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Woman's Headcovering or Ceremonial Textile (Phulkari)

Artist/maker unknown, Punjabi

Made in Punjab, eastern Punjab, India, Asia
Possibly made in Pathankot, Punjab, eastern Punjab, India, Asia

20th century

Handspun cotton plain weave (khaddar) with silk embroidery in darning, chain, running, stem, split, and Cretan stitches

7 feet 11 1/2 inches × 47 1/2 inches (242.6 × 120.7 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Costume and Textiles

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Phulkari Collection

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The unusual stylized trees with curved branches that appear in the pallu (end border) of this phulkari are typical of the Pathankot region in the northern part of the Punjab, in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Curving vegetal forms—similar in style, but quite different in execution—also appear in so-called “Chamba rumals,” a form of courtly embroidery made throughout the Himalayan foothills and particularly connected with the old princely state of Chamba, not far from Pathankot. In this phulkari, cassia flower motifs appear throughout the cloth, arranged in a large chevron pattern. Particularly when viewed from a distance, the composition and dense embroidery used in this phulkari create the effect of a bagh (a densly embroidered phulkari with very little of the khaddar base cloth visible). The small floral motif on the right side pallu anomalously embroidered with dark purple thread may serve as a nazar buta, an intentional mistake to ward off the evil eye.

Phulkari is the name given to a style of embroidery originally made throughout the Punjab region of present-day India and Pakistan. It loosely translates from Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu as “flower work” or “flower craft” (phul means flower, kari means work). Women covered large cloths with this type of embroidery for themselves and their families to use as oversized shawls or veils (odhinis), wall hangings, or bed covers. Phulkaris are characterized by the use of brightly colored un-plied (un-twisted) silk thread, known as pat, that is embroidered onto handspun, handwoven cotton fabric, known as khaddar. The khaddar base cloth used to make a phulkari was spun, woven, and dyed locally, while artists purchased the pat from traveling merchants who brought silk from Afghanistan, Bengal (eastern India and Bangladesh), and China. The dominant embroidery stitch in phulkaris is the darning stitch. However artists used a range of stitches when making a phulkari, including running, chain, herringbone, buttonhole, stem and Cretan stitches. There are several different styles of phulkari each with a unique set of motifs and names, such as thirma phulkari, bagh, sainchi phulkari, chope, and darshan dwar.

Traditionally women learned the art of embroidering phulkaris from their mothers, grandmothers, or older female relatives and friends; a girl began to embroider at a young age, and eventually was tasked with making phulkaris to be included in her dowry upon marriage. Phulkaris were an important part of a woman’s material wealth that she brought with her to her new home after marriage. In addition to being worn as odhinis, phulkaris were also used as bistre (bedding fabrics), layered with chaddars (thin sheets) and dhurries (thicker woven rugs) to create cushioning on a charpoy (woven cot). For special social functions or religious ceremonies phulkaris were hung on the walls of homes and temples.

The earliest extant examples of phulkaris date only from the nineteenth century, though references to them in earlier writings suggest a much older origin for this type of embroidery. At the time of independence from Great Britain in 1947, the Punjab was partitioned. The western portion became part of Pakistan, the eastern part of India. Thanks to this upheaval, phulkari production declined significantly in both halves. Today, phulkaris are made and used on the Indian and Pakistani sides of the Punjab, but in a dramatically altered form.