The dominant feature of the jamdani is its magnificent design which is said to be of Persian origin. The method of weaving is akin to tapestry work in which small shuttles of coloured, gold or silver threads, are passed through the weft. Of classic beauty, the jamdani effectively combines intricacy of design surface of a sari is scattered with floral sprays of great delicacy. When the ground is covered with superb diagonally striped floral sprays, the sari is called “Tercha”. The anchal is usually decorated with bold corner motifs, it is known as a jhalar. The most prized design is the panna hazaar (thousand emeralds) in which the floral pattern is highlighted with flowers interlaced like jewels in gold and silver thread. The kalka, whose evolution may be traced to the painted manuscripts of the Mughals, has become one of the most widely used motifs in the region. Artisans and designers have altered its shape in innumerable ways, keeping within the tectonic form of the kalka's linear and floral characteristics. The traditional nilambari, dyed with indigo, or designs such as “Toradar” preserved in weaving families over generations are now being reproduced. Other jamdani patterns are known as phulwar, usually worked on pure black, blue black, grey or off-white background colours, these and many other delicate motifs, denoted by the indigenous names of different flowers, reflect the versatile genius of the jamdani weaver.
It is estimated that the production is carried out in over 200 villages in Demra, Rupganj, Sonargaon and Siddhirganj districts in Dhaka. An incredible continuity is visible in production techniques and use of equipment. The main visible change today is that yarn is no longer spun by women in their village homes, but is imported and sold at large yarn markets which are located near the weaving centres. A visit to any weaving village will find women, men and children involved in different stages of the process. Outside the village hut, women are to be seen rolling the yarn onto spindles and preparing shuttles, while nearby, men wind the yarn onto drums, and then prepare the warp across bamboo sticks, the length generally being equal to that of six saris. For jamdani weaving a very elementary pit loom is used and the work is carried on by the weaver, the ostad, and his apprentice, shagrid. The latter works under instruction for each pick, weaving his needle made from, buffalo horn or tamarind wood to embroider the floral sequence. With a remarkable deftness, the weft yarn is woven into the warp in the background colour from one weaver to the other. The motifs “Butis” across the warp, the borders par and end piece anchal are woven by using separate bobbins of yarn for each colour. The fine bobbins are made from tamarind wood or bamboo. After completion the cloth is washed and starched. It is then ready to be taken to the local hat or informal market, or reserved for the retail trader who has paid an advance.
Without any shadow of doubt, it can be said that the jamdani industry of East Bengla reached its zenith during the Moghul era. The art of making jamdani designs on fine fabric reached its zenith during Mughal rule. There were handlooms in almost all villages of the Dhaka district. Dhaka, Sonargaon, Dhamrai, Titabari, Jangalbari and Bajitpur were famous for making superior quality jamdani and muslin. Traders from Europe, Iran, Armenia, as well as Mughal-Pathan traders used to deal in these fabrics. The Mughal Emperor, the Nawab of Bengal and other aristocrats used to engage agents at Dhaka to buy high quality muslin and jamdani for their masters' use. The golden age of Dhaka muslin began with Mughal rule. Since then the demand for jamdani and muslin fabrics at home and abroad grew and this prompted further improvement in their manufacture. According to 18th century documents of the East India Company, a high official of the company was posted at Dhaka to buy mulmul khas and sarkar-i-ali. He had the designation of Daroga-i-mulmul. Every weaving factory had an office, which maintained records of the best weavers and other exports. Weavers had no fixed salary. They used to be paid the market value of the jamdani or muslin they produced. It was the duty of the Daroga to keep a sharp eye at every stage of production. Mulmul khas worth about Re. 100,000 collected from Dhaka, Sonargaon and Jangalbari used to be sent to the Mughal court every year. According to a 1747 account of muslin export, fabrics worth Re 550,000 were bought for the Emperor of Delhi, the Nawab of Bengal and the famous trader Jagath Sheth. The same year European traders and companies bought muslin worth Re 950,000. Towards the end of the 18th century, the export of muslin suffered a decline. After the English gained Diwani in Bengal in 1765, Company agents resorted to oppressing the weavers for their own gains. They used to dictate prices. If weavers refused to sell their cloth at a lower price they were subjected to repression. To stop this repression the East India Company started buying the textiles directly from the weavers. According to James Wise, Dhaka muslin worth Re 5 million was exported to England in 1787. James Taylor put the figure at Re 3 million. In 1807, the export came down to Re 850,000 and the export completely stopped in 1817. Thereafter muslin used to go to Europe as personal imports.
The earliest mention of the origin of Jamdani and its development as an industry is found in Kautilya's book of economics (about 300 AD) where it is stated that this fine cloth used to be made in Bengal and Pundra. Its mention is also found in the book of Periplus of the Eritrean Sea and in the accounts of Arab, Chinese and Italian travelers and traders. Four kinds of fine cloth used to be made in Bengal and Pundra in those days, viz khouma, dukul, pattrorna and karpasi. From various historical accounts, folklore and slokas, it may be assumed that very fine fabrics were available in Bengal as far back as the first decade before Christ. Cotton fabrics like dukul and muslin did not develop in a day. Dukul textile appears to have evolved into muslin. Jamdani designs and muslin developed simultaneously. The fine fabric that used to be made at Mosul in Iraq was called mosuli or mosulin In his 9th century book Sril Silat-ut-Tawarikh the Arab geographer Solaiman mentions the fine fabric produced in a state called Rumy, which according to many, is the old name of the territory now known as Bangladesh. In the 14th century, Ibn Batuta profusely praised the quality of cotton textiles of Sonargaon. Towards the end of the 16th century the English traveler Ralph Fitch and historian Abul Fazl also praised the muslin made at Sonargaon.
The accounts given by travelers to the Indian continent have however often given meticulous details about the people's dress. Thus if one is to go through the revealing descriptions from "Periplus of the Erhythreai Sea" and follow it by Megesthanes records of King Chandragupta's court and again read on in the travelogue of Chinese historian Hieun Tsiang in the 7th century A.D. moving on to Alberuni in the 11th century, one finds a continuity of the textiles produced and, perfected in different parts of the country through the ages. Abul Fazal's Ain-e-Akbari, is perhaps our most informative recent account of woven loom textiles developed under the Muslims and records by Abul Fazal in Ain-e-Akbari describe the intelligent patronage of Emperor Akbar. The delicate muslins of ancient Dhaka were used for both male and female attaire in the Moghul court and the province of Bengal flourished both in commercial trade and agriculture at this time. In 1628 we find the writings of Italian traveller Manrique, which describes the patronage of the court of Emperor Shahajahan, and later Emperor Aurangzeb, who received annual tributes of these fine cloths from their governors in Bengal and which were so special as to cost ten times the price of any other cloths made for Eurpeans or others in the Empire.
We are further informed that Muslim merchants in 1887 protested against the monopoly of the East India Company's hold on weaver's throughout East Bengal (48, 000 persons), which was done by issuing permits which prevented the weavers from taking on work from private traders. The entry of Muslim immigrant-travelers and traders proceeded the of Islam (11th century AD) to the subcontinent by at least a hundred years. Even though it was not till the early 1200s AD that Muslim conquerors settled in Bengal, contact with Arab traders, and Persian and Turkish religious mendicants had already taken place via the coastal ports in the Bay of Bengal and through the northern western land route.
Muslim rule which commenced in Bengal in 1268 with the reign of the Tughlaks, the area of western Bengal then called Lakhnauti, and in the eastern part called Bangalas was receptive to the message of Islam which spoke of social equality. By the time of the first independent Sultan Shams-uddin Ilyas Shah in 1342 an area considered to be a Sultanate was declared, although it did not constitute the entire region of Bengal as we know it after the British held their sway. The excellence of cotton mulmul or muslin produced on the Dhaka loom was raised to an art par excellence by Moghul patronage, and achieved a uniqueness which has remained unparelled among handloom cloth all over the world. When woven for royalty the muslin was called Mulmal Khas (king's special) and the viceroys who placed orders for the Emperor gave it poetic names such as Ab-e-rawan (running water), Shabnam (evening dew) and Sharbati (winelike). The pinnacle of perfection came in the evolution of a special weave with motifs 'embroidered' along the weft and this fabric was named 'jamdani' which became renowned as the figured or flowered muslins. Dhaka jamdani, more than any other woven craft, became synonymous with Muslim weaving skills. The origin of the word Jamdani has no substantiated etymological explanation, but it is a Indo-Persian word and in its strictest meaning describes 'jama' or clothing.
Couple of years back when me and my brother first went to noapara, Narayangonj. we felt the entire place resonate with the steady rhythmic clicking of rudimentary bamboo looms. Narayanganj is one of the hubs where we started our journey for Midraar Jamdani collection.
The best known and most popular textile of Bangladesh is the Jamdani.The word Jamdani is of Persian origin from Jam meaning flower and Dani a vase of container. For over ten centuries, the Dhaka and just outside of dhaka area has been renowned for this fine fabric. So fine was its texture and quality that it was said to be woven with the "thread of the winds" and the Greek and the Roman texts mention the“Gangetic Muslins”as one of the most coveted luxury items for kings and their retinues, for whom Jamdani fabrics became a most desired item of clothing.A light, translucent fabric jamdani is usually made in lengths of six yards and worn primarily as a sari.Trading accounts reveal how the fabric travelled to the Courts of the Mughals in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, and became a most prized item in the overland caravan trade from Dhaka through to Agra, Bokhara, Samarkand and further west in Asia. Later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, over a hundred different assortments were exported by the European companies from the Soubah of Bengal to the ports of Hamburg, London, Madrid, Copenhagen and elsewhere in Europe.The most treasured were and finest quality of jamdani weaves from Dhaka.