Until recently in India, women could not inherit real property. She was trained to be
the perfect bride and must excel in domestic tasks to provide for her family such as
cooking, cleaning and spinning. In rural India, rules were set up so that so that a man
could not marry a girl from his own village, so when a girl got married, she had to leave
her village. In order to compensate the girl for her share of the land, she was given a
dowry when she married that would allow her to complete her duties as a wife,
including large sums of cash, household items and a charkha. This charkha might be
highly decorated if the girl came from a wealthy family.
History of the Charkha
Women would spin as part of their daily routine and would often get together in groups to spin and socialize (much
like a quilting bee in rural America). Cotton and silk both are traditional fibers spun on the charkha. They would
weave cloth or rugs from their spun yarn.
When Gandhi came along, India was under British colonial rule. Cotton was grown in India where the men would
harvest it and the British would ship this cotton back to England and have it woven and spun into cloth which was
then shipped back to India and sold at a price that the people could not afford. In order to resist against the British,
Gandhi encouraged the men to spin (which was traditionally women’s work) and weave their own cloth and wear
clothing made from this homespun cloth. This cloth was called khaddar or khadi (meaning rough).
As part of the passive resistance movement, Gandhi would often spin in public. Since the traditional charkha was
typically bulky and difficult to move, he needed a charkha that could be transported easily. He held a contest to design
a charkha that would be compact, portable and affordable. The box design of charkha won that contest. Tradition
states that the accelerator wheel was an idea of Gandhi’s.
This experiment of Gandhi eventually forced the British to leave India because the men were not harvesting the cotton
and the use of khaddar cut out the market for the British made cloth. India gained economic independence from
England. This is why some Indian money has a charkha on it and the Congress Party in India placed a charkha on their
Thanks to Dr. Suji Singh at Texas State University San Marcos for information on traditional life in India.
My Dad's Version
I asked my dad, who has seen me demo and heard the story of Gandhi's charkha, to write a version of the charkha
story...I somehow don't think he was paying attention.
The History of the Charkha – by the Lying King
The Charkha is a small device (about the size of a good book) which can be used to spin fiber, such as cotton, into
yarn. Fabric from this yarn can be used to make all sorts of clothing. Following is a bit of history leading up to the
invention of the Charkha.
Around the turn of some century, most of the world’s cotton was produced in India. At the time, India was a British
colony, and the British would ship cotton bales from India to England, spin it into fiber, weave it into fabric, sew it
into clothing, and ship it back to India to trade it to the Indians for more cotton. The Indians soon realized that they
could cut out the middle men and make their own fiber, cloth, and clothes, and get rich. So they traded some cotton to
the French for spinning wheels and looms, and went into competition with the British. This ticked off the British, so
they responded by putting a big tax on Indian made clothing, while allowing the British merchants to export clothes
back to India without a tariff. Of course, this ticked off the Indians, so they started a nation-wide boycott of British
made clothing. This left the British with ship loads of unsold clothing (mostly tee shirts) cruising around the harbors
of India. Some merchants in Bombay finally relented and agreed to allow the off loading of all these British Tee shirts.
When the other residents of Bombay got wind of this treachery, they dressed up in Indian costumes, marched to the
docks, boarded the ships, and dumped all the Tee shirts into Bombay harbor. This act became known as the Bombay
Tee Party, and is still celebrated today with an annual festival where Indian women burn their cotton bras.
The British responded to this insurrection by sending their soldiers around India smashing all the spinning wheels. One
of the Indian Chiefs at this time was named Mahatma Gandhi. Chief Gandhi offered a big reward to any Indian who
could invent a spinning wheel that was small enough to be portable and easily hidden from the Red Coats. A group of
very smart Indians founded the India Institute of Technology (IIT), which, to this day, is one of the premier technical
schools in the world. IIT trained engineers invented the Book Wheel, which is a little spinning wheel in a small box
about the size of a book. It could be disguised as a King James Bible and hidden in the Indian Libraries (the British
would never destroy anything that looked like a King James Bible).
The name Charkha was actually given to the Book Wheel by Americans in early New England. They attempted to
import the Book Wheel for use in America, but it didn't go over well. Puritans were prone to book burning, and Book
Wheels were caught up in this frenzy. After burning, Book Wheels resembled large lumps of charcoal, thus the name