Tree of Life
A popular motif used in textile design, handicrafts and fine arts depicting a tree with emanating branches, is called Tree of Life. It draws from the symbolism of the primordial tree as is present in cultures of Asia, Africa, Europe and Oceania. The symbol depicts an upright tree with distinctive branches shooting off from it, sometimes bare and sometimes laden with leaves, fruits and flowers. In India, theTree of Life comes from several sources such as the Bodhi tree under which Buddha received enlightenment; the Peepal and Banyan trees associated with Hindu mythology; and as the tree of immortality alluded to in Islam. The Tree of Life symbol was used as a decorative biomorphic motif as early as the mid-sixteenth century. For instance, in the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque in Ahmedabad, a carved stone window dating to 1573 showcases a set of finely drawn trees. The symbol also features on a mirror frame designed in the Mughal court in the 17th–18th century, where the mirror’s jade frame is inlaid with gold stems and leaves, buds of rubies, diamonds and emerald.
The Tree of Life was featured on chintz, silks and printed cloth and has been depicted using techniques ranging from resist-dyeing methods like batik, block printing, mordant painting, handweaving and embroidery. The Portuguese, the Dutch and then the British East India Companies not only traded the fabric but also used it in South-east Asia as currency to exchange for spices. Hence, the symbol travelled through the world and took on many variations. For instance, the motif of tumpal – an isosceles triangle arranged one after the other on a fabric’s border – wasn’t found among the motifs in use in the Indian mainland and is conjectured to have been incorporated to suit the tastes of the Indonesian market, where the design has a long history of appreciation. Another example is the conception of phaa nung, a palmette design covered with gold gilt that was made for the Thai court and fused the style of kalamkari, the architectural niche of mihrab and the design of Tree of Life along with that of floral bouquet. In Europe, through the influence of the British East India Company, the symbol was depicted on large cotton bed coverings known as pampalores, tent panels and later as wall hangings and table linens. Complementing the European interest in chinoiserie, China produced wallpapers and silk wallcoverings modeled after Indian pampalores.
Today, Tree of Life is a one of the commonly used motifs in handwoven fabrics like Banarasi, Chanderi and Jamdani and is also used to decorate the border of a saree apart from featuring on a wide variety of other garments. The motif is no longer limited to large scale depictions or as currency for trading but continues to be popular in the textile industry within India.
“Mirror Frame with Tree of Life Motif.” Art Institute Chicago. Accessed, August 11, 2021. https://www.artic.edu/artworks/34286/mirror-frame-with-tree-of-life-motif
Murray, Thomas. “Comments on the Indian Trade Cloth Known as the Tree of Life and its Context.” Caskey-Lees Arts of Pacific Asia Show. March 24–27, 2011. https://www.academia.edu/3926794/Tree_of_Life
Wicks, Lauren. “The Illustrious History of the World’s Most Iconic Textile Pattern.” Veranda, July 15, 2020. https://www.veranda.com/home-decorators/a33301568/tree-of-life-pattern-history/