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Sainchi Phulkari

Artist/maker unknown, Punjabi

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

20th century

Handspun cotton plain weave (khaddar) with silk, cotton, and wool embroidery in darning, pattern darning, buttonhole, herringbone, running, chain and Cretan stitches

7 feet 5 1/2 inches × 48 1/2 inches (227.3 × 123.2 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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Unlike most sainchi (figurative) phulkari, this cloth does not have a lotus motif at its center, but instead has a large central square that seems to show four men playing chaupar, a board game similar to pachisi (which has its early roots in the Indian subcontinent). Another striking feature of this phulkari are the pair of trains that appear near the long edges of the cloth, embroidered as if they are moving in opposite directions, their cars filled with passengers and their engines puffing black smoke. Perhaps the figures depicted along the center of the cloth are waiting for the trains, and the colonnade in which they stand is a railway station. Therefore the composition may also be of a railroad crossing in a village or town, with figures going about their day while two trains pass.

Scholars argue that such imagery on sainchi phulkaris is merely the artist embroidering aspects her daily life. However, trains were and remain a potent symbol. Depictions of trains might represent a woman’s longing for her loved ones who have moved away, including daughters absent for marriage or husbands traveling for work or army service, or they may depict her own yearning for adventure and the unknown that lay beyond the railroad tracks. Elaborate wedding jewelry, also prominent in this phulkari, might similarly reflect the artist’s longing, in this case her desire for gold trinkets and ornaments (for herself or her daughter) that were more exquisite than what she had or was able to afford in real life. Thus motifs might show the everyday, but they might also show wishes, dreams and imaginings translated into reality by needle and thread.

Phulkari is the name given to a style of embroidery originally made throughout the Punjab region of present-day India and Pakistan.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.