A textile block printing technique created by resist dyeing. The term also refers to the resulting fabric, usually cotton, which features floral and geometric motifs printed in darker colours such as indigo and red. While the etymology of the word ajrakh is contested, the Arabic origin of the word — from azraq, meaning “blue” or “indigo” — is the most commonly accepted. It is also believed to derive from the Hindi aaj rakh, meaning “keep for today”.
Ajrakh production can be traced back to the Indus Valley civilisation, between 2500-1500 BCE. The bust of the Priest King of Mohenjo Daro depicts him wrapped in a shawl with trefoil motifs, similar to the kakar or cloud motif seen in ajrakh prints. Numerous textile fragments dating from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries CE have been discovered at Al Fustat in Cairo, Egypt, and are considered to be the earliest known examples of printed textiles. The fragments, printed with small blocks and dyed using indigo and madder, bear a striking resemblance to ajrakh.
The technique has been practised by members of the Khatri community, who migrated from Sindh in Pakistan to Kutch in Gujarat and Marwar in Rajasthan in the sixteenth century, settling in places that had access to flowing water, which is essential to the ajrakh process. Several karigars (craftspeople) relocated to Ajrakhpur in Gujarat following the 2001 earthquake. The process of creating ajrakh textiles has evolved significantly, from resist-patterning on one side of the cloth to two-sided resist-printed cloth. The printing blocks are often carved in pairs, thus registering an exact inverted image on the other side of the cloth.
The production process for ajrakh is notably laborious. The fabric is first washed, beaten and rinsed to soften it and remove impurities. In a process known as saaj, the fabric is treated with a mixture of castor oil, camel or goat dung and soda ash. It is then dried and smoothened to ensure accuracy in the printing process.
In the subsequent step, called kasanu, the fabric is dyed using harda, which lends it a yellow tinge. After it dries, the fabric is laid on low printing tables, where a karigar prints a rekh using a mixture of lime and natural gum, which acts as a resist. If the cloth is to be printed on both sides, the rekh is applied on the reverse side as well. The lines printed are resistant to alizarin as well as indigo, showing up as white in the finished product.
In the next step, kut, a dye made of iron, jaggery, assorted millets and tamarind, is used to print another set of lines within and over the initial rekh. These lines oxidise when exposed to air and the harda and develop a black colour. Next, a dye that uses alum as a mordant is used to fill in the red details. A paste called pa, made using clay, millet flour and dhawda gum, is applied over these filled-in details to make them resistant to indigo dyeing. Dry cow dung powder is then sprinkled over the wet pa to prevent the resist from spreading.
Once the printed lines have dried, the cloth is ready for dyeing. It is dipped in large vats containing a mixture of indigo, lime, jaggery and mustard seeds. The dyed cloth emerges a bright green that slowly turns blue once the dye oxidises. Various natural dyes may be added to the fabric before this stage. The cloth is then repeatedly washed and dried. Following this, the fabric is dyed red by soaking it in a solution of alizarin, natural gum, dhawda flowers and madder, and stirred continuously. It is then dried and washed, and the resultant cloth is considered a simple ajrakh. It is possible to carry out multiple rounds of resist printing and indigo dyeing to give the fabric added detail and dimension. This more intricate form of ajrakh is known as minakari, named after the detailed enamel jewellery tradition.
The blocks used in ajrakh are often carved out of sheesham, rohida or sagwan wood, with cosmic and naturalistic motifs. Some blocks are carved in pairs, allowing traditional master karigars (meaning “artisans” in Hindi) to print fabrics identically on both sides with extreme precision. Traditionally, the Khatris have carved the blocks themselves, although this is now in decline, with blocks being carved in Ahmedabad or Farrukhabad in Gujarat.
Ajrakh fabrics were primarily worn only by pastoralist men of Gujarat, Rajasthan and the Sindh regions, typically as a lungi, fainta or gamcha. However, its use is not restricted to special occasions, but functions as a versatile fabric for everyday needs: it is often wrapped as a turban or shawl, and is used to create women’s garments including odhnis and skirts or used as a bedsheet or tablecloth. After extensive use, the fabric softens and can be used to swathe babies, make hammocks and used as patchwork to create quilts called rillis.
Today, commercially produced, cheaper versions of ajrakh are screen-printed in parts of Rajasthan. One of the current most prominent master karigars of the technique is Dr. Ismail Mohammad Khatri, who — along with his sons, grandsons and the larger Khatri community — continues to print the fabric in the traditional manner, using only natural dyes.
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