This Legendary Tapestry Travelled Over Centuries From Assam to Britain. But Will it Ever Return?

What makes a textile 'lost'? How do we get it back?

The following is an excerpt from The Assamese: A Portrait of a Community, written by The Wire‘s national affairs editor Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, and published by Aleph Books India. This is Pisharoty’s second book. Her first, Assam: The Accord, The Discord, published in 2019, was a deep dive into the root of the state’s widening fault lines.

Using threads supplied by the royalty in red, blue, green, white, yellow and the golden Muga, the team assembled a gorgeous tapestry in about half a year’s time. Beginning with Krishna’s birth in captivity, the scenes in the scroll ended with him vanquishing his maternal uncle Kansh (Kanxa Bodh). In all, there were twenty-seven scenes, woven on the loom, picked from the Bhagavad Purana, the holy book that is typically placed on the monikut, the altar, at a kirtan-ghar/naam-ghar, the Vaishnava prayer hall.

Two other important design features from that sacred textile were the use of verses in classical Assamese to describe the scenes from Kalio Damana, a play penned by Sankardev to narrate the tale of little Krishna crushing the serpent-demon Kaliya, and the depiction of Vishnu’s incarnations. In keeping with the tale from Krishna’s birthplace Brindaban (Vrindavan), the name of the cloth, the Bastra, was called Brindabani.

Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty
The Assamese: A Portrait of a Community
Aleph Books (2023)

Sankardev, who resided in Patbausi then, set up a monastery where he visualised the scenes for the weavers and how they could be illustrated on textile. Twelve strips of woven textile of equal size were born of that effort. The story goes that Sankardev had to seek the help of three dozen people to cart the bundles to Patbausi Satra from the karkhana, the weaving shed. Thereafter, the bunch was loaded on to a boat to reach the royal palace at Koch Behar.

General Silarai and King Naranarayan were over the moon to see the Lord’s story recounted in delicate weave. They offered to hand over to Sankardev the administration of the Barpeta principality as a present which he declined, though his grandson Ram Rai later took charge of it.

A belief among a wide section of people in Assam has been that after the scrolls were formally presented to the king, they were preserved at Madhupur Satra in Koch Behar, the last abode of Sankardev (the Satra is in present-day West Bengal).

The scroll seems to have vanished from the monastery one fine day though.

What ensued is an interesting story of trade, preservation, loot and discovery spanning several centuries and three countries before parts of the scroll could be traced, all thanks to a British journalist.

Back in 1904, Perceval Landon, a journalist associated with The Times, donated to the British Museum in London about nine-and-a-half inches of a splendidly woven work with silk borders. Landon had accompanied the British expedition to Tibet under Sir Francis Younghusband in 1903-1904 to establish trade with Lhasa, and had brought that tapestry home.

The Assamese community had long concluded that the Brindabani Bastra was a lost artefact. And for about eighty-five years, the piece donated by Landon remained identified in the Museum’s catalogue as ‘Tibetan Silk Lampas’ simply because he had sourced it from that region.

In 1992, a British art scholar, Rosemary Crill, then associated with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as a senior curator, which also possesses a similar piece with lampa weave, identified it, in addition to some other similar pieces preserved at the British Museum and elsewhere in Europe and the United States, as belonging to the legacy of the most precious Assamese weaving tradition, the Brindabani Bastra.

That year, Crill put together a well-received exhibition titled ‘Fabric of India’, in which she also included the piece of Brindabani Bastra from the museum’s collection, raising eyebrows in faraway Assam. 

As per T. Richard Burton, the head of the South Asian department at the British Museum, the panel of Brindabani Bastra – presently preserved as a wall hanging at the Museum – was traced to the Gobshi Temple near Gyantse in Tibet. It probably ended up there through a trading route between medieval Assam and the neighbouring country, or through Bhutan, with which the Koch country had shared its border.

While curators like Burton have supposed that the pieces might have reached the Tibetan monastery separately, not as woven originally, they were stitched there, by adding broad silk borders in the style of a tankha and put up in the monastery. The present display at the museum has those silk borders. Burton had reasoned that the pieces could be immaculately preserved at the monastery for centuries perhaps because smoke from butter lamps and incense protected it from moths.

The lampa weave used by the Assamese weavers on those pieces meant they used two warp systems with two or more wefts to produce the highly lavish texture of the textiles. Burton, who visited Majuli in 2016 chasing the story behind the textile preserved at the British Museum and went back to London to curate an exhibition titled ‘Krishna in the Garden of Assam’, documented in a short video that the technique is still being used by Assamese weavers even in cotton textiles, say, in weaving a gamusa; the method is commonly termed in Assamese as bhul bosa.

Burton’s Assam visit was significant as he could successfully link the motifs and writings on the museum pieces and the lived traditions in Majuli and the prevalent Sankari culture in the northeastern state. The clay masks made in Majuli, till date, of various characters to dramatise the Ankiya Nat (plays) of Sankardev, are readied as per the description of the saint in his writings, and their look matches those of the motifs woven in the museum pieces and the text knitted into the pieces in classical Assamese.

That visit to Majuli had helped Burton contextualise the cloth at the British Museum with a lived culture and help revive for posterity a significant chapter of Assamese weaving traditions that was believed to have been lost.

A centuries old Vaishnava Satra in Majuli set up on the ideals of saint Sankardev photo Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Interestingly, Burton has stated that the British Museum piece dates back to around 1680. If the dating is correct, that piece can’t be the original one woven during Sankardev’s lifetime; he is believed to have passed away in 1568.

What then also comes across is that following the path laid by the great saint, there may have been successive endeavours to weave such sacred textiles in Vaishnava tradition, and a new school of devotional textile art using the lampa weave must have been prevalent in medieval Assam, something akin to the tankha art in Buddhist monasteries. Quite a few similarities can be drawn between Buddhism and the Neo-Vaishnavism of Sankardev anyway. 

That there could have been such a prevalent practice even after the passing of the saint perhaps justifies the reason why there are several such pieces of Brindabani Bastra, which the Western scholars date to the seventeenth century.

A point to note is, as per Crill, not all of them match in texture with each other. Such pieces are well-preserved in the Guimet Museum in Paris, the Chepstow Museum in Wales, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the United States.

According to noted Sankari studies scholar Sanjiv Borkakoty, there is a high possibility of the existence of a school of sacred weave that Sankardev’s venture had given birth to in Kamrup. “To my mind, the British scholars are correct; the pieces available at the London Museum or at the Victoria and Albert Museum are not the original ones; they were the later products that weavers trained by Sankardev had woven.”

As to how such sacred weaves might have reached Tibet, Borkakoty said, “There is nothing to be surprised at; Assam and Tibet had trade relations for long and one of the items for commerce was textile.”

Significantly, in the catalogue for the 1992 exhibition titled ‘Vrindavani Vastra — Figured Silks from Assam’, Crill had written on the Assamese tapestry, that those scrolls depicting scenes from Krishna’s childhood tracing back to Assam might have been the precursor to what the Assamese community presently calls the guxain kapur or the cloth with religious and floral motifs with the words of the Lord in the Assamese script to be used at the altar or thapona cover of a Vaishnava monastery.

“It is thus likely that those in use today or in the recent past represent the much simplified tail-end of the design tradition, in which the complex registers of small, finely-drawn figures have been abandoned in favour of fewer, large-scale motifs. The design elements may also have lost their original identity.”

In 2017, yet another significant event took place around the Brindabani Bastra in the UK. The event was at the Chepstow Museum in Wales. Titled ‘Hidden in the Lining — Krishna in the Garden of Assam: Inside an Eighteenth-Century Banyan’, it was a study highlighting an important connection that the nine-metre-long piece at the British Museum had with the lining of a luxurious gown preserved at the Chepstow Museum.

The gown was a Banyan, a European unisex morning or night robe from the seventeenth-eighteenth century, said to be inspired by the Japanese kimono. Banyan was part of elite fashion which had seeped into high-society colonial India too as a house gown worn by men and women.

Burton and Crill were among the speakers at the 2017 event. By then, the exhibition curated by Burton at the British Museum had placed the eighteenth-century Banyan coat from the Chepstow Museum alongside the Brindabani Bastra wall hanging to underline that the lining of that coat might have been cut from the same piece as that of the wall hanging. 

The coat’s lining also has the classical Assamese texts typically used in the Bastra. It is most likely that the lining was much older than the garment stitched in the eighteenth century, the experts suggested. 

The museum curator Anne Rainsbury mentioned that the piece had reached them from the Cobb family who had owned the Caldicot Castle. Joseph Cobb’s wife had links to the East India Company. “Therefore, it is possible that this is where the Assamese lining was sourced,” she underlined.

Susan North, senior curator of fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum, highlighting the eastern roots of the Banyan at that event, emphasised on that kind of garment representing ‘exoticism’.

Visual records specialist at the UK National Archives, Olivia Gecseg, also rightly pointed out, “Susan’s explanation points us to the answer of the broader question of why a sacred textile is lining a banyan; that is, that the owner had no idea of the cloth’s meaning. At the time of the banyan’s production, probably sent to a tailor to be made up, the cloth had been detached from its cultural roots, thereby left open for appropriation into Western fashion.”

A point of curiosity among that group of Western curators was: what was a scroll considered sacred in the Hindu context doing at a Buddhist monastery in Tibet? To my mind, the answer may perhaps be found if it is placed vis-a-vis the centuries-old practice of Bhutanese Buddhist monks visiting the Haigrib Madhab temple in Lower Assam.

While the Hindus of Assam worship the idol at the temple rebuilt by Koch king Naranarayan as a reincarnation of Vishnu, the Buddhist monks continue to pray there, considering it the burial ground of the Buddha, which some also believe to be that of the revered Buddhist monk Padmasambhava.

Such a belief exists in Tibet too, as highlighted elsewhere in the book. Vishnu, whose incarnation Krishna was depicted in the Assamese scrolls, was not so much outside of their devotional pale. 

Ever since the news spread in Assam about Crill’s discovery, there has been a steady demand from within the community on subsequent state governments to pressurise the Indian government to employ diplomatic channels to bring the prized artefact home.

In mid-2020, Kanaksen Deka, well-known Assamese editor-commentator and a strong voice behind that popular demand, had told me about penning a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his first term with a suggestion that it be displayed at the podium of the United Nations, where prized artefacts from several 186 member countries are exhibited to represent their culture.

“There are none from India at the moment. Can his government not use diplomatic channels to display some bit of what I saw at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London at the UN podium as a proud insignia of India? Unfortunately, I didn’t get any response from him,” Deka told me.