Going back in time: Vrindavani Vastra from 16th century Assam

ROOPA SHARMA

As a frequent visitor to London, UK, I have visited its enormous and awe-inspiring British Museum many times; but really, I have not seen even one tenth of its entire collection. Three months ago, while in London, I learned that British Museum was having a Special Exhibit on ‘Vrindavani Vastra’ till August 15 of this year. For the very first time, this Vastra was shown in its entirety! The title of the special exhibit was – ‘Krishna in the Garden of Assam: The Cultural Context of an Indian Textile’.

Following day, I was at the museum with our daughter – this time, only to see a lost historical piece from our Assam. We were completely spell-bound by this spectacular gem of a textile from Assam – for its antiquity, intricacy of weaving and to witness how well it has been preserved for over several centuries! 

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What is ‘Vrindavani Vastra’? 

The Vrindavani Vastra, quite literally means ‘the cloth of Vrindavan’. This was created in Assam in northeast India sometime in the late 17th century. It was made of woven silk with scenes from the early life of Lord  Krishna during the time he lived in the forest of Vrindavan. 

This ancient Assamese textile is over 9 meters long (length 937 centimeters and width 231 centimeters) and is the largest surviving example of this type of textile anywhere in the world. It is made up of 12 strips, each one different from the other, sewn together now (after it left Assam and was in Tibet). The main architect of this famous and exquisite piece was none other than Mahapurush Sri Sri Shankardeva, the great Vaishnavite saint of Assam. There are three types of motifs in this piece: 1) the Krishna scenes – from the 10th century text of Bhagavata Purana,  2) incarnations of Lord Vishnu and 3) text – in early Assamese alphabets and is a verse from the drama ‘Kali-damana’ by Srimanta Sankardeva tells the story of the defeat of the serpent-demon Kaliya by Krishna. 

The Story:

When Mahapurush Sri Sri Sankardeva was in Patbausi (near Barpeta) in the Koch kingdom, Maharaj Naranarayana and Yuvaraj Chilaraai (Sukladhvaja) invited Sri Sankardeva to their royal court and requested him to narrate to them, the details of Lord Krishna in Vrindavan and how he spent his time in the company of cows, cowherds and cowherdesses. Sankardeva, a great scholar, orator and poet, started reciting the stories and ‘lilas’ of Krishna. The king and the prince were highly impressed and requested the saint if he could present the stories of Kishna to them in drawings. 

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The saint replied that it could be possible to depict Krishna’s early life on cloth if the king and the prince could arrange the required amount of silk yarns of different colors for him. The king was delighted to hear this and ordered that the required silk yarns be supplied to Sri Sankardava. 

The saint returned to Patbausi, had a meeting with the weavers and told them about the king’s wishes. He engaged a large number of weavers – female and male, showed them how the various scenes of Krishna-lila were to be depicted in different colors in this massive cloth. The leader of this project was the master-weaver Gopal (later, Mathuradas Budha Ata), who became a disciple of Madhavdeva later on. Every day, Sankaradeva went to the ‘karsana ghar’ (weaving shed) in Tantikuchi to personally supervise the work and show weavers how the various scenes were to be portrayed in the loom. Every day, they weaved ‘ek-beget’ (about 6 inches) of cloth. 

One day, Sankardeva was not well and he sent his disciple Madhavdeva to supervise the work. That day, the design of ‘Brahmamohan Lila’ was being woven and extra four inches of cloth could be made. Sankardeva was very pleased with the progress and named Madhabdeva ‘Badhar Po’. 

When the Vrindavani Vastra was completed, Sri Sankardeva brought it to his home in Patbausi Satra. People flocked to his home to witness this gigantic piece of silk cloth with scenes of Krishna-lila and they were speechless. The Vastra was so long, wide and heavy that it took sixty (60) people to spread out the material, roll, tie and lift it.

Srimanta Sankardeva then took the Vastra to Koch-Behar by boat and presented it to King Naranarayana and prince Chilaraai. He explained each and every scene depicted in the Vastra. Both the brothers were extremely grateful and happy. As a reward, the king offered Sankardeva the principality of Barpeta (Barpeta mahal) but the saint respectfully declined the reward. 

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Srimanta Sankardava was a multifaceted man. He was a spiritual leader, poet, writer, dramatist, social reformer, master-weaver, painter and much more. The saint was a great supporter and promoter of cottage industry in Assam and out of all, handloom weaving received his most attention. During his time, the Neo-Vaishnava movement made a powerful contribution in the art of weaving all over Assam. Vrindavani Vastra is a stellar example of this art. 

The enormous size of some of the surviving Vrindavani Vastra pieces indicate  that they were probably used as ‘Chandrataap’ (canopies) or wall hangings to line the ceilings and walls of the ‘Naamghors’ and/or to drape over the ‘Monikuts’. May be the less elaborately illustrated smaller pieces used to wrap the sacred books. These are only speculations by the researchers. 

The Style:

We all know, Assam is famous for weaving beautiful silk for the centuries. The ‘Lampas’ technique of weaving was used to produce this Vastra . This lampas technique was flourished in lower Assam from around 1500 to 1800. It enabled weavers to produce textile with a base cloth woven with one set of warp and weft threads, and a design woven with another set of warp and weft. This tapestry-style technique produced highly sophisticated, intricate and colourfully figured textiles in the 16th – 18th centuries. Sadly, this beautiful lampas technique became extinct from Assam forever.

In Tibet:

Following this famous textile’s life in the royal court of Assam, it had a second history in Tibet. There is no records of the details about how and who took these pieces, but the 12 strips were taken to Tibet. They were stitched together and then re-used as a hanging in a Tibetan monastery. Since the pieces came from the ‘land of Buddha’, they probably took proper care of them. I could see that there was a broad border made from Chinese-style silk material on the top part of this textile, with metal rings attached to it to suspend the textile from the ceiling or the wall. Any Assamese would know that these borders were added later on in the monastery. 

Assam is bordered by mountainous terrain including the mighty Himalayas. How this huge and heavy textile traveled from Assam to a Buddhist monastery in Tibet at that time-period crossing all the hurdles will always be a riddle! 

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Journey to London:

Francis Younghusband, a British Army Officer posted in India, led an expedition to Tibet. The main purpose was to open a trade route from British India to Lhasa. This Vastra was found by Perceval Landon in Gobshi (en route to Lhasa), during the Younghusband Expedition sent by British India to Lhasa in 1903–1904. Landon was a friend of Rudyard Kipling and was the correspondent from ‘The Times’ on the expedition. Among the artifacts that he took back to Britain were these intricately woven ‘figured silk textiles ‘ from Tibetan monasteries. These silk tapestries were donated to museums in Britain in 1905. 

And this is what is sad and ironic! For the next 85 years, these silk pieces remained in the museums catalogued as ‘Tibetan Silk Lampas’ – as Tibet was their last known place of origin! It was only the other day, in 1992, a British scholar could identify the so called ‘Tibetan Silk Lampas’ as our very own Vrindavani Vastra from Assam. 

We are eternally grateful to this scholar. 

Other items in this special exhibit at the British Museum: 

There were few other artifacts from Assam in the exhibition. 

One was illustrated pages from a ‘Sansi-paator puthi’ (sansi paat leaves) from a manuscript of the Brahmavaivarta Purana on loan from the British Library. Also, there were dance masks (putanaa the demoness, Garuda etc) from Majuli. A big five-faced serpent (Kaliya) dominated the room as we entered…until we saw the colorful Vastra! There were also some contemporary textiles – our muga mekhela sadors with red borders and butas, a phulaam gamosa, a beautifully decorated endi shawl. Also, there was an interesting garment – a man’s long gown where part of the Vrindavani Vastra material was used as the lining material for the gown and the top materiel was a light colored Chinese silk! There were two short films going on in the adjoining room. One of these was a video artwork by the Guwahati-based group and the other was a short documentary film – a footage shot at the 2014 Raas Leela festival in Majuli. 

The Future of the Vastra:

There were some discussion in Assam to bring back the Vastra to its birthplace Assam.  Tarun Gogoi, then chief minister of Assam, went to see the Vastra not too long ago. Asked if the government would request the museum to return the textile to Assam, Gogoi said that his government had no such plan and also the museum authorities probably would never agree to the proposal. He also said it would not have been possible for Assam to preserve the tapestry the way it had been preserved in the British Museum. 

It made me sad to think that our own people from Assam will not be able to see this gorgeous masterpiece of Assamese textile unless they come to London, or unless, somehow, it could be taken to Assam even for a short while! I am afraid, given the age of the textile, transporting this gigantic ancient piece to another country might shorten its life too! On the other hand, we all can take pride in the fact that an ancient piece from Assam is taking a prominent place in the British Museum and is admired by millions from all over the world. 

One Last Look:

The week after I saw the Vrindavani Vastra for the first time, I have decided to go back again to the British Museum. This time, I knew what to expect; so, I was not the wide-eyed, speechless person from the previous week! I roamed around the hall quietly, looking at the intricate designs, reading the notes, spending some quality time with this stunning, brilliant piece from my homeland, and trying to paint a picture in my mind, imagining that time period of centuries ago and unconsciously going back in time… 

Time stood still for me…

It was not just the physical presence of this Vastra that pulled me to the museum the following week. As a forever history student, it is the total history behind the Vrindavani Vastra from before its birth to its present status and the stories relating to it tugged my heart again and again…

I hope Vrindavani Vastra survives in this beautiful condition for many more centuries – so that people from of all over the world can come and look at this beautiful piece. I appreciated the fact that the British Museum (and many other fine museums in London) is completely free to the public – and locals and tourists alike can go to these museums all the time. I was marveled at this unique piece of textile from our homeland which has such huge importance now in a wider cultural, religious and geographical contexts. 

Before I left the exhibit hall, I took one last look in appreciation of her fascinating life and historical journey from birth…traveling from place to place, with lost identity, and finally found her place, a permanent home – away from home, and like one proud Assamese, she is still standing strong, shining bright. 

PS: there are a few scholars who say the Vastra was made 100 years after Srimanta Sankardeva’s passing. I am writing on what I have found by researching so far.  

Roopa Sharma

Roopa Sharma

Roopa Sharma resides in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, USA. Her passion lies in traveling and reading. She hosted a conversation for The Thumb Print - 'Chasing the American Dream - Then and Now' at her place together with Mitra Phukan from Guwahati. Sharma was vice-president of AANA for a couple of years and as President of Sahitya Sabha, North America. She had edited the 'Luitor Pora Mississippi' for two years.