Image: Court guards of Mughal ruler Shah Jahan
Text: Nidhi Garg Allen
Cultural crossovers and complexities pepper the histories of Indian crafts. To understand the history of zardozi embroidery more readily, it's convenient to consider goldwork in India before and after the thirteenth century, that is before and after the arrival of Islamic or Sultanate rule. For the earlier period, we may look to Vedic texts for indications of gold or silver embroideries on clothing. For the later period, we look to the accounts of foreign travellers to the courts.
In the Vedic texts, there are many instances where 'swarn'— a Hindi word for gold —is mentioned in relation to clothing or adornment. However, evidence of zardozi embroidery becoming part of the cultural mainstream, with organised production centres and guilds, occurs only after the arrival of Sultanate rule. These Persian rulers came to Southeast Asia with a taste for luxury, design, and craft, and India's abundant natural resources easily supported the opulence of their lifestyles. Naturally, master craftspeople from Persia were also drawn to India, bringing with them the skills to practice and further this remarkable craft. There is a reason why India became known as the 'Bird of Gold.'
Both historical Vedic references, and the accounts of foreign travellers to India, record the use of silver, gold, and precious metals on multiple fabrics. Marco Polo, visiting Gujarat in the early 13th century, observed cushions, dress materials, and other products of daily use decorated with fine gold and silver embroideries, and was thrilled to see leather and mats inlayed with fine silver and gold wires.
Image: Raja Ravi Varma, HH Shri Charmarajendra Wadiyar
Ibn Batuta, a traveller and explorer, paints a vivid picture of the array of gold embroideries found in the royal quarters. From the gold and jewel-embroidered saddle, seat, and parasol of the Sultan's elephant, to the gold caps and belts of the Sultan's servants, to cities of gold-studded tents housing the aristocracy. This level of production suggests the existence and patronage of large, state-owned gold embroidery manufacturing centres. Indeed, the Sultan's gold-embroidered gifts to the aristocracy and nobility of other Indian provinces created more love for the craft, leading to more centres of manufacture flourishing around the country. As these craft products gradually became accessible even to the urban elite, the Persian words for gold embroidery 'zarkas', and for a state-owned gold embroidery factory, 'tiraz', slowly became a part of Indian vocabulary.
Image: Mughal Emperor Akhbar
Of course, the Islamic ruler also dictated the fashions of the day, but when Sultan Firoz Shah Tuglaq— who ruled Delhi for 37 years during the 14th century —banned all embroidered costumes, allowing only small-scale embroideries on caps and belts, goldwork had already become such a part of the mainstream, adored by wealthy Hindus and Muslims alike, that it flourished despite the restrictions.
At the end of the 15th century, the discovery of the Cape route initiated a new chapter in Euro-Asian trade. The Portuguese noticed the beautiful goldwork in the courts of the Islamic rulers and soon became great patrons of the zardozi craft. As a result, new markets opened in Europe. Later, with the gradual inception of British rule, the fate of the zardozi craft changed yet again. Royal patronage ceased and state-owned factories crumbled. The craft became a business, with artisans forced to find their own routes to market. However, demand from the local, wealthy English administration led to new types of products.
Image: Zardosi shoe
Nidhi Garg Allen is an alumnus of Parsons School of Design and Adjunct Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. A technologist turned artisan entrepreneur, she is the founder and CEO of Marasim. Marasim emerged from Nidhi’s curiosity for the history and beauty of her own Indian culture, with craftsmanship and textiles her medium of inquiry. Based in New York, Marasim is now committed to preserving artisanal textiles that use regional techniques, without uprooting craftspeople from their native communities. Marasim designs and develops high-quality products, in collaboration with traditional Indian artisans, for luxury designers, such as Gabriela Hearst, Tory Burch, Oscar de la Renta, and Bode.