For most of us, the humble cloth handkerchief is just another mousy piece of item for everyday use. At the max bearing a monogram or delicate design in a corner — these piece of cloth are usually plain, perfect for the banal acts of wiping hands and faces. But the Chamba Rumal (rumal means handkerchief) is no ordinary cloth, and certainly just too rare and precious to wipe your face with.
The word Chamba rumal implies a peculiar visual art form that represents unique and charming embroidery done on a hand spun cloth with untwisted silken thread, which is greatly inspired from pahari painting. The tradition of this kind of pictorial embroidery was known and practiced in Kangra, Mandi and Nurpur areas of Himachal and Basoli in Jammu that remained important centres of pahari painting.
It is believed that Raja Prithvi Singh started d-mukha tanka art form in 17the century and later Raja Bhuri Singh commercialised the production of Chamba Rumals in 20th century. Gradually the craft has vanished in other parts of Himachal but still remains in Chamba. The earliest records of the region dates back to 2nd century BC, making it one of the most ancient destinations in the state. The region is known for its history, architecture and landscapes but the local community is also known for its arts and crafts, in particular the miniature Pahari paintings.
One of the earliest example of the embroidery incidentally can be found in Punjab — Bebe Nanki, sister of the Sikh spiritual leader Guru Nanak, reportedly embroidered one in the 16th century and the item was preserved in the state’s Hoshiarpur shrine.
Another handkerchief made its way to Britain in 1883 when Raja Gopal Singh presented a Chamba Rumal to the British, embroidered with a scene from the Mahabharata, which was later added to the collection of London’s Victoria & Albert museum.
The tradition gradually made its way out of palace walls and began to be practised by local craft clusters. The Rumals came to be an integral part of weddings, exchanged by the bride and groom’s families as a sign of goodwill.
In his book Chamba Himalaya: Amazing Land, Unique Culture, KR Bharti draws attention to the painstaking process of Chamba Rumal embroidery — using naturally dyed silk floss on mal-mal or khaddar — and the distinctive double-sided technique seen in the designs.
Verge of extinction
Once a popular art form in various areas of Himachal and Jammu – it is today only alive in Chamba. In recent times, one of the greatest impetuses to the art came in 2007 when the Chamba Rumal was accorded the Geographical Indication (GI) patent by the Geographical Indications Registry. It helped to curb the sale of inauthentic items and also brought the art form back into the spotlight.
Visit the Chamba district to witness this handicraft form, the craftsmen society and villages, which was once fashionable even to the Britishers.