Phulkari is traditional embroidery of India and Pakistan. In Swat it is made with bright, vibrant colors on a dark cloth.
Last Updated: 26 Apr. 2014
Phulkari is a type of traditional embroidery found in the Indian subcontinent. In Pakistan, phulkari work was done in Punjab and in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa including the Swat Valley and Hazara area. It takes its name from two Sanskrit words, phul meaning flower and kari meaning work, thus flower work. In a broader sense, phulkari embroidery consists mainly of geometric designs and floral motifs, but within the Hindu and Sikh community, phulkari work also included figures and objects from everyday life. The word phulkari is also specifically used for a shawl (chaddar) that had phulkari embroidery on it.
Phulkari embroidery was traditionally made for personal and domestic use such as on women’s shirts (kurtas), table covers, bed sheets, pillowcases, gift covers, wall hangings and shawls. Today, very few people make or use phulkari work. They are mostly displayed in museums or bought for one’s personal collection.
Traditionally, Phulkari was made on khaddar cloth, which is a rough but sturdy cotton fabric hand spun at home. The embroidery was done using a soft and glossy silk thread; sometimes cotton thread was also used. Patterns and motifs were not copied from books but were handed down from mother to daughter.
Phulkari embroidery is unique from other local embroideries in two respects. First, the main stitch used in phulkari is the darning stitch. A darning stitch is simply a row of straight stitches woven in and out of the fabric. Variations in the length of the stitches create a geometric design; in phulkari embroidery the length of the darning stitch was controlled by counting the threads of the khaddar cloth. Other stitches used were the chain stitch to outline a motif and the satin stitch to fill in the motif.
Second, phulkari embroidery is done on the reverse side of the fabric. The person embroidering didn’t need to see the front since they controlled the pattern by counting the threads of the khaddar cloth. A single numerical error could destroy the symmetry and therefore the beauty of the entire piece!
The exact place and era in which this craft originated is difficult to pinpoint. Some say phulkari is mentioned in the Rig Veda of the Aryans, while others claim it was the Scythians or the Iranians who bought it to the subcontinent. The oldest known phulkari embroidery is found on a handkerchief (rumal) and is attributed to Bebe Nanak, the sister of Guru Nanak Dev Ji who was the founder of Sikh religion. It is dated to around the year 1500 and is still preserved in Gurduspur of Indian Punjab. In the story of Heer-Ranjha, written in the mid 18th century, Heer has a few phulkari articles of clothing in her dowry.
In Swat, a woman’s traditional shirt (kurta) embroidered with phulkari was a classical symbol of Swat valley, and a beautiful example of how different localities adapted phulkari to their own taste. The khaddar was mostly black or indigo-blue in color, both of which are practical for the busy lives that Swati women led. The embroidery was mostly done with shocking pink or maroon. Sometimes a bright yellow silk thread was used to outline a motif. Such contrasting color combinations enhanced the pattern of the embroidery.
Shawls and tablecloths, pillowcases and fire fans, many would also be embroidered with phulkari. While the traditional black background remained, the embroidery itself was done in bright colors: scarlet, pink, mustard, and purple.
The embroidered motifs included diamond-shaped discs, triangles, and V-shaped pattern. Another unique motif was a ram’s horn, which is an ancient symbol of power and fertility. Some motifs can even be traced back to the pre-Islamic cultures that flourished in the area more than a thousand years ago!
A very special type of phulkari shawl, known as bagh (meaning garden in Farsi) was also stitched for special occasions. Unlike other phulkari shawls, baghs were so heavily embroidered that little of the background cloth was visible.
Although women in Swat do not usually embroider for their own personal use any more, there have been some efforts to reclaim their heritage to earn a living. Three vocational centers in Swat have been set up where women can learn and teach ancient Swati embroidery.