Travelling distances far and wide, across vast plains and steep hills, a lone man roams far from the city, far from home with a stick in his hand for his flock of sheep. With a wizardly white beard and dressed in his characteristic turban, sadharā and dhotara, he treads with naught but a woollen blanket to protect him against the elements.
This is a story of the ghongadi—the Maharashtrian shepherd community’s handmade woollen blanket—a deceivingly benign piece of fabric with untold boons and benefits the world is yet to discover.
What is a ghongadi?
A ghongadi is a traditional woollen blanket made from the wool of high altitude pure Indian sheep. The blankets are made on a pit loom, dyed with natural dyes and treated with tamarind paste for durability.
Who makes them?
They are made by a community of shepherds in Maharashtra called Dhangars. Once they sheer their sheep, they pass on the wool to the Sangars, a sub community of Dhangars, who intricately weave it into rugged, durable but beautiful works of art.
The significance of this blanket can be traced back to the most ancient and important work of literature of India, ‘The Bhagavad Gita’. The ancient and holy book of Hinduism mentions the blanket in one of the adhyayas (mythological stories told by Lord Krishna). In it, the Lord says, “The person who meditates by sitting on the Indian antelope’s skin will gain intelligence, the person who meditates on tiger skin will be free and released from samsara, and the person who sits on the woollen blanket will gain eternity and will become strong and unyielding.”
Ghongadis are a thing of prestige for the Dhangars. It is mentioned in historic literatures of Maharashtra like Dnyaneshwari by saint Dnyaneshwar. Sholkas and poems from these texts are sung as the people sit on the very ghongadis.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, ruler of the Maratha Empire and widely known for his guerrilla warfare tactics, was believed to equip his soldiers with two ghonghadis.
In everyday life, the shepherds drape them across their shoulders as they traverse the land with their sheep. In the winter, it provides warmth; in the monsoon, it keeps them from getting drenched; and in the summer, it shields them from the harsh rays of the sun. Since ghongadis are large, they can double as a surface to sleep on as well as a blanket. They are also used as a seating arrangement for the guests.
Its auspiciousness makes it an essential part when fixing marriages and in wedding ceremonies.
Farmers in the Konkan region use the blanket to cover their head during paddy cultivation. It protects them against the harsh rains.
The renowned Indian social reformer Mahatma Jotirao Phule always wore a ghongadi on his shoulder.
The use of ghongadis is so ingrained in the fabric of their culture and history. Unfortunately, it is losing its stance since making it is a time-consuming process that does not pay as well as it once used to. The masters of the craft are old and their progeny are moving on to cities to make ends meet.
Advantages of the ghongadi
Pain relief: The coarseness and weave of the blanket lends a form of acupressure. Due to this, sleeping on a ghongadi can provide relief from pain caused by back ache, neck discomfort and arthritis.
Blood flow regulation: A ghongadi stimulates proper blood circulation and can help control elevated blood pressure.
Sound sleep: With no pain and regulated blood flow, sleeping on ghongadi helps you sleep peacefully.
Regulate body temperature: Ghongadi helps regulate body temperature.
Warmth: In the winter, this blanket will keep you warm just as the sheep’s wool keeps it warm.
Durable: The ghongdi is durable and easy to maintain.
Antimicrobial: The natural waxy coating on wool prevents the growth of mildew, bacteria and mold.
- Yoga: It is used as a mat for yoga, meditation and other Vedic rituals.