Occupying a prominent place in the Indian textile tradition, Parsi embroidery owes its uniqueness to its various sources and inspirations. The Parsi people themselves, exiled from Iran to the western shores of India in the 8th century to escape persecution and freely practice their religion – Parseeism, derived from Zoroastrianism – is full of geographically, ethnically and culturally diverse influences.
By the mid 19th century, the Parsis initiated trade relations with China: they went to Canton to sell cotton, and then establish trade with pherias, Chinese artisans, who in turn sold them pieces of sophisticated embroidery intended to decorate the edges of the saris worn by women of the highest levels of Indian society. Consequently, some Parsi women learned the technique, which then grew locally to satisfy the desires of a broader segment of the population.
Rather than simply sticking to the book of Chinese expertise, women Parsis took ownership of it, combining it with elements of their own culture, the technical and aesthetic influences sometimes from the East sometimes the West, thus creating a new, multicultural product. The patterns, which are highly symbolic, illustrate this great variety: Phoenix, pagodas, peonies and chrysanthemums reflect its Chinese origins; Chakla Chakli (juxtaposed birds), lilies, jasmines and cypresses – symbols of life and eternity – refer to Persia, while peacocks and lotuses are attached to the Sub-Continent which adopted it. This hybridisation also permeates the technique, a blend of the (most common) passed flat stitch, the knot stitch, and the famous “forbidden stitch” (Khakha), whose complexity is such that those who work on it become blind…
With a decline in the Parsi population, the gradual demise of cultural traditions, and especially the increased competition generated by industrial embroidery, Parsi embroidery is threatened with extinction. The Parzor Foundation has been working with UNESCO since 1999 on establishing workshops to transmit knowledge and to make it viable by updating the colours and materials used, and modernizing its marketing techniques. Its main aim is to preserve and keep this ancient technique alive, which is a perfect allegory of the Parsis’ cultural richness.