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Chamba Rumal: Paintings in Embroidery

The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.

When we say Rumal, a small square piece of cloth or handkerchief, an everyday use item, flashes in front of our eyes. Rumal is the Persian word for kerchief…but this Chamba Rumal is not used for wiping hands and faces; it is a pure form of art, culture, and heritage — a perfect display of Himalayan embroidery and crafts traditions. ’The Chamba Rumal gets its name from Chamba, a hill station in Himachal Pradesh, where it has been practiced for centuries and patronized by the kings of Himachal Pradesh. This region is also known for its miniature Pahari (mountain) paintings.

Originating from the Chamba Valley, a flourishing 18th and early 20th-century mountainous region of North India, the Chamba Rumal is a form of hand embroidery.  Due to the theme being similar to those painted on miniature paintings, it has also been called ‘Paintings in Embroidery’.

Chamba Rumal embroidery process (Image provided by Suman Bajpai)
Chamba Rumal embroidery process (Image provided by Suman Bajpai)

The History 

Queens and ladies of royal families use to do Chamba Rumal embroidery in the 17th century for wedding dowries, important gifts, and ceremonial coverings. It was a tradition in the Royal houses that as a gesture of goodwill, the bride and groom’s families would gift it to each other. Gradually local craft people, especially women, began practicing the art and it transitioned outside the palace walls.  

In the 16th century, Bebe Nanki, sister of the Sikh spiritual leader Guru Nanak, reportedly embroidered a Chumba Rumal and that piece was preserved in the state’s Hoshiarpur shrine. Another exquisite piece of this embroidery made its way to Britain in 1883 when Raja Gopal Singh presented a Chamba Rumal embroidered with a scene from the Mahabharata to the British and it was later added to the collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Stich Is Key

Flawless needlework on the Chamba Rumals is derived from the art movement of combining miniature art with embroidery. They are usually made in square or rectangular fabric of different sizes. The base art, characterized by intricate lines, is drawn by miniature art experts. Once the art is complete, the embroidery—usually done by women—is accurately completed on the fabric. A fabric used is mostly naturally dyed silk floss on unbleached muslin or khaddar. National Award winner, Lalita Vakil says, “the picture on both sides of the fabric is almost the same. The drawing is done in outline with fine charcoal or with a fine brush. The embroidery is done using a double satin stitch carried forward and backward alternately in a variety of colors. Simultaneously both sides of the cloth are stitched so that the space on both sides is filled up making the design on both sides look equally effective and similar in content, thus this technique is called dorukha (two-faced).”

Chamba Rumal Stories (Image provided by Suman Bajpai)
Chamba Rumal Stories (Image provided by Suman Bajpai)

The stitch is carried both backward and forward and covers both sides of the cloth, giving it a smooth finish that is flat and gives the impression as if colors filled into a miniature painting. The best part is that the embroidered Rumal can be viewed from both sides and not a single knot is visible, and so it can be used from both sides. The embroidery is primarily done with a double satin stitch. The background is hardly visible but, it is very difficult to identify the right side. 

Over time, this embroidery has been done on coverings, belts, blouses, caps, scarves, pillow covers, household accessories, chaupar (a game of dice) cloths, bedstead, wall hangings, chandwas (ceiling covers), and pankhas (fans). 

Vibrant Colours Makes Lively

Very bright, vibrant, and bold colors of threads are used and the thread is untwisted silk floss, more commonly known as ‘Pat’. The colors which are mainly used are purple, pink, orange, carmine, deep red-brown, lemon and deep yellow, dark green, parrot green, ultramarine, and Persian blue, black and white. Silver wire (tilla) known as badla, is also used on the old Chamba Rumals.

Motifs and Themes

The motifs on these big-size Rumals have traditionally drawn from the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata,  figures of Krishna, his Gopis, scenes from the Bhagavad Puranas, nature, the daily life of Chamba, folk stories of the region, floral designs, etc. In the beginning, Raasmandala (an episode of the dance of Krishna) was the most popular design, followed by Gaddi Gaddan (man and woman of a shepherding tribe that resides in the hills of Himachal Pradesh). You’ll find themes like Kaliya Daman, Rukmini Haran, Ragas, Ashta Nayak, which depict the mood swings of the relationship between a male and a female as part of this art form. This art, where miniature painting meets weaving, opens up a world of stories carried through generations and traditions that speak of nature, faith, and life – thus, it functions as a piece of literature. 

Post-independence, freedom fighter and crafts revivalist, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, revived this art which was on the verge of death due to lack of patronage.


Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 12 books on different subjects and translated around 150 books from English to Hindi.