The Indian Ocean forms an M shape around the familiar outline of the Indian subcontinent. It extends north from the East African coast to the Arabian Sea, down the western coast of India to Sri Lanka, and up India’s eastern coast, where it forms the Bay of Bengal, stretching down again to Southeast Asia and Australia.

Monsoon winds moving seasonally in two different directions: from the southwest in the left of the M, which brings rain to the western coast of India from June to September, and the northeast over the Bay of Bengal, on the right of the M or the east coast of the India in November and December.

These seasonal winds once powered what was by far the oldest maritime highway of human interactions dating back to the Indus Valley cities nearly 4000 years ago.

India was then known for trade in what we today think of as commodities: pepper, rice and other food grains, and “raw materials” such as metals, resins and aromatics, precious stones, ivory and pearls. However, there was also a thriving trade in manufactured products – not just functional products but goods reflective of the tastes and preferences of those who consumed them.

Some of the items that survive are ancient and enigmatic as to what they meant to those who used them: for instance, in the 1930s, archaeologists unearthed an ivory statuette of Indian workmanship at Pompeii. This carved figurine of a female combines Indian and Classical styles. Pompeii was not on the traditional trade routes between India and Rome which makes this discovery particularly remarkable. Another fascinating example is the Harappan-style triangular game board and two clay figurines from Umm al-Nar, an island off the coast of the modern-day United Arab Emirates dating from about 2000 BCE. Did ancient Arabians have a taste for board games?

Serving a global market

Numerous such examples – some mysterious like the Pompeii statuette – and others more familiar like carnelian beads from Harappa found in Mesopotamia to make jewellery point to a trading world that went far beyond people’s simple daily needs.

In contrast to these disparate examples, one item that had a consistent global and thriving demand for centuries was Indian-made textiles. Textiles were the centrepiece of India’s Indian Ocean trade and had a defining influence on global tastes. While fragments of Indian fabrics have been unearthed at various sites in the world as far back as 1800 BCE, it is from around the early centuries of the common era, that a clearer pattern of a large-scale and diverse textile trade from the Indian subcontinent emerges.

A late 18th century double ikat patolu made in Gujarat for the Indonesian market. This kind of ikat had a particularly widespread impact on cloth design in Southeast Asia. Credit: metmuseum.org

The story of its growth and influence is surprising and one that is obscured by the European dominance over our views of the world of merchants. One of the places where India’s global textile trade first won over peoples’ hearts and imaginations was in the east. From at least 850 CE if not earlier, Southeast Asia, particularly the Indonesian archipelago was awash in Indian imports. And it was here that the European trading companies discovered them some 600 years afterwards.

Indian textiles – coarse cottons, fine printed cottons or luxurious silks – along with the designs and production techniques were assimilated into the social and artistic fabric across Southeast Asia. One example of this is the ikat technique of tying the warp or weft yarns before dying to create a pattern; this technique is found both in India and Southeast Asia.

Textiles coloured with techniques like bandhani or tying and sewing of the cloth before dying, also came to hold ceremonial importance; these fabrics held connotations of luxury and status-marking in the region. Textiles had such a deep-rooted significance that design motifs, both Indian and local, even adorned the stone panels of the Javanese Loro Jonggrang (also known as Prambana) complex, the largest Hindu shrine of insular Southeast Asia dating back to the early decades of the tenth century.

Art historian Mary Louise Totton finds that that these representations of woven fabrics are indicative of the temple’s elite patrons’ cosmopolitan tastes, their interest in trade, and the profound symbolic and spiritual meaning that textiles held for these groups.

Dutch traders

The Dutch who arrived in Indonesia in the early decades of the seventeenth century in search for the region’s spices were quick to grasp that Indian textiles were so valuable in the region that they had traditionally been used as a form of currency. Business acumen led the Dutch East India Company or Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie to their very source: the Coromandel coast. Between 1606 and 1610, the Dutch set up four factories or warehouses spanning the northern and southern parts of the Coromandel.

The demand for Coromandel fabrics in Southeast Asia was so great that it dominated the mix of goods that Indonesian and Malay traders carried out of Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Based on the VOC’s records, historian Om Prakash has estimated that textiles made up nearly 84% of these merchants’ cargo in the year 1659 and the proportion remained similarly high in the following two decades.

The VOC itself used fabrics as a mode of payment to their employees in Asia. As the seventeenth century unfolded, the VOC expanded its reach to control textile production and supply across Gujarat and Bengal as well.

An Indonesian ikat ceremonial skirt from the 18 th century or earlier. Credit: metmuseum.org

Initially, the Dutch shipped relatively small quantities of decorative textiles to Europe. Prakash’s estimates show that until 1660 most of the VOC’s purchases of Indian textiles were for the Asian markets. By his calculations, the expansion of the trade is visible in the fact that by the end of the century more than two-thirds was being sent to Holland; with greater exposure and reduced prices, Europe too had developed a taste for these fine fabrics.

Eventually it was the English East India Company that rapidly overtook the Dutch during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on the Coromandel and other coastal trading centres in India. In this period, printed Indian silks and cotton-silks became so popular in Europe that in the 1700s the government in Britain banned their imports. This further increased the demand for Indian cottons. Since European consumers preferred white backgrounds with floral and animal prints, fabrics known as chintz – from the Hindi word chhint meaning spotted – became all the rage.

Chintz was preferred because of the durability of its colour and printing these fabrics was a complex process involving multiple dyeing techniques at different stages of production. Chintz Palampores (derived either from the Persian/Hindustani palangposh – bed covering – or from Palanpur in Gujarat) were in demand as furnishings and the fabric was also used to make fashionable garments.

European consumers often requested specific patterns and hues, which were sent to Indian manufacturers, along with drawings and pattern sheets. This gave rise, as textile historians have noted, to a hybrid style inspired by the preferences of the Mughal and Deccan courts and simultaneously appealing to the enthusiasm for nature that was an essential aspect of 19th century European Romanticism.

Petticoat panel, third quarter 18th century, attributed to the Coromandel Coast, for Dutch market. The scenes on this printed wall-hanging are possibly depictions of the activities of the wealthy Dutch East India Company employees living in the East. Credit: metmuseum.org

As the Industrial Revolution took off in England, the roles of the key players in the early modern textile industry were reversed. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, India, once the leader in manufactured goods was relegated to being the supplier of raw materials for Lancashire mills, while England’s industrially produced fabrics replaced the handcrafted products that had once flooded the Asian and European markets.

Yet despite the decline of Indian made goods, the deep mark on the English language of this trade never quite vanished: to date, many Indian words for textiles and garments are still in use including calico, dungarees, khaki, pyjama, sash, seersucker and shawl, among others.

In the later years of the century, Indian industrialists particularly from western India, Bombay and Ahmedabad, turned the technological boom to their advantage by setting up textile mills; it was the success of these mills that also led these entrepreneurs to eventually join cause with the swadeshi movement as a way to rid Indian businesses of the heavy-handed British intervention.

It is then no accident that Gandhi mobilised handwoven khadi for political action and chose as the symbol of India’s freedom struggle the humble weavers’ cotton spinning tool, the charkha.

While textile production still remains an important industry in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, it is a shadow of its former self. The subcontinent’s textile workers today have been rendered cogs in the wheel of the global behemoth of a fast-fashion industry.

We catch an occasional glimpse of them in the international news in human-rights related discussions on their struggles for obtaining fair wages and prices and better working conditions. It is hard to imagine in the midst of this struggle that the subcontinent’s textiles, their nameless creators’ and weavers’ designs once set the world markets on fire.

Aparna Kapadia teaches history at Williams College, Massachusetts. She is the author of In Praise of Kings of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.