Confessions of a handkerchief: The famous Chamba Rumaal of Himachal Pradesh


Confessions of a handkerchief

I am gifted to the brides in my hometown at their wedding. I am used to cover offerings made to gods and deities, gifts presented to guests, wedding platters, other items at traditional events like festivals and religious fairs. Men cover their heads with me during religious ceremonies. I am a handkerchief… In better words, I am a Chamba rumaal!

I originated during the 16th century from the Royal Kingdom of Chamba in Himachal Pradesh as an embroidered cotton square piece of cloth. My lineage dates back to the Pahari School of paintings practiced by the miniature artists of that era. With the joint efforts of these painters who translated their art on the piece of cloth and the local women of the region who did the fine embroidery, I was born. The motifs that were embroidered on me were mainly folk-style depictions of Hindu mythology and social themes.

My base cloth is mostly khaddar cotton or fine muslin in usually light off-white colour. The embroidery on me is however done with vibrant silk threads in colours like purple, bright pink, red, orange, brown, green, yellow, blue, black, and white. As the first step towards my creation, the artist first imagines a theme to be drawn and then sketches the outline of the design on me using charcoal. Then women of the area embroider the outlined sketch using the bright coloured threads. The embroidery done on me is double-sided (do-rukha) that is the stitch is carried both backward and forward and covers both sides. No knots are visible on either side. In other words, I am reversible. Moreover, no frame is used for my embroidery. The outline of my design is done using a simple stem stitch in black colour. Other stitches like the cross-stitch, the buttonhole stitch, the long and short stitch, and the herringbone stitch are also used.    

Krishna Ras Leela, in which Lord Krishna is shown dancing with the gopis, forms my major theme. The other designs that have made me extremely popular for ages are mythological scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, dancing girls, floral motifs, deer hunting scenes, forest scenes with trees, birds, and animals, Shiva-Parvati, Radha-Krishna, and the typically dressed shepherd couple with a lamb (known as Gaddi-Gaddan).

Several other articles were also made under my name using my type of embroidery for domestic use such as cholis, caps, pillow covers, hand fans, floor coverings, belts, scarves, household accessories, bed sheets, wall hangings, ceiling covers, etc.

After enjoying a flourishing time, I suffered badly during the early 20th century. Due to lack of patronage, I had almost vanished from the Indian traditional handicrafts market but with the efforts of crafts activist, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Delhi Crafts Council (DCC), I came back to life. The first exhibition organized by DCC in 1999 showcased my recreated form and made me a well-known name all over the country.

Highlighting this vision, the state of Himachal Pradesh showcased a tableau highlighting a massive installation of the Chamba Rumal at the 2017 Republic Day parade in New Delhi.

To prevent my unauthorized production and sale, and the use of my name on a similar product from outside the region of Chamba, I was awarded the Geographical Indication (GI) certificate in 2007 under the name of ‘Chamba Rumal’.