Thursday, February 5, 2009

Non- violent silk in Vedic times?

(Continued from the previous post )

There are little traces of 'silk making' as an industry in Indian until recently.

Sericulture was introduced only 400 years ago.

However, words denoting silk are found in Sanskrit and Tamil texts.

At many places in Valmiki Ramayana, silk is mentioned as 'Kausheya'.

Sita wore Kausheyam.

Here are a few verses on kausheyam, from Valmiki Ramayana.

Sita was sighted by Ravana as wearing a silk sari.

(from Aranya khanda)

sa taam padma palaasha akSiim piita kausheya vaasiniim |
abhyagacChata vaidehiim hR^iSTa cetaa nishaa caraH || 3-46-13

Here, 'piita kausheya vaasiniim' means "ochry, silks, wearing".

Sita was wearing Kausheya at the time of abduction.

“tapta aabharaNa varNa angii piita kausheya vaasanii |
raraaja raaja putrii tu vidyut saudaamanii yathaa ||” ( 3-52-14)

piita kausheya vaasanii= ocherish, in silks, dressed;

(meaning :-.That princess Seetha scintillated like the oblique flashes of lightning in a cloud, owing to her golden coloured body which is muffled up with jewellery of pure gold, and added with a golden coloured ocherish silky dress, while traversing in the sky.)

In Kishkindha khandam,

Sampathi describes to the vanaras the abduction of Sita.

He mentions that Sita was wearing superior kausheyam.

“suurya prabhaa iva shaila agre tasyaaH kausheyam uttamam |
asite raakSase bhaati yathaa vaa taDit a.mbude ||” ( 4-58-17)

tasyaaH uttamam kausheyam= her, best, ochry silk sari;

(meaning :- Upper fringe of Seetha's silk sari with golden glitter is upheaved in the sky, and with the reddish hue of sun in red heat of midday it beamed forth like a reddish cloud. )

Sits dropped the jewels wrapped in her upper garment of kasuheyam while she was being abducted.

“teSaam madhye vishaalaakSii kausheyam kanaka prabham |
uttariiyam varaarohaa shubhaani aabharaNaani ca || 3-54-2
mumoca yadi raamaaya sha.mseyuH iti bhaaminii |”

(meaning :- 2, 3a. vishaalaakSii= broad-eyed one; varaarohaa= curvaceous lady; bhaaminii= lady with resentment; kanaka prabham kausheyam uttariiyam= golden, in hue, silk sari, upper cloth; shubhaani aabharaNaani ca= auspicious, ornaments, also; raamaaya= to Rama; shamseyuH yadi= they indicate, if [they may]; iti= thus [on thinking]; teSaam madhye mumoca= their, amid, released - dropped.

That broad-eyed and curvaceous lady with resentment Seetha, inwrapping her auspicious ornaments in the upper-fringe of her sari, dropped in the midmost of those five Vanara-s with a thinking that 'these creatures may perhaps indicate them to Rama.' [3-54-2, 3a])

We find in Valmiki Ramayana a valuable information on silk of another kind.

This is about a silk-cotton tree. In the same chapter on abduction, Sita curses Ravana that he will be doomed to hell for abducting her. There is 'asi patra vana' in the hell, having silk-cotton trees with throny iron projections. Ravana will be doomed to embrace that tree in hell.

Here the term 'kausheya' is not used to indicate the silk

But the tree is mentioned as "shaalmali" - which is the term in sankrit for silk-cotton tree.

tapta kaa.ncana puSpaam ca vaiduurya pravara cChadaam || 3-53-20
drakSyase shaalmaliim tiikSNaam aayasaiH kaNTakaiH citaam |

(meaning:- 20b, 21a. tapta kaancana [tapta] puSpaam ca= molten, gold, [melting] flowered, also; [tapta] vaiduurya pravara cChadaam= [melting] lapis gemlike, best, shrouded [by lapis like leaves]; aayasaiH kaNTakaiH citaam= with iron, thorns, encrusted; tiikSNaam shaalmaliim= sharp, silk-cotton tress; drakSyase= you will see.

"You will see silk-cotton trees flowered with molten gold, shrouded with lapis gemlike melting leaves, and enshrouded with sharp irony thorns in hell. [3-53-20b, 21a])

In this way it can be seen that Kausheya was used in specific places to indicate a specific meaning. And there was in existence silk-cotton trees too from which silk was made.

The root of kausheya is kosha or kausha. It means – among other ones – the sheath covering the silk worm. This is nothing but the 'pupa'. The pupa is called kausha or kOsha.

The derived meaning of the term kausheya is 'cloth made from the cocoon shell'.

Some of the meanings of kOsha are given here:-

kṓśa 'bucket', 'case, cover', 'sheath', 'storeroom' , 'seed-vessel', 'inner part of breadfruit'

kōsa— 'box, sheath, storeroom, cocoon, praeputium';

kosa 'seed vessel of jackfruit', 'silkworm cocoon';

G. kuśeɔ, °śīɔ m. 'silkworm cocoon';

kośeā m., °ī f. 'fine pellicle round the stone of a fruit';

koslā m. 'cocoon'; — M. kośerā 'dry scab of a wound, cocoon'.

An interesting correlation can be found in Tamil lexicon.

There is a word in Tamil, "kOsigam" which means silk.

Kosigam is that which is derived from kOsakaaram.
kOsakaaram is an ancient Tamil word for silk moth. Since kausheyam is the silk worm's pupa stage in Sanskrit, it is understood that kOsigam is derived from the Sanskrit word. It is also known as kausigam in Tamil.

In spite of the prevalence of these words related to silkmoth in Vedic and Tamil culture, we hardly come across any trace of sericulture in ancient texts.

For example we find a spate of professions and terms related to various jobs done by ancient Tamils in Purananuru. But there is absolutely no mention of domesticating silkmoths and cultivating cocoons for drawing silk threads.

Since we come to know from texts that silk clothes were used, we must look at other ways of making silk.

One such method is collecting the cocoons in the wild.

This is a high probability, because anything of some value that is found in the forests was collected and taken to the treasury. This explains why only the Kings had worn silk dresses in those days.

The cocoons of the wild moth variety comes under the category of 'dravyam' or riches of the forest. In Tamil, a separate term exists for that – 'kaadu-padu diraviyam'

In Ramayana times too, such a practice had existed.

When Sita wanted to own the golden deer, she rationalized the hunting of it on two grounds. One was that she wanted to have the rare animal to be her plaything in the forest.

On the other hand, if the golden deer could not be taken alive, its skin could be taken to their Treasury in Ayodhya. She said that its skin was a precious looking one. Such precious and rare looking objects must belong to the Royal treasury. If the deer could not be caught alive, its skin could be taken to their kingdom when they returned.

So the practice could have existed of collecting the discarded (or even live) cocoons in the wild and making silk out of them.

From the interesting discussion that is currently taking place in

it is possible to assume that the silk strands found in Harappan sites were of non-violent or ahimsic variety – that is, taken out, after the moth had left.

Silk making from such a source would be laborious and such products must belong to the Royal family only. That perhaps explains why Ramayana makes a specific mention of kausheya – how the cloth was made – whenever it describes the cloths of the Royal persons.

Since specific mention is made of 'kausheya', it can be assumed that silk from other sources (plant) also could have existed.

More on them in the next post.

(to be continued)



Re: Indus silk

First, the earliest Chinese evidence is unfortunately fraught with uncertainty,
ambiguity and controversy. I hope in the near future to have an
opportunity to clarify at least some of the evidence. I must confess
that we can only assume Bombyx mori was domesticated in China, though
its wild ancestor certainly did have a range that included the
northern part of south Asia. It is indeed the only case of a
domesticated insect, as by definition it cannot survive without human
intervention. The B. mori is unable to fly. Yes, the Indian silks so
far found are of other species, wild, one of which can be reeled
rather than spun without harming the insect, as it has a built-in hole
for the moth to escape, so the cocoon is not ruined after

The use of this type so early was a significant
surprise to me, as it really does seem to hint at a sort of conceptual
understanding of silk that is related to Chinese sericulture, and
specifically addresses (later Vedic) taboo issues.

On the other hand,
it may well be that they would specifically be harvested (by walking
through the forest, and picking them up from tree branches, or the
ground) to use as very fine strong thread for beads (microbeads,
actually) as a special type of fiber for this purpose
. The reeled silk
usually means silk taken from cocoons that did require killing the
moth; and my evidence for reeling is indeed from the thread structure,
not any found cocoons.

There is virtually no spin angle on the threads
in the Chanhu-daro example. I had lots of thread to look at. There are
no found cocoons that I am aware of in the archaeology of third or
second millennium BC south Asia.. I absolutely agree with you that
this is a fine skill mastered by the Chinese (I do remember the
'drawing silk' exercise in my qigong class!) and that reeling, if it
was truly practiced in early south Asia, it was most likely on a small
scale, and probably specifically for tiny applications such as
necklaces made of microbeads. Incidently, I don't see that it was
necessarily a luxury item in this context.

Of course, all archaeological knowledge is cumulative. If or when new
evidence comes to light to show us they were using silk for cloth as
well at such an early date, we will know. Until then, I don't assume so.

Best wishes,



Re: Indus silk

Dear Per,

As a related question, the etymology of silk more generally is a
fascinating tale in and of itself. Here is a short draft extract from
a current paper I am writing:

"Early documents in Vedic, Avestan, Middle Persian and Classical
Sanskrit each contain hints of early knowledge of silk in India, Iran
and Central Asia from prior to the Han trade in the late third century
BC. The ancient Hindu Laws of Manu, for example, prescribe the
treatment and wearing of certain silks (Manu v. 120; Kane 1941). These
instructions indicate knowledge of boiling cocoons. These laws were
recorded in the later first millennium BC, still several hundred years
before the 'secret' supposedly leaked out of China. The 'mukta' silks
were used by Jains and Hindus to avoid contact with de-gummed silk
from stifled cocoons. The Gautama Dharmasutra, which may date as early
as the 5th century BC (Olivelle 1999), explicitly rules against the
sale of silk.

This very important delineation may lead us to understand the
beginnings of silk use, and of knowledge of what are traditionally
considered to be Chinese methods of degumming (and reeling) silk.
Furthermore, the etymology of all words relating to silk and silkworms
in these early texts is of a non-Chinese signifying etymology (i.e.
not sere-) (Balkrishna 1925; McGregor 1993). Although no specific term
'silk' has yet been discovered in the Gathas or the Younger Avestan
texts, there are several investigative avenues to follow for
ascertaining the Old Iranian derivation for silk, which is also non-
Chinese (Bailey 1931, 1979; Mayrhofer 1996; Hassandoust 1964). For
example, there is a Middle Persian term 'kirm-i abreshom' for
silkworm. This is an early indication of Iranian knowledge of silk's
source. These various sources hint at early knowledge of silk outside
of China." [this was written recently and acknowledgement has been
given to Michael Witzel, Oktor Skjaervo and Asko Parpola on this

Anyone on the list is welcome to add to this- as I have mentioned in
previous posts I draw the line at comparative linguistics in my
domain of expertise !



A Stoic said...

During Van Vaas, Sita wore cloth made of barks of trees, I think; not Silk.

jayasree said...

Sita wore the regular dress and jewelery during her vanvaas.

Initially Kaikeyi got the bark-dress for Sita, which was objected by Dasharatha. Dasharatha pointed out that whatever conditions that Kaikeyi made - which he had to accept - were for Rama and not for Sita. So there was no reason why he had to agree with Kaikeyi's order to Sita to wear the bark-dress. Saying thus, Dasharatha ordered his men to get cloths and jewels that would be sufficient for all the 14 years of exile.

vaasaamsi ca mahaa arhaaNi bhuuSaNaani varaaNi ca |
varSaaNi etaani samkhyaaya vaidehyaaH kSipram aanaya || 2-39-15

("Quickly bring for Seetha, clothings of great worth and ornaments of high quality, taking into consideration all these years (that Seetha has to spend in exile)

nara indreNa evam uktaH tu gatvaa kosha gR^iham tataH |
praayacchat sarvam aahR^itya siitaayai kSipram eva tat || 2-39-16

(After thus spoken by the king, the officer went to the treasury, brought all that in a lot and gave to Seetha.)

saa sujaataa sujaataani vaidehii prasthitaa vanam |
bhuuSayaam aasa gaatraaNi taiH vicitraiH vibhuuSaNaiH || 2-39-17

(Setting out as she was to the forest, Seetha of noble birth adorned her beautiful limbs with those wonderful jewels.)

vyaraajayata vaidehii veshma tat suvibhuuSitaa |
udyataH amshumataH kaale kham prabhaa iva vivasvataH || 2-39-18

(Seetha, beautifully adorned as she was, illumined that palace, as the sky in a morning is illuminated by a rising sun.)

Thus Sita left for the forest fully adorned like a princess.

There came another occasion when Sita got some more ornaments and cosmetics. Before leaving for dhandaka vana, the couple met sage Athri (known as the first one or as one belonging to the lineage of Athri who was the first man to have given the knowledge of Swar-bhanu or eclipse)and his wife Anasuya.

Anasuya- Sita dialogue is a very famous one, in that it was an occasion when Sita's marriage was narrated by Sita herself! Anasuya also gave valuable tips on wife-hood. In addition, she gave some rare ornaments, perfumes and other cosmetics to Sita asking her to wear them all the time so that Rama could remain young and glowing. This is compared to how Lakshmi enriches Vishnu by her glow.

idam divyam varam maalyam vastram aabharaNaani ca |
anga raagam ca vaidehi mahaa arham anulepanam || 2-118-18

mayaa dattam idam siite tava gaatraaNi shobhayet |
anuruupam asamkliShTam nityam eva bhaviShyati || 2-118-19

("O, Seetha, the daughter of Videha kingdom! Here are divine gifts: a garland, an apparel, jewels, a scented cosmetic and rare body-cream. These are all given by me to adorn your limbs. They will be ever worthy of your and will remain in tact (even after constant use).")

anga raageNa divyena lipta angii janaka aatmaje |
shobhayiShyaami bhartaaram yathaa shriir viShNum avyayam || 2-118-20

("O, Seetha! Your body, anointed with these heavenly cosmetics, will cause your husband to look beautiful, as Lakshmi (the goddess of fortune and beauty) does the imperishable Vishnu (the Lord of Preservation).")

These jewels were worn by her when she was abducted. She was wearing Peetha kausheyam (yellow silk dress) at the time of abduction. she was wearing an upper garment of silk which she used for bundling some of the jewels she was wearing then and was thrown down by her when she saw the vanaras.

This was recalled by Hanuman when he saw her in Ashoka vana. In the Ashoka vana Sita had discarded all the jewels. Only the Choodamani worn by her at the time of her marriage was tied safely in her garment. She continued to wear the same silk garment and had not bathed even once in her year long stay in Ashoka vana.

Hanuman observed the silk sari she was wearing which looked worn out. He also observed the marks of wearing of the jewels for long time. Whatever jewels that Rama spoke about were either found hanging on the Simshubha tree, or had been dropped by her when she was abducted. The wear-marks on her body tallied with those jewels.

It must be recalled here the two remarks made by Anasuya while she gifted those jewels to Sita.
Anasuya said that the jewels would be of 'saphalam' (of use)to her and that they would remain intact (be marked )on her body even after use.

The use (saphalam)Sita had for those jewels was when she threw them to the vanaras. That was a vital clue to follow Sita's route in abduction.

The permanent marks made on her body by constant wearing of those jewels, became one of the vital clues for Hanuman to identify her as Sita. For, it was difficult to identify Sita in Ashoka vana, in that pathetic appearance as though covered by smoke.

Hope I have clarified the doubt.

Amit said...

Could you give me the link to Sankrit text of Valmiki Ramayan; would highly appreciate it.

The original text and other texts such as Mahabharata, Vedas etc must have been written on palm leaves. Where are they preserved currently? Any Ideas?

Amit Nanda

jayasree said...

For valmiki ramayan