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Sainchi Phulkari/Nilak Phulkari

Artist/maker unknown, Punjabi

Possibly made in Haryana, Hessar, Punjab, eastern Punjab, India, Asia
Made in Haryana, Punjab, eastern Punjab, India, Asia
Possibly made in Haryana, Hissar, Punjab, eastern Punjab, India, Asia

20th century

Handspun cotton plain weave (khaddar) with silk and cotton embroidery in darning, running, chain, and buttonhole stitches, glass mirrors

7 feet 5 inches × 53 inches (226.1 × 134.6 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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Some of the phulkaris most prized by collectors today are those with figures, termed sainchi phulkaris. This one has a deep indigo dyed base cloth which gives it the additional name nilak (blue) phulkari and suggests its origins in the Hissar and Hansi districts in the present-day Indian state of Haryana, not far from India’s capital of New Delhi. From the central floral motif, thought by some scholars to be a stylized lotus symbolizing the universe, radiate four channels filled with cassia flowers that divide the body of the cloth into quadrants. Inside each quadrant the artist has embroidered depictions of animal and human forms: two large peacocks, peahens, and horses as well as figures carrying vessels, cooking, playing musical instruments, wrestling, and riding animals such as elephants and camels.

Several of the images on this phulkari make reference to myths and folk tales popular in Punjab. In the left quadrant, for example, the figure lying in the lap of another figure likely represents the folk hero Mirza lying in the lap of his lover Sahiban, while his faithful mare Bakki is tied to a nearby tree. Perhaps the figures on horseback riding toward the couple are Sahiban’s angry brothers and her scorned fiance. In the right quadrant, a male figure balances two baskets across his shoulders, each basket containing a smaller figure; this odd image may illustrate a story from the Hindu epic the Ramayana in which the pious youth Shravan Kumar carried his elderly parents to various pilgrimage sites only to be killed accidentally by King Dashratha who was hunting in the forest of Ayodhya. Another interesting feature of this phulkari is the artist’s use of multiple perspectives when depicting figures and forms. Not only do animals and humans appear in profile and in front view from every direction, but some appear as if seen from overhead. This may reveal an artist with a complex understanding of space and composition. It may also indicate that this phulkari was made by multiple women sitting in a circle, all embroidering from different sides of the cloth at the same time.

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.