Weave and Repeat

28 November 2016

Get acquainted with the charpoy, a highly versatile piece of traditional Punjabi furniture.  

While the name “charpoy” may not ring a bell with the Internet generation, Malaysians who grew up before the ’80s would remember this iconic Indian daybed. Before the advent of modern security firms, it was common for banks and shops to employ a Punjabi night watchman. To stay vigilant through the long hours, he would bring along a light and airy bedstead traditionally made of woven jute stretched on a wooden frame to sleep on, which he carried off in the morning, balanced on his head.

The charpoy, which means four legs, was essential furniture in India before it caught on in nations with a sizeable Punjabi diaspora such as Malaysia. Because of its versatile design, it can serve as a bench, footstool, coffee table and bedside table, while the bigger charpoys are used as a sofa. Unbeknownst to many, the charpoy originally began as a place to lay the Sikh holy book.

We find this out from Arvinder Singh, a third-generation charpoy maker in Ipoh who learned the craft from his father Sokbber Singh, a highly-skilled charpoy maker who picked up the skill from his parents. However, Sokbber did not develop the trade as a full-time business until the early ’90s. Then serving as a priest in a Perak temple, he noticed that the jute strings of the charpoys in the temple were degrading rapidly due to exposure to humidity and heat. With wear and tear, even the wooden frames began to rot. It didn’t help that Malaysians knew little about repairing the charpoys. Back then, most Punjabi families imported their charpoy directly with India.

Convinced that his beloved holy books deserved better, Sokbber began making them in a space allocated by the temple. He was helped by his wife Rajwinder Kaur, a Punjab native who was a skilled weaver. With experience, he grew more innovative as well. He replaced the jute strings with nylon cords since the latter was more durable, easy to source and more cost-effective. Over the years, their charpoy offerings have expanded to include contemporary versions that feature multi-coloured strings and decorative carved legs.

Since Arvinder and his wife Manpreet have joined the fray, Ar Win Enterprise has grown into a thriving business that occupies two shoplots in Ipoh Old Town. The crafting and assembling of the bed frame are carried out at an empty space behind the Gurdwara in Tronoh while the weaving is done at their home in Gunung Rapat on the outskirts of Ipoh. In addition to charpoy, Ar Win Enterprise supplies traditional implements of Punjabi culture such as musical instruments, trouser suits, kirpans (swords) and holy books.

With only a handful of families dedicated to charpoy making, business is brisk. They also get orders from countries as far as England and Australia. However, the complexity of the craft means they can make only a limited number each month – no more than six manjaas (big beds) and 30 piris (small tables). Making a good charpoy is skill-intensive, time-consuming and often involves the family, especially the bigger units.

The process begins with the careful selection of seasoned hardwood timbers with well-formed, uniform grain. Ar Win Enterprise uses Malaysian hardwood such as merbau and cengal. These timbers are then joined together without using any nails or screws. After that, a coat of varnish is applied for a shiny finish.

The frame is then passed over to the stringers to weave their magic. The process starts with tying the main knot, followed by the main weave and finally the addition of tension strings to add strength to the charpoy. The charpoys are then stamped with an identity number and finally wrapped, ready for delivery.

When we arrive at their premises, Arvinder, Manpreet and Rajwinder are completing a 6.5 by 3.5 feet charpoy, the size of a single bed. A charpoy of this size needs at least two people to complete. Each person takes a corner like a goalkeeper, armed with coils of nylon rope in hand, and knots towards the centre of the frame.

As we watch the family laugh and banter as they work together, it becomes clear why the charpoy is so beloved in Punjabi culture. It bonds the people who use them, and brings the family of makers closer together.

Once a common sight, the Punjabi night watchman has become a history footnote, but his trusty accessory the charpoy has experienced a renaissance of sorts. It’s becoming popular among non-Punjabi customers, possibly because of the purported health benefits. “Sleeping on a charpoy helps to reduce backache and the gaps in between the weaving translate into better ventilation,” says Arvinder.

Then there are boutique hotels, one of them being Ipoh’s own Sekeping Kong Heng, that choose to install charpoys instead of regular beds. And why not? Apart from the novelty value, there’s also the unbeatable comfort: airy and light, a charpoy feels a lot like a hammock on legs. Give it a try, and you may just want to trade your regular bed for a charpoy.

Ar Win Enterprise 13 Jalan Sultan Yussuf, Ipoh, Perak (+6012 452 7128). Open daily, 10am-8pm.

By Alexandra Wong

This article is related to CULTURE SHOPPING BUSINESS


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