The Story Of Adinkra Ghanaian Textile


[dropcap custom_class=”normal”] Adinkra Ghanaian Textile is a printed traditional cotton cloth made by the Asante people in Ghana which has Akan symbols stamped on it. The centre of production is the village of Ntonso.[/dropcap]

It is said that, when the printers are asked how long the cloth has been made, they say, “We Ashanti don’t use dates or numbers. It was a long, long time ago”.

During a military conflict at the beginning of the nineteenth century, caused by the Gyaaman trying to copy the neighbouring Asante’s ‘golden stool’ (the symbol of the Asante nation), the Gyaaman king was killed.

His adinkra robe was taken by Nana Osei Bonsu-Panyin, the Asante Hene (Asante King), as a trophy. With the robe came the knowledge of adinkra aduru (the special ink used in the printing process) and the process of stamping the designs onto cotton cloth.

Over time the Asante further developed adinkra symbology, incorporating their own philosophies, folk-tales and culture. Adinkra symbols were also used on pottery, metal work (especially abosodee), and are now incorporated into modern commercial designs (where their related meanings give added significance to the product), architecture and sculpture.

adinkra textile

One theory held by the spiritual Akan, is that Adinkra came with the Asantehene’s golden stool. In Asante history there is belief that Okomfo Anokye, the first chief priest, called upon the heavens to bring down the golden stool, an artifact that came to symbolize the power of the first king of the Asante nation, Osei Tutu as well as the power of every succeeding Asantehene.

This theorist believed that Adinkra cloth was on top of the stool brought down from the heavens, which placed Adinkra’s origin in the seventh century.

A more credible yet disproven theory, which comes from oral traditions, is that Adinkra was obtained after the Asante-Gyaman war of 1818. This theory claims that Adinkra was obtained after 1818, when Adinkra Kofi, the king of Gyaman (now Ivory Coast), was brought to Kumasi, the home of the Asante, as a prisoner of war. The theory went that King Adinkra offended the Asantehene by claiming that he had a golden stool, which turned out to be an imitation of the Asantehene’s, causing a war to erupt. (Abissath, M.K and Korem, A.K., 2004 “Traditional wisdom in African Proverbs)

According to this theory when he was brought as a prisoner to Kumasi, King Adinkra wore robes with the Adinkra symbols on them and that is where the Akan got the symbols from. However, there is no actual evidence to support this theory because there are no remnants of Adinkra Kofi’s cloth. Also the reason why these symbols were kept is not explained in this theory either.

Adinkra bellafricana

The Asante-Gyaman theory has been unfounded because historians have discovered that King Adinkra was killed in the war and never brought as a prisoner to Kumasi. When this was revealed the Asante-Gyaman theorists began to argue that the Asante obtained the symbols from other prisoners of war. They also claimed that King Adinkra’s body was found with stamped cloth on it. Kojo Arthur, however, argues that these theorists cling to the idea that the symbols were obtained from the king of Gyaman simply because his name was Adinkra.

The Asante-Gyaman war theory has also been debunked by the Bowdich theory, which provides powerful proof that the Asante had Adinkra symbols before the war with King Adinkra Kofi. Thomas E. Bowdich was sent to Ghana by the British government in 1817 and when he returned he published a book called Mission from Cape Coast to Ashantee in 1819. This is the first European account of the Asante and includes a now famous drawing made in 1817 of an Akan celebration called the Odwira Festival in Kumasi. The drawing shows Akan men wearing clothes with repeating symbols on them, Adinkra cloth, and Bowdich also collected some of the cloth, now in a British museum, which is verified as being obtained in 1817, a year before the Asante-Gyaman war.

Therefore, the Bowdich theory proves that the Akan did not obtain Adinkra cloth from the Gyaman because the war began a year after Bowdich recorded the Akan wearing the stamped cloth.

A theory created by Professor A.K. Quarcoo, a Ghanaian scholar on Adinkra, attempts to make sense of the oral accounts that have led to Asante-Gyaman, the Bowdich, and the Bron theory. Quarcoo claims that Adinkra was obtained after the Asante defeated the state of Denkyira, which ruled over the Asante, in Osei-Ntim War in 1701. During this time Quarcoo explains that the Asante were first introduced to Adinkra when it was made by guild designers for the kings of Denkyira, Takyiman, and Asante.

However, the Asante had not acquired the technique for making Adinkra since it was made for them. So when they defeated the Denkyira nation, which included the Dorm these theorists believe the Asante learned from craftsmen that were captured during the war. However it was not until the Asante-Gyaman war of 1818 that additional technological improvements were made to the textile industry. These improvements were obtained from King Adinkra Kofi’s son, Adinkra Apaa, who was spared during the war and forced to teach the Asante more about Adinkra. Oral accounts have attested to the fact that Adinkra Apaa taught the process to a man named Kwaku Dwaku in a town near Kumasi.

Quarcoo also explains how the oral accounts that place King Adinkra Kofi as the introducer of Adinkra cloth may have gotten mixed up. During the Asante-Denkyira war in 1701 when Quarcoo theorists believe the Asante were first introduced to Adinkra, the King of the Gyaman, Dormaa at that time, was Adinkra Panin. The name Adinkra Panin and Adinkra Kofi obviously share adinkra in the name which is most likely why oral accounts have mistaken Adinkra Panin, who ruled at the same time as the second king the Asantehene Opuku Ware in the late 17th century, for Adinkra Kofi. However, this is all speculation considering there are only oral historical accounts of events.

According to another theorist Danquah, the name Adinkra may have not come from Adinkra Kofi or Adinkra Panin. Danquah believes that the word ‘Adinkra’ comes from the Akan word nkra or nkara meaning message or intelligence since the Asantes believed that the ancestors carried messages to and from God. Therefore the symbols may have been named Adinkra because the Akan believed the Adinkra cloth the dead wore were messages to God. Also Adkinra could have come from the exile of the Asantehene, Prempeh I, by the British because he refused to give them the golden stool when he was sent into exile, Prempeh I was wearing the cloth usually called ntiamu ntoma (stamped cloth), the original name for Adinkra cloth. However, after he was exiled the cloth became known as adi nkra ntoma, or parting cloth. Many Adinkra cloth producers still refer to the cloth as ntiamu ntoma, which supports that the change in name was possibly based on this one event but was not the first and only name given to the cloth.

Process of making Adinkra cloth

The Asante people have developed their unique art of adinkra printing. They use two traditional printing methods; the block-stamp technique, which involves the use of wooden or metal stamps and the screen printing. The Adinkra cloth was originally printed from hand carved stamps from calabash or gourd (apakyiwa).


printing adinkra bellafricana

The dye or ink (adinkra aduru) for printing is derived from the bark of the Badie and the roots of the kuntunkuni trees. The bark and roots are soaked in water for days to soften. They are then pounded to increase the softening process. The Badie bark is boiled with iron scraps. When the colour (deep brown) emerges from the pulp it is sieved and engraved onto a piece of calabash or pot.

The kuntunkuni roots are also boiled into a dark solution to dye the cloth black. The Cloth is dipped and soaked in the solution. It has to be dried several times before it turns completely black. The cloth is normally dyed in either red or black. For the red Adinkra cloth, a chemical called Sudi is used instead of the kuntunkuni root.

The Calabash Stamps

calabash stamp bellafricana digest

The stamps are made from the shell of a particular type of gourd fruit called calabash. The inside of a dry, thick-skinned calabash is covered with shea butter for a year to slightly soften it. Then the outer skin is scraped with a knife, and the pattern is drawn onto it with a pencil, then the negative space is carved away with a gouge. The various stamps carved from the calabash are tinted with dye and pressed in sequence onto plain cotton cloth, pegged on the ground. Today raised platforms with sack covering act as the printing table. The designing is done according to the message the wearer or owner of the cloth intends to convey to the participants of the event. The quality of the cloth also shows the status of the one wearing it.

Adinkra cloth printing

First the printer makes a grid pattern on the cloth using a comb-like tool. Then the symbol block is dipped into the paste ink, and then stamp it onto the cloth in linear designs, the cloth makers repeat the process. The dye dries to a glossy black finish. The designs printed on the cloth have different meaning related to saying and spiritual beliefs.


The Adinkra symbols are believed to have their origin from Gyaman, a former kingdom in today’s Côte D’Ivoire.  The symbols have a decorative function but also represent objects that encapsulate evocative messages that convey traditional wisdom, historical events, human behaviour and attitudes, animal behaviour, plant life, forms and shapes of objects. There are many different symbols with distinct meanings, often linked with proverbial meaning since proverbs play an important role in the Asante culture. The use of Proverbs is considered as a mark of wisdom. The each symbol has a special meaning, and some have been passed on for over 100.

Stylistically Adinkra symbols are “based on various observations and associations between humans and objects, flora and fauna scenes, the human body and its parts, and elements of nature, [geometric] and abstract ideas”. Therefore, Adinkra are pictorial designs of birds, vines, chains, body parts, all of which represent more than their image and are understood within the context of Asante culture. Over time, many old symbols have lost their significance as new symbols were created. The emergence of new symbols is reflective of the new ideas that have developed as a result of social, cultural, and historical changes.

Adinkra symbols and their meanings have transcended time yet they have adapted to the social, cultural, and historical changes that characterize modern Ghanaian society.

An example of this is the Adinkra symbol of a chain link that was created before the slave trade with Europeans. When the symbol was created it stood for law and justice reflecting that in the past people who committed crimes were sold into slavery.  However, in present day Ghana the symbol does not stand for the possibility of becoming a slave but rather for “the uncompromising nature of the law” and the price for committing a crime being imprisonment.

Another symbol that has adapted to changes throughout time is the symbol Gye Nyame or ‘except for god’. This symbol in the past reflected the Akan’s belief in the supremacy of God. Today it also stands for the supremacy of God; however, it is applied to the Christian God. Often Adinkra symbols are not recognized for the messages that they communicate but rather their aesthetic features. Adinkra appears on a variety of art mediums, “textiles, pottery, architecture and much more.

While Adinkra is valued for its link to art, outsiders of the Asante culture do not value the symbols for what they visually communicate such as “proverbs, parables and maxims. More importantly, Adinkra is a means of communication, particularly in the Asante language Twi (but the ideas can also be expressed in other languages because the symbols do not represent sounds) and are used to give advice or warnings. They are also a “translation of thoughts and ideas, expressing and symbolizing the values and beliefs of the people among whom they occur”.

Some of Adinkra symbols are shown below;

  Adinkrahene ‘Chief of Adinkra symbols’ Symbol means: Greatness, Charisma, Leadershipadinkrahene

akobenAkoben ‘War Horn’ Symbol means: Vigilance, Wariness

Mmere Dane  ‘Time Changes’ Symbol means: Change, Life’s dynamics
Nyame Nti  ‘By Gods Grace’ Symbol means: Faith, Trust in God
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