Textiles in Bikaner, India

On a recent trip to the edge of the Thar Desert in India, I had a wonderful experience learning about local textiles and was welcomed into the homes of local craftsmen & women. As a lover of textiles I will be forever grateful for this most inspiring adventure.

I arrived in Bikaner early after an overnight trip from New Delhi, and was welcomed by my friend Ashok, who runs a small business promoting local textiles. We spent the morning drinking chai, examining the array of hand-crafted textiles in his store and discussing the origins, symbols and methods behind them.

Later we jumped on his motorbike in the stinking hot sun (hovering somewhere close to 45°c) and rode out to the nearby village where many of the makers live. We visited half a dozen families in their homes and shared chai at every household. The children were off school for holidays, so it was nice to meet all the children too. Some of the older children don’t go to school of course, and instead contribute to the family income by spinning or weaving too.
First a stop at the local potters, making traditional clay pot for holding water.

Mangilal Ji's wife using a charkha, famously promoted by Gandhi.These days charkha come new with a bicycle wheel as the main wheel instead of the old wooden setup.
 Generally women spin the cotton or wool yarn and the men of the household then do the weaving, while both spin the yarn on to the shuttle bobbin ready for weaving on the loom. Being from Australia I found it quite amusing to find bags of Australian Merino in many of the homes waiting to be spun, but later understood why when I inspected the hessian-like roughness of the local desert wool! 

Dhanaram Ji, spinning four threads together using a sort of drop-spindle. Those are his beautiful family photographs above.
I finished off my first day with a ride on a camel out into the desert, much to the amusement of the locals. Anyone who could speak English ducked their heads over the fence with a ‘Hallo’ or ‘How arrrre you?’

The following day I got a tour of the local government run crafts workshop, with textiles processing rooms, wool distribution, carpentry workshop, metal workshop, and even a letterpress room especially for printing their own labels. But the highlight of the day was definitely the visit to Ashuram Ji, a weaver who has moved, with his 4 looms, to the city.

What a smiley, friendly character! He spoke endlessly of cricket, and put me to shame by the number of Australian cricketers names he could rattle off. We shared some lunch, including local specialties Kachori (dah-filled pastries) and Kala Jamun (syrup soaked sweets), and he donned his best shirt so I could photograph him at his loom.
Sharing lunch with Ashuram Ji, the cricket-crazy city weaver, pictured above.
Ashok at his personal loom.
Ashok and his beautiful family were incredibly welcoming and generous, and I will always be grateful for the experience I had in Bikaner. If you are interested in supporting the local weavers, you can buy locally made textiles from his Etsy store, The Charkha. 

Ashok and some friends have also recently launched The Khadi Project, to raise funds to realise his dream of building the Khadi Ashram - a place to promote and continue traditional ways of the Thar desert including handicrafts and camel rearing. Find out all about it and donate here.

If you are also interested in Indian textiles, or just a women planning a trip to India, I highly recommend the Women Travel Mother India website. Dianne provides a wealth of information about travel in India, particularly for solo women, and is currently organizing textiles tours in the country.