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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


At this point it seems to be the right time to consider the question of provenance for the collection as a whole. The association with north-western India for the majority of the textiles remains valid, but Pfister identified some of the printed textiles he studied as Near Eastern. All the collections of similar material that I have had the opportunity to see include some fragments that are certainly not Gujarati, nor even Indian. In addition there are also textiles that are not specific enough in their design to be identified with a particular area of production.

Indian or non-Indian?

I want first to separate the fragments that are certainly not Indian. By taking a closer look at this material now, we might actually be able to crystallize our understanding of what makes the majority of the collection so closely Indian, and more specifically associated with the textile production of the north-western region. At that point it will also be helpful to compare the textile designs to motifs found in other media.

As was discussed in the chapter on resist- and mordant-dyeing, there is a group of 32 fragments that, both in design and technical composition, are certainly not Indian, but of Near Eastern origin. These are [EA1990.437] to [EA1990.468]. Their colour sets them apart: they are all of light to dark grey, apparently achieved by printing the textile with an iron-based substance and then immersing it in a tannin liquid. Several of them are not cotton, but linen, i.e. woven with a flax fibre. The designs of [EA1990.440] to [EA1990.444] are very close to Mamluk metalwork of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; in particular the clearly defined circles and star shapes, the use of interlace as a frame and space filler, and the rather crisp and hard treatment of the pattern relate the designs to brass and bronze work from Iraq, Syria, or Egypt, which was often inlaid with silver to highlight the precision of lines (Ill. 19). We can assume that the textiles were also produced in the Islamic heartland, possibly either Egypt or Syria.

Another small number of textiles in this group are certainly Ottoman in design ([EA1990.450], [EA1990.459], [EA1990.466] to [EA1990.468]). The elongated flowers and leaves, seen here in profile, all have equivalents in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ottoman tiles, as well as in eighteenth-century embroideries. If the textile is linen, it is likely that it was produced in Egypt. A cotton fabric could have come from anywhere in the Ottoman realm. A few other fragments are also definitely not Indian. [EA1990.887] is Turkish: the red cloth is printed with crescents, each with a Turkish inscription. [EA1990.871 and EA1990.872], originally certainly one textile, present a mixture of design styles; the overall impression is Persian, but there also are large medallions with an Arabic inscription, as well as certain details of leaves and floral shapes on their borders that give the fabric a hybrid appearance. The textile could have been made in any culture that produced Arabic inscriptions, while being affected by Persian design.

There are also several textiles that are unlikely to be Indian, but take us away completely from an Islamic source. [EA1990.1195] is very much like a Javanese batik, and is likely to be a late nineteenth-century textile. [EA1990.270, EA1990.1182, and EA1990.1183] probably are European textiles, all three without distinction, and all of late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century date. Similarly, there is a design group which has alternating red and white stripes with single flowers, very much like a French textile design popular in the eighteenth century, and used in particular for wall coverings ([EA1990.383 to EA1990.389, EA1990.1154 to EA1990.1156]). It is possible, however, that these textiles were printed in India.

Among the last textiles to be accessioned into the catalogue are 16 fabrics that are probably European, but could also have been produced elsewhere (including India) for an international taste in European designs ([EA1990.1200 to EA1990.1206, EA1990.1208 to EA1990.1216]). These fabrics are far removed from the core of the collection, both in design and technique. They are included here because they are part of Newberry’s collection, although it is unclear to me why he collected this particular material. However, as I said above, virtually all the collections of Indo-Egyptian cotton textiles include some of these oddities. Two textiles ([EA1990.1192, EA1990.1193]) are possibly Indian. Both are unusual; they look like small place mats and have tassles attached to them. Also moved to the end of the catalogue are textiles that are certainly Indian, but of very late date. [EA1990.688, EA1990.892 to EA1990.903, EA1990.1158 to EA1990.1181, EA1990.1184 to EA1990.1188, EA1990.1190, EA1990.1191, EA1990.1197 to EA1990.1199, EA1990.1207, and EA1990.1217 to EA1990.1231] all are likely to be of mid- to late nineteenth-century date. They are in general of poor design quality and very coarsely woven. Also included in this group of late textiles is [EA1990.1194], which is however very interesting. It is a sample cloth with more than 150 patterns. The sampler is Indian, but it is possible that Newberry did not acquire it in Egypt, but that it was given to him by G.P. Baker (see Chapter 2).

Finally there is a substantial number of fragments for which it is not possible to say with certainty whether they are Indian or Near Eastern in origin. These include the following: [EA1990.252] to [EA1990.256]; [EA1990.261] to [EA1990.265]; [EA1990.267] to [EA1990.269]; [EA1990.275]; [EA1990.276]; [EA1990.324]; [EA1990.346]; [EA1990.371] to [EA1990.382]; [EA1990.395] to [EA1990.399]; [EA1990.425] to [EA1990.436]; [EA1990.491] to [EA1990.637]; [EA1990.646]; [EA1990.662]; [EA1990.681]; [EA1990.698]; [EA1990.873] to [EA1990.886]; [EA1990.888] to [EA1990.891]. From the first group, [EA1990.275] and [EA1990.276] are partly similar to a fragment found at Quseir al-Qadim which was included in the catalogue of resist-dyed textiles and assumed to have an Indian origin (Vogelsang-Eastwood 1990: cat. no. 40: 48, 106). The design of linked chevrons was very popular in the Mamluk period, however. It is found prominently displayed as architectural decoration, both in wall panels and over doorways. I favour an Indian provenance for these two textile fragments, but an Egyptian or Syrian production cannot be ruled out. Certainly there were Indian textiles printed with small, over-all linked chevron designs, apparently made specifically for the Egyptian Mamluk market; [EA1990.35] and related fragments are fine examples of these visually interesting patterns.

To summarize the attributions, I have come to the following conclusion: 71 textile fragments could be either Indian or Near Eastern; 35 are certainly Near Eastern; 10 textiles are similar to French eighteenth-century designs and may be Indian products with a European inspiration; 19 are European or at least in European taste, with no reason to link them to Indian textile production. One textile may be a Javanese batik, and two textiles with tassels are of uncertain origin. Therefore a total of 55 are certainly not in the Indian tradition, while a total of 83 may or may not be Indian. From the entire collection of 1,226 textiles, we therefore have a maximum of 138 that may not be Indian, while 1,088 are, in my opinion, of Indian origin. Of these, a total of 64 almost certainly have a nineteenth-century date.

The catalogue entries only give a date for a specific textile if the information is quite certain. Of course the results of the radiocarbon dating are included with the relevant entries, and where related textiles are stylistically very close, a comparative date is also given. In general, I have avoided dating on stylistic grounds, as is discussed in Chapter 4. However, where a textile is obviously Ottoman, or as closely related to fourteenth- or fifteenth-century Mamluk metalwork as [EA1990.440] to [EA1990.444], it would be inappropriate not to make this connection.

Regarding the sequence of the catalogue entries, these do to some degree relate to provenance and likely date. As stated in the Introduction, the catalogue is generally divided by colour, as that reflects a particular dye technique, and then is arranged by design [1]. It has not been possible to be consistent in this respect, though, as often too many different designs are part of one textile. As far as provenance is concerned, the textiles least likely to be Indian are usually placed towards the end of the section. Again, no complete consistency can be claimed.

Centres of production

In historical times textiles were produced almost everywhere in India, but there certainly also existed geographic regions that were known for their particularly prolific manufacture and their association with specific types of cloth. Already described in the first century CE in the Periplus, a report on the trade of the western Indian Ocean, the ports of Gujarat, south-east India, and Bengal provided the bulk of the textiles for export; the same regions were still reported as the major producers and export harbours when the early European eyewitness accounts were published. By contrast, the south-western ports of India were historically never renowned for exporting textiles, other than plain weave cloth.

By the sixteenth century the block-printed resist- and mordant-dyed type of cloth was in particular associated with north-western India, specifically with Gujarat. Although now the technique is found in Rajasthan as well, there is so far no evidence that places like Bagru, Sanganer, Barmer, and Jaipur produced the cloth when English and Dutch traders first became involved with the export of textiles. The mobility of craftsmen often followed the demand in particular markets or was encouraged by local rulers. For example, the patola weavers of Patan claim to have come there at the request of a ruler in the twelfth century. Similarly, the family of block-printers still working now in Dhamadka near Bhuj in Gujarat say that they moved there from Sindh in the seventeenth century, at the request of the king of Kutch. These tales are not presented here as historical fact, but further local research may show that such stories of mobility are very likely. As Varadarajan emphasizes, the block-printing and bandhani work in Gujarat is generally in the hands of the Khatris, originally a Hindu caste, but with the early Shia conversions in northwestern India under the influence of Fatimid Cairo, Gujarati Khatris could be either Hindu or Muslim (Varadarajan 1983: 13).

Irwin (1966: 16) mentions Ahmedabad as the main source for printed cotton cloths in the early seventeenth century, but he adds that centres for producing the more expensive painted resist- and mordant-dyed textiles also would have made the cheaper variety that was mainly block- printed. For north-western India, these were in particular Sironj and Burhanpur. While the tradition of painted resist- and mordant-dyed textiles is most frequently associated with production in south-eastern India and export from the ports of the Coromandel Coast, good quality kalamkari (painted) textiles were also produced in Gujarat. For versatility, north-western India’s textile production could hardly be beaten: a case in point being the extremely fine seventeenth- and eighteenth-century embroideries produced in Gujarat for local clients, but also for the European market, in particular the Portuguese (Irwin 1949). At their best, these delicate chain-stitch cloths rival any of the Coromandel Coast ‘chintzes’, and they call for at least the same degree of admiration for their technical accomplishments (Ill. 20).

Since the nineteenth century block-printed fabrics have also been an important part of the textile production of Madras and Bengal, but this was apparently not the case in earlier centuries. In the 1860s Forbes Watson made a survey of textiles produced in India, and he collected samples of printed cotton from both regions, but they are quite distinctly different from our collection of fragments, and in general are much cruder in their designs and quality of dyes [2].

It is certain that the export of block-printed textiles went through the ports of Gujarat, in particular through Cambay and Surat. As a centre for trade and merchant activities, Ahmedabad since its foundation in 1411 was also of foremost importance. The Indian provenance of the textiles is often emphasized by linking their designs to architectural ornaments of north-western India, and more specifically to certain Islamic buildings in Gujarat. I want to extend that discussion to include Jain temple relief carvings as well. Another medium frequently referred to and used for comparative purposes is that of manuscript painting, again specifically from the Jain tradition of Gujarat. Pfister made the connection between Jain manuscript paintings and the Indo-Egyptian textiles, and Gittinger also referred to it (Pfister 1938: 79-80; Gittinger 1982: 31). Nevertheless, so far no thorough comparison has been made; the wealth of our material begs for this.

Jain manuscripts

After looking at the internal evidence the textiles themselves offer, it is interesting to turn to their representation in different media, in particular in figural painting. Our prime evidence from India is in the Jain manuscript paintings which generally date from between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries, with some early and late examples on either side. These manuscripts record the sacred narratives of the Jain creed, and they were made to be offered by pious donors to grantha- bhandaras, the monastic libraries. Occasionally the donor might commission several copies of the same text, and then have them distributed to different monasteries. The text was at first usually written on to palm-leaf, which restricted the size of the pages. By the mid-fourteenth century paper began to replace the use of palm-leaf as a vehicle for illustrations. As the offer of the donation was usually inscribed into the manuscripts, their dating is often relatively secure. However, as later copies of text sometimes also copied parts of the inscription, a close stylistic analysis continues to be used to confirm chronology.

The earliest surviving illustrated manuscript is dated by Khandalavala and Doshi to CE 1060 (1975: 395 and pl. 265A). It depicts Sri and a Kamadeva loosening an arrow, the latter in a magnificently wide stride and lively gesture. A wonderfully realistic elephant is also included in the drawing. The two figures both wear garments with horizontal stripes. The liveliness of movement remained the hallmark of the genre, and the narrative aspect of the illustrations can provide insights into western Indian domestic life, customs, and dress.

A full chronology of the manuscript paintings was first established by Moti Chandra (1949). Although since his publication additional manuscripts have been found and some dates have been corrected, it still remains the most comprehensive study of the material [3]. As the manuscripts developed a highly narrative style and reveal much about daily life and customs, he included a complete chapter on the dress and body ornaments they represent (Chandra 1949: 114-28). This he complemented with his publication on dress, cosmetics, and coiffure in the history of India, for which the Jain manuscripts provided primary dated evidence for the medieval period (1973).

In both publications Chandra presents a list of figures with textile ornaments; to a large degree these overlap. The designs either show pattern arranged in bands, or an overall design, the latter often with a different border. While many of the textiles’ ornaments are not specific enough to merit comparison to our fragments, there also are some parallels worth pointing out, as Pfister already noted (1938: 79-80). Similarities can definitely be established between our fragments and Chandra’s line drawings (Chandra 1973) [4].

Additional illustrations by Chandra repeat some of these designs, i.e. fig. 24 is a version of fig. 7, fig. 35 shows a dancer wearing a hamsa textile, and fig. 42 is probably related to the linked circles and quatrefoils of fig. 11. He claimed that although the manuscript tradition spans 400 years, there is very little difference in the display of patterns represented over the centuries. The same stock of designs is turned to again and again: this seems to be true, although the manner of wearing the cloth is observed and differentiated, depending on who is represented. A remarkable development of this can be seen in the Kalakacarya Katha manuscripts produced in Gujarat in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, where we see a distinction in the depiction of Indians and Mongols, the latter clearly wearing dress that is cut and tailored under the influence of a Central Asian and Turkish style, with sleeved coats, pointed caps, and boots (Ill. 21). The difference emphasized in facial features is also interesting, the representation of the Mongols clearly following Persian miniature paintings of human beings, with three-quarter frontal views of the faces, and with active glances directed at each other. The men are shown with straight noses and beards. The Indians, however, appear in the manner developed for this type of manuscript, typically almost in profile, but with the eye on the far side of the face protruding from behind a very pointed nose, and with a small, receding chin.

One type of design is not found in Chandra’s list, although it is found in many of the manuscripts, in particular in those of an early fifteenth-century date. He illustrates a good example as fig. 88 (Ill. 22) in his earlier publication (1949: pl. 29), showing an illustration from a Kalpasutra with Trisala wearing a garment over her lower body that to me seems related to the design series we have in [EA1990.297] to [EA1990.306], and [EA1990.509] to [EA1990.514]. The textiles illustrated in this particular scene are representative of the range of designs: the attendants wear a hamsa cloth and wide lotus scrolls, and in addition to the short-sleeved blouses the women also carry light-coloured shawls that have the small rosette arrangements and grid patterns often used in bandhani. A bandhani cloth is certainly represented in a manuscript painting showing a monk seated near a water tank (Ill. 23). His transparent cloth is covered with the grid lines and dots characteristic of tie-dye.

Stylistic similarities to Jain manuscripts

The comparisons brought up so far would be too unspecific if they were not supported by another aspect. Far more revealing than the depiction of textile patterns is the stylistic similarity between the manuscript illustrations and the designs of our textile fragments. The similarities in the depiction of the hamsa have been mentioned above. The motif appears in many of the manuscripts, not only as a textile pattern, but independently as well [EA1987.33]. Canopies with a row of hamsa appear in three of the pages of the Vasanta Vilasa, a secular text of which one manuscript now in the Freer Gallery in Washington is securely dated to 1451/52 (Brown 1962: figs. 33, 52, 56). The same manuscript also shows several wall plaques with paired or single geese, always crested and usually with a lotus stalk in their beaks. The representation is identical to the hamsa found in many of the Indo-Egyptian textiles, with the exception that the block-printed examples usually show every second bird turning back to look at its fellow goose. It may be a helpful reminder here to recall that one of the fragments that was radiocarbon-dated [EA1990.804] is very close stylistically to the typical hamsa textiles, which also include various, but quite specific, versions of quatrefoils and rosettes. The C-14 analysis gave a fifteenth-century date.

An even better, because more specific, comparison between Jain manuscript painting and the printed textiles can be made in the representation of trees. Many of the painted scenes show two types of trees: one with a round, full crown, leafy and often with flowers, the other with long, separate branches, often looking much like a banana tree or plantain (Ill. 24). Curiously, the same combination of trees is also found in the printed textiles [EA1990.361].

When linking the Indo-Egyptian textiles to the Jain manuscript paintings of Gujarat, we also should look at certain textiles that have survived in South-East Asia, in particular in eastern Indonesia. These cloths will be discussed more extensively in Chapter 11 which deals with trade to South-East Asia, but the stylistic peculiarity of some of them is of interest here as well. Specifically I want to refer to cloths that show human figures, a genre that does not survive from the Egyptian context. They are remarkable here for two reasons: although also block-printed, the manner of depicting body movements and facial features is identical to the Jain paintings, and they show patterns of dress in greater detail than the manuscripts. There can be no doubt that the figural style, the representation of the protruding eye and receding chin, relate these cloths to the text illustrations, and that the garments worn by the figures are patterned with designs that are very specifically close to the Indo-Egyptian material. John Guy has illustrated a detail from a cloth now in the Australian National Gallery in Canberra which has several motifs for which we have direct parallels (Guy 1989: fig. 18). In particular there is the cluster of trumpet-shaped leaves, as in [EA1990.801] and [EA1990.803] to [EA1990.805], a parrot as in [EA1990.1097] and [EA1990.1147], and a delightful representation of two crested hamsa (Ill. 25). An architectural detail showing half-rosettes and a zigzag is very similar to the narrow bands in our textiles.

Architectural ornaments

Ever since Pfister’s publication it has been generally recognized that there is a close link between the architectural ornaments of western Gujarat and the block-printed textiles. There is no need to argue that case again, but only to emphasize the importance of the visual link. The visitor to Ahmedabad, for example, is struck by the similarity in stylistic approach when looking at buildings like, for example, the Jami Masjid (1424 CE) and the Rani Sipri mosque (1505 CE). The fourteenth-century Jami Masjid in Cambay also fits closely into this architectural group. The buildings are all covered with designs that are familiar from the textile canon (Ill. 26). In some cases even, as in the squinches set into domes, the architectural feature looks as though it were a wood block. Again we also find the tree types discussed above, often combined with rosettes and continuous vines that are close to the textile representations (Ills. 27, 28). Domestic architecture in Ahmedabad also provides comparative evidence. The large carved wooden houses of the old city, the haveli, not only are excellent examples of stylistic mixtures of Indian, Islamic, and early European patterns, but they sometimes look as though their walls were covered with textiles (Ill. 29).

However, the architectural ornaments are also entirely familiar from a Jain context, as identical details can be found, for example, at Ranakpur in southern Rajasthan (1439 CE) (Ills. 18, 30). Here we see, in addition to the floral patterns, the hamsa prominently in evidence on the ornately carved columns, but also again the types of trees already encountered in the Jain manuscripts. There is no doubt that the stone and wood decoration of Gujarati Islamic buildings from the late fourteenth to the sixteenth century were entirely integrated into, and dependent on, the stylistic canon in use locally at the time. Although sacred architecture has to fulfil certain ritual requirements, the details of ornament are shared by all religious communities.

To sum up, what can we say definitely about the Indian provenance of the textiles in the Newberry Collection? There certainly is a strong link between them and north-western India, in particular with the Jain traditions of Gujarat. As the Jain also were the prominent merchants involved with international trade, it is not surprising that the trade textiles use a Jain stylistic language. However, they are also closely linked to the particular decorative style that developed in the Islamic architecture of western Gujarat. There is no contradiction here, as this architecture depends strongly on a locally developed vocabulary of design. Furthermore, many of the merchants dealing with Gujarati products were of course Muslim, whether Indian converts or trade settlers from Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

It is interesting that the dates of the buildings and the manuscript paintings in general correspond well to the dates of the textiles, as far as this has been established, as discussed in the chapter on dating the material. Until the recent radiocarbon-dating results the connection between the three media had been made on stylistic grounds alone. It is rewarding to be able to confirm the stylistic connections by the results of the C-14 analysis.


[1] [EA1990.1077] is one example where I have decided to leave it in the sequence it was originally placed in, although on technical grounds it should have been moved to Section II (b) (red and white textiles: textiles with several shades of red). The very good quality of this particular tab, as well as its design, link it much more closely to the sequence of tabs in this part of the catalogue, though. In Section II there are otherwse no similar tab shapes; the only alternative would have been to move the entry close to [EA1990.680] and [EA1990.683], which are different in design.

[2] The Victoria and Albert Museum has a complete set of Forbes Watson's collection of samples. The material referred to here is in volume iv for the Bengali samples, and volume x for the Madras prints.

[3] However, Saryu Doshi's work adds further interpretations (Khandalavala and Doshi 1975). Several volumes with additional manuscripts have also been published by Nawab (1956, 1980, 1985); see also Khandalavala and Chandra (1969).

[4] I use the 1973 publication, as it was easier to identify the manuscript source from it.


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