Concentric diamond pattern in India – “eye of nightingale”

If you are the type who notices recurring patterns, and like me are not from the Indian subcontinent or Central Asia yourself, you would start to notice a common concentric diamond pattern if you spent time in India. The pattern seems most common in the north, especially Kashmir, Rajasthan and the Punjab, but I’ve seen it all over the country. While you sometimes see a plain diamond pattern (eg. the simple wall mural near the bottom), it’s more often a concentric diamond, a flattened diamond lozenge, or a diamond with a single dot in the centre. A friend in textiles here told me it’s sometimes referred to as “eye of nightingale” or chesm-e bulbul (sometimes written chesme or chasme bulbul) or “eye of the bulbul,” the bulbul being the Indian nightingale. But that complicates things, since chasm-e bulbul or “Çeşm-i Bülbül” more commonly refers to a type of glassware that originated in Turkey after its craftsmen came in contact with Venetian glassworks. The blue and white lattice pattern on that glass produces interstitial diamonds that mimic the bird’s eye.

I have been told, though I haven’t had it confirmed, that etymologically bulbul itself can also refer to the eye or blink of the eye (can anyone confirm this?). The nightingale’s eye is an important motif in Islamic story and beyond. If you know more about this motif, its use and cultural history, please comment below—I’d like to learn and it’s difficult to find consistent information.

At top is a hand-woven phulkari (embroidery) piece from the Punjab in India or Pakistan. I’m told that this piece would have been used by a bride to cover her head and body during a traditional marriage ceremony, that its origin is probably Persian and its use extends to all traditions in the Punjab including Muslim, Hindu and Sikh. Its base fabric is hand-loomed cotton with heavily embroidered pattern done in raw silk. Via here and there’s more phulkari fabric below. Do a google search on Punjabi phulkari (or especially here) and you’ll notice how common the diamond pattern is.

I have some sort of fixation on Punjabi textiles for their colour and geometry. Maybe this partly results from growing up in Vancouver, which has a large Punjabi population whose culture has formed part of my visual repertoire, but I think I also just innately like the geometric hot pink and light red/orange combination. Fortunately, those colours are all over the place over here. As mentioned in the previous post, Diana Vreeland did observe that pink is “the navy blue of India.”

India - textile bag with "eye of nightingale" pattern

Above, well-used bag from Rajasthan on a friend’s motorbike in Maharashtra. Below, eye of nightingale pattern appliqued on  the seat of a tuktuk taxi in Mysore.

Eye of Nightingale pattern sewn on tuktuk

Below: true pashmina shawls look like a plain flatweave from a distance, but in fact upon closer scrutiny they reveal a tightly woven hollow diamond pattern that is sometimes referred to as eye of nightingale. This is one method of identifying a true pashmina (though there are true 100% pashminas without the diamond weave). Pashminas are from Kashmir, made from the soft underfur of kashmiri goats.

On pashminas via here: “A less frequently-seen weave done only on pashmina, covers the surface with tiny lozenge shaped squares, earning it the delightful name of ‘chashm-e-bulbul,’ or “eye of the bulbul.” As this weave is a masterpiece of the weaver’s art, it is normally not embroidered upon. Kashmir shawls were first worn in fashionable circles in the West in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, and by 1800 the shawl trade between Kashmir and the West was well established.” By the way, that diamond weave gives the woven wool far more integrity, similar to the way the diagonal twill weave in denim jeans adds more strength than a straight warp-weft flat weave. But the diamond weave is even stronger, allowing for the shawl to be extremely light while extremely strong and pull-resistant. Due to this material and weave you can in fact pull a true pashmina shawl through a ring due to its fineness, and yet it has the warmth and nearly the size of a blanket. It is an almost magical object.

Wall mural with ubiquitous diamond pattern

Above you can clearly see the diamond shape around the eye of the black bulbul. This feature is missing in the very inaccurate print below, but I include it because it’s charming. Bulbuls have a beautiful song and are much loved here in the north of India.

PS : The day after I posted this, which was my final day in Delhi, I found an antique Punjabi phulkari for sale (below). It doesn’t have much of the hot pink I was seeking but it does has a little pink mixed in with the orange and gold. The pattern consists almost entirely of chesm-e bulbul. It’s stunning. I wonder if these things should be taken out of their countries of origin, but that’s another issue.

I’ve somewhat disliked diamonds as a pattern all my life, until now. Eye of nightingale never seems to stray into the territory of the harlequin, despite the tangential connection to Venice.

Punjabi phulkari with eye of nightingale pattern

3 comments on "Concentric diamond pattern in India – “eye of nightingale”"

  1. From a friend via Facebook, on this pattern as well as on the crazy song “Abdul Abulbul Amir”:
    “The nightingale is a central Asian symbol particular to Sufis, it refers to the human soul…however along with the red rose it features everywhere in central Asian culture…which was dominated by poetry, Sufism and carpet/silk weaving-this would have been a period when Central Asia was ruled by Amirs …I think it most probably refers to the Emirate of Bukhara…during this time the Great Game was on and Russian and British forces were vying to overthrow the small emirates to gain control of the silk route…and if everyone died it was okay as long as they gained control of the silk route!”
    Fascinating. The discussion started because I asked if the name of the character in this song:
    really referred to the bulbul and whether or not that’s a name ever given to people, male or female, or was it just poet license etc.

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