A Brief History
The earliest known reference to the muslin fabric is in Chanakya’s Arthashastra from the 4th century BC. Over the centuries many travellers from the Roman Empire, Greece, Egypt and England have referred to this superior cotton from Bengal in their memoirs. During the Mughal rule in India, the muslins from Dhaka received royal patronage and clothes made of this fabric were a sign of royalty and nobility. The Portuguese, Dutch and English traders imported these textiles from India into much of Europe. The fabrics were prized for their quality and were used to make fashionable gowns and dresses. Trade with the Middle-East, China, Japan and other regions in Asia also flourished. However, during the 18th century, the British monopolised the textile trade with Bengal and squeezed other European and Asian traders out of the region. In turn, they forcibly lowered the prices paid to weavers to purchase their textiles. This led to a gradual decline in the textile manufacturing industry in Bengal. The final blow to the muslin trade was caused by the industrial revolution in Britain when cheaper, machine-made goods from Britain flooded the market, and resulted in the eventual death of the legendary fine muslin textiles of Bengal.
After a long period of decline, today some of the muslin weaving industry is being revived in West Bengal and Bangladesh by governments, non-governmental organizations and research groups. Efforts are on to revive and promote many of the lost techniques and traditional methods of weaving and textile production. Through these efforts, the rich history of Bengal muslin is once again finding its way back to the wider consciousness of people around the world.
The Muslin Fabric
The muslin fabric is produced from a superior variety of cotton that was native to a region around Dhaka along the Brahmaputra river. The quality of the soil, level of moisture and other environmental factors also contribute to the development of the legendary muslin cotton plant. The threads produced from this cotton plant are both soft and strong and are woven by hand into the amazingly fine and beautiful muslin fabrics. Special skills evolved over the ages and passed down through the generations are used in the spinning and weaving of the exotic muslin fabric. Muslins are categorized based on the degree of fineness of the fabric: mulmul khas (or king’s muslin) is the finest variety, of which an entire dress or saree can pass through a ring. Abrawan (or running water) is the second best variety of muslin, the one which led Emperor Aurangzeb to chastise his daughter for being immodestly clad even when she was draped in seven layers of muslin! Shabnam (or evening dew), circar ali (or supreme ruler) and tunzeb (or ornament of the body) are the names given to the third, fourth and fifth best varieties of muslin.
Sarees are the predominant products of the fine muslin fabrics today. Needless to say, muslin sarees are extremely light, sensuous to touch and exotic to behold. Traditional floral weavings using the jamdani technique are used to adorn the sarees. The fineness of the fabric and the intricacies of the woven patterns determine the final price of a muslin saree, which can vary from several thousand rupees to over a lakh (about USD 100 to over 1500).