Warli designs, not merely art.

This morning, a friend’s post on Facebook reminded me of the various influences our many tribal designs have had on the sarees that urban Indian women wear. For us they may be designs that help make us stand out in a room full of people whether at work or at play, but for the people that first used the designs, these are part and parcel of a life that does not consider whether a design looks good with pearls or thewa jewellery.

With that view in mind, I thought we might have a look at Warli designs – a particular favourite of mine.

The motifs used in Warli paintings can be traced all the way through history back to the times when the cave dwellers were beginning to paint on the walls in the Bhimbetka caves of Central India. These have been reliably dated to between 500 and 10,000 years before Christ.

The societies that still paint using the Warli motifs live in the Palghar district of Western Maharashtra.

There are only a few basic designs that are used in Warli art; these are the circle and the triangle. The circle is used to denote the celestial twins, the sun and the moon while the triangle is used to show mountains and trees with leaves. Two triangles are also used to draw the human figure. The square is a more recent addition to the repertoire and may signify sacred land and enclosures called chauks. A Devchauk is an enclosure that contains the mother goddess or Palaghata. The other kind of enclosure is a Lagnachauk. Palaghata is a symbol of fertility. Male gods are quite rare among the Warli.

Warli paintings are usually created to celebrate important events in the tribal calender such as fishing, hunting, farming and marriage. They may also have a sacred purpose in ensuring the success of these.


One characteristic of traditional Warli art was the exclusive use of white paint to create the designs on a earth hued backgrounds such as terracotta, red ochre and yellow ochre.

Even though Warli designs can and are frequently copied by home based craftspeople and commercial manufacturers, it is vital that we try and verify that we are buying Warli paintings and sarees carrying designs only registered with a Geographical Indication or GI.


Warli designs are surprisingly similar to a number of indigenous designs across the world, such as the Kokopelli figures of the Hopi Indians in the Americas and the Aboriginal art of Australia. All these art forms are unique and deserve attention as a vital part of our heritage as part of the human family.


Warli designs on a saree at a textile fair in India

Images: Internet.

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