This quiet, relaxed town at the confluence of rivers Wye and Severn is the unlikely home of a unique garment produced more than 450 years ago in colonial Calcutta with an inner fabric lining identified with the 16th century Assamese saint, Sankardeva.
Assam is over 8000 km away from here, but its sights, sounds and history have been attracting many at an exhibition titled “Hidden in the Lining: Krishna in the Garden of Assam” in the Chepstow Museum near the Wales-England border, particularly the garment lined inside with the ancient “Vrindavani Vastra” fabric.
The art of weaving Vrindavani Vastra associated with Sankardeva is extinct in Assam; few examples survive in collections around the world. The British Museum in London has a large example of 12 pieces sewn together, sourced from Tibet in the early 20th century.
The dimensions of the fabric were large, depicted tales mainly from Lord Krishna’s life, and included some verses of the iconic saint in ancient Assamese alphabets. It was produced under Sankardeva’s supervision and were once used as wall hangings in “satras” (monasteries).
But the use of the fabric as the lining of a garment (“banyan”) is unique. The garment was part of a Welsh family’s collection that was purchased by the Chepstow Rural Distinct Council in 1963. Its history and importance was only recently recognised.
“We feel very privileged to be the custodians of this beautiful gown and its precious woven lining that has so much meaning and importance,” Anne Rainsbury, curator of Chepstow Museum, told Hindustan Times.
Experts believe that the garment was likely produced in colonial Calcutta. Assam is close to Calcutta and in the 18th century Chinese products were traded there for local use and onward transport to Europe.
It is most probably at Calcutta that the Chinese blue-green damask silk was put together with the Vrindavani Vastra inner lining. It is also likely that the tailor or maker may not have been literate or of the Hindu faith since in one part of the inner lining the fabric with Assamese verses and depicting Krishna tales is used upside down.
T Richard Blurton, head of South Asia at British Museum, told HT: “ I don’t know of any other example of lengths of Vrindavani Vastra-type textile being used in a garment. The Chepstow example is, I think, unique and its production must have been a one-off with no tradition of such things being established.”
The garment has been carefully preserved in the museum over the decades, using temperature control and soft folds. For long, the history of how the garment reached Monmouthshire in Wales remained unknown.
But new research by local historians has established a strong connection to the garment’s original ownership through the antiquarian Joseph Richard Cobb’s wife’s family. Emily Powys de Winton's grandfather, Jeffreys Wilkins, and her great uncle Walter Wilkins, both worked for the East India Company in the 18th century.
Walter Wilkins became the first governor of Chittagong in 1771 and returned to Wales the following year using the fortune he had made to buy Maesllwch Castle and estate.
Jeffreys Wilkins was an employee of the East India Company in Patna and joined his brother as partners in a new bank Wilkins & Co in 1778, also known as the Brecon Old Bank. They would have travelled via Calcutta and either brother could have been the original owner of the garment, local historians believe.
Rainsbury said: “We were delighted to be awarded a grant from the Textile Society to enable the conservation of the banyan – it was the Chinese silk damask, exposed to light and wear, that had suffered and become very fragile, but the inner lining is in excellent condition.”
“We hope that people will come not just to the exhibition, but to the series of events we have planned, and find out more not just about the textile, but Assamese culture, and links between India and Wales,” she added.
The exhibition until September includes Assam-related items from the British Museum and an animated film about Lord Krishna and a documentary on Assam. A group from London is scheduled to present a Bihu event at the museum on May 13, when the significance of the garment and its inner lining will also be highlighted.