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In December 2013, the Intellectual Property Association of Bangladesh (IPAB) celebrated a major success as Bangladesh's Jamdani Sari weaving tradition, a labor-intensive and time-consuming form of hand loom weaving is recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Jamdani is the finest Muslin textile produced in Bangladesh's Dhaka District.
A sari is the traditional garment worn by women in the Indian subcontinent, made up of a long strip of unstitched cloth, ranging from five to nine yards in length, which can be draped in various styles. The most common style is for the sari to be wrapped around the waist with one end then draped over the shoulders with the other. The Jamdani Sari is among the oldest styles, at more than 5,000 years old! Some people think that the sari was influenced by Greek or Roman toga, which we see on ancient statues. However, there is no solid historical evidence to this effect.
The sari is essentially designed to suit local conditions in the subcontinent. There are at least six varieties of Bengal handlooms, each deriving its name from the village in which it originated, and each with its own distinctive style. Dhaka was especially renowed for saris of fine muslin, a tradtion that carries on today. Jamdani is basically a transformation of the world famous Dhakai Muslin. According to their variety, fineness and patterns the traditional Dhakai Muslins were divided into specific categories. Among them, Aab-E-Rouhan, Shabnam, Sarband and Jamdani muslin were the most famous. Over the years the first three of these have vanished from history.
The production, marketing and export of Jamdani has somehow maintained its continuity. Dhaka has a history of only four hundred years from 1610 A.D., but the history of the cotton clothes of the region reveals more ancient traditions. Although most of the history of Jamdani weaving os lost in the mists of antiquity, it's known that trade in the fabric was established at least 2,000 years ago.
Portrait of a Bangladeshi weaver of Jamdani Saris in the village of Rupganj Thana in the outskirts of Dhaka.
A whole saller of Jamdani Saris shows a piece from his collection in the village of Rupganj Thana in the outskirts of Dhaka.
Jamdani Saris are made from the finest Muslin textile produced in Bangladesh's Dhaka District. This time consuming and labor-intensive form of hand loom weaving has been declared intagible cultural world heritage by UNESCO.
Text by Jenny Gustafsson and Photos by Karim Mostafa
At first glance, South Rupshi looks like any other village in the Bangladeshi countryside. Tea stalls line the roads, kids play in the mid-day heat. Rickshaw-drivers pedal their decorated bikes. But something sets it out from other villages. Everywhere, bundles of yarn are left to dry in the sun. People on their porches spin threads onto spindles, scarves flow in the wind. South Rupshi is the ancestral home of a proud tradition in Bangladesh: the age-old jamdani weaving.
These days the village weavers are busy. The demand for saris is growing, the handmade fabrics are sold to customers all over Bangladesh and India, and exported abroad. Last year, UNESCO declared jamdani an intangible cultural heritage, stating its importance in Bangladesh as “a symbol of identity, dignity and self-recognition”. But things used to be different. Only a few decades ago, traditional weaving was a forgotten heritage.
Until sari entrepreneur Monira Emdad came and brought it back to memory. “In the early 80’s when traveling in rural Bangladesh, I came across hand-woven saris, more beautiful than I had seen anywhere else. I started bringing them to Dhaka, selling them from a small tin shed,” she says. Her efforts started a jamdani revival, which has meant the craft is now passed down to the next generation – providing an alternative to a rural workforce which otherwise is pushed into low-paying jobs with unsafe conditions. “This is much better for us. We can stay in the village and work nearby our families. And it’s not dangerous, we only use our brains here,” says weaver Mohammad Azim.
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