Sitting on the charpoys (beds woven with jute strings) pulled into the protective shade of a tree, or ensconced against a wall, women in villages and small towns all over Punjab are often busy creating spectacular flower-embroidery on dupattas, shawls or other garments. Called phulkari in local parlance, the origin of this beautiful art can be traced back to the 15th century AD.

The word phulkari literally means flowering. It is a form of craft in which embroidery is done in a simple and sparse design over shawls and dupattas. In some cases where the design is worked over very closely, covering the material entirely, it is called bagh (a garden of flowers).

The Making

The embroidery of phulkari and bagh is done in long and short darn stitch, which is created into innumerable designs and patterns. It is the skilful manipulation of this single stitch that lends an interesting and characteristic dimension to this needlework. While the stitch itself is uncomplicated, the quality of the phulkari depends upon the size of the stitch. The smaller the stitch, the finer the embroidery.

The threads used were of a silk yarn called pat. In the past, the silk threads were brought in from different parts of India, like Kashmir and Bengal and also from Afghanistan and China.


Using Colors

Bright colors were always preferred and among these, golden yellow, red, crimson, orange, green, blue, pink etc, were the popular ones.

For the embroidery, only a single strand was used at a time, each part worked in one color. Shading and variation were not done by using various colors of thread. Instead, the effect was obtained by the dexterous use of horizontal, vertical or diagonal stitches. This resulted in giving an illusion of more than one shade when light fell on it and when it was viewed from different angles.

To keep the embroidered part clean while working on the cloth, the finished portion was rolled and covered with a muslin cloth. Specially created designs varied from village to village or region to region in Punjab and were given suitable names descriptive of their form. While phulkari was used to ornament cloth, the bagh ensured that not even a square inch of the base cloth was visible.

Base Cloth

The cloth primarily used and preferred by the women, was the home-spun, locally woven and dyed khadi. It was strong, long-lasting, and cheap and served the purpose of keeping the wearer warm during winters. Another reason was that the embroidery involved the counting of threads while doing the straight darn stitch. The coarse weave made this task easier. In addition, the thick cloth did not pucker and pull and could be worked upon without a frame. Usually, pieces of small width, about 45 to 60 centimeters, were worked on separately and the two or three strips were joined together to form the required size.

Repertoire Of Motifs

Beginning with geometrical patterns, flowers and leaves, the repertoire of motifs was constantly enlarged. Birds, animals and human figures and objects of everyday use were inducted, along with vegetables, pots, buildings, rivers, the sun and the moon, scenes of village life, and other imagery. Phulkaris and baghs came to be embroidered in a stunning range of exquisite designs. In dhoop chaon, which literally means "sun and shade", an amazing interactive display of light and shade was created. The designs remained earthy and true to life. There was dhaniya bagh (coriander garden), motia bagh (jasmine garden), satranga bagh (garden of rainbow), leheria bagh (garden of waves) and many other depictions.

Today the most intricate and sought after phulkaris are the sainchi phulkaris, which bring scenes from rural Punjab to life. An incredible wealth of detail is embroidered onto cloth.

Reflecting Emotions

With time, the phulkaris became closely interwoven with the lives of the women of Punjab.
The joys, sorrows, hopes, dreams and yearnings of the young girls and women who embroidered the phulkaris were often transferred onto cloth. Many folk songs grew out of this expressive combination of skills and intense feelings. So, it is that one hears a young woman, whose betrothed has not sent a promised message to her, murmuring sadly, softly, as she embroiders peacocks on a phulkari. It was not long before phulkari folk songs became a part of the famous, pulsating folk dances of Punjab - the gidda and the bhangra.

A Symbol Of Familial Ties

The women of Punjab created phulkari mostly for personal use. The cycle began with the young girl who followed her mother's chores and learned household work including this embroidery. When the girl got married, phulkari formed a part of her bridal trousseau. If a son was born to her, her mother would start preparing a vari da bagh, a gift she would present to her grand daughter-in- law.

The bagh was considered a symbol of marriage and among the wealthy families, sometimes up to fifty-one pieces of various designs were given to the bride. She, in turn, wore them for auspicious and ceremonial occasions. In some parts of Punjab, it was customary to drape the new mother with a bagh on the eleventh day after the birth of the child, when she left the maternity room for the first time.

Phulkari For Different Occasions

Phulkaris were also made for religious ceremonies or to be used at other festive times.

A phulkari is sanctified to be used as the canopy over the holy book of the Sikhs, the 'Guru Granth Sahib'.

For each different occasion, for each different setting, the versatile fingers and fertile imagination of the women of Punjab designed an impressive selection of phulkaris.

Different Varieties

There are different varieties of phulkaris and baghs made in Punjab.

The Chope, usually presented to the bride by her grandmother during a ceremony before the wedding, is embroidered with straight, two-sided line stitch and appears the same on the reverse. Only the border is embroidered and the center is left plain. It is usually red in color and worn as a veil.

Vari-da-bagh (bagh of the trousseau) is also on a red cloth with golden yellow embroidery symbolizing happiness and fertility. The entire cloth is covered in a lozenge design with smaller ones within the border and is again intricately worked in different colors.

Ghunghat bagh or sari-pallau (covering for the head) has a small border on all four sides. In the center of each side, which covers the head, a large triangular motif is worked.

Bawan bagh (fifty-two in Punjabi) has as many geometrical patterns.

Darshan dwar (the gate offering a view of the deity) is usually for presentation in temples or to adorn the walls of the home when the Granth Sahib (holy book of the Sikhs) is brought to a house. The gate motif has been inspired by the arched verandahas of the temples. It is again, always on a red cloth. The architectural design depicts two outer panels of all gates with arched tops. The bases face each other with motifs of humans, animals, birds, flowers etc., giving the impression of passing through a crowded street.

Suber is a phulkari worn by a bride during marriage rites. It comprises five motifs, one in the center and one each in the four corners.

Chamba is a hybrid phulkari having a series of wavy creepers, stylized leaves and flowers. It came into vogue earlier this century.

Besides this, designs inspired by various day to day items, fauna and flora around us also found their way into this craft.

Surajmukhi (sunflower) is a cross between a chope and ordinary bagh in brilliant yellow, which creates a stunning effect.

Mor or tota is one that has a peacock or parrot motif.

Mirchi, as the name suggests, has chilies in red, orange or green usually on brown.

Belan and parantha symbolize the rolling pin and leavened bread.

Ikka or ace of diamonds has been inspired by playing cards.

Satrang is a seven-colored phulkari.

Jewellery items like bangles, earrings, etc., are also embroidered At times, a snake was embroidered, guarding a woman's treasure. Another variety popular in Haryana was the Sheeshedar where small, round, matt-dull mirror pieces were included in the embroidered motifs.

Traditionally, the phulkaris and baghs were never sold in the markets as they were only woven by the women of the house for their personal use.

A New Form Of Phulkari

A new form of phulkari is being embroidered these days.

It is not as detailed or time consuming as the older variety. Using a range of different fast colored synthetic threads, it is embroidered from the top of the cloth rather than on its reverse.

The Punjab Government's Emporium, Phulkari, boasts of the best collection of this form of embroidery in the country. Their sizeable assemblage of a variety of these original pieces has been garnered from the villages in the state. Many of these are being exported, especially to the Middle-East.

Handicrafts Trade
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