Charkha: The Spinning Wheel in History

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The discovery of a large number of spindles and spinning wheels at Mohenjodaro located in the Larkana district of Sind (Pakistan) testify to the existence of Charkha.

Scraps of filaments wrapped round a silver vase found during the excavations have been compared to the coarse Indian cotton. The Jaina canon, Suyagadanga (Sutrakritanga), alludes to the practice of spinning which gradually led to such ancillary industries as ginning, carding, warping, dying and weaving.

Many Vedic chants refer to the weaver (vaya) and his shuttle (trasara), the warp (tantra), and the woof (tantu), the peg or pin for weaving (mayukha), the outspun thread (tantumetam) etc. And even render an occasional piece of advice to yarn-maker.

The Aitareya Brahmana of the Rigveda refers to the cottage industries engaged in interlacing thread or yarn to form a fabric. The Grihya Sutras ( Paraskara, for example) speak of the use of hand-spun yarn for social and religious ceremonies.

The allusion to the existence of the spinning wheel in the Arthashastra of Kautilya (4th century B.C.) is another proof of its antiquity. It was then viewed in its outer aspect- as an instrument for making yarn by drawing out, twisting and winding fibres.

But, gradually, it acquired symbolic meanings and overtones, evoking poetic responses, mystical moods and outpourings, allegories and parables, and even political and economic doctrines. In the case of the first sermon of Lord Buddha at Sarnath (Uttar Pradesh) which is known as Dharma Chakra Parivartana. It also came to denote the centres of psychic energy or consciousness in man.

In Yoga, chakras (wheels) are regarded as organs of the ethereal body. The seven principal chakras are: mulādhāra (at the base of spine), maṇipura (at the naval region), anahata (at the heart regtion), vishudha (at the base of the neck), ajna (between eyebrows) and sahasrara (in the uppermost part of the crebrum).Charkha thus crystallised the Indian ethos in a material form.

For centuries Charkha remained the source of livelihood of artisans who, in utmost reverence, tied sacred threads to it, vowed in its name and burnt incense before starting their work on it. But it gained a mystique of sorts when the Punjabi women started playing it during the day when their husbands were out in the fields. A number of Punjabi ballads convey the agony of women in this respect.

“My spinning wheel is colorful—having nails of gold whenever I see it, I remember you, my dear”

“When I listen to the sweet sound of the spinning wheel I remember my friend;

My heart smoulders in anguish

When I remember my friend.”

“Carry (my) spinning wheel and stool

Where you plough the field.”

“You have gone away (but)

Each turning of the spinning wheel

Reminds me of you”.

Charkha not only furnished yarn for home consumption but also provided an occasion for social gatherings, garrulous encounters, observation of religious festivities and for sharing family problems and secrets. As a woman drove her spinning wheel she simultaneously wove her feelings and longings into poetical compositions some of which have passed into the folklore.

“Sweetmeat (of condensed milk) is sold in the market.

But buy me a small spinning wheel,

So that I may spin the yarn of my agonies”.

“I have spread my spinning wheel in the street,

Pass along at least once (my) friend”.

Charkha ballads unfolded the psyche of a Punjabi woman—her world-view, her wisdom, her inner propensities and disappointments, even her sensualism in a concealed manner. In some of these, her life appears as an atterna, the frame used for coiling cotton thread, and she goes on winding her feelings and emotions, one around the other, to form spirals of thought patterns which evoke love, sacred and profane, conjugal and romantic, adolescent and mature.

During the course of Tiranjan – assembly of girls or women for spinning – which sometime went on the whole night, Charkha provided a veritable catharsis for the release of insatiable dreams and desires, emotions and passions, feelings and sentiments.

“O ye winter season

We don’t feel the chill during Tiranjan.”

“I behold a hallucinatory vision of your turban

When I spin during Tiranjan.”

“Lado (darling daughter) has gone to an alien country

Leaving a void in Tiranjan”.

“Your Tiranjan is devoid of spinning activity.

The sound of Charkha is not being heard.”

“Even the spinning wheel laughs at the woman

Who feels drowsy during Tiranjan.”

Charkha was manufactured by shilpashastris (craft-experts) from the wood of babul (Acacia arabica), neem (Azadirachta indica) or shisham (Dalbergia latifolia). It was adorned with colors, paintings, metallic designs or pieces of glass to attract the prospective buyers, or to please the connoisseurs of art.

The possession of Charkha made of sandalwood was the life-dream of many a woman; first because of the rich perfume of the wood and secondly, because a number of legends relating to Lord Indra’s love for the said tree, are associated with it. Sometime, Charkha was made an article of dowry and accompanied the bride in times of need.

The knowledge about the anatomy of Charkha is essential for its operator. Charakhri is the wheel for the rotation of the thread. The twisted filament which bridge the two sides of the wheel and on which it hinges is bare.

The thread that links the wheel with the spindle is mahal. The spindle is takla and the handle of the wheel, hatthi. The beads employed as shafts for the spindle are called manka. The leather object through which the spindle passes is chamari. That which holds the spindle vertically is munna. The thread spun on the Charkha is muddha which is finally placed in the chhiku, basket.

In medieval times, spinning came to be regarded as one of the important skills of cultured living although it was not included in the chatu shashthi kala or the sixty four traditional arts to be learnt by both genders, especially females.

The unaccomplished girl in this respect was looked down upon in the family of in- laws. This could well be due to the growing competitive spirit in domestic industry. While crafts like dancing were usually learnt in the house of the Masters during a period of apprenticeship, Charkha was learnt at home from one’s mother sister or an elderly person in the family. Plying the Charkha is indeed an art which requires great skill and experience or else, the thread breaks down when one propels its disk.

The production of yarn of the thinnest and finest quality is considered a testimony of one’s aesthetic sensibilities and concentration. One may blench one’s eyes but one cannot afford to distract one’s mind from it if better results are to be achieved.

As time passed by, Charkha became symbolic of culture and a number of customs came to be associated with it. The Brahminical practice of getting the sacred thread spun by a virgin for use during the Upanayana ceremony continued in medieval times.

In rural Punjab, when a girl child was born the umbilical cord that united her with the body of her mother, was cut and tied with a thread taken from the spindle of Charkha. It was later immersed in flowing water or placed over a peepal tree ( Ficus religiosa).

Among other practices were to burn worn- out Charkhas in the bonfire during the festivities of Lohri which falls on the last day of Pausha i.e. a day before Makara Samkranti ( winter solstice); to place at least one earthen lamp near it on the night of Dipavali occuring in October-November, and to gift it on special or sacred occasions. The word ‘Charkha’ has even penetrated into the abusive terminology of Punjabis who use it for idlers or loitrers.

The signs and porents of Charkha during the dream state are believed to herald the coming of future events. The sight of a Charkha embellished with pearls, rubies or precious metals is regarded as auspicious. Holding a Charkha on one’s shoulders alludes to the possible migration of the dreamer. If one finds oneself plying it at a fast speed, it betrays one’s inner restlessness. If the grass grows around Charkha it is an ominous sign. Anointing it with oil in a dream is also inauspicious. Charkha has thus been perceived as a medium of divination which revives the impressions of the subconscious mind of a person.

The Bhakti and Sufi Saints like Bullhe Shah, Shah Hussain, Kabir and Guru Nanak Dev used the symbolism of Charkha or the filaments produced by it to explain the quintessential of their philosophy.

Charkha denotes the cycle of existence. A person can make or mar his life by way of his karma (actions) during the course of wheeling the disk. The ghook (sound) one hears in the process shows, in a way that a man cannot be at peace as long as he is caught in the cycle of birth and death. The spiritual message of Charkha is that man’s resurrection from a fallen state lies not in inaction but in transcendence.

In ‘Asa di Var’, Guru Nanak Dev employs the symbolism of Charkha to argue that worship does not consist in dancing or whirling one’s head, for if that were the true path, such objects as the oil man’s press, the spinning wheel, the grinding stones, the potter’s wheel or the spinning taps too could acquire a religious connotation as they keep revolving most of the time.

In the kafis of Bulleh Shah the path of devotion to the Supreme is explained sometime by using the Charkha on which can be spun godly devotion. But the free and invaluable instrument of nature is seldom put to proper use and the soul remains enmeshed in ignorance and vanity? Bulleh Shah also employs the medium of Charkha to bring about communal harmony in society.

“Neither Hindu nor Muslim, let us sit to spin abandoning our (religious) pride.”

During India’s struggle for freedom Charkha became the symbol of Swadeshi movement which sought to bring about an economic revolution by discarding machine-made goods produced in Manchester and Lancashire, and replacing them with the Indian hand-made cloth. The emphasis on Charkha was aimed both at removing the poverty of village people who could supplement their income by working at home and at impeding the flow of Indian money to the British industries.

Charkha received a new meaning and novel interpretation at the hands of Mahatma Gandhi. It reminded him of “the ever-moving wheel of the Divine Law of love” and he wished “to die with his hand at the spinning wheel.” To him spinning was like penance or sacrament, a medium for spiritual upliftment, a symbol of dharma, of self-help and self-reliance, of dignity of labour and human values. Besides, it was an emblem of nonviolence.

“We cannot visualise nonviolence in the abstract”, he said. “So we choose an object which can symbolise for us, the formless”. While delivering a speech in the Conference of the trustees of All India Spinners Association on September 3, 1944, Mahatma argued that, for ages, the Charkha had symbolised force and compulsion. “The spinner got but a handful of grain or two small coins while ladies of the court went about luxuriously clad in the finest of muslins, the product of exploited labour. As agaist this, I have presented the Charkha to you as a symbol of nonviolence… We have to change history. And I want to do it through you.”

Mahatma Gandhi saw God in every thread that he drew on the spinning wheel: its music was like a balm to his soul. His movement for Khadi (handspun cloth) was as much aimed at building a new economic and social order based on self sufficient non-exploitative, village communities of the past as it was a protest against growing industrialism and materialism which were making man a slave of machine and mammon. To quote him:

“The message of the spinning wheel is much wider than its circumference. Its message is one of simplicity, service of mankind, living so as not to hurt others, creating an indissoluble bond between the rich and the poor, capital and labour, the prince and the peasant. That larger message is naturally for all.”

Mahatma Gandhi was convinced that the revival of hand-spinning and hand-weaving would make the largest contribution to the economic and moral regeneration of India. In his words:

“The spinning wheel represents to me the hope of the masses. The masses lost their freedom, such as it was, with the loss of the villagers and gave it dignity. It was the friend and solace of the widow. It kept the villagers from idleness. For the Charkha included all the anterior and posterior industries – ginning, carding, warping, sizing, dyeing and weaving. These, in their turn, kept the village carpenter and the blacksmith busy.”

Mahatma Gandhi also pointed out the therapeutic use of the spinning wheel; it was a nerve relaxant and could help in gaining steadiness of mind, and in controlling passion. The argument of Mahatma Gandhi in this respect was that spinning is “an elegant art” and that “the entire process is extremely pleasant”. “No mechanical pull”, he observed, “is enough to draw the various counts. And those who do spinning as an art know the pleasure they derive when the fingers and the eyes infallibly guide the required count. Art to be art must soothe.” He said further that the yarn we spin is “capable of mending the broken warp and woof of our life.”

Mahatma Gandhi’s obsession with Charkha as evidenced by his speeches and writings on Khadi-economics, Khadi-science, Khadi-learning, Khadi-spirit, Khadi-epoch, Khadi-franchise for Congressmen yarn-currency and khadi-romance baffled his contemporaries, some of whom like Rabindranath Tagore felt that the spinning wheel has been turned into a cult “thereby distracting attention form other more imortant factors in our task of all-round reconstruction.”

“So if we are taught that in the pristine Charkha, we have exhasusted all the means of spinning thread, we shall not gain the full favour of Vishnu. Neither will his spouse Lakshmi smile on us. When we forget that science, is spreading the domain of Vishnu’s chakra, those who have honoured the Discus-bearer to better purpose will spread their dominion over us. If we are wilfully blind to the grand Vision of whilrling forces, which science has revelaled, the Charkha will cease to have any meassage for us. The hum of the spinnning wheel which once carried us so distance on the path of wealth, will no longer talk to us of progress.”

This provoked Mahatma Gandhi to come out with a fiting rejoinder in Young India which stated interalia; “The poet lives in a magnificent world of his own creation – his world of ideas. I am a slave of somebody else’s creation – the spinning wheel. The poet makes his gopis dance to the tune of his flute. I wander after my beloved Sita, the Charkha, and seek to deliver her from the ten-headed monster from Japan, Manchester, Paris, etc…”

Tagore did not like Gandhi’s command, “spin and weave”. In an earlier Manifesto, “A Call of Truth” (The Modern Review, October 1921) he had asked: “Is this the gospel of a new creative age? If large machinery constitutes a danger for West, will not the small machines constitute a greater danger for us.” To this the Mahatma retorted (Young India, October 13,1925) that it was India’s love of foreign cloth that had made the Charkha redundant. “A plea for the spinning wheel is a plea for recognising the dignity of labour. I claim that in losing the spinning wheel we lost our left lung. We are, therefore, suffering from galloping consumption.

The restoration wheel arrests the progress of the foul disease. There are certain things which all must do in all climes. There are certain things which all must do in certain climes. The spinning wheel is the thing which all must turn in the Indian clime for the transition stage at any rate, and the vast majority must for all time.”

The main argument of the Mahatma rested on the Praxis of Swadeshi and economic upliftment of the derelict sections of society.“I would welcome every improvement in the cottage machine; but I know it is criminal to displace the hand-labour by the introduction of power-driven spindles, unless one is at the same time ready to give millions of farmers some other occupations in their homes…”

Mahatma Gandhi wanted that Charkha and the Congress should become synonymous for the achievement of Swaraj and for carrying out social reforms. But he ruefully admitted that many congressmen did not quite agree with his ideas. While addressing the trustees of All India Spinners Association (September 3, 1944), he observed: “The Congress did accept the Charkha. But did it do so willingly? No, it tolerates the Charkha for my sake… But if it were found that I was myself suffering from an illusion and that my belief in the Charkha was mere idol worship, either you may burn me to ashes with the wood of the Charkha or I myself would set fire to the Charkha with my own hand.”

The idea to employ the spinning wheel as a symbol of national resurgence and as an economic and a political weapon against the British Raj came intuitively to Mahatma Gandhi in 1908 when he made a sojourn to London (from South Africa). As per his own testimony, he could not then differentiate between the loom and the spinning wheel, and in Hind Swaraj (1909), which he wrote on board “S.S. Kildonan Castle”, used the word ‘loom’ to mean the wheel. He first took to weaving in his Satyagraha Ashrama (later known as Sabarmati Ashrama after the name of the river at Ahmedabad) which he founded in 1915 after returning to India. He had not seen the spinning wheel till 1917 when Gangabehn Majumdar, a social worker of great accomplishments, whom Gandhi met at the Broach Educational Conference, finally discovered it for him from Vijapur in the then Baroda state.

Gradually, he learnt the art of spinning, and with the mechanical expertise of Maganlal Gandhi (Mahatma’s disciple and manager of Satyagraha Ashrama) he was able to make some improvements in the wheel and manufacture in the Ashram itself. Spinning was raised to the rank of a daily mahayajna ( supreme worship) and included among the Ashrama-vows.

Charkha found a place in the programme of Indian National Congress as well as on the first national flag ( also called Swaraj flag) in 1921. Such was the enthusiasm that when the Congress met in Ahmedabad during the last week of December 1921, the venue of half–a-mile length was constructed of Khadi, and named Khadi Nagar.

On the eve of the AICC meeting in 1924, Mahatma Gandhi issued an appeal which stated internally : “I believe in the spinning wheel. It has two aspects, terrible and benign. In its terrible aspect, it is calculated to bring about the only boycott we need for an independent national existence… In its benign aspect, it gives a new life and hope to the villager.. I would not hesitate in the least to turn the Congress into an exclusively khaddar-producing and khaddar-propaganda organisation till the attainment of Swaraj…” The flag began to be officially hosted by congressmen from the 38th session of the Party held at Coconada (Andhra Pradesh) in 1923. The Congress Constitution made it compulsory for its candidates standing for election to be habitual wearers of hand-spun and handwoven khadi.

With the formation of Akhil Bharati Khadi Mandal (1924) and Akhil Bharati Charkha Sangh (1925 ) Charkha began to hum in nationalist circles. It caught the imagination of even school children who delivered the message of self reliance in their homes. The Dhanush taklī ( a kind of spindle used in hand – spinning without the aid of spinning wheel ) of Mahatma Gandhi became a symbol of peace, goodwill and love. Charkha was expected to lead to self-sufficiency, self pride, self-fulfilment and finally to Swaraj which India achieved in 1947. The folk songs of Punjab conveyed the spirit of nationalism thus.

“Ply the spinning wheel and (you) will not require the guns.”

“The spinning wheel of Gandhi will not allow your bombs to explode.”

“It was the spinning wheel of Gandhi which brought us freedom”.

The emblem of independent India’s national flag- - a reproduction of the wheel which appears on the abacus of the Sarnath Lion capital of King Asoka- -is a symbolic representaion of Charkha, as borne out by a resolution of the Constituent Assembly of India dated July 22,1947. It is invariably made up of hand-spun and hand- - woven cloth. Although Charkha has lost its place in the machine age it survives as a symbol of hope and faith, of the cyclical movement of life, and of truth, non-violence, national integration and Sarvodaya involving the welfare of all.

By

Dr. Satish K. Kapoor,

Secretary,

Dayanand Institutions,

Solapur


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