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Uncovering the History of Ikat

Ikat is most well-known in India, Indonesia and Japan and even has traditions existing in various countries across Latin America and parts of Europe, owing to Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese colonialism in Southeast Asia from the 16th century. The intricacy of the double ikat technique requires the most skilled and experienced artisans, thus it is only produced in India, Indonesia and Japan, where the craft has existed for millennia.

The discovery of frescoes - a type of mural painting that makes use of lime plaster - in Maharashtra's Ajanta Caves provides evidence that ikat was already present in India by the 7th century CE, having gaining popularity through trade with west China and Indonesia. Throughout the centuries, Indian craftsmen refined the craft of ikat dyeing and weaving, enhancing it and facilitating its diffusion of ikat in the modern era.

The left image portrays the original fresco in the Ajanta Caves, c.1st century BCE to 480 AD. The right image depicts a copy made in 1856 by Robert Gill, a 19th century British Indian army officer, painter and photographer, renowned for his copies of the Ajanta Caves' frescoes
L: The original fresco in the Ajanta Caves, c.1st century BCE to 480 AD
R: A copy made in 1856 by Robert Gill, a 19th century British Indian army officer, painter and photographer, renowned for his copies of the Ajanta Caves' frescoes

The word ‘ikat’ is derived from the Malay-Indonesian word ‘mengikat’ which translates to ‘to tie’. Despite this association with Indonesia, historians are not able to identify the exact location of origin of the ikat technique and believe it may have evolved independently in several locations across Central and Southeast Asia. Similarities in techniques and patterns of ikat from various countries indicate that the craft spread with the migration of Austronesian peoples, which include aborigines of Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Micronesia, Polynesia and Madagascar. During this period, ikat also evolved within Latin America and China. Over time, ikat from India became known for its use of fine materials and production improvements. It was even considered a form of currency on the famed Silk Road.

Map depicting the ancient Silk Road (in red) and other trade routes (in orange)
Map depicting the ancient Silk Road (in red) and other trade routes (in orange)

Andhra Pradesh and, subsequently, the separated state of Telangana, are celebrated as the place of birth of Indian ikat. The most distinct ikat of Andhra Pradesh is the Telia Rumal, which is charactrised by the obscure process of oil treating the yarn. The Nalgonda district, which is now part of Telangana state, has been the perpetual hub for ikat production. Weaving continues to occur in the Pochampally, Puttapaka and Choutuppal areas of the district where the skilled weavers continue to reside.

Weft ikat from Andhra Pradesh, 19th century. This was produced using the Telia Rumal technique of treating the yarn with oil prior to weaving
Weft ikat from Andhra Pradesh, 19th century. This was produced using the Telia Rumal technique of treating the yarn with oil prior to weaving

Ikat from Odisha (Orissa) is known as bandha and has always been a practised craft of the state. India’s ancient trade with Egypt is evidenced with the discovery of 5000-year-old Odishan ikat in a Pharoah’s tomb. The tradition of Odishan ikat can be described as an intricate tie and dye process whereby yarn is knotted before being dipped in dye baths before being woven into fabric. To this day, ikat weaving centres of Odisha (Orissa) are Sambalpur, Bargarh and the districts of Sonepur and Boudh.

Distinctive motifs on Odishan ikat, or bandha
Distinctive motifs on Odishan ikat, or bandha

Patan Patola is the most prominent product of double ikat from Gujarat. As it was in the 11th century, Patan, which was the capital of medieval Gujarat, is the centre of silk Patola saree production. The last few decades have seen Rajkot and its neighbouring villages produce sarees similar in design to Patan Patola but in single ikat – using the technique of either warp or weft, unlike double ikat which employs the use of both. These are locally known as Rajkot Patola.

Silken double ikat, or Patan patola, from Gujarat, late 19th century/early 20th century
Silken double ikat, or Patan patola, from Gujarat, late 19th century/early 20th century

 

Images: Silk Road Project, Victoria and Albert Museum, The Craft and Artisans, Gaatha