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The case of the missing cloth: In the quest of a piece of cotton unearthed from Mohenjo Daro

Handcrafted textiles have always fascinated me and I have researched and written quite a bit about them. A piece of information I quoted in one of my articles for a quilting magazine to emphasise the antiquity of cotton textile and weaving in India spoke of how the first sample of cotton was discovered in Mohenjo Daro.

I had never thought of the actual whereabouts of that piece of cloth, presuming it was in a museum somewhere. Then one day, a quilt historian called Cynthia Margaret Baker from Australia chanced upon my article and pounced upon the information. She had gone on a chase in India hunting for “that piece of cotton cloth. did I know where it was kept?” My curiosity was aroused, and I decided to try and find it.

References to writings resulted in the same thing — how swathes of fine cotton fabric were found wrapped around a silver object. The silver preserved the cotton for centuries. With a textile enthusiast’s passion, I romanced about how beautiful that cloth would have looked.

The usual treks to the Archaeological Survey of India and various museums yielded little information. A reference in one article caught my attention — it said the cotton fragments had been sent to the Technological Research Laboratory in Mumbai for testing.

The discovery of the cotton fragments was made at Mohenjo Daro in Sind in an expedition led by Sir John Marshall, Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1928. Sir Marshall in his book on Mohenjo Daro and the Indus Civilisation speaks of how some fragments of cloth came wrapped around a silver perfume jar and a salt cellar. These were handed over to Mr. James Turner, Director, Technological Research Laboratory, Bombay. The year was 1928. Technological Research Laboratory is now ICAR - CIRCOT — Central Institute for Research on Cotton Technology, Mumbai.

While not at all sure that such old records would be available, I still called. Dr. R. J. Patil, Director, ICAR-CIRCOT, Mumbai, said, “In October 1928, this Technical Laboratory received very small pieces of fabric and yarns unearthed during the excavation of Mohenjo Daro to determine the nature of the fibre from which they were prepared. After a series of tests it was concluded that all the specimens were made from cotton. The fabric was prepared from 34s counts and tentatively of G.arboreum species.”

He further showed me scanned copies of the papers published in this connection. One thrilling piece of information I found was an old scanned copy of important events in Clinical Trials Registry - India (CTRI), which mentions the event under the October 1928 entry: “Samples of textiles recovered from the archaeological excavation at Mohenjo Daro arrive and are investigated.” Here was proof that such a piece of cloth existed and was tested in Mumbai!

The testing was done by A.N. Gulati. The findings were published in a paper in the Indian Central Cotton Committee Technological Laboratory, Bulletin No.17, Technological Series No. 12 in October 1928. The paper was titled ‘A note on the early history of cotton’ by A. N. Gulati and Arthur James Turner. It was also published in The Journal of Technological Institute in 1929. The writing on the testing is very interesting. It notes, “The first sample of material made of cotton was a small fragment of cloth found by Mr. D. R. Sahni of the Archaeological Survey of India; Mr. E. J. H. Mackay, of the Archaeological Survey of India, describes this sample as having been ‘found adhering to the lid of a small silver vase, in association also with gold jewellery of the intermediate period,’ so that it can safely be stated that cotton cloth was in use in the Valley of the Indus at this period, viz., 2750-3000 B.C.”

Regarding the testing they write, “Three samples are described; the first was a small fragment of fabric, measuring one-tenth of an inch by three-tenths of an inch, very much tendered and penetrated by fungal hyphze, weighing 2 oz. per square yard, made from 34s counts, and containing 60 ends per inch and 20 picks per inch. The fragment of fabric which was recovered had a dark creamy colour, and measured about one-tenth of an inch in one direction and one-third of an inch in the other direction. The appearance of this fragment is shown in Fig. i. Unfortunately no photograph was taken of the original fragment. The material was exceedingly tender, and the greatest possible care had to be exercised in its manipulation. In fact, in teasing the fibres of the yarns apart for the microscopic examination, it was impossible to avoid breaking them, so that all the microscopic observations were made on minute lengths of fibre.”

The cotton, they concluded, was not the present herbaceum type, but of the arboreum type.

So, the million dollar question remained: where is that piece of cotton now? Dr. K. R. Krishna Iyer, former Director of ICAR-CIRCOT, who was involved in the compilation of 50 years of Research says, “The sample does not appear to be available at CIRCOT.”

There are no further leads and it reaches a dead end here.

Plenty of questions arise: Was it returned? Was the entire sample given for testing or only a minuscule portion? If so, where is the rest of it? My hunch is that it is perhaps still lying safe somewhere. It would be sad if something that survived centuries just buried in the ground could not be preserved 90 years after its discovery. The quest continues.

Chitra Balasubramaniam, a freelance writer on food, textiles, travel and heritage, also does investment analysis.

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