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History of linen in Indian Subcontinent




History of linen in Indian Subcontinent



Linen in Indian history finds innumerable mentions in the holy books like Vedas, Puranas, Upanishads and in ancient literature for its beauty, holiness, fineness, softness, and royal insignia. Modern Indian historians accepted this fact with cynicism. It has been the subject of dispute among some Indian historians whether ‘ksauma’ refers to linen, silk or cotton. However, great Sanskrit Scholar Prof. Dandekar of Pune, noted historian Hem Chandra, Sadhu SundaraGani, Dr Moti Chandra, and author Madhu Sen toiled hard to solve this puzzle and stated “ksauma” word referred in Vedas, upanishads and in ancient literatures as fibre from the bark of linseed called linen (Dandekar 1946; Chandra 1973; Sen 1974; Kumar,1984). Ancient literatures open the record of textile materials used in the past. Indian clothing and different types of garments worn during Vedic age, Brahman age, sutra age and epic age were made of bark, cotton, silk, wool, hemp, flax, and animal skin (Gillow and Barnard, 2002; Gusain, 2014). Ksauma, kauseya, avikayoh, and karpasa words were used to signify the garments made of linen, silk, wool, and cotton respectively in ancient Indian texts (William et al., 1921; Keith, 1995; Berrieble, 1995; Saundararajan, 2002). Fine linen was referred as Dukula. Similar to ancient Indian textile history, European and Egyptian history of textile flaunt the use of linen for making splendid costumes for wealthy bourgeoisies and royalty. Be it Dorians of Sparta, Frank, Gaul, Romans, or Asiatic Dacians, all acknowledge the aestheticism of linen. It was an emblem of simplicity for Ionians and accepted with a touch of luxurious embellishments by Carlovingians (Tortora and Eubank, 1994). In a recent declaration, 5000 year oldTarkhan dress, made of linen, found in a mummy case, inside one of the Egyptian pyramids is considered to be the world’s oldest garment (Meier, 2016). European and Egyptian textile history inscribed in various literatures, paintings, sculptures and coloured hieroglyphics also demonstrates that linen was one of the earliest textile materials used by various civilizations. Besides, archaeologists’ unearthed fragments of flax fibres at an excavation site in Turkey and Georgia (Europe) preserved for 34,000 years (Thanjan, 2011). A brief description of the use of linen as described in ancient Indian literatures is given below.

Historical perspective Vedic age (1500 BC – 1100 BC)

Immortality of the linen is evident from the fact that Ayurveda, the oldest collection of knowledge till date, instructs, “Parivrittam” with “ksaumavastra”, that a new born child must be wrapped in linen clothing and a neonatal intensive care unit must comprise of linen bed covering. Thus its significance symbolizes that of mother’s care, love and affection. Specific Vedic hymns were recited during spinning and weaving, and cloths adorned were a potential source of positive holistic energy of the wearer. Hymns dedicated to warp, weft, looms and female weavers were distinctly referred in Vedic literature (Rig Veda, VI 92; Mehta, 1960; Pal, 1978). Goddess of Dawn, Usha was referred as ‘clothed with radiance’. Yajurveda envisions “Uma ksauma-Vastropadanabhutastrnavisesah”: Linen is produced by a particular kind of grass known as flax (Satpatha Brahmana). Maharishi Panini, who devised world’s most ancient language Sanskrit, also explains the word flax (uma) in Astadhyayi in the same context. Panini also mentioned about lac, madder, and indigo dyes, used to colour textiles. References of linseeds cultivation in Vedic age are found. Atharvaved enlightens us about the compulsion of wearing of sacred threads dyed in turmeric colour and clothing made of linen by young men at the time of initiation (upnayan). Maitrayani Samhita describes linen garmentThree unstitched garments of Vedic age were uttariya, antariya, and kayabandh were made of linen and embroidered in gold and precious stones. Wool, cotton and silk were also used as dress material.

Epic age (1000BC-600BC)

Spinning and weaving was a highly perfected art during the epic age (Mehta, 1960). Linen found references on numerous occasions in Valmiki Ramayana, confirming, it was specially used as ceremonial cloth during that period.

SaakSaumavasanaahrstaanityamvrataparaayaNaa |

Agnimjuhotismatadaamantravatkrtamangalaa ||

Taamshuklakshaumasamviitaamvratayogenakarshitaam |

ArpayantiimdadarshaadbhiHdevataamdevavarNiniim ||

Queen Kausalya clad in linen sari, practicing religious vows, appears as a shining angel and

the linen is compared with the whiteness of milky ocean.” (AyodhyaKand, Chapter 20)

Kambalamanchamukhyanamksaumyakotyambani cha

Wedding gifts of princess Sita included large quantity of linen garments along with

silk, blanket and ordinary clothing.” (Balakand, Chapter 74th)

Dasaratha’s Queens were clad in linen while welcoming their daughters-in-law and taking them to the temple. On the auspicious occasion of Rama’s proposed coronation as Prince of Ayodhya, Rama clothed himself in linen. On this occasion queen Kausalya and royal courtesans of the palace were also dressed in linen. This again is testimony to the use of linen for ceremonial purposes by all rank of the society. On one of the occasion, leaving aside his usual clothing, king Bharat redone himself in linen before paying visit to sage Bhardwaj, as befitting the grandeur of occasion. King Rawana’s dead body was dressed with linen at his cremation. Hence it can be conveniently said that, linen made its presence felt from cradle to grave during epic age.

The later Vedic literature illustrates fine linen from the fibers of flax for elites. Linen was reserved for special occasions such as Mahabharata indicates Yudhishthara donning linen during Ashwamedha(king’s ritual for imperial sovereignty). Yudhishthara was presented linen as special gift by the people of eastern region including Kalinga, Pundra (Bengal), Vanga and Tamralipta (Ganguli, 1896). Yellowcoloured linen uttariyaof Krishna is constantly mentioned in ancient scriptures. On an occasion Krishna is compared with ocean of milk and linen as white waves on theocean of milk.

Ksirabdhi-rupituharistvameva hi taraggita-ksauma-sitataraggini





The castle was fully embellished with wreaths of charming flowers that attracted sweetly humming bees and with coloured tapestries of linen, silk and various other fabrics.” (Padyavali, Text 274)

Sutra age (500-100BC) and Buddhist literature (500CE to 300CE)

Various sutra literatures reveal prominent position of the art and culture and extensive use of linen garments. Weaver is displayed wearing flaxen dhoti (“sana satika”). Text describes linen fabric measuring eighteen hands lengthwise, and twelve hands and four digits weft wise. “Adhvaryu” is described measuring folded linen garment with hands while purchasing it. Linen, silk and woollen garments were often embroidered. Grihya Sutra Kandika, a treatise on domestic rituals and regulations prescribed in 500 BC, expresses that there are four kinds of garments and youths were directed to wear garments made of linen or hemp (sana) fabric, on the day of initiation of studentship (Kumar, 1984). Dyeing was a flourishing art as evident from the fact that Bhrigusamhita was written using natural dyes. Linen is omnipresent in Buddhist and jain scriptures, frequently mentioned as heavenly robe of linen in various colours (Parinirvana Sutra, T375.12.647 a-c). Buddhist and Jain literature states about the artisans working at clothing industry, weavers, tailors, embroiders. Various kinds of cloth described were silk, linen, wool, hemp, bark, straw and deer skin. Use of spindle for spinning is mentioned in texts as one of the household chores performed by women. Mahavagga III describes about clothing material, art of wearing cloth and also dyeing and storage of cloth. King of Kashi presented 500 linen blankets to the Buddha (Kumar,1984). Texts also states Buddhist monks and nuns were permitted to accept the linen fabric as gift. Monks wore reddish brown vegetable dyed cloth. However, Indigo, turmeric, black, magenta and crimson dyed cloth were prohibited for monks. King Pasenadi gifted a soft fine linen shawl to a nun. Divyavadana, a collection of early Buddhist text dating 2nd Century CE, explores wool and linen (dukula) blended fine clothing material. Lalitvistara, Sanskrit text of Gautam Buddha’s life, which is believed to be as old as 3rd Century CE, described linen as white cloth known as ‘pandudukula’ (Chaudhury, 1959; Kumar, 1984). NisithaCurni explains the process of making linen: flax plant is soaked in water and pounded with wooden beater to extract fibres’ (Sen, 1974). Acaranga mentions, Sakra presented Lord Mahavira the finest linen cloth which was so light that it can be blown away by a gentle breeze.  

Maurya (322 BC. - 180 BC.) and Satavahana period (271 BC.- 220 CE.)

Mauryan Dynasty plays a significant part in history as art and culture. Agriculture and textile trade thrived at international level. Private irrigation systems to improve agriculture productivity and land laws were framed. Flax was an important cash crop during this time, grown for seeds and fiber both. Chanakya’s Arthshastra details about flax spinning, its fineness, economic importance and the taxes enforced for its commercialization. Duty charged on linen was one fifteenth parts. Duties of weaving technologists are elaborated and weaving department manufactured yarns, coats, ropes, fabric, bed sheets, and curtains. Arthshastra also describes whole process of textile manufacturing. Skill in the art of Spinning, weaving and embroidery was considered sacred and only women were entrusted this duty during those period. Weaver’s workshops were conducted under the patronage of king. Fine linen, silk, wool and cotton cloths were manufactured and wages of the weavers were decided based on the fineness of the yarn they spun. Excellence in textile was rewarded and textile was a medium of artistic expression. Weavers were presented with gifts and garlands to encourage them. Cut and stitched garments were in fashion; blue coloured indigo dyed robe of king is frequently mentioned. The art of dyeing yarn and fabric was a usual practice. Arthshastra also praises about the valuable linen produced in Subernyakundya in Assam and compares its colour with brightness of sun, and softness as that of a precious gem (Dasgupta, 2005; Choudhuri, 1959; Kumar, 1984). Hence, it is evident that linen was in use in Assam and also a celebrated cloth for royalty.

Satavahana Empire is notable for export trade of agricultural products to European countries. Evidence of production and use of linen is found in Satavahana Empire. Besides food grains, agricultural land was also utilized for cultivating flax, cotton, coconut and other fibers, which were recognised as an important cash crop. Weaver’s guilds were formed for fabric manufacturers. Yarn and fabric dyeing was well known to the weavers. An inscription found in excavations, states two different prices for two different quality of linen. The Periplus of Erythraean Sea described extensively about the trade of finest weaves, thin flimsy cloth, various kinds of cotton, silk, pure linen and yarn from Indian sub continent to Egypt, Italy and Malaysia through navigation during Satavahana Era.

Gupta period (320 CE.- 550 CE.)

Gupta king Vikrmaditya’s Empire, said to be the Golden period in arts and administration, is reckoned from 375 CE to 415 CE. Agriculture production and management from manure application to proper storage facility was at its prime. During this period, textile material of finest texture and colour is described in literature. Roots of berry, lac and kermes were used to dye fabric. Soft linen Pennants in bright colours were fluttered around the city. Kalidas, the greatest poet till date echoed the beauty of linen robe in Bhakti Kavyaand Raghuvamsa (VII,18,19). Kalidas also expresses brides and grooms donning dukula during wedding in Kumarasambhava (VII, 7,26,73) and also indicating it to be a fabric for elites. Amarsimha, another literary gem, in the court of emperor Vikramaditya, explains ksauma and dukula both as linen in Amarkosha. Amara said “ksaumam dukulamsyat”: ksaumaand dukulaare synonymsHe further wrote that bleached linen is known as dukula and linen sheets were called as nivitaand pravrata. Strabo (270 AD), Megasthnese, Neacherous wrote about the literary excellence of Indian poets and also that, linen cloth was used by Indians for the purpose of writing missives.

Ancient and Medieval period (500CE – 1500CE)

Hieun Tsang mentions King Harsh Vardhan (CE. 606—641) used linen fabric derived from flax, jute and hemp. He also referred to linen as beautiful as autumn moon’s light, and dukula, the finest linen was presented to King Harsha by Bhaskarvarman. During Gupta period, textiles were divided into four types (Kalika Puraan, Kumar, 1984) (Table 1).

 Table 1: Fibre classification during Gupta period

Type of fibers


Valka (Bark)

Linen, jute, hemp

Phala (Fruit)


Kauseya (Cocoon)


Rankava, Avikayo (hair, wool)

Pashmina, wool

Hieun Tsang also found textile is a flourishing industry in India. Women have been displayed wearing colourful dress and ornaments. Textile was the main source of home décor in ancient period. King Harsh’s palace was elegantly decorated exhibiting rich display of textile materials including fine linen, silk and cotton, at the time of his sister Rajyasri’s marriage. Border design with a pair of swan was fashion during Gupta period. Before going to battlefield, King Harsha Vardhan wore linen with a pair of swan woven using golden yarn kalavattu in border. Banabhatta, Sanskrit poet in the court of the King Harsha Vardhan, has used word dukula and dugula for linen and also mentioned linen, uttariya, saris, garments, bed sheets and covers in his literary work. As per his literature, the plant was grown in Pundra or modern day Bengal and was most valuable cloth. Banabahtta says in Kadambari, Sudrka wore linen as white as the foam of the nectar and has a border design of a pair of swan. Banabhatta also refferedumberella presented to king Harsha was wrapped in dukula. Hieun Tsang also wrote about the people of Kashmir weaving cloth of white linen, but no reference of cotton being grown in Kashmir was found (Ahmad, 2014).

Poet Somdeva (10 CE) in his Yashastilaka used the word dukula on several occasions and it is clear from his writings that it was auspiciously worn majestic and costly dress. KalikaPurana, dating 9th to 10th Century, one of the uppurana (sub text) of sanatan religion describes at length about not only the material used for the clothes worn during that period but also its classification. As per Halayudha (10th CE) dukula and ksauma were synonyms: “dukulamksaumamisyate.” He also said “atasi syadumaksauma”: “Atasi, Uma and ksauma are synonyms. Other important fibers for textiles were Cotton, silk and wool. GeetGovind by Jayadev referred to linen four times while describing playfulness of lord Krishna and household chores of Yashoda.

Prose and poems elegantly described the colours of the attire worn by Krishna as well as pleasing castle decoration with flags, festoons, and tapestries of linen, silk and artistic work of variegated colours. In 15th Century, Kalluka mentions ksauma was a cloth made of atasi (flax) fibre and Dukula was considered to be the finest and highly prized linen (Gait, 1906, Kumar, 1984).

Reasons for widespread popularity of linen through the ages

The Vedic vision was to manufacture employing natural materials, and thus creating sustainable industry and sustainable societies. Flora and fauna was worshipped and use of eco-friendly textiles preserved natural environment. Agriculture has been the mainstay of the people of India as it fulfils all three basic needs of human beings directly or indirectly. Indian subcontinent is blessed with renewable rich resources of vegetable fibres’ and dyes. Rig-Veda tells us the economic value of plants and over the years people learned the utilization of agricultural plants for various purposes besides food (Das, 1944). Farmers since Vedic age used all the latest techniques available at that time like quality seeds, manure, irrigation, crop rotation and agriculture implements etc., for improving agricultural productivity [Douglas, 1960; Jain, 2015]. Flax (Linumusitatissimum L.) is one of the oldest crops, and the only plant from the family of Linaecea which is of economic value. Ancient Indians realized the medicinal properties of flax seeds and fiber both, as evident from the Sushrut Samhita where in its medicinal properties is described for food consumption. 



Blue flowered Alsi (linseed), Parwati, Uma and Ksauma are synonyms and it is able

to cure cough, liver problems and improves vigor and vitality.’

Sushrut recommended flax bedding for neonatal care [Murthy, 2003; Khatri, 2013; Mishra, 2015]. Linen was used in India before the use of cotton, and cultivation of flax dates back to the Neolithic and late period of Stone Age [Dhoni, 1994]. Linen flourished well in Indian subcontinent as it grows well in both the peninsular south and alluvial soil of the north. Widespread popularity of flax is also due to the fact that flax in India is a semi-arid rain fed crop, grows with fewer irrigation and pesticide applications than other natural fibres’. Linen was an important fabric for apparel and furnishings and the leftover lint was used to make fiber wick. Holistic spinning and weaving gave rise to the production of exclusive handmade pieces distinctive from each other and a wider scope for weavers to always make improvements in yarn and fabric quality. This trend continued till the Europeans knocked the door and industrial revolution began in the west. Mass production and consumption of artificial textiles and fast fashion, as a result of industrial revolution is environmentally and socially highly unsustainable leading to the environmental destruction and skin problems.

Carcinogenic and toxic effects of artificial fibers and dyes during manufacturing and wearing are now identified and many such chemicals are banned world over such as Nonylphenol, benzidine, chloroaniline etc. Advantages of eco-friendly natural fibres’ and its wide scope of application is being recognised again in every corner of the world, as they are non-allergic and non-polluting. Due to eco-efficiency, even today linen is considered to be the most environment friendly, dignified fabric and accepted in the same way as was adorned by the generations through the ages. Consumers in developed countries are showing their interest for alternative bio source slow fashion to maximise use of available renewable resources and enhance material recyclability. Agricultural fibres’ thus are the need of the hour to reduce skin irritation and have lower environmental impact. Flax when cultivated for their fibre is known as flax and when cultivated for seed are called linseed. Characteristics features of flax include great strength, lustre and dimensional stability. Enhanced strength on wetting, microbial resistance, rapid wetting and quick drying are its speciality. It turns softer and more lustrous with use. Its highly moisture absorbent property makes it cool to wear in hot climate and fit for medicinal purposes (Kirby, 1964). Every part of the plant is utilized; fibre for linen apparels, nonwovens and various diversified textile and non textile applications such as fire extinguishing hose, reinforced plastic, medicinal, geo and chemotextiles.

Remaining plant wood scraps of seed and fibre flax is used to manufacture bio composites, particle boards, quality paper, briquette and furniture. Anti bedsore property of flax is now being used for the benefits of bed ridden patients [Kozlowsky, 2009]. Linseed is a good source of lignan, mucilage, omega-3, oleic, linoliec acid, and edible fibres’, all of which contains medicinal properties and are perfect raw material for food processing, natural pharmaceuticals, and cosmetic industries. Widespread industrial application of linseed in paint, printing ink, varnish, and linoleum manufacturing is well known. Seed hull is used as animal feed [Kozlowsky, 2009; Jhala and Hall, 2010]. First Indian flax type variety named ‘Tiara’ has been released very recently in the year 2015. Flax Standards for important physical parameters are available now (Akin, 2005). Environment friendly methods like enzymatic and microbial are being used to extract flax fibre besides traditional water retting method (Sharma and Van Sumere 1992; Akin et al. 2001; Faulk et al 2008; Pandey et al, 2014; Pandey, 2016). A number of dual purpose varieties have been released which is suitable for both fiber and oil purposes (Pandey and Dayal, 2003; Pandey, 2016). India occupies 11.82 percent of world acreage and ranks third in area of the flax crop after Canada and China. Flax fibre accounts for ~2% of the production of natural fibres’ in India. Import of linseed commodity by India increased 75% in the last five years, whereas, area under production decreased. India imports about 0.18 million tonnes of flax worth Rs 396.36 crores (FY 2011-2012) to meet indigenous demand particularly in defence. At present linen is being manufactured in India utilizing the flax imported mainly from Europe (Anand, 2011). Current political leaders like Narendra Modi and leading bollywood actors have also added to linen’s sheen and popularity by using it in public life; a fact which has brightened the prospects of European flax growers and exporters (Ruitenberg, 2015).

Ancient Indian textile history is richly described all through the pages of ancient texts, literature and temple architecture. Ancient temples, Ellora, Ajanta cave murals, Kurnool and Bhimbetka rock paintings (30,000 years old), were all coloured in natural colours and some of them appear as bright as they were when painted thousands of years back. These natural colours survived the extreme natural calamities and today they are mute testimony to our glorious past. It is certain that, if some remnants of Vedic textiles ever found in future in Indian subcontinent, it will be the fiber of natural origin and in all probability a linen, because only linen could withstand the harsh environmental conditions through the times as it did in the middle east and came out with flying colours.


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