No article of clothing in the Indus Valley Civilization is as much a symbol of history, culture and native wisdom as Ajrak, a dexterously block printed cloth, dyed in natural agents tried and tested over centuries. It has patterns that change meanings with slightest variations in color and design.
Over the centuries, the most common symbolism attached to Ajrak is as a shawl that marks honour, nobleness, and civility of its wearer; young or old, man, woman or child. Most commonly associated with the sartorial practices of communities living in today’s province of Sindh of Pakistan. The word Ajrak itself is likely a derivative of the Persian word ‘Ajar’ or ‘Ajor’ meaning brick, and ‘ak’ meaning little. Some trace it back to the Sanskrit word ‘a-jharat’, meaning ‘something that does not fade’, while others would say that since indigo is one of the main colors of this textile, it is possible that Ajrak got its name from ‘Azrak’, which means ‘blue’ in Arabic. The use of tree cotton and the knowledge and skill to weave fabric from it was known from the times of ‘Mohenjo-daro’ (Mound of the dead men), the largest settlement of the Indus Valley Civilization built around 2500 BC. It is recognized as one of the earliest civilizations to have mastered the art of making cotton cloth. The bust of the Priest-King excavated from Mohenjo-daro, shows one shoulder of the astute man draped in a piece of cloth that resembles an Ajrak, as we know it today, with a trefoil pattern interspersed with small circles, the interiors of which were filled with a red pigment. Interestingly, excavations elsewhere in the Old World, such as around Mesopotamia, have yielded similar patterns on various objects, most notably on the royal couch of Tutankhamen. Noorjehan Bilgrami is an artist extraordinaire, textile designer, curator, and author of several books including the most extensive and authentic book on Ajrak titled, ‘Sindh Jo Ajrak’ (Ajrak of Sindh). She has noted in ‘Ajrak: Cloth from the soil of Sindh,’ published in the 2000 Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, ‘The trefoil is thought to be composed of three sun discs fused together to represent the inseparable unity of the Gods of Sun, Water and Earth.’ Similar patterns continue to echo in Ajrak even today, and testify to the cultural heritage that has remained intact over the centuries.
The geometrical patterns on the garment are printed through a method of woodblock printing in which prints were transferred from geometric shapes etched on the wooden blocks by pressing them hard on the fabric. These blocks are made of acacia Arabia tree that is indigenous to Sindh. The beauty and value of an Ajrak depends on how close its base fabric, dyeing agents and printing process has been to the traditional method. It has multiple uses: men use it as a turban, a cummerbund or wind it around their shoulders; women wear it as a dupatta (long scarf) or a shalwar (lose pants) and sometimes as a makeshift swing for children. Usually about 2.5 to 3-meters long, Ajrak is predominantly patterned in intense colors, such as rich crimson or deep indigo with some white and black used sparingly to give definition to the geometric symmetry in the design. Ajraks are made all over Sindh, especially in Matiari, Hala, Bhit Shah, Moro, Sukkur, Kandyaro and Hyderabad. A shawl similar to Ajrak, called ‘Sajarak’, is also found in South Punjab. Sajarak is mostly of cyan color, unlike Ajrak, which is mostly found in crimson red, indigo blue, interspersed with unprinted sparkling black and white motifs, mostly stars.
Considering the different processes involved, particularly printing, Ajrak making is a beautiful combination of mastery of indigenous art and skill like most handicrafts. The artistic perfection with which blocks are carefully placed, the artisan has to have the skill to know exactly how much pressure to apply and for how long. It can take nearly a month to have a good quality Ajrak ready for sale, if all steps of the authentic process are followed. Artisans or karigars work on multiple Ajraks simultaneously, and can have up to about 40 Ajraks ready within five to seven days. If made from natural materials, Ajrak has nonallergic qualities besides being strong and reliable. It is believed that some of the herbs used during the manufacturing process act as an insulator, keeping the wearer warm in winter and cool during the summer months.
Despite the ease of printing fabric after the advent of industrialization, a prized Ajrak is still the one made with natural agents, including both vegetable and mineral dyes such as lemon, indigo, clay, dried pomegranate peels, kesu phool, sakun, and alum. The most commonly observed pattern in Ajrak is dots between two lines. These dots are of the same radius in almost all the designs. These dots were initially carved out by hands, however later on brass nails were used to fill spaces between the two walls. This aspect is crucial in determining the expertise of the artisan. With the advent of the Mughal era in the subcontinent, Ajrak patterns also adopted the influence of geometric tile reprises from Central Asia. Muslims with their strong sense of geometry brought ‘Mizan’, a sense of balance and order to Ajrak prints. The repeat patterns were determined like a grid system, and abstract symmetric representation of surrounding elements and environment were used.
As a time-tested identity of the Indus Valley Civilization, Ajrak is not only a symbol of pride and respect for men and women of Sindh, but is also presented as a gesture of hospitality to guests. Used in Sindh from the cradle to the grave, it forms the first hammock for an infant, headgear for a young girl, bridal accessory to a newlywed, a turban and a shawl for a young man, a bed cover, a tablecloth and a quilt. Most of the heads of state and dignitaries of Pakistan have used Ajrak in their public meetings to show their connection with the traditions and values of Sindh. Well-known folk singers of Sindh, such as Alan Faqeer, who would never be seen without his signature turban of Ajrak, to the reigning queen of Sufi music in Pakistan, Abida Parveen, have all played a big part in making Ajrak a part of the popular culture. The popularity of Ajrak is so widespread that even local and international fashion brands have adopted it in their product lines. International brand, ‘Forever 21’, used Ajrak as a design inspiration for their collection of short dresses and kurtis (shirts).
At the end, a far more interesting colloquial version of the etymology of Ajrak perfectly encapsulates how a timeless icon can add so much to a fanciful cultural tapestry of a region. As the story goes, long time ago, there was a king, who was very fond of luxuries and would sleep on a new bedspread everyday. One day, when his servant was about to change the bed sheet, the king stopped him, saying ‘Aaj Rakh’ (keep it today); he had liked that particular sheet so much. It was a beautiful blue block printed bed sheet that slowly came to be referred to as the one that the king called “Aaj Rakh” and eventually, Ajrak.