Charkha, the device that charged India's freedom movement

The inspiring story of a design object that helped define a new, self-reliant India.

By Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

The Man Behind The Wheel

Mahatma Gandhi ingenously deployed the charkha or spinning wheel as an important tool for political emancipation, by using it as a metaphor of 'ancient work ethics' and as a symbol of economic and social reaction to the British Rule. He believed that "It is in the daily life where dharma and practicality come together and the spinning wheel was the realisation of this possibility."

Worship of Chakra (100-200 C.E) by unknownIndian Museum, Kolkata

Early Appearances

The wheel can be seen as a prominent icon in several Buddhist relics. The chakra (wheel) denotes the source of all formative ideas, movement and the law of order (dharma). Later, it features in the lion capitols built by the Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka. The spinning wheel, or charkha in India, continues to represent the chakra’s ideology.

Tex 20 Spin Hand Spindle Wheel. (1850)LIFE Photo Collection

Origin of The Charkha

Early evidence reveals the use of the charkha in Baghdad (c. 1200 CE), from where it may have arrived into India and China. The etymology of ‘charkha’ is derived from the Persian word ‘charkh' which means ‘circle’ or wheel’. 

Tex 20 Spin Hand Spindle Wheel. (1850)LIFE Photo Collection

The spinning wheel was a device that gave rise to several revolutions globally.

Before the Industrial Revolution in 18th Century Europe, it was women who used and were expected to use the wheel to spin yarn and weave cloth at home.

King Philip - Mule Spinning Room (6/21/1916) by Lewis Wickes HineLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Wheels of Industry

Eventually, the spinning wheel evolved into industrial machinery through inventions such as the flying shuttle (1733), the spinning jenny (1746), the spinning mule (1779), and the power loom (1784). The 18th century Industrial Revolution promoted economic development in Britain, and the expansion of its colonial rule.

By N R FarbmanLIFE Photo Collection

Arm (Bri-Colonial) IndiaLIFE Photo Collection

The British East India company soon began using its colonies, particularly India, as a market for its expensive, industrial production textiles - exploitatively buying unprocessed resources such as cotton at very low prices.

Gandhi (1925-06-09) by Hulton ArchiveGetty Images

One of the cornerstones of Mahatma Gandhi's fight for freedom was to reject exploitative ‘foreign goods’.

He strategically adopted the spinning wheel as a tool in implementing three primary objectives:
1. Dismissal of British textiles in favour of locally spun khadi;
2. Creation of financial liberty for every citizen;
3. A method of non-violent protest.

Tex 20 Spin Hand Spindle Wheel. (1850)LIFE Photo Collection

In 1905, the charkha became a symbol of the Swadeshi movement - a part of the Indian Independence movement aimed at disbanding the British Empire by making the citizens of India more self-reliant.

Gandhi Family (1946-05) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

The Floor Charkha

The initial model of the charkha, the floor charkha, was a simple, wooden contraption that was placed on the ground and the spinner would kneel or sit beside it. The floor charkha consisted of a distaff, a driving wheel that was run by hand, and a spindle off of which the yarn was spun.

Gandhi Weaving (1931-09-12) by MillerGetty Images

It is believed that Gandhi devised a nifty, portable spinning wheel - the peti charkha - in 1930 during his time in Poona's Yervada Jail after his initiation of a Civil Disobedience Movement.

Gandhi Family (1946-05) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

The Peti Charkha

The peti charkha was a portable spinning wheel that folded into a contraption the size of a brief case, and could be carried with a handle. This handy device, made of wood (usually teak), comprised two wheels, a crank, a spindle, and two storage compartments that held the additional spindle and fibre. The peti charkha worked by turning the crank which simultaneously spun the two wheels and spindle.

By James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection

Unfurling Freedom

The charkha continued to serve as an integral part of the Indian identity and was adopted as a symbol for the flag of the Provisional Government of Free India, 1921. 

Indian Independence (1949-08-15) by Ron CaseGetty Images

The charkha on the flag was later simplified to the Ashoka Chakra - the wheel that represents unity and law - in 1947, and maintains its significance to this day in contemporary India.

Bengali Silk Weavers at work with a Hand Loom (1930)Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum

Loom of Industry

Before the arrival of the British, India's percentage of the world's shared economy was 23%, and by the time the British left, it was down to below 4%. In fact, Britains industrialisation was based on the premise of the de-industrialisation of India. However, the Swadeshi movement, that swept through the nation in 1930 - 1931, served to improve the sagging morale of the Indian industrialists and left a great, enduring impact on the country. While the previous attempt at a Swadeshi movement in 1905 was confined to the urban centre alone, the message of the new wave reached the rural masses as well.

By James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection

The organisers of the boycott movement motivated textile mills owners to abandon imported yarn and, on the part of the masses, there was an increased awareness of the benefits of using homemade products.

Many industrialists like Kasturbhai Lalbhai looked upon the 1930s as the years of opportunity - if the prices of the mill products were low, so would the cost of machinery. Realising the only way to drive off foreign goods from Indian markets was to produce them at home, there was no better time to intensify the drive than the beginning of the 1930s.

The middle class - which was the traditional consumer of foreign goods were now willing to accept such indigenous production instead.

Indian Fashions (1955) by James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection

In 1952, the All India Handloom Development Board was formed for the growth of craft via design development centres. Its primary objective was to excel as a pivotal organization in the Handloom sector by serving as a National Agency for its promotion and development.

By James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection

In 1956, the Khadi and Village Industries Commission Act was enacted. Its primary objectives were to provide employment, produce saleable articles, create self-reliance amongst the poor, and to build a strong rural community spirit.

Spinning CharkhaOriginal Source: India Design Museum

Credits: All media
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