I have been fascinated by origin and creation stories. Pourquoi (French for ‘why’) stories, as they are known in the storytelling world. Stories of how and why things are the way they are. Ever since I joined the ‪#‎100sareespact‬, I have been wanting to know how weaving came about. There must be a myth or a legend associated with it. A little bit of Googling led me to one sentence that occurred repeatedly in every blog, article out there about weaving in Kanchipuram. It goes like this: the weavers of Kanchipuram trace their origin to Sage Markandeya, the celestial weaver, who made cloth for the Gods out of lotus fibre. But there was nothing more to it. No amount of further searching about Markandeya led me to any conclusive results. The narrative stopped there. Markandeya was the sage who was blessed with immortality because of his devotion to Shiva. When Yama came to take his life, Markandeya, a 16 year-old boy, prayed to Shiva who came to his rescue, freeing him from Yama’s clutches. Of course, Markandeya went on to become one of the most important sages who could foresee events-those he recorded in the Markandeya Purana. But what is the connection to weaving? Why do weavers associate themselves with this sage? There were huge gaps in the narrative that I needed to fill.

The world wide web is akin to a weaver’s loom, I believe. The criss-crossing of networks leads the seeker to discover a beautiful design, with minute details hidden in the folds that you can see only if you’re looking! Somewhere in Page 8 or 9 lay the answers in the form of links to books such as the ‘Dynamics of Industrial Entrepreneurship’ by R.N. Hadimani and the seminal ‘Castes and Tribes of South India’ by Edgar Thurston, published in 1909. Thanks to the Gutenberg Project, I was able to download a copy of Thurston’s work and read about the fascinating indigenous peoples of this country, their skills and their stories. And in those pages lies the origin of weaving.

Sage Markandeya was asked by Shiva to perform a yagna to clothe the nakedness–a metaphor for sophistication in thought and practice; for uncultured ways of living, perhaps–of people in the world. Out of the holy fire came Bhavanarayana, holding a lotus or Padma. Markandeya adopted him as his own son and sent him to Vishnu, who gave him fibres from the lotus that stems from his navel and asked him to weave it into cloth for the Devas and the humans. Bhavana Rishi then adopted a 101 sons, who would then take on the act of weaving, ensuring a continuous supply of clothing for all beings in the world. This community of weavers are today the Padmashalis of Andhra Pradesh, who are highly reputed for their skill. ‘Saali’ or ‘Sale’ in Telegu means spider, probably comparing the weaving action of a spider to that of a weaver’s loom. And it is through this story that the weavers of Kanchipuram too, consider themselves heirs of Sage Markandeya.

Another interesting variation of this legend says that Brahma created Manu to weave clothes for everyone on heaven and earth. While Manu did this job, his devotion and piety led him to attain Moksha very soon. With Manu gone, there was no one left to weave. The Devas and humans ended up wearing leaves. Desperate, they prayed to Brahma, who took them to Shiva. Moved by their plight, Shiva, through a spark from his third eye, generated a luscious spirit that became Devanga, (Deva=God, Anga=limbs). In some legends, Devanga is also considered the reincarnation of Manu. You see, Shiva, being the destroyer, is indifferent to material possessions such as clothing. He wears animal skin if he wishes to be clothed and is content to stay that way. So he sent Devanga to Vishnu to seek the reason for his existence. Vishnu, who preserves by engaging with his devotees, is associated with fabric such as fine muslin and silk. Devanga travelled from Shiva’s abode in Kailash, to Vishnu’s in the ocean of milk; upon arrival, he requested Vishnu to explain to him the reason for his birth. Vishnu asked him, “Will you weave clothes for all of mankind and the devas?” Devanga was honoured to be bestowed this duty so he agreed immediately. Vishnu then gave him fibres from the lotus that emanates from his navel–the same navel through which Brahma, the creator arose–and taught him how to make cloth. Devanga did as he was told and presented the first piece of cloth he wove to Vishnu, who accepted it. “Go forth and make cloth from fibres from trees and plants for all of humankind and the Gods” ordered Vishnu.

One day, when Devanga and his tribe went into a forest on the earth to pick up fibres from trees, they were attacked by a group of Rakshasas, who disguised themselves as sages. A bloody battle ensued in which, Devanga sought the help of Parvati who, appeared in the form of Chaudeswari. She killed all the demons while Devanga used the blood that flowed out of their bodies–each of them had a different coloured blood: yellow, red, white, green and black–to dye the fibres which were then woven into colourful sarees for women and dhotis for men. The Devanga community in A.P. and Karnataka, continues the weaving tradition to this day.

In reading these stories, I have realized that weaving is closely linked to the working of the cosmos. It is an act of creation and worship. The Rig-Veda mentions that in the weaver’s loom lies the concept of time. Warp and weft signify day and night. “So important was the role of the tanti or weaver that esoteric practices like Tantra used the vocabulary of the weavers to explain the nature of the world. Thus the consciousness and matter became the warf and the woof of the cosmic loom, creating the fabric of life” says Devdutt Pattanaik.

The physical movement made while the weaver works at the loom is a powerful force. In her paper, Woven Incantations, Jasleen Dhamija, says, “The loin loom used by women throughout the world is strapped to the waist and the tension created by the body is linked with the inner rhythm. As the weaver inhales the tension is built and the weft is beaten into the warp and as she exhales she lifts the reed creating a shed for throwing the warp thread.” “The very act is like a form of yoga, which controls the bio-rhythm through controlled breathing and disciplined movement of the body, which goes into a state of “dhayana”, meditation brought about by the rhythm of weaving echoing that of the body. The woven patterns emerge as a manifestation of introspective concentration. It is no wonder that the act of weaving is very closely linked with their rites of passage.”

No wonder the Padmashalis, Devangas and other weaver communities consider themselves connected to the highest power; every time they set out to work, they believe that they have a duty towards humanity as ordained by the Gods themselves. With this knowledge, the next time I touch a handloom saree, I know I shall, in fact touch divinity. It’s not just a beautiful piece of cloth but a blessing by the supreme powers that move this universe. Does that make the weaver a living God, then?

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