You may have seen them recently in various art depictions, as vintage side decorations, or in an Etsy boho shop and have been wondering what these pieces are and where they are from. As a cultural and historical item of furniture, the charpai has been used in many countries (most notably, India) for thousands of years. This traditional alternative to a modern bed has many uses while maintaining an intricate, yet simple, structure.
Known to be widely used in areas across South Asia, the charpai (Hindi: चारपाई, Urdu: چارپائی) is a hand-woven rope bed from the Indian subcontinent. As time and knowledge have increased the popularity of charpais, metal frames and various other materials have been used to construct the small bed. Depending on the region and maker, the wooden posts can often be delicately carved with beautiful shapes, while distinctive patterns or designs can be artfully interlaced within the weave.
For something so simple, you may begin to wonder what the appeal is and why this bed has made its way from rural India to nations across the globe. As you will see, the charpai is not just a bed. In many ancient homes, it tells a story, it can bring comfort to the most disadvantaged, and it serves as a rock or foundation for many families.
A Bed With Many Names
Also known as a charpoy, charpaya, Manji, or khatt, the word charpai translates to “four feet (or footed).” Distinctly different from modern beds with no headboard or footboard, how did this small cot with all of its names travel so far from its modest beginning?
It makes sense that India’s neighboring countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan (collectively known as the Indian Subcontinent) would develop their own versions of the charpai. However, its presence in distant countries has often been attributed to Moroccan traveler and scholar Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Battuta in the Middle Ages. Later, through British colonization, the charpai was introduced to other foreign countries.
Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Battuta was a well-known explorer throughout India and Asia, primarily visiting many Muslim nations in the 1300s. When he arrived in India, he was impressed with many Indian cultural aspects, including the charpai. He noted that it was sufficient enough to be used without extra bedding or effort, making it light and ideal for travelers. While the exact dates are unknown of the making of the original charpai, we can assume they go as far back as 1350, with thanks to Ibn Battuta and his travels to India. (Source)
During the British colonization of India in the 18th century, the charpai was commonly used among soldiers due to the lightness and ease of transporting it from place to place. This led to a rise in use and popularity in countries such as Malaysia when Sikhs were recruited as part of the colonial police force. At the same time, the charpai was also taken to other British colonies as well as to Europe itself, where aspects of the charpai were used in colonial daybed designs.
It can be said that the recognition of the quality of the charpai has led to its widespread use even as far as Sudan, where their angareeb has taken on characteristics of the traditional Indian bed. (Source)
Why Use the Charpai?
With a simple design that has held up for thousands of years, it’s easy to see why even modern versions of the charpai have remained consistent. Throughout history, reliability and convenience are often factors when it comes to the test of time. The charpai is no different and is an excellent ancient example of “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” Here are some of the functional reasons for why a charpai continues to be used.
- It is easy to move – Made of all lightweight materials, the charpai is known for being easy to transport, either during travel or from room to room. When not being used for sleep, the charpai is easy to stand up on its side to make more room in the home or can be taken outdoors for additional seating.
- It saves space – Similar to being convenient to move around, the charpai offers something that modern beds do not – the option of more room. Due to the small size of many households, making use of all available space is essential for day-to-day living. The average bed cannot be quickly picked up and shifted to a new location or packed away when it isn’t being used. Additionally, if the charpai is being used as both the bed and the couch, there is no need to purchase both items.
- It keeps cool – This bed is often used in areas of high humidity and warm temperatures. The charpai is useful for elevating sleepers off of the floor, and also providing a breathable sleeping surface. Because of the woven material, it easily allows air to pass through, keeping the body cooler than traditional mattresses.
- It doesn’t require bedding – One notable benefit of sleeping on a charpai is that it’s intended to be used without a mattress, blankets, or even a pillow. Not only simplistic in design, but it’s also easy to use in practice.
Common Uses of the Charpai
We know that the charpai has long been used as a convenient bed with minimal effort, but the widespread use of this cot may also be credited to its many other applications. What started out as a bed in impoverished communities, has become a multi-use piece of furniture in many homes. Here are different ways that the charpai has been used in India and around the world for thousands of years.
- Seating – When not sleeping, the next best way to make use of a charpai is for seating. Having extra seating has proven to be especially helpful in areas of poverty where furniture can be costly, or simply where space is limited. Because it is a sturdy structure, larger versions have become a cultural staple for gathering and socializing.
- As a table – The tightly woven material is often made strong enough to support meals, if necessary, and has more recently been transformed to be used as a coffee or side table. These modern versions are often smaller in surface area but maintain the traditional charpai design.
- Meditation – The charpai doesn’t just double as social seating, but can also be used for individual activities such as meditation. Because it is so easy to move, you can take this seat to your favorite place to sit in peace, with minimal effort. The straightforward design also makes it easy to use with an additional cushion or back support, if needed.
- Decoration – Perhaps lately, your Pinterest has been slowly introducing small charpai beds or chairs in your interior design pins, often next to a plush bed or couch. Most of us wouldn’t be able to imagine going from the luxury of a modern bed to the simplicity of a charpai; however, as a design feature, it’s becoming increasingly popular. In a pinch, this conversational piece can be used as anything you need it to be.
- Traditional uses – The charpai also maintains many cultural uses that aren’t typically required in Western civilizations. These uses can include dowries when a woman is married, carrying the sick or dying to the hospital, as a barrier to separate rooms without walls, to dry clothing or foods, and a cradle for newborns. The owner may not always require these uses of a charpai, but they show the diversity of the small bed.
What Makes the Charpai Stand Out?
Despite being rich in history and culture, one may wonder how this bedding design is different from modern or standard cots, or even from other handwoven beds from other cultures. For example, we’ve seen here how useful Japanese tatami mats can be for those who want to begin sleeping on the floor.
The easy answer to the question is for ventilation. Because of the braiding, the air is able to flow under and through the bedding, making it easier for heat to be released. In extreme weather conditions, this could prove to be vital for comfort when sleeping. Woven beds that lie directly on the floor or cots made of non-breathable material will not help the body to cool down in hot or humid climates.
Another reason why a charpai is different from a regular cot or mat is that the netting is made to be repaired or replaced. When you consider a tatami mat or canvas cot, once the material has been worn away after time and use, the bed is no longer usable. With a charpai, however, the frame is designed for the longevity and continued use of the bed. Being able to change the weave makes the charpai not only long-lasting but also adds to the history of it as many beds are passed down from generation to generation.
The Charpai Today
While most people in the Western world may not be ready to throw out their king-sized bed in favor of the traditional charpai, this modest little bed has managed to find its way into contemporary homes all over as decoration, extra seating, and various other uses (poolside lounge chairs, anyone?). One could easily say that this unique piece of furniture has ancient roots that stem from hard times, but has managed to show its strength and versatility over many lifetimes.
Whether you own one as a conversational addition to the room, sleep on one, or are looking to buy one, bringing a part of Indian culture into your home is an excellent way to keep its history from fading away.
Given its modern day appeal a truly original handwoven Charpai is both difficult to find and maintain. So I have instead put together a list of awesome alternatives (from Amazon) that I have personally bought that have been a great addition to my house:
- Vivere Double Cotton Hammock – Provides airflow, cooling, and portability similar to a Charpai.
- SpaceMaster iBED Cot – Portability and ability to be stored away without using much space. Strength, durability, and convenience that embodies the core design features of a Charpai.