A story of multicultural history, dynamic routes and roots of Parsi craft.
With motifs and styles cross borrowed from Iran, China, India and Europe, the craft of Parsi Embroidery tells the story of multicultural history embodying dynamic roots and routes.
In this child’s 'jhabla' or tunic you can see an inter-crossing mythical Iranian bird - the 'Simurgh' as the central motif. With the Simurgh, you can see a pair of peacocks from the Indian tradition along with Persian floral designs creating a vivid 'Gul-e'Bulbul'.
Zoroastrian women carefully guarded their embroidery and craft traditions across history. This bridal shawl found 150 years ago from Iran has embroidery motifs so intricate that a magnifying glass would be required to see them clearly. Parsi Zoroastrian embroidery carries on this tradition, while over the centuries it has amalgamated with Chinese style and symbol, Indian stitches and later European design.
This photograph, courtesy Late Elizabeth Gersivitch of Cambridge, depicts a 19th Century wedding shawl collected from Iran and carefully preserved. The Sun Motif along with a distinct 'Chinar Paisley' is visible here.
Colorful peacocks have been embroidered in this shawl with the sacred 'Ariz', or fish, emblematic of fertility.
'Ariz', or fish embroidered around the Sun in this Zarthushti Bridal shawl.
An embroidery cupboard with shelves containing Chinese lacquer boxes, wicker baskets with tools, and exquisite colors and shades of embroidery thread would be the trademark of a Parsi home up until fifty years ago. A shelf containing embroidery pattern books from all over the world with their intricate impressions traced on paper would be commonplace in classic Parsi households.
Often written instructions were found about color preferences, or initials and dates to indicate for whom and on what occasion, a pattern or a 'khakha' would have been created. This is visible in this design completed by Late Roshan Patel of Hyderabad.
A purse from the previous Khakha completed by Late Roshan Patel of Hyderabad.
Respect for material creation is a cardinal tenet of the Zoroastrian faith. With this, it celebrates the bounty of nature, in its sacred texts, myths & ceremonies. The 'Spenta’ or ‘bountiful world' to be treated with care finds itself embodied in Parsi Embroidery. This bright red Jhabla (a child's tunic) combines the Rooster from the Zoroastrian tradition with the Divine Fungus from the Chinese symbolic tradition.
The rooster and its crowing every morning is associated with the slaying of the demon of darkness and sacredness ascribed in Zoroastrianism to the archangel 'Yazata Sarosh'. Such associations make it a favored element on children's clothing.
The iconography of 'Humata Hukata Huvarashta' or 'Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds' comes alive in traditional Parsi embroidery. Flowers, birds and animals are often celebrated as emblems of power, purity and protection.
'Ava Yazad', the Angel of Water is depicted in this Parsi border or 'Kor' with the water lily as her representative flower.
The element of 'Ava' is again seen in this velvet tapestry embroidered in gold. The waves representing water enclose the Simurgh ; the Sun and the Tree of Life are also represented.
It was in the Tang and Song dynasties (618–1279 CE) that the Persian love of nature, mingled with the skill of the embroidery schools of China across the Silk Route. In this early stage of the intercultural amalgam, after interaction between Persia and China, satin stitch, long and short stitch and the Parsi 'Khakho' or seed pearl stitch, began appearing with Chinese chain stitch. The khakho because of its intricacy resulted in women losing their eyesight, and thus became synonymous with the 'forbidden stitch'.
In this undated 'khakho jhabla', the birds, placed in a Persian Gul-e-Bulbul pattern seem to be seated on an adaptation of the Chinese Divine fungus. The Divine Fungus in Chinese mythology symbolizes protection from the Evil Eye.
The China connection with Persia was an overland trade link, this would change into a sea trade link with the later Indian Parsis. The first Parsi to sail for China was Hirji Jivanji in 1756. For almost 200 years, Parsi traders prospered, trading at Canton, Macao, Hong Kong and Shanghai where the Chinese had begun exporting their embroidery to Europe as early as the 13th century CE.
Legend has it that a Parsi trader in Canton, watching craftsmen embroider a rich textile, requested them to embroider 6 yards of silk as a sari for his wife in India. These first pieces, embroidered on satin have no borders or 'pallavs' and seem like yardage often carrying Taoist and Buddhist personification & symbolism.
Parsi women following Indian tradition, began designing kors or borders to match the inner embroidery. The frontage or the pallav was designed to highlight the design.
This fish gara is an engagement sari made to order in China by Parsi merchants from Western India dealing with Opium, Tea and Textiles. The colours favoured in the Persian tradition were imperial purple and other such shades. As Indian influence developed, the auspicious Indian Kunku red or vermillion became a favourite.
Soon Chinese yardage had developed into the 'Parsi Gara Sari' - a yardage bound in a frame by a'Kor' or border on four sides. In this gara, made as part of the Parzor revival of traditional motifs and embroidery, we see a continuing as well as contemporization of tradition.
Mrs. Bhicoo Manekshaw of Delhi was the owner of this Gara, made for an engagement in her family in the late 19th century.
Parsi women had adopted the sari when they migrated from Iran to Sanjan, but in order to keep it distinct, wore their pleats on the right and made the 'pallav' reach almost to the feet standing out in distinctly patterned embroidered garments. In this portrait, Lady Bachubai Vakil of Ahmedabad (1888) can be seen in an embroidered Parsi velvet kor gara along with her sacred Sudreh in lace - a European influence that added to the intercultural amalgam.
A fine example of Parsi empbroidery, this portrait of Jerbanoo Kanga of Nagpur (1923) depicts her wearing a Parsi Gara. The portrait was preserved by her grieving husband post her death during childbirth.
As intercultural amalgam continued, the Indian Ambi and Persian Cypress combined to create powerful motifs for pallavs which included Chinese baskets symbolizing plenty, within their space.
Made in Surat, on Surti gaaj or jacquard, Indian peacocks combine with Persian trellis and flowers, joined with the Chinese Endless Knot for this engagement Gara.
The Imperial presence of Europe brought amalgamation of scallops, bows and ribbons bringing together four cultures in the Parsi sari.
The seals in Gujarati found from the Chungtai area suggest that textile trade was customized for garments meant only for Parsi trade.
Along with full garas, stand alone 'kors' became popular. Certain patterns in kors are found repeated in different colours according to individual preference.
This is an example of a Gara from Japan with fine Chrysanthemums embroidered on black. A rare gara, it is found in the collection of late Khorshed Sethna, nee Vakil of Ahmedabad.
Until the early 1960s, Chinese ‘Pherawallas’ or textile vendors, came regularly in winters to family homes across Gujarat, the Deccan, Bombay as well as Calcutta, wherever Parsis settlements were to be found.
Over the years, a close relationship developed between Chinese peddlars and their Parsi clients. Because they could not afford storage space, the Chinese would leave their heavy bundles of cloth on a particular veranda during their visits, returning there after morning sales were done. Parsi women, consequently learnt stitches and motifs, from Chinese peddlars who would carry their original patterns on black cloth.
All these techniques and stitches were assimilated by Parsi women who added their own myths,sacred symbols and later the aari and mochi stitch which they learnt from their Gujarati women friends. In the Deccan, Deccani Zari work began appearing on Parsi Jhablas and childrens’ prayer caps or topis.
Enterprising Parsis traveled and settled in other parts of India especially the Deccan and hence acquired local skills like Zardozi embroidery and incorporated it in their embroidery repertoire.
As the demand from the Parsis increased, Indo-Chinese settlements dealing in embroidery are believed to have flourished in Western India. The craftsmanship of the embroidery and designs done in India was distinguishable from the original Chinese. While fine thread and a balanced use of colors characterized the typical Chinese embroidery style, Parsi women in India brought to life a range of colours in their embroidery.
As each culture faces the homogeneity of globalization, ethnic and cultural distinctions, including clothing, become a way of recalling identity.
In 2005 -2006 Parzor Foundation along with Textile Designer, Author and Curator - Ashdeen Z. Lilaowala conducted a detailed research project on Zoroastrian Embroidery for the Ministry of Textiles. He traveled through Iran and researched the embroidery of Southern China. Parzor has documented several private Parsi embroidery collections in various cities of India and abroad. As part of Parzor Workshops, Ashdeen conducted four training workshops in Ahmedabad, Navsari, Mumbai and Delhi.
Today his brand ''Ashdeen'' creates Designer Garas for textile enthusiasts across the world. In 'Spenta - Magical Manifestations', as part of The International Everlasting Flame Programme 2016, Ashdeen Z. Lilalowala brought alive a redefined take on classic Parsi Embroidery. Seen in this Sari are the charms of Chinese flora and fauna - clusters of peonies, imperial roses and chrysanthemum blooms intertwined with birds of paradise and elegant flying cranes.
This contemporary Sari evokes an aesthetic of the traditional Parsi Gara embroidery while keeping the silhouette simple and elegant.
As visible in this Sari, Parsi Embroidery is a work of different hand embroidery techniques that celebrates symbolism, colour and craft.
While earlier, Parsi embroidery was a part of a way of life, its current revival began with Parzor workshops conducted throughout the country. Today practitioners and designers are participating in its contemporary revival.
Since a craft can only prosper through creation of new forms, Parzor Foundation with its sincere work on Crafts and Textiles works towards preserving this proof of multicultural history of Indian textiles.
The emphasis, at Parzor, is given to the continuity of an ancient craft tradition with Adaptations to suit Modern Life.
The UNESCO Parzor project has tried to draw the attention of the world to the Parsi community. The enthusiasm with which the sensitive world community has responded to Parzor’s Craft Research and Revival Module, provides a hope that this fragile yet distinct thread in world textile encounters will continue to add worth to that tapestry which is India’s multicultural heritage.
Dr. Shernaz Cama, Honorary Director, UNESCO Parzor Project for the preservation and promotion of Parsi Zoroastrian Culture and Heritage.
This exhibition is based on the article “The Embroidery Cupboard: Oral Accounts of Parsi Embroidery” in Peonies & Pagodas: Embroidered Parsi Textiles from the TAPI Collection, 2010. All interviews have been conducted during Oral Tradition Recordings across India, China and Iran
by researchers from the UNESCO Parzor Project. This article on embroidery draws upon Parzor oral heritage recordings over the past 10 years. These and the photographs are the copyright of UNESCO Parzor.
Ashdeen Z. Lilaowala, Textile Designer, Author, Curator and Executive Committee Member of Parzor Foundation. His research on Parsi Embroidery has contributed vastly to the revival modules shaped and undertaken by the organization.
Dr. Niloufer Shroff and Debapriya Das who keep the spirit of Parzor's endeavors with craft and textile alive.
Practitioners of the Parsi Embroidery that have met with great enthusiasm at Parzor Craft Workshops.
Vanshika Singh for Curatorial Assistance.
Hemant Mehta and Dushyant Mehta for keeping revival alive through digital posterity. All credits to individual contributors of embroidery collections have been given in the exhibition.