Saturday, February 7, 2009

Silk in Tamil tradition.

Continuing from the previous post, let us search for clues in Tamil texts to know whether silk was used in ancient Tamil land. If we look for the words on cloth, we do come across a popular Tamil term for silk, namely "பட்டு " (pattu).

There are different sources available in Tamil texts, to study what this pattu was all about.

Of the different names for cloth or vasthram (in Tamil, vatthiram),
துகில் is the most common word and is also the name which is defined as
having the term 'pattu' as one of its synonyms.

In sutra 6-69, சூடாமணி நிகண்டு , the Tamil thesaurus.

gives the synonyms of 'thugil' wherein 'pattu' is found a mention.

According to this sutra,
the following are the other names for 'thugil'.

thugil = idaiyal, vEdhagam, yEdagam and pattu.

Idaiyal = very thin cloth.

vEdhagam = vEga vaiikkappatta pon, i.e., very thin sheet of gold made
malleable by heating.

yEdagam = cloth made of fibres drawn from yEdu, or leaf of some vegetation.

Pattu = nEthiram (same as Sanskrit nEthram) which is very soft as the
peacock feathers with the eye. That is, pattu is that cloth which is
very soft to touch and to see, as how the peacock feathers appear.

Looking at this meaning of pattu, I am drawn to look at the 'காடு படு திரவியம் ' – the wealth of the forests. One of the wealth of the forest is peacock feather!

Nowhere can I locate sericulture or reeling of silk thread from cocoon in the Tamil texts

or from the sources related to products of the 5 lands of Tamils.

But the meaning of Pattu as nethram (peacock's feather) make me wonder whether Tamils knew some method of making fine cloth using peacock's feather.

There must be some connection to peacock feather, as we have even today the dothis called 'மயில் கண் வேஷ்டி '! This dothi is well known for the soft border that resembles the eye of the peacock.

Mayil kaN veshti is a special garment worn on special occasions. It is possible to assume that some laborious art work could have gone into making this 'mayil kaN' from peacock's feathers.

However we do come across an explicit reference to cocoons in another sutra in ChoodamaNi nigandu.

In sutra 6-70, it is said that

Pattu is of two types.

They are பாளிதம் and கோசிகம்.

paaLidham is a very soft cloth used to cover the top part of the
pandhal (vidhaana seelai)

It is kOsigam which has silk moth connection.
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.

This shows that silk was made in Tamil lands from cocoon.

Yet the mystery remains if it was made through violent or non-violent ways.

From Adiyaarkku nallar.

A big group of synonyms for thugil has been given by அடியார்க்கு நல்லார் , the famous 'urai aasiriyar' for Silappadhikaram. The interesting finding is that this group contains the kausheya (drawn from pupa) cloth and also the cotton cloth. From the different terms, it is understood that this group contains all the varieties of cloths made from different sources and made for different purposes and persons. The very first term that Adiyaarkku nallar has given is 'kOsigam' – ( or pattu as defined by ChoodamaNi nigandu) the Tamil equivalent of kausheyam (made from cocoon)!

In chapter 14 of Silappadhikaram, comes a line, "அகிலும் , துகிலும் .." agilum, thugilum (line 108).

Writing his commentary on this, Adiyaarkku nallar says that the word 'thugil' thugil'

indicates any of the following type of clothes. They are

"கோசிகம் (kOsigam)

பீதகம் (peethakam)

பச்சிலை (pacchilai)

அரத்தம் (arattham)

நுண்துகில் (nuNthugil)

சுண்ணம் (chuNNam)

வடகம் (vadagam )

பஞ்சு (panju)

இரட்டு பாடகம் (irattu paadagam)

கொங்கலர் (kOngalar)

கோபம் (kOpam )

சித்திரக் கம்மி (chitthira-k-kammi )

குறித்தி (kurithi )

கரியல் (kariyal )

பேடகம் (pEdakam )

பரியட்டக் -காசு (pariyatta-k-kaasu )

வேதங்கம் (vEdangam)

புநகர் (pungar )

காழகம் (kaazhagam)

சில்லிகை (chilligai )

துரியம் (thuriyam )

பங்கம் (pangam )

தத்தியம் (thatthiyam )

வண்ணடை (vaNNadai )

கவற்றுமடி (kavattrumadi)

நூல்யாப்பு (noolyaappu)

திருக்கு (thirukku)

தேவாங்கு (dEvaangu)

பொன்னெழுத்து (ponnezhutthu )

குச்சரி (kucchari)

தேவகிரி (dEvagiri )

காத்தூலம் (kaatthoolam )

இரஞ்சி (iranJi )

வெண்பொத்தி (veNpotthi )

செம்பொத்தி (chempotthi )

பணிப்பொத்தி (paNippotthi )

என்று சொல்லப்பட்ட பலவகைத்தாய தொகுதி "

This list starts with kOsigam (kausheyam) related to kOsa-kaaram, the term in Tamil for Silk-moth and peethakam (yellow vasthram) of Sanskrit origin. It also contains terms suggestive of other sources of cloth making. For instance panju means cotton, denoting a cotton cloth. But interestingly, the common word for silk, namely, 'pattu' is not found in this list. Does this mean the term pattu was not in common use or was not used until Adiyaarkku nallar's times (around 9th century AD)?

Panju must been a common term and cotton weaving must have been a cottage industry in ancient Tamil lands.

There is a reference in a புற நானுறு verse about the 'முற்றம் ' where
cotton (panju) was dried.

Another verse says about 'பஞ்சி களையாப் புண்ணர்', meaning 'like the
cloth (panji) on a wound, it hurts'

So cotton cloth making must have been widespread activity.

Other terms connected with 'pattu'.

The words pattu, pattOlai, pattai, patturuvudhal, pattayam all have
their roots in மரப்பட்டை , the fibre of trees.

is mara-p-pattai, or fibre of trees which is also known as
mara-vuri in Ramayana.

In those days, if it was said, 'பட்டை உடுத்தான் ', it meant that the
person wore the cloth made of mara-pattai.
(eg:- Raman 'pattai' vudutthan, during his vanavasam.)

PattOlai is the sheet made of mara-pattai in which messages and
declarations were written.

Pattayam is the sheet used as promisory notes.

is removal of fibres from pattai (pattai vUduruvudhal)

This patturuvudhal was weaving the fibre.

From all these the word 'pattu' must have come to stay. We can also
see that mara-p-pattai has been the basis of pattu or vasthram, in
other words, vegetation had been the basis for cloth.

Pattu also means a small town.
The ChinnaLa-p-pattu is a type of cloth woven by weavers of the small
town called Chinnala-p-pattu.

(Both patti and pattu mean chitroor a small town)
Here 'pattu' in chinnala-p-pattu does not mean silk.

The word Pattam had been in common use in Tamil for cloths.

According to Chudaamani nigandu, 'pattam' means vasthram.

The sutram (11-13) is
"pattamE vOdai, thoosu, padavi, vaaL, kavari maavaam"

Pattam is synonymous with, kuLam (tank) thoosu (cloth/ vasthram),
padavi ( position one holds) vaaL, (sword) and kavari maan (kavari

பட்டிகை means 'kachcham" like in pancha kaccham, the folds of cloth.

The அரைஞான் கயிறு (worn around the waist) is also known as pattigai.

The paatam or vasthram or cloth worn by people (pattam vudutthal) must
have come to be known as pattu udutthal.

There is another word, kOdi, and
'கோடி ' udutthudal means wearing a new vasthram.

kOdi means new cloth.

Is silk / pattu a pure (madi) cloth?

மடி is a Tamil word for cloth or vasthram.

Madi also means pure cloth, or a cloth made pure by maditthal.

மடித்தல் means 'அழித்தல் ', or removal of impurity.

There are methods of making this madi mentioned in shastras.
The cloth must be washed in water and dried in vaayu, i.e., not under
the sun, but under a shade.

7 types of vaayu present in this Universe, (5 of which are in this
world and the 6th one leads the worlds into pithruyaana and the 7th
one leads one to dEvayaana (brahma lokam)) will dry the
cloth making it fit for wearing for vedik purposes. If one has no time
to dry the cloth sufficiently, one can flutter the washed cloth 7
times in the air and it is then considered madi or purified for

If one enquires about how the grand father or great grand father had
used the new vasthram, it will be known that none of them wore
vasthram new or fresh from the weaver's place. They used to wash and
dry it before wearing even for the first time.

Even the strict vediks will not advise you to wear a factory fresh
vEshti but ask you to wash and dry it for wearing for any vedik
ceremony. It happens in marriages and it happens in upanayanam.

They insist on wetting and drying the cloth before using.

What could be the rationale of this?

Is not the cloth already pure as it is made hygienically from
factories and made under best possible pure conditions?

The following is what I understand by putting together the facts
known to me.

In those days vasthrams were made from vegetation, especially from cotton.
In ancient works in Tamil, the term cloth is denoted by 'panju' or 'panji'.
Cotton has been the source of cloth making.

What is this cotton?
It is a part of a live tree.
Any living thing radiates energy or an aura around it.
This holds good for the cotton ball.
When it is plucked, that life energy or aura around it starts decaying.

It is like this.

It is a proven fact that all people possess aura. When a person dies,
this aura decays or something of a decaying nature starts setting in.
That is perhaps why death-theettu (impurity due to death)

is removed by water (taking bath).
Even if a person is not related to the dead one, if that person
happens to be anywhere near a dead body, he has to purify himself by
bath. (The same logic holds good for cleansing by water during and after the
mensus. Since the aural position of the woman changes during menstruation and
the dead ova with all its subsidiary energy-items are washed out of the body during that time, it is said to cause or radiate impurity. Once the dead cells with decaying aura are removed from the body, the woman cleanses herself by bathing

Since every living organism has this aura, it is assumed that the
plucked cotton ball also has an aura in some decayed form or some decaying aura still
sticking to it. It then becomes logical to assume that
without removing this impurity, a vEdik would not like to wear it even
if it is a brand new vasthram.

Later, the general purity of the vasthram is ensured with every wash.

That is why a madi vasthram is that which is washed and dried overnight.

But silk is considered a madi (pure) vasthram. How?

If we think on lines of logic as above, only then we can justify the
madi (purity) of silk.

Silk of kaushEyam is made from the secretions from the mouth of the silk worm.
The secretions have no aural connection!

It is similar to how honey is collected.
Honey is an important vasthu used in vedic kaaryams.
It is obtained from the spitting of it by the honey bees. Here again
there is no aural connection.

That is perhaps why elders in those days would have accepted silk from
silk worm or cocoon after the moth fly had fled,

as there is no need to wash the cloth every time and there
is no aural impurity in it.

Remember, the silk cloth is generally not washed at all in those days

It will be just preserved carefully.

While a big fuss is made about cotton vasthram,

vediks would not mind using silk as madi vasthram.

The silk will be used many times without a wash.

In the absence of sericulture in those days, it can be assumed that silk making must have been a rare activity. And himsa was never part of Vedik precepts.

There is no himsa in obtaining honey. The bees are chased away and the
honey is obtained.

Similarly, no himsa would have been caused in deriving silk from cocoons.

Sanatana dharma, which considers ahimsa as parama dharma can not accept himsic silk.

But the complete ban to use of silk in vaideeha –related activities such as marriage and upanayana give rise to an opinion, that himsic silk too must have existed in those times and hence was avoided.

But today, what we have is himsic silk only.

It can not have Vedik sanction.

It must be recalled how the Paramacharyal of Kanchi had always spoken against hismic silk.

He never approved of this silk.

That must give us a clue about the silk that was used by Sita.

That must also give us a clue about why there is no trace of sericulture in the ancient land of this Bharath.

Ahimsa is the supreme dharma of this land!


(1) Silk is very much indigenous to India. Making silk from cocoon was known in Bharath even as early as Ramayana times. What has now been discovered in the Harappan sites comes as a proof of silk-making that dates back to Rama's times. The Harappan findings are to be considered as Post-krishna times. The culture was rich with much greater strides in the pre-Krishna period. Silk is one facet of it.

(2) The knowledge of making silk from coccon must have been present throughout India, as we find its name in Tamil texts too. The existence of quite many terms for cloths on the basis of source and the usage factor shows that our ancients were more knowledgeable in cloth making and it is no surprise that they knew reeling silk from cocoons.

(3) Sericulture was not practiced as an industry in Bharath, as silk making was done through non-violent ways. Empty cocoons must have been collected and silk was reeled from them.

(4) Such non-violent silk was considered precious and was used by the Royals and for adorning deities.

(5) Silk making by violent means has no sanction in Hindu dharma.

1 comment:

ಕೃಷ್ಣ ಶಾಸ್ತ್ರಿ - Krishna Shastry said...

Hi, thanks for an interesting article. I come from a havyaka brahmin community in Dakshina Kannada region of Karnataka (Mangalore-Puttur-Kasaragod). If I am not wrong, silk is very much used in marriage and upanayana, any thoughts on that?