by hand, while the smaller varieties were often block-printed resist or mordant. It is interesting that the group displays all technical possibilities of our collection, including resist- and mordant-printing to achieve red tones.

[8] I have chosen these two examples for comparision because they are both probably from north-western India and one of them from Gujarat. Irwin and Hall identify one as a floorspread, the other as a canopy (1971: 55, 150). Both texiles are block-printed, the floorspread apparently in a technique that is similar to our earlier textiles, and may therefore be looked at as a descendant.

[9] Bandhani literally refers to 'tie-dyeing' in general, though. As it is used more specifically in the literature to mean plangi (Murphy and Crill 1991), I use it in that sense as well when talking about the Indian tie-dye cloths.

[10] Some of the finest modern bandhani is produced in Bhuj, Kutch.

[11] The fragment on p. 52 is not discussed, nor is it given a catalogue number. It shows dancing figures arranged in circles around rosettes, very similar to the frequently found hamsa (goose) textiles, as in our [EA1990.807].

[12] See also Guy 1987: 69, 72 and 1989: 52, 57; Khan Majlis 1991: 416-17.

[13] As Elizabeth Lambourn has pointed out to me, the mixture of script and vegetal ornament is also a consistent feature of late 14th century Cambay tomb carvings.


Object information may not accurately reflect the actual contents of the original publication, since our online objects contain current information held in our collections database. Click on 'buy this publication' to purchase printed versions of our online publications, where available, or contact the Jameel Study Centre to arrange access to books on our collections that are now out of print.

© 2013 University of Oxford - Ashmolean Museum