The “Ajrak” of Sindh

The “Ajrak” of Sindh

An “Ajrak” conversation with author and anthropologist Nandita Bhavnani whose exploration of Sindh resonates with insight

The book Sindhnamah, a large format, fat tome, written by Nandita Bhavnani with design and publication by the late Gita Simoes released by the HECAR Foundation in 2018 can best be described as hardbound nostalgia for Sindhis. Especially those who are constantly in a lost and found relationship with their culture. A majority of Sindhis across the world who may speak and read the language well (like me) or not at all, do feel the need now and then to renew their connect with folk stories of Sindh, recipes, language, music and customs. Sindhnamah with photographs by Pakistani photographer Nadeem Khawar is like a warm embrace, it’s a trip back home to a parental refuge, also the first learning institution of life. That’s where the early idea of ‘Who Am I’ emerges through personal and historical narratives retold by parents, with home food, music, celebrations and surroundings helping us navigate our baby steps.

Sindhnamah encompasses all these aspects—archaeological links to Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley Civilisation, history, architecture, trade routes, music, mosques, people, recipes and folk tales from Sindh. When I first flipped through the pages, it gave me an inexplicable reassurance. Childhood flashed back like a warm delight and the loss of what one didn’t know became sharper.


Cover of the book ‘Sindhnamah’ by Nandita Bhavnani.

I have known the Mumbai-based Bhavnani for about 25 years now, mostly through her writing and her evocative, compassionate telephonic conversations. As the author also of The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and the Partition of India (besides other published work) she understands the inheritance of loss viscerally but has been able to turn it into an academic curiosity and search instead of a lament. I see it as a kind of a mental resettlement.

Bhavnani travelled extensively to Sindh for her research, interacting with Sindhi families, poets, writers and musicians there. She reads, writes and speaks the language fluently, is conversant with Sindhi literature and so her understanding of Sindhi culture is nuanced, not overwritten.

In this interview, she speaks about Ajrakh, a primary focus in our ongoing series The Search for Sindhu. Also because “Ajrak” as she spells it in the Sindhi (and Urdu) context was the subject of one of her pieces in Sindhnamah. Edited excerpts, followed by an excerpt from the book.


Author and anthropologist Nandita Bhavnani.

How would you describe the relationship of Sindhis living in Pakistan—who you met in the course of your research trips—with their Ajrakh? Is it held on to as a piece of material culture directly linked to the Sindhi identity?

Ajrak is very widely used in Sindh today. It is a highly wearable drape, used in many creative ways, and therefore very much a part of the living culture of Sindh. As I have mentioned in my essay in Sindhnamah, men use it as a turban, a cummerbund or as a shawl. Women use it as a dupatta or make kurtas out of it. It is used as a bed sheet or bedcover, and sometimes made into a small hammock in which a baby can sleep. It is rolled up and used as a sandhro or belt by wrestlers in the Sindhi sport of malakhro (wrestling). Ajrak is often used in the making of rillis (Sindhi quilts) as well. I have also seen small pieces used to decorate sling bags; Ajrak scarves, saris, salwar-kurtas and so on. I understand that author and activist Noorjehan Bilgrami has done good work in this field.

Today, the Ajrak of Sindh has become a symbol of cultural identity: it is Sindh’s signature textile. Many Sindhi nationalist leaders like to be seen wearing Ajrak.

In Sindhnamah, certain architectural representations correspond to block printing patterns of Ajrakh. One instance is a photograph used at the start of a chapter on Thatta, the interior of the central dome of Jama Masjid of Thatta (Pakistan). Did you have any conversations during your research that connected colour, architecture and textiles? 

Since the representation of human forms is forbidden in Islam, Islamic art is rich in designs, patterns, motifs, arabesques … Some are abstract, others represent objects from day-to-day life like flowers, stars, the sun, etc. In Sindhnamah too, I have observed that the geometric patterns on the carved and sculpted tombs at Chaukandi (and other similar medieval graveyards) belong to the universe of exquisite designs found in numerous other forms of Sindhi arts and crafts: textiles, embroidery, pottery, jewellery, wood-carving and tile work. This theme has also been explored by Ethel-Jane Bunting in her book, Sindhi Tombs and Textiles: The Persistence of Pattern.


Photo: Wikipedia

The entrance to the main prayer hall from the central courtyard at Jama Masjid of Thatta, Sindh, Pakistan.

In Kutch, where Ajrakh is made by the Khatri communities and worn across by the pastoralists, it is primarily seen as a drape for men. Is that true in Sindh too?

I don’t think that it would be accurate to say that Ajrak is primarily a men’s drape in Sindh. Given the multiple ways that it is used there, it is a universal drape, in my opinion. It is used by both men and women, and gifted to and from both men and women. The world-famous Sufi diva Abida Parveen has especially been seen wearing a length of Ajrak from Bhit Shah (one of the most important Sufi shrines in Sindh) on her shoulder.

Do you own and wear Ajrakh? Does it make you sentimental or reinforce your Sindhi identity? 

Yes, I do have my own Ajrak pieces, both from Sindh and Kutch—dupattas in various colours and fabrics, an Ajrak kurta, saris, even a long, flowing Ajrak jacket—all of which I cherish, and wear occasionally at Sindhi-related events. At one time, I even had beautiful Ajrakh bedcovers with matching cushion covers from Sindh, but unfortunately these have become too old and faded now. I doubt that I will get the opportunity to replace them any time soon, given the current visa regime.

Since Ajrak is often given as a gift by Sindhis in Sindh, I have been fortunate to receive numerous lengths of Ajrak as presents over the years. One of my most treasured pieces happens to be the very first piece I received, way back in Dubai in the year 2000, when I met some Sindhi Muslims for the very first time in my life. This was a gift from the family of the famous Sindhi writer, Mirza Kalich Beg for whom I have great respect. It is a traditional piece of Ajrak, with indigo, not black; hence it is precious to me for several reasons.

Another of my prized pieces is a small square of Ajrak, like a small scarf. I had visited the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum in Ibrahim Hyderi in Karachi in 2003 as part of a delegation and these warm, wonderful people, who were dealing with enough problems of their own, still took the trouble to gift each of us these pieces.


Photo: Courtesy Shefalee Vasudev

Close-up view of a Sindhi Ajrakh piece.

Excerpts from ‘Ajrak’, a small chapter in Sindhnamah

…Ajrak is created by both the soil of Sindh and the water of the Indus. Apart from the cotton cloth and indigo, the dyers and printers use a variety of natural products – flour, rice paste, cow dung, castor oil, almond gum, dried lemon, jaggery, tamarind seeds and many more. They also use small balls of gissi, or camel dung, which not only bleaches the cloth and makes it softer, but also brings out the brightness of its colours. Water is essential to the making of an ajrak. Water is used for bleaching, dyeing and boiling the cloth, which is washed multiple times, either in the Indus or in one of its many canals. The riverbanks are then used for drying the cloth.

An ajrak is a long strip of cloth, typically five metres long. The central rectangle is the main ground, block printed with motifs. On the edge of each length are longitudinal borders while the palaands are the broad ends. Ajraks typically come as a set of two long pieces of cloth. Each piece is half the width of the final ajrak, and they are joined longitudinally to complete the piece. 

Teli, or ‘oily’ ajraks are considered the best, since their colours only get brighter with the passage of time. Bipuri, or dopassi ajraks – those which have both sides printed – are deemed to be superior to, and hence more expensive than, ekpuri or ekpassi ones, which have only one side printed.

There are various ajrak designs, and each distinctive pattern has its own name, taken from the quotidian objects that form the main motifs, which include jaleb, or sweetmeat, almond, peacock, grindstone and cloud.


…Poregars from the town of Radhan in central Sindh are famous for their blocks. The geometric patterns that they inscribe on the wooden blocks are echoed in other art forms across Sindh, in ceramic tiles, gravestones and even the patterns shaved on the coats of camels.

The intricate and laborious process of the dyeing and printing of an ajrak is executed by highly skilled craftsmen known as Khatris, both Hindu and Muslim. The head of each atelier is known as an usto, or master craftsman. Working under him are other craftsmen, or karigars, and apprentices, or chhokras. This complicated process may involve as many as 21 different stages: boiling the cloth in copper vats to make it softer, and repeated rounds of bleaching, dyeing and printing (both mordant and resist). 

Sindh has had an ancient tradition of dyeing cloth. The oldest scrap of dyed cloth in the world was found at Moenjodaro. Sindh exported cloth to Mesopotamia, where it was known as Sendal or Sindhu. Jewish merchants took this cloth further west to Greece, where this fine cloth became known as Sindon.


Today, the ajrak of Sindh faces many problems. For one, the craftsmen often don’t have access to adequate or clean water, so necessary for ajrak production. Also, members of the younger generation find this work too labour intensive, but reducing the number of dyeing and printing processes results in inferior quality. Natural dyes have been supplanted by chemical ones, sometimes cotton cloth is replaced by synthetic cloth, and now ersatz ajrak is also printed in factories. While the production of traditional ajrak has declined in Sindh, efforts to conserve it are being made by a few individuals in Sindh, notably Noorjehan Bilgrami.

Nandita Bhavnani who has an MA in anthropology is also a qualified chartered accountant with a law degree. She has been engaged in extensive research on Sindhi culture and history since 1997. She is the author of Sindhnamah (2018), The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and the Partition of India (2014), and I Will & I Can: The Story of Jai Hind College (2011).