Couture has allowed cultures all around the world to express themselves. Our external appearance has always been an expression of our cultural ideas, values, and traditions, and footwear is no exception. Footwear can even reveal a person’s personality, interests, and preferences. Historically too, these have been mark of prestige or rank within a social system.
The use of footwear in India can be traced back to 200 BC. Coins from the Kushana era even show kings wearing boots! Over time footwear evolved from their simple function of protecting feet to decorative objects that spoke of style and power.
The Mughals and the Agra leather industry
A bhisti changed India’s history when he saved Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, from drowning in the Ganga during a war against the Afghans. Nizam, a bhisti, inflated his mashaq (goatskin bag) and used it as a float to help Humayun cross the river. Humayun is said to have crowned him king for a day as an expression of his gratitude. The bhisti invited fellow leather workers from all over to share his good fortune, laying the groundwork for establishing Agra’s renowned leather industry. Agra became known as the home of handmade shoes during the reign of Akbar. It is believed, that the Emperor, impressed by the craftsmanship of the Bhisti community ordered shoes for the Mughal infantry, providing an impetus for production.
While leather shoes had been in use over centuries, a distinctive type of footwear emerged in medieval India – the Mojari.
The mojari originated during the Mughal rule; in keeping with the Mughal flair for opulence, these slippers were quite ornate, often woven with gold-silver zari (thread) and encrusted with jewels to display the wealth and power of its wearer.
This style of footwear (popular to this day) had a one-of-a-kind look back when it was first created. The slippers, with their upturned toes, were also called Khussa.
It was originally constructed of pure leather with superb embroidery and various embellishments, giving its wearer an ethnic appeal on any occasion – from everyday use to weddings, religious ceremonies, parties, or festivals.
The Mughals were the first to patronize them, and they were immensely popular among the kings and queens of India’s richest period. Rajasthan, in particular, was a center for the creation of these wonderful shoes. The mojari was designed as a slip-on shoe, with the side and back of the foot almost bare.
The Mojari came to be known as Salim Shahi after Jahangir’s patronage.
Jahangir (1569-1627), the Mughal emperor is credited with popularizing this type of footwear among the nobility.
After the Mughals the Mojaris became a favourite amidst wealthy zamindars, nawaabs, Maharajas and Maharanis of the subcontinent; the Mughal influence on design and styles continued.
The mojaris, were traditionally designed in the blue city Jodhpur, and the pink city Jaipur, of Rajasthan. They were beautifully embroidered with gold and silver threads, as well as exquisitely embellished with precious stones and pearls. In the past, they were considered as the royal ethnic footwear to be worn with traditional Indian dressing like sherwanis and churidar kurta (pajamas).
Take a look at this mojari that once belonged to the Nizam of Hyderabad
This pair of bejeweled mojaris is to have been worn by the Nizam of Hyderabad, Shikander Jah, in the early 19th century. They are embellished with gold metal thread called zardosi and salma sitara embroidery, gold metal embroidery incorporating a sequin or sitara. The throats are embellished with rubies, diamonds and emeralds set in enameled gold. They are among the 10 costliest shoes ever made in the world!
In case you are wondering, there isn’t much difference between the mojaris and juttis !
The Mojari is a closed shoe, sometimes with an extended curled toe, while juttis have flat fronts. In juttis, the rear is normally covered whereas mojari is a slip-on. Interestingly, there is no distinction between left shoe and the right one – making it a unique kind of footwear.
Today, the mojari continues to offer both comfort and grace.
Even with royal patronage long gone, Mojaris have stayed, and evolved over the centuries. They remain popular in popular in North India – especially Rajasthan and Punjab where most of the skilled artisans settled. Generation after generation has preserved the skill of mojari-making, adding their own creativity and innovations to the design. This is probably why one can say that the mojari is an embodiment of diverse cultural traditions, history and local flavours.