The Enchanted World of Embroidered Handkerchiefs

Chamba and its Rumals

Dastkari Haat Samiti

Dastkari Haat Samiti

Chamba Embroidery: Cultural (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Chamba is a tiny town tucked into the foot of the great Himalayas and situated on the River Ravi, also known as the River Irawati. It developed over the years into a fairly prosperous community of people who continue with many old traditions and cultural beliefs but adopt modern developments in civic facilities, transportation, and a progressive outlook. Men and women share work and responsibilities and work together to preserve their arts and cultural heritage. 

Chamba Embroidery: Product (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The religious element is strong in the lives of the people of Chamba. In fact, the region, including the adjoining Uttarakhand state, is called 'Devbhoomi', the abode of the gods. 

Kullu Shawl Weaving: Culture (2018-03-28)Dastkari Haat Samiti

For followers of Hinduism, with its polytheistic nature, spirituality has always been attributed to sources of mighty rivers, majestic inaccessible mountains, sacred groves in forests, and places that were isolated or difficult to access.


Mountains were particularly attractive to saintly people who went on pilgrimages into the heights, or stayed in caves for years on end, meditating and praying in search of enlightenment.

Chamba Embroidery: Cultural (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Today in the heart of Chamba there are small, charming temples scattered within where people routinely stop to pray in the early mornings or evenings.

Temple bells ringing periodically are a common sound and the stone and wood carved temples are reminders of an ancient past.

Chamba Embroidery: Cultural (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A portion of the Lakshmi Narain temple complex in which separate temples for a variety of deities are found.

Chamba Embroidery: Cultural (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A Shaivite temple cluster. Since many deities are worshipped in Himachal Pradesh, particularly female deities, temples are generally found in clusters in which smaller stone carved temples adjoin the one with the main deity.

The stone bull near the man praying is Nandi, the vehicle of Lord Shiva. Shiva and his consort Parvati are believed to have resided among the snowy peaks.

Chamba Embroidery: Cultural (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Detail of the carving on the roof of a Shaivite temple cluster in Chamba.

Chamba Embroidery: Cultural (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Chamba cityscapes

Snugly situated in the hill region of Himachal Pradesh, Chamba surprises you with its myriad small temples and its museum and palaces where heritage and art mingle and the finely executed skill of embroidery can be seen.

Chamba Embroidery: Culture (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

'Hima' means snow and Himachal Pradesh means the snow-covered state. With every walk through the main street and market of Chamba, the snow-covered peaks remind one that the Himalayas are not far away.

Chamba Embroidery: Culture (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Brightly painted red roofs are private residences or small hotels and guest houses for tourists, who come trekking or are on a religious pilgrimage visiting temples and other sacred spots.

Chamba Embroidery: Culture (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Women riding a two-wheeler scooter and men minding a child near a pergola on the street are signs of Chamba’s changing times and absence of patriarchy.

Unfortunately, the sign saying Green Chamba, Clean Chamba does not itself live up to its message.

Chamba Embroidery: Cultural (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A tiny lane reveals an old style Chamba home built entirely of wood.

Chamba Embroidery: Culture (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

What was once the palace of Raja Bhuri Singh, a great promoter of the art of Chamba rumal embroidery, is now a museum named after him.

Chamba Embroidery: Cultural (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The Jawahar Lal Nehru Medical College in Chamba has architectural and interior features of earlier times that were valuable and reflective of their heritage.

The stain glass skylights remain intact.

Chamba Embroidery: Culture (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A cantilevered wooden balcony built to catch the sun on winter days is a typical architectural feature of Chamba.

Chamba Embroidery: Culture (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

In the heart of town, between the Medical College and the residential area in Chamba, an old temple complex built in the Nagari style common to North India, has been encroached upon to accommodate shops, roundabouts and spaces for citizens to relax.

Chamba Embroidery: Cultural (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Local crafts seen in the narrow lanes of the local bazaar include embossed and beaten brass and copper work, some wood craft and knitted garments.

Chamba Embroidery: Cultural (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A store announces on a small board that it sells Chamba shawls and rumals or kerchiefs.

The shawls would be handwoven and the rumals are squares with embroidery, done by women for over 400 years.

Chamba Embroidery: Product (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Chamba Rumal Embroidery

Chamba is the home of fine embroidery craft that came to be known simply as Chamba rumal, the Persian word for kerchief. Since every home in India practiced some form of craft work from time immemorial, it is only possible to trace the time it became a formalized activity even within a traditional or cultural environment rather than a commercial one. 

Chamba Embroidery: Product (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The first publicly displayed Chamba rumal is preserved in the Sikh shrine in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, as it is said to have been made by Bibi Nanaki in the 16th century. She was the sister of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion and first of the ten great Sikh gurus.

Chamba Embroidery: Process (2018-03-31)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Custom often sustains craft practices, and in the case of embroidery in the Chamba region, it was patronized and practiced among royalty. This helped it achieve a high level of aesthetic excellence and skill.

In the 17th and 18th centuries when Raja Gopal Singh, Raja Sansar Chand and Raja Bhuri Singh were the rulers of Chamba, painting and embroidery flourished, establishing a tradition that can be found in Chamba even today.

Chamba Embroidery: Product (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A Chamba rumal is framed and mounted on a swivel frame, to be placed on the ground or a side board as a decoration piece.

The embroidered image is a family portrait – of Lord Shiva, his consort Parvati, and their elephant-headed son Ganesh.

Chamba Embroidery: Culture (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Chamba embroidery on a cloth used as a mantelpiece cover in craftswoman Lalita Vakil’s home.

Her many awards are proudly on display.

Chamba Embroidery: Process (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

An old Chamba rumal has been carefully preserved in an embroiderer’s home to be replicated on order from discerning city clients.

Chamba Embroidery: Product (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A portion of a contemporary Chamba rumal is made to look like an antique piece to merge with the original aesthetic.

This is done by using natural-coloured dark cream silk, or by dyeing the fabric in a brew of tea leaves.

It shows Lord Vishnu appearing from Brahma’s navel as per the religious legend.

When the figure is shown in recline it is always on Sheshnag, the snake that offers protective shade.

The top corners have suns and moons to indicate the cosmic circle of life.

Figures are in Rajasthani dress, in shaded tones, which tells us it is a contemporary piece not following the flat colours of Kangra art.

Chamba Embroidery: Product (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A portion of a Chamba rumal depicts goddess Durga riding a tiger. In Hindu mythology all major deities have an animal or a bird as their special vehicle that becomes sacred.

Chamba Embroidery: Product (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The people of Himachal Pradesh love to dance, usually in a circular formation, at every festival or happy occasion.

In this Chamba rumal, dancers are embroidered in different poses, creating a sense of movement and celebration.

Chamba Embroidery: Product (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Where there are dancers, there are musicians. The people of Himachal Pradesh are happy and good-natured.

The sounds of their large drums and wind instruments reach far across the hills to other villages, announcing a wedding or birth in the family.

Chamba Embroidery: Process (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A shepherd couple, clearly nomads of Himachal Pradesh called gaddis, is depicted in embroidery as a stand-alone piece.

They typically carry a hookah, their meagre belongings on their backs, with one small goat alongside.

This is likely to be a stand-alone work as there are no more illustrations on the fabric.

Chamba Embroidery: Process (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A closer look at the Chamba rumal reveals the extraordinary texture and effect that is created with this local style of embroidery.

The beige floss silk threads have white flecks in them that look as if the surface is sparkling.

Chamba Embroidery: Product (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Rumal embroidery: a community activity

Chamba Embroidery: Process (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A sight common in many homes is young women embroidering rumals for an exhibition or a special order.

Collective work is done under the guidance and supervision of an NGO.

Chamba Embroidery: Process (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A small group of women work together to prepare Chamba rumals for an exhibition to be held by an NGO that has helped in its recent revival.

Chamba Embroidery: Process (2018-03-29)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Credits: Story

Text: Jaya Jaitly
Photography: Chirodeep Chaudhuri
Artisans: Parikshit Sharma, Indu Sharma, Lalita Vakil
Ground Facilitator: Charu Verma
Documentary Video: Chirodeep Chaudhuri
Curation: Ruchira Verma

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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