The Crest of the Art of Weaving

The Neo-Vaisnava movement of Srimanta Sankaradeva was a very potent force for the development in the art of weaving, specially of figured cloth. Sankaradeva was a great promoter of cottage industry, of which handloom weaving occupied his unique personal attention. This is beautifully illustrated by his designing and on-the-job supervision of the weaving work of the famous Vrindāvani Vastra (Brindābani Bastra).

Figure: A Neo-Vaisnavite Silk Lampas from Assam. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Photo: Ankuran Kakoti.
Assam-Silk-Lampas-AEDTA Collection-Paris
‘Silk Lampas Depicting Avatars of Vishnu and Scenes from the Lives of Krishna and Rama’. Barpeta, Assam. AEDTA Collection, Paris. Source: Vrindavani Vastra: Figured Silks from Assam (HALI, 1992, pp. 76-83).

During the lifetime of Sankaradeva tapestry weaving developed under his direct supervision. At the request of the Koch king's brother Cilārāi, Srimanta Sankaradeva took up the project of tapestry weaving for which he engaged the weavers of Tāntikuchi or Barpetā. Their leader was Gopāl – later on, Mathurādas Budhā Ātā - the master weaver.

The tapestry was 120 cubits long and 60 cubits broad and it took about six months to finish the weaving.

Since the scroll depicted Krishna Lilā scenes, it was known as the Vrindāvani Vastra or the Vrindāvali Vastra.

The designs were woven with a large variety of colored threads like red,white, black, yellow, green, etc. Of the colors some were evidently of mixed colors or 'misravarna' like Kāch-nilā, Gaura-syāma,etc. The above colors are still popular in Assamese loom embroidery work. The scenes depicted included those from Krishna's birth in the prison of Kamsa, to the vanquishing of Kamsa by Krishna.

Assam-Silk-Lampas-V&A-London Each scene had its caption below it and these letters too were loom embroidered. The tapestry was presented to Cilārāi, the brother of the Koch king with due ceremony only a little before the passing away of Sankaradeva. While the saint was at Pātbausi, he used to go every day for inspecting the progress of the tapestry being woven at the 'kārkhānā' of Kenduguri at Tānti Kuchi (Barpetā). The master weaver Gopāl later on became a disciple of Sankaradeva through Madhavadeva and was given the name Mathurādās. Eventually, the Vrindāvani Vastra was lost though the last place of resort for the Vastra was the Madhupur Satra in Koch-Behār.

A Royal Request Fulfilled

During his stay at Pātbāusi (Barpetā) in the Koch kingdom, one day, Mahārāj Naranārāyana and Yuvarāj Sukladhvaja (Cilārāi) addressed Sankaradeva as a great scholar, and requested him with great humility, if he could narrate to them, the complete details of Vrindāvan, where Lord Krishna, in His human form, passed His childhood in fun and frolic in the company of the cows and calves, cowherds and cowherdesses. Sankaradeva immediately started narrating to them the various episodes of Krishna, all related to Vrindāvan. Afterwards, both the brother kings, again addressing Sankaradeva with great reverence and humility, suggested to him, if he could present it to them in graphics:

sunio Sankara iswar Krishnara
naralilā yi thānata /
mah garu laiyā yathāt kririlā
situ sthān kena mata //
āmāko bujhāi kahiyo ātoi
tumi mahā supandita /
suniyā Sankare kailā nirantare
Vrindāvana kathā yata /
pāche duyo rājā dunāi bulilā
Sankaraka namra bhāve /
Vrindāvan khan hovay kemon
dekhāibe pārāhā āvay //
badati Sankara sunā nripabar
jāni icchā dekhibār /
pāt bāibe prati tānti sutā lāgey
nānān barna haibār //
cāri mās māne din awasāne
teve bastra purna haiba /
suni rājā man haris kariyā
āgnyā karilanta saba //
Tāntikuchi ādi Kāmrup khandar
adhikāri pātilanta /
bar-bhuyān pade Pātbāusi sthāne
abhiseka karilanta //
Kāmrup rājyar pālan sāsan
karibeka ādesilā /
[Bor-carit, Dina Nāth Bezbaroā, p 99]

Sankaradeva responded positively and said that it should be possible to depict the Krishna-lilā on cloth, within four months' time, provided the required quantity of yarns of different color, which should be all silk, could be arranged. Naranārāyana was delighted to hear this; he ordered that the yarns be supplied as desired by Sankaradeva. The king also promulgated a Royal Charter, bestowing the principality of Tāntikuchi, under the province of Kāmarupa, on Sankaradeva, installed him in the post of Bar-Bhuyān (Chief Administrator) and entrusted its governance to him, with powers to administer law and justice. On his return from Koch Behār, Sankaradeva was then sworn in as the Bar-Bhuyān at Pātbāusi.

On arrival at Pātbāusi, Sankaradeva convened a meeting with the weavers, informed them about the king's wishes, engaged them straightway in the process of weaving, with all the preparatory works, and also demonstrated to them, how the various scenes of Krishna-lilā were to be prepared and depicted with yarns. A large number of weavers, both male and female, were engaged in weaving the massive cloth, in the karsana-ghar (weaving shed or workshop). They portrayed the various scenes of Krishna-lilā, in different color, as taught to them by the Saint and the Master Weaver. Everyday, Sankaradeva visited Tāntikuchi with his disciples and could get about one beget (about 6 inches) of cloth design woven.

One day, Sankaradeva, being unwell, Madhavadeva was sent to the karsana-ghar at Tāntikuchi to supervise the work. On that day, the design of Brahmā-mohan lilā was being woven. Under Madhava's supervision, about 4 inches of extra cloth could be made that day. Learning about this extra progress, Sankaradeva was highly pleased, appreciated Madhava profusely and named him as Badhār Po.

When the Vrindāvani Vastra was ready in all respects, Sankaradeva brought it to his residence at Pātbāusi Satra, where the people were dumbstruck with wonder and became totally spell-bound to witness the spectacular Krishna-lilā depicted on the unique piece of fabric. The Vastra was so long, broad and heavy, that it took 60 persons to spread, roll back, tie and lift it. The Vrindāvani Vastra was 120 hāt in length and 60 hāt in breadth (2 measures of hāt is equivalent to 1 yard).

Sankaradeva then carried the Vastra by boat to Koch-Behār, where he presented it before Naranārāyana and Cilārāi. Both the royal brothers were overwhelmed with intense delight at the very sight of the Vastra. Sankaradeva then explained to them each of the scenes depicted thereon to their fullest satisfaction.

The king was so much pleased with Sankaradeva that he had endowed to him the charge of the principality of Barpetā (Barpetā mahal) as a reward. But Sankaradeva declined the offer. Later on, Sankaradeva's cousin, Rām Rāi took charge of the abandoned principality and governed it.

Sankaradeva had not only used his knowledge of the Bhāgavata Purāna about the sequence of events of Krishna-lilā, and the personal expertise he had as a painter, artist and designer, he, in fact, trained the weavers of Tāntikuchi very minutely, instructing them how the entire work was to be done. This is evident from the various scenes of lilā represented on the Vastra, that were designed in different color-combinations and depicted on the unique fabric while weaving it.

The Divine Scrolls

Vrindāvani Vastra incorporates Krishna Lilā as described in the Bhāgavata Purāna.

The first scene depicted in it is Sutikāgriha, the birth hall of Krishna.

The other scenes in order are:

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