Khalid Javaid
Executive Director, Lok Virsa, Pakistan

Those familiar with Pakistan’s history can easily appreciate the range and variety of its hand-made textiles and the sight of a humble villager using them as everyday wear. The cloth weaving and dying tradition from the Indus Valley that originated roughly five thousand years ago has continued throughout the Middle Ages and has received a tremendous boost of encouragement with the onset of new technological developments and the introduction of new motifs while under Muslim rule.

A greater part of Pakistan’s cloth textiles is developed from indigenous cotton materials, which remain a major cash crop for the country. Despite sharp fluctuations in output caused by the vagaries of nature and the international market, Pakistan has retained its position among the top cotton producing countries in the world.

The most important textile craft among all others is rilli. The art of rilli is typically performed by Sindhi people, and the women of this art have acquired fame over its craft. The word rilli is derived from the ancient Sindhi words rillial, millial and gaddial, which respectively mean, to spread or cover, to mix and match, and to be together.

A finished piece that is made entirely by hand with the ingenuity of a true artist is called rilli. Rilli consists of two purr, the upper and lower pieces. In between the purr, clean pieces of rag are spread and tacked over. This process is called leh. The lower purr (the reverse sheet) is a simpler piece. It is dyed indigo or any other light-colored ink, preferably green or, what is currently popular, black. The upper purr (the face) must have a design, thus a used ajrak (men’s headwear) or the chunee (women’s wide scarf) is often employed as a readymade lower purr to expedite the rilli making process. This is a more common type of rilli.

A more sophisticated type of rilli would have the upper purr made of patch-work cloth pieces cut into various designs to make it more attractive, more impressive, and more colorful. This method of purr making is much more time consuming.

Rilli can be categorized as follows:

  • Tukran or Tukrate wari rilli – (small pieces) made of many colors in square forms or in designs which run lengthwise with variety of
  • Tukk or Kataa – a piece of cloth is measured by using ones palm and then they cut for an applique design.
  • Chau Gullo – designs of different flowers including roses with designs of bushes, butterflies and honey bees in the center.
  • Nau Gullo – based on a cluster of nine stars in heaven, but they are actually flowers in the design of stars; these rilli are rare and beautiful, and according to local ladies, if spread out under a moonlit sky, they become a rival in beauty.
  • Ath Gullu – comprising of eight kinds of flowers such as roses, jasmine, etc.
  • Nau Tann – a famous game in Sindh. A board is made in the center of the rilli which is used for playing the board game.
  • Sorhan Gullu – made up of sixteen flowers with four corners of roses and jasmine in center.
  • Trekundi rally or Jhirmir – the shape of small dolls in various colorful dresses with tiny mirrors used to decorate them. Pearls or beads are tied to the border and tassels are placed in the four corners with cloves and cardamoms tied for scent. This is typically used for weddings.
  • Catah wari rilli – comprised of six different designs.
  • Ath Kundi – eight dolls organized in the shape of circles mimicking the moon.
  • Sindh jo galeecho – these are made in the style of Irani carpets.

Other designs include: gull (flower), koonj (stork), uth kajao (camel’s hump), nang phan (snake’s hood), hindoro (motif), bansar and bulo (jewelry), chehen dablin wari (six squares), sattan dablin wari (seven squares), khooh pheri wari (circular designs), and dhatak wari (motif design).

The rich variety of appliqué work known as rilli is among the finest folk-art coverlets in Pakistan. An overwhelming display of rilli can be observed throughout one’s daily life as well as at outdoor religious festivals and shrines of the Sufi Saints where local people traditionally use them as ground covers. Rilli work is also associated with the Sufis who stitch together old scraps of cloth and use them as jackets, chaddars, and caps to demonstrate their humility. Currently, rilli coverlets are a part of Sindhi households and have become a trend throughout Pakistan. The people of Sindh, rich or poor, equally recognize the importance of rilli and people of the world constantly admire it.