The Charpoy bed is the traditional sleeping surface of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, formerly known collectively as the Indian Sub-continent. Like many other furniture styles originating in Indian antiquity, the region and date of origin for this type of bed is not fully known (1). What is known, however, is that while it is undoubtedly ancient, the Charpoy is likely not the first daybed, as daybeds were known to be popular in ancient Mesopotamian and Greek cultures as well as in Egypt as far back as the 1st Dynasty (3100-2907 BC) (2). While it is possible, though not provable, that the design of such beds may have entered India with Alexander in the 4th century BC, it is just as likely that the design evolved in the region on its own (3).
How They're Made
The bed itself, which continues to be a common sight, particularly in the rural areas of contemporary South Asia, is elegantly simple in its design. Four wooden legs support an open rectangular structure that is filled in with a tightly woven network of ropes or chords that, once finished, will hold the body's weight (4). In Pakistan, the ropes are often made of jute, a vegetable fiber that is wound into strong threads to make rope (5). In other areas, the bindings may be made of coir, a fiber taken from coconut husks (6). The making of a Charpoy requires not only skill at carpentry but also remarkable manual dexterity as experienced makers weave the chords very quickly and are even able to create designs and patterns in the weave. By the late Middle Ages, Charpoy beds were so widely employed that they even caught the attention of Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Battuta—one of the medieval world's most celebrated travelers—as he made his way through India.
Made for Convenience and Travel
According to Battuta:
“The beds in India are very light. A single man can carry one and every traveler 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. (6)”
About Ibn Battuta
The India through which Ibn Battuta traveled as he visited notable sites throughout the Islamic world was a very dangerous place. Coming into the country through the high mountains of Afghanistan he found an Islamic state already a century old (7). In the wake of the Muslim armies led by Muʿizz al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Sām, the Sultanate of Delhi arose as a Muslim minority that ruled and taxed a Hindu majority (8). Yet the primary source of danger in Delhi was the Sultan himself. Muhammad Tughluq, who ruled Delhi at the time of Ibn Battuta's arrival, was known to be both expansively generous to Muslim travelers and scholars (of which Ibn Battuta was both) and ruthlessly cruel and unpredictable towards those whom he considered enemies (which could be anyone). The sultan was known to place into the latter category anyone who disagreed with his religious interpretations, political policies or economic strategies, and to devise for them an increasingly gruesome number of punishments, tortures and eventually, executions (9). Ibn Battuda would later say of him that, “The Sultan was far too free in shedding blood... [He] used to punish small faults and great, without respect of persons, whether men of learning or piety or noble descent. Every day there are brought to the audience-hall hundreds of people, chained, pinioned, and fettered, and [they] are...executed,...tortured, or...beaten (ibid.)."
Ibn Battuta's Exile
Though Ibn Battuta found favor and employment with the sultan for some time, eventually he too came under them monarch's paranoid scrutiny. After being exiled to live as a hermit in a cave for a period of five months for being a known associate of a cleric who had angered the sultan, Ibn Battuda was summoned back to court. Convinced that he was to be executed, the Berber scholar instead found that he was being assigned to accompany a delegation of Chinese officials back to their emperor as an ambassador of Delhi (10).
British Colonial Influence
In later years, with the coming of British colonial influence in the region, Charpoy beds became known in wider area through some very unusual means. In the late 19th century, following the transfer of Indian colonial rule from the East India Trading Company to the monarchy of the British state—ruled at that time by Queen Victoria—British authorities began recruiting Sikhs from the Punjab region into the colonial police force of Malaysia (11). At that point Charpoy beds became as common a sight in Malaysian streets as the Sikh authorities that employed them.
A Nostalgic Memory
“A typically nostalgic memory commonly held by many Malaysians, is of a burly Sikh security guard lying on his charpoy on the five-foot path that runs along shopfronts. In the morning, he would either have a place to stand the charpoy up against the wall or he would carry it off (12).”
Today, Charpoy beds continue to be used throughout South Asia both as beds and as ritual objects. In the city of Dera Ghazi Khan, which stands at the intersection of Pakistan's four districts, Charpoy beds serve as a unique social function. Locally referred to as khatt, huge Charpoy beds capable of seating large numbers of people are used as meeting places where people gather on holidays or in the evenings to discuss the various issues of the day (13).
Modern Charpoy beds from companies such as ABC Carpet & Home and Stringbedco are expected to be at least as decorative as they are functional. Available in a variety of colors and patterns, the ancient beds of India continue to find new places in modern homes as daybeds as well as new roles as coffee tables, side tables, and outdoor lounge furniture.