Today we live in a world where we are surrounded by dating apps that ensure that nobody will get hurt while dating. Alain Badiou in In Praise of Love, quotes from a few of these apps and shares his thoughts about 21st century love. ‘“Get love without chance!” And then another says: “Be in love without falling in love!” No raptures, right? Then: “Get perfect love without suffering!” …I believe this hype reflects a safety-first concept of “love”. It is love comprehensively insured against all risks: you will have love, but will have assessed the prospective relationship so thoroughly, will have selected your partner so carefully by searching online - by obtaining, of course, a photo, details of his or her tastes, date of birth, horoscope sign, etc. - and putting it all in the mix you can tell yourself: “This is a risk-free option”…Clearly, inasmuch as love is a pleasure almost everyone is looking for, the thing that gives meaning and intensity to almost everyone’s life, I am convinced that love cannot be a gift given on the basis of a complete lack of risk.’(Badiou 2012,6-7).

Stories from the 16th and 17th century originating from Iran and India resonate Badiou’s thoughts on love. The three stories that will be looked at here Saif- Ul Mulk, Yusuf and Zulaikha and Layla and Majnun describe the arduous journey and risk the lovers take to unite with one another and many a time their union was only made in heaven. Though fictitious, these stories were extremely popular, and one could argue that a belief in such a kind of love might have been desired then. The popularity of these stories is seen in the way literary texts talk about them and paintings and textile depict scenes from these stories. Figural silks during the Safavid reign were highly esteemed gifting objects that were used to maintain political alliances. Shah Abbas gifted Mughal emperors figural silk cloaks. These embroidered silk cloaks were adorned with hunting scenes, prisoner motifs as well as scenes from these love stories. Why would romance that is considered to be intimate and private, be depicted on these cloaks that are worn in the public sphere? Why would textiles have them at all when paintings and texts already cover them?

Fig.1 Jahangir’s Nadiri  Source:;view=fulltext
Figure 1- Jahangir's Nadiri



The writer and weaver have too many things in common to drift them apart.  The two, create a landscape with their words and threads. They lure everybody to witness the conceiving of a world that can keep building with no end. Sylvia Houghteling observes how a poet compares the creation of lofty composition to the making of a dignified robe to suit his ruler’s stature. The writer and weaver’s world come together in the realm of love. In texts of romance, threads and knots are used frequently as they symbolise fate and the hardships of love. In Nizami’s Layla and Majnun, he describes ‘Majnūn’s unrequited love and resulting lunacy as a thread with a knot in it. (Munroe 2017,116). The fate of love plotted by the writer is metaphorically understood with textile imagery. The texture and tension of the threads and knots make the romance and suffering come alive for the reader.


The story of Saif ul- Mulk begins with his father, the Shah, gifting him a ring, a horse and piece of cloth that was gifted to him by King Solomon. The cloth has a portrait of a princess embroidered in silk on it. The image of the princess on the silk arouses his attention. Is it the smoothness of the material that makes her so desirable or the softness of it that is so comforting that makes him want to find her? He trusts his feelings that have emerged from the interaction with the cloth and begins his quest to find her. Starting his journey from Egypt, he finds himself in China, Turkey and then Iran.  The story relays the battles he has to face with ghouls and a jinni to find princess Badi- al- Jamal and ultimately, they live happily ever after. Though the story was included in the Arabian Nights only the 19th century it was immensely popular in India in the 17th century. The story was written in Dakhani Urdu by poet Ghawwas for the Sultan of Golconda.

Another story that captivated the Indian audience was the 15th century story of Yusuf and Zulaikha . Yusuf was a youth who was abandoned by his brothers as they were jealous of his beauty. He was later sold in the slave market to a man who admired his beauty. The chief’s wife-Zulaikha, admired his beauty even more. Her maddening love for Yusuf’s beauty elevated his status from a slave to a king in her eyes. She showered him with jewels and a throne and commissioned a carpet to be made. When her husband was away, she used the chance to express her desires to Yusuf.  She said, ‘" Look on me, look on me once, my sweet: One tender glance from those eyes, I entreat. But Yusuf looked not upon her: in dread He lowered his eyes and he bent his head. As he looked on the ground in a whirl of thought He saw his own form on the carpet wrought, where a bed was figured of silk and brocade, and himself by the side of Zulaikha laid. From the pictured carpet he looked in quest of a spot where his eye might, untroubled, rest. He looked on the wall, on the door; the pair of rose-lipped lovers was painted there.”’ (Jami and Griffith 1882,204). Through the carpet she conveyed her hope for a future with Yusuf, but he was horrified by the graphic love making scenes and the possible act of adultery, so he rejected her. Years later, when Zulaikha is widowed and haggard, Yusuf (now rich) chanced upon her and she transformed into her youthful self in his presence. He finally grants her wish and the two marry and enact the future that was once depicted on the carpet.

In both the stories textiles play a central role in invoking desire. The smoothness of silk and the golden brocades enchant the viewer to imagine a parallel universe; one where all their desires are fulfilled. With one tilt of the textile away from the light, the entire imagery disappears showing how reality can creep into your fantasies. Yet, the fact that the imagery exists on the textile is enough for the characters to hope that someday their desired future will be their reality. 

While silk teleports one to a parallel universe it is also rooted to the tangible world. The mention of silks, velvets and brocades in these stories show how they took inspiration from their surroundings. The trade economy during the Safavid reign was thriving primarily due to the export of silk. The Mughals were their main customers. Though Akbar set up sericulture units in India and weaving centres in Lahore, Ahmedabad etc they were no match for the fine silk brocaded work that was manufactured in Iran. They could no longer wait to be gifted silken cloaks so they began to find local,non royal centres from where they could order their robes to from.


The discrepancy between the local and royally produced textiles in seen in the fragments of textile that tell the tale of Layla and Majnun. It is said that the textiles Shah Abbas 1 sent to the Akbar were made under the guidance of the famous poet- weaver, Ghiyath al- Din. While most of the textiles were signed by him, four velvets were unsigned leaving one to suspect that they were probably locally made in the bazaar . The bazaar made figural textiles resemble the royally made ones except they seem to show more similarity with Amir Khusrau’s version of Layla and Majnun than Nizami’s version. Thus, showing that the Mughals were as much a contender for these textiles as the Safavids. 

Nizami’s Khamsa series (containing the stories of Khusrau and Shirin and Layla and Majnun, epics of Alexander etc) were written prior to Amir Khusrau’s renditions of them. 12th century poet Nizami, was the first to textualise the oral epic of Layla and Majnun. N.H. Munroe notes that in Nizami’s version, Layla and Majnun cross paths with one another in school after which they part ways. The lovers meet twice after that. Once near Layla’s camp and another time at a palm grove. Both times they are assisted by the help of an old woman and an old man respectively. Though they meet, the Safavid illustrated manuscripts show how no physical contact takes place as Majnun is chained. Instead, they woo each other with the soothing words of poetry. After Layla’s husband dies, she observes the mourning protocol of two years and then sends news to Majnun that there are no more obstacles to withhold their union. Unfortunately, Layla dies and Majnun, unable to bear the news of her death, also dies from grief and shock. The two unite in heaven. In two of the designs we notice a scene that is not present in Nizami’s version that is of Layla visiting Majnun in the forest in a palanquin. The old woman and old man who accompanied the two in the first and second meeting are not depicted at all. A similar scene is depicted in Amir Khusrau’s Khamsa. Though some of these textiles have the signature of Ghiyath, Munroe suggests they were most probably knock offs that were made in private weaving centres. The adaptation of Khusrau’s Layla and Majnun on to silk is symbolic of the proliferation of vernacular versions of the story. It shows how textile had a wider audience than textual sources and, in this manner, stories were kept alive. Figure 3 is an amalgamation from three different love stories- Layla and Majnun, Khusrau and Shirin and Yusef and Zulaikha. The scenes are interspaced with Persian quotes that say, ‘“Sleep soundly and from our friendship glad tidings will arise,”’ (Munroe 2017,26-27). The embodying of these three stories onto the textile signifies these stories as a genre. The gravity of the story wouldn’t be conveyed if it weren’t for the textile medium. 

Figure 2- - Layla and Majnun in the wilderness with animals, from Khamsa (Quintent) Of Amir Khusrau Dilhlavi

Figure 3- Textile depicting Khusrau and Shirin, Layla and Majnun and Yusuf and Zulaikha


The purpose of wearing the figural textile is more for the person who will see the textile and less for the wearer. For the wearer, figural silks are not a fabric of comfort but one of status. They were reserved for the elite, but its popularity led to the creation of many knock offs made in the bazaar. Since silk was so expensive little fabric was wasted. Designers made the motifs based on the use of the fabric. Tiny motifs of Layla and Majnun were made so that the fabric when stitched, would be able to use selvedge as well. Munroe
suggests the presence of tinier motifs reflect the intimate spirit of the stories as well as facilitated it in reality between the viewer and the wearer as she would have to go closer to him to view the motifs. In the 17th century larger motifs were found. This was probably the influence of Persian album paintings where portraits of personalities that were done by Aqa Riza and others were found on separate pages, giving each individual equal importance. In terms of textile, larger motifs were used for furnishing and probably worn as cloaks by royals as they engaged with their subjects from a distance. The wearing and placing of these figural romantic textiles created a poetic setting wherein the ruler could assert his status as a ‘dervish king’.  Through the characters of Majnun and Layla and other popular fables, rulers were able to unite their subjects and create a cohesiveness. In addition to that, the ruler asserted himself in the fictitious tale by drawing parallels between himself and Majnun. Majnun is the king of the wilderness who is considered to be quiet and humble and the ruler of the land is meant to be pious, just and loyal. 

The romantic textiles comforted those who wanted to escape the hardships of reality. At the same time, they subtly reminded people of the value of love and duty to their ruler in their daily lives. The imagery of the lovers on the textile however has a different agenda. It entices you to get out of your comfort zone and daily activities and explore a realm where you have to put yourself at risk for somebody else. Perhaps silk not only arouses desire but also reflects the hardship and maturity that comes from experience. Silk, like a smooth rounded rock, ages with time and becomes kinder. 

Written by Rukmini Swaminathan. 

Rukmini is a researcher at The Registry of Sarees. She is interested in textile, design and architecture history and hopes to explore  her interests through these journal entries.


Badiou, Alain. 2012. In Praise of Love. London: Serpent's tail.

Dimmig, Ashley. 2012. "Narrative Threads." Hali 67-71.

Houghteling, Sylvia. 2018. "Sentiment in Silks: Safavid Figural Textiles in Mughal Courtly Culture." In Affect, Emotion and Subjectivity in Early Modern Muslim Empires; New Studies in Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Art and Culture, by Kishwar Rizvi, 124-148. London, Boston: Brill.

Houghteling, Sylvia W. 2017. " The Emperor’s Humbler Clothes: Textures of Courtly Dress in Seventeenth-Century South Asia." Ars Orientalis 91- 116.

Jami, and Ralph Griffith. 1882. "Trubner's Oriental Series." In Yusuf and Zulaikha, by Jami and Ralph Griffith. London: Ballantyne Press.

Munroe, Nazanin Hedayat. 2017. Interwoven Lovers: Safavid Narrative Silks; depicting characters from the Khamsa. Bern: University of Bern.

Shackle, Christopher. 2007. "The Story of Sayf al-Mulūk in South Asia." Journal of The Royal Asiatic Society 115-129.

Image References


Figure 1- Jahangir’s Nadiri, India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1620–30. Embroidered satin with silk, 97 x 91.44cm.;view=fulltext

Figure 2- Layla and Majnun in the wilderness with animals, from Khamsa (Quintent) Of Amir Khusrau Dilhlavi, c. 1590-1600, Opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper.

Figure 3- Textile depicting Khusrau and Shirin, Layla and Majnun and Yusuf and Zulaikha, Silk double cloth. Early 17th century, Safavid Iran





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