Also Charpoi Charpoi, Khat, Khaat, Khatia, Manju, Manji; the root sources all describe ‘four feet’.
Charpayas provide welcome spots in the shade.
The day bed is an ancient model, known from Egypt and Mesopotamia from approx. 3000 BC and undoubtedly an idea passed through the ancient trade routes.
The charpoy the quintessential day bed of the Indian subcontinent is itself thought to be at least 5000 years old. As with all great design that has stayed the test of time, it’s very simple, very clever in it’s construction, does what it sets out to do, looks beautiful and allows for artistic licence in the detail. It can be rustic, even crudely made for country use up to the very fine workmanship and high decoration afforded by courts and palaces.
Charpoi or khaat, are found in homes and courtyards, on the streets and in public spaces; being so light and portable, charpoi or khaat are pretty much everywhere that people are. They take up little space, charpoi are stored by leaning against a wall.
The frame of four horizontal timbers is jointed into four corner posts, turned legs, or posts, which finish just a little higher than the sides. The sizes vary to suit the purpose and but a single bed size would be around 50 cm high , 90 cm wide and 170 – 180 cm in length.
The bed ’canvas’ or ‘net’ is always woven onto the frame and there are as many variations of the material as the local materials can offer and as many designs and colours as the weaver can create and imagine. The idea works so well because the construction and the materialsyou fee cause it to be self levelling.
Cotton ropes and tapes, strings and ropes of hessian, jute, abaca, coconut fibre sisal, hem, musa basjoo, agave, date palm. The weave patterns must be strong enough to increase the stability of the frame , to hold the weight of those sitting or sleeping on it; by these criteria there are certain weave patterns that are more successful than others, and therefore more commonly seen; a good charpoi weaver will adapt the design to the feel and tensile strength of the material in his hand.
Charpoi standing against the wall in the day time to make a clear and open covered space; this taken at our Dhurrie maker’s home in Rajasthan.
Traditionally the string nets are woven in a cross weave for the most part, leaving a narrow section of ‘warps’ at one short end and tied off in such a way that they can be adjusted to control the sagging of the net over time.
This is less so today, perhaps because the materials are more stable or perhaps the lessons of the experienced artisan have been compromised on the alter of efficiency?
Either way, the designs are sculpturally stunning in one, two or more colours and many form of lattice, criss-crossing, diamonds, double diamonds and multiple diamonds, herringbones and plaiting, basket weave and traditionally webbed, single material or multiple material; very clever, very beautiful.
Blankets, soft mattresses, bedrolls and pallaises are also used to sleep on and to cover. In many homes we find the charpois are in a semi enclosed courtyard and a pile of thin bedcovers folded or rolled up inside.
Indians took their beds with them when they moved to other countries for work, and they remain a common sight throughout Southern Asia and into Africa. The traditional Sudanese bed, for example, the Angareeb is very similar, the local version of the Indian model, with leather and rope used for the webbing or stringing. The idea of the construction has spread across the globe and spawned high sided benches, consoles, foot stools, coffee tables and open bedheads.
A contemporary take on the charpoi uses metal and plastic straps. They are smart and chic, more formal and urban. Very different pieces in every respect and each has it’s place in a culturally inclusive and explosive global environment.
This re-thinking of an ancient design is typical to the growth of modern India and a development in line with the huge increase in wealth and technology. A perfect bridge between new living and old tradition.
They will age well, can be re-painted and re-webbed, and if in urban areas eventually re-cycled.
Commercially made and chemically resolved items undoubtedly will not age as beautifully or enter into the natural environmental processes of decay; recycling works when there are re-cycling centres. In the countryside metal and plastic can easily become a problem before a solution; the pieces can be collected and recycled commercially into other forms and the metal elements will eventually decay back to the ground but most plastic won’t. If, in the countryside, these new charpois will be left to rust in a dump or at the roadside, they could become an ugly scourge from a beautiful idea.
One thing is sure, the natural materials of traditional charpoi, for example, will gradually wear, fade, break down and return to the earth as part of the natural cycle of death and resurrection; on the way homes and food are provided for many tiny creatures.
The news of how different cultures live and function travels along trade routes but makes huge leaps by the reports from the adventurer, explorer and traveller.
The 14th Century Moroccan Berber, and legal scholar, Ibn Battuta, experienced the medieval world, dictating an account of his travels at the end of his life entitled “A Gift to those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvel of Travelling.”
“ I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveller in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose part I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries.”
He joined the court of Turkic Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq, captivated by Indian culture- the life, the food, the dance, the music. In 1530 he wrote these well known lines to describe the charpoi:
“ The beds in India are very light. A single man can carry one and every traveller should have his own bed…. The bed consists of four conical legs on which four staves are laid: between they plait a sort of ribbon of silk or cotton. When you lie on it, you need nothing else to render the bed sufficiently elastic”
Susan Corinne Jamart (1978). Charpai: Indian Cot Filling, a Visual and Technical Documentation. University of California, Berkeley.