Chamba Rumals: Painted Embroideries or Embroidered Paintings?

It was serendipity that led me to the exhibition on ‘Chamba Rumal: Life to a Dying Art’ at the Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (BDL Museum) one Saturday evening earlier this month! I call it serendipity for till that afternoon, I had neither aware of the existence of something like the Chamba Rumal nor of the exhibition.

It all started in my Indian Aesthetics class on Krishna Shringara by Prof. Harsha Dehejia. While giving examples of the depiction of Krishna Shringara in art, the embroidered Chamba Rumal was one of the things he mentioned and showed in his presentation. Ruta, one of my coursemates (and who was probably aware of my love for museums), told me about the exhibition on Chamba Rumal during the break. And of course, this meant that I had to go see the exhibition that very evening after class. 🙂

When I walked into the Special Projects Area of the BDL Museum and where the exhibition on Chamba Rumal was being held, the first thing I noticed was the display — large framed pieces hung on bamboo stands. The cool whitewashed walls, and the gleaming kota flooring was just perfect for the vibrant exhibits, which looked like paintings from a distance, but were actually exquisitely embroidered pieces, the Chamba Rumals.

Chamba Rumal, Crafts of India, Art, Indian Aesthetics, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Delhi Crafts Council, Exhibition

Chamba Rumal, Crafts of India, Art, Indian Aesthetics, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Delhi Crafts Council, ExhibitionThe Chamba Rumals are embroidered square cloths from the Chamba region of Himachal Pradesh, a hill state in North India.

Though these embroidered rumals are to be found from all hill states, this art or craft came to be known as Chamba Rumals due to the patronage it received from the rulers of Chamba.

The word ‘rumal’ is usually used to refer to a handkerchief. But here, the word ‘rumal’ refers to a shape for ‘rumal’ also means square. The Chamba Rumals, which range in size from 1-4 feet square, are by no means handkerchiefs !

Chamba Rumal, Crafts of India, Art, Indian Aesthetics, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Delhi Crafts Council, ExhibitionTraditionally, the Chamba Rumals were not mounted as works of art as I was saw them at the exhibition. They were used for covering platters of offerings to deities, and to cover gifts given during auspicious occasions. The rumals were also exchanged between the families of the bride and groom, during weddings, as a token of goodwill.

The embroidery style in the Chamba Rumals were inspired by the existing miniature paintings of the Pahari School. According to one of the information panels at the exhibition,

The oldest rumal is dated to the 16th century. It is believed that Bebe Nanki, the sister of Guru Nanak had embroidered it.

The Chamba Rumals were made from handwoven, unbleached mulmul or muslin. It was a joint effort of the Pahari miniature artists (usually men) who drew the outline in black charcoal and guided the colour themes, and the women who embroidered them using naturally dyed, untwisted pure silk floss. The women were either from the royal family or those belonging to the upper castes. The embroidery was done using a technique called do-rukha or double satin stitch technique, which ensured that the front and the reverse of the embroidery looked exactly the same.  As you will see in the pictures, the colours used were always vibrant; sometimes gold or silver threads were also used..

Chamba Rumal, Crafts of India, Art, Indian Aesthetics, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Delhi Crafts Council, Exhibition

Chamba Rumal, Crafts of India, Art, Indian Aesthetics, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Delhi Crafts Council, ExhibitionWhile the drawing style was influenced by the Indo-Islamic idiom, the subject matter of the Pahari paintings were drawn from Hindu mythology. Indian literary texts like the Bhagawat Purana and the Geet Govinda were the most popular sources. Naturally, the life of Krishna was the most favoured theme for embroidery.

Sometimes, royal pastimes like hunting and playing dice were also depicted. Though historical narratives like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were also embroidered, they are quite rare. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a 400-year old Chamba Rumal that depicts the Kurukshetra war from the Mahabharata in detail.

All compositions included floral borders and motifs, birds and animals.

Presenting 15 photographs of some of the exhibits at the ‘Chamba Rumal: Life to a Dying Art’. The shots portray both the rumals and details of some of them as well. Clicking on any picture will start a slide show, but I recommend that you start from the first one. Do remember to come back and read the rest of the post once you’re done with the photographs. 🙂

The  Chamba Rumals were made till the early years of the 20th century after it which it went into decline due to diminishing patronage. An attempt to revive this art and craft from was made after Independence by Kamladevi Chattopadhyay. But the products were of poor quality and even poorer aesthetics and the attempt failed.

The second attempt was made decades later when the Delhi Crafts Council set up “Charu”, a training centre, in 2000 at Chamba. Through regular interactive workshops, inputs from designers to improve the skills of the artisans, and experimentation with new materials and designs, the Chamba Rumals have been infused with life once again. is an ongoing process.

Chamba Rumal, Crafts of India, Art, Indian Aesthetics, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Delhi Crafts Council, Exhibition

As I walked through the exhibition all looking at one display after another, I had to keep reminding myself that the Chamba Rumals were not paintings, but embroideries. Dr. B.N. Goswamy, art historian and an expert on Indian miniatures has rightly pointed out that

visually the connection between the work of the Pahari painters and the rumals is so close… that in so many ways it can be seen as sahodara (born of the same womb). The line that separates them — art from craft — naturally thin in the Indian tradition, begins to turn truly faint.

Chamba Rumal, Crafts of India, Art, Indian Aesthetics, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Delhi Crafts Council, ExhibitionSo fine was the detailing that I could see doe-shaped eyes of Radha, the glowing blue skin of Krishna, his beautiful hands, his golden-yellow robes, the colourful squares of the chaupad board, the zari used for jewellery and clothes, musicians with their various instruments … and all of it left me breathless with delight.

Whle the whimsical depictions of colourful banana trees, one colour for each leaf, left me smiling. But the  rumals depicting the Ras Lila of Krishna were the ones that were the most compelling, not to mention hypnotic as well. Perhaps it was the circular pattern, but I found it difficult to tear my eyes away from them.

I did mention about serendipity that led me to BDL Museum that evening at the beginning of this post. I must also mention that I was lucky to attend when I did for the exhibition wrapped up a couple of days later, even thought it was supposed to run till the end of this month. Serendipity or luck or a combination of both, I’m glad that I didn’t miss seeing painted embroideries or embroidered paintings that go by the name of Chamba rumals. 🙂

Tell me, what do you think the Chamba Rumals are: Painted Embroideries or Embroidered Paintings?


Note: All information given in this post about the Chamba Rumal is based on the exhibition panels. The observations are all mine.


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28 thoughts on “Chamba Rumals: Painted Embroideries or Embroidered Paintings?

    1. The Chamba Rumals were available in the museum shop as gift items. I was running late for a talk at the BDL Museum that evening, so thought of checking them out another day. Unfortunately, the exhibition closed suddenly and without prior notice. Therefore, I didn’t get a chance to see them properly or get an idea of their price. All that I kept hearing was that they are very expensive. Just how expensive it was, I have absolutely no idea.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Love this post (maybe I’m a lil biased) superb pictures and observations. The rumals are very expensive as you know but I’d love to own one. Will definitely ask nani if she has one from her early marriage years 🙂 I think they are painted embroideries ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are allowed to be biased, Ishita. And it is a nice bias to have. 🙂

      Just how expensive are they? All I keep hearing is that they are expensive, but no figures are given.

      And if you can find your naani’s rumals, do take a picture and share it with me. Thanks. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I visited Himachal (the Kinnaur region) and didn’t come across anything like this. But then I was probably in the wrong region. Though they are supposed to be found in all parts of Himachal Pradesh, these are the “Chamba” rumals after all, and are perhaps, found only there today.

      Good luck and have a great trip. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Truly beautiful painted embroideries…It is a pity I missed the exhibition. Liked all of them. Even the animals in the shikar embroidery have amazing expressions – note the tiger or the leopard admonishing the huntsman and the fleeing deer.

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    1. I’m pretty squeamish about hunting scenes and tend to avoid them, Neena. But this embroidery was too beautiful and vivid to be ignored. I loved all the animals in the panel. The leopard seems to be snarling at the hunter, almost as if saying, “Back off ! The deer is mine.” 🙂

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    1. Welcome here, Jenny. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. The Chamba rumals are indeed incredibly beautiful. I couldn’t take my eyes of them !

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    1. Thank you, Shekhar.

      The rumals are indeed beautiful and I agree with you. But I was surprised to find out that embroidery is considered to be a craft work and not a work of art.

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    1. Welcome here, Mastana. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Though and art and craft of the Chamba Rumal is being revived, it current state is rather precarious. One can only hope that it survives this scare through government and private patronage.

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  3. Thank you for this highly informative and beautiful post. I just can’t get enough of the pictures you shared. Such fine details, such artistry! What a wonderful heritage we have, so richly diverse and amazingly gorgeous. The delicacy and grace of the pahari painting style is certainly incredible. And you are so right in pointing out that sometimes it is easy to forget that these rumals are embroidered and not painted 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Beloo, and a very warm welcome to “My Favourite Things”. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

      Yes, what a wonderful heritage we have and how little we know about it. It is the pahari style that led me to frame the title for this post on the Chamba Rumals – Painted Embroideries or Embroidered Paintings?

      Hope to see you around here, 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Basically Chamba Rumal or Chamba handkerchief is an embroidered handicraft that was once promoted under the patronage of the former rulers of Chamba kingdom. Amazing paintings.

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  5. Thank you for this beautiful post. I’m an italian student and I’m writing my bachelor dissertation on Chamba Rumals. I have difficulties to find images of rumals, so I wanted to ask you if I can use some of your pictures for attaching them on my work. Of course I will cite the origin of the pictures. Thank you for your kind answer.

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    1. Hello Sonia. Welcome to “My Favourite Things”. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I will be very glad to share my pictures with you. If yu can drop me a mail via the contact page on my blog with your mail details, I will send the images to you.

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  6. I had missed this when it was first posted, I guess. The embroidery, of tiny figures and details is beautiful indeed. As someone who used to embroider in another lifetime, it is truly amazing to see the painstaking attention to details. Didn’t know that rumal didn’t mean handkerchief 🙂

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  7. Wondering if you are familiar with the fact as to which scholar has discovered, preserved, promoted, collected and disseminated these Rumals which are wrongly called ‘Chamba Rumal’. In fact, they were embroidered practically all over Himachal Pradesh, like, Nurpur, Basohli, Jammu, Mandi, Kangra, etc. Hence, must be called Pahari Rumals. The great pioneer who put thes Rumals on world map is Sri K.C. Aryan,who collected over 300 rare and unique pieces in his lifetime and preserved them in his museum, Home of Folk Art in Gurgaon, open since 1984. Two monumental publications, Himachal Embroidery by Dr. Subhashini Aryan, published in 1976 and Folk Embroidery of western Himalaya in 2010 were published by Sri KC Aryan. Please visit http://www.museumoffolkandtribalart.in. Thanks. Director-KC Aryan HOME OF FOLK ART! Museum of a Folk, Tribal & Neglected Art. Gurgaon.

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