What on earth is a "ball-tail"?

In DN 23 we have in segment 32.2:

Tasmiṁ kho pana dāne evarūpaṁ bhojanaṁ dīyati kaṇājakaṁ bilaṅgadutiyaṁ, dhorakāni ca vatthāni guḷavālakāni.

At that offering such food as rough gruel with pickles was given, and heavy clothes with ball-tails. (Bhante Sujato’s translation)

The translator comments:

Read dhorakani, from dhura (comm thūlāni). For guḷavālakāni, cp. Kd 15 which has macchavāḷaka for a monk’s (forbidden) robe. It doesn’t make it particularly clear, but at least it’s something.

The most tricky word is guḷavālakāni, here rendered as “ball-tail”.

Even if I can relate to how he came to this translation, from the similarity with macchavāḷaka meaning “fish-tail”, as in this Vinaya passage about robe wearing styles that are not allowable (in Ajahn Brahmali’s translation):

hatthisoṇḍakaṁ, macchavāḷakaṁ, catukaṇṇakaṁ, tālavaṇṭakaṁ, satavalikaṁ.

in the elephant-trunk style, the fish-tail style, the four corner style, the palm-leaf style, and the hundred fold style.

But what is actually a ball-tail? Asking friends who are English native speakers, they couldn’t tell me, nor could any dictionary that I have consulted so far. Maybe Bhante @sujato can help solve the mystery?

Looking into the context, it is in the same line with “such food as rough gruel with pickles”, which is low quality food, so it is supposed to be a sort of low quality cloth or clothing.

My next thought went into how cloth is produced, and I thought I might find a hint there as to what constitutes a low quality cloth with something that should rather not be there.

Looking at the German Wikipedia page on spinning—which is much more detailed than its English counterpart—I find that before the actual spinning process, in the case of cotton the raw fibers need to be cleared of the remnants of seed capsules. We know that cotton was widely in use in India at the time of the Buddha—so could it be that guḷavālakāni are the remnants of seed capsules of cotton?

At least that would certainly make the resulting cloth low quality and would explain why the Brahmin student Uttara who was appointed to organize the offering wasn’t happy with what he had to distribute.


FWIW, Walshe translates it as “ball-fringes” and in a footnote says “These were to weigh the garment down.”

Ajahn Thanissaro calls them “knotted fringe

Personally I’ve just thought of it as the rough edge around old cloth that gets kind of knotted up. But I guess it could also be cheap cloth where the loose ends were just tied together instead of finished.



Looking at the Pali composites as well as the sutta context, I’d say:

“Balled-up clothing tailends” which is essentially be onomatopoeia for “rags”

From the context of the sutta, it is most certainly NOT this:



It probably refers to jute, which is too thick to hem so is finished off with braid or knots.

Modern usage:

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Right, that’s probably what it is, and “knotted fringe” is probably a better rendering.


This may not be exactly related to a mendicant’s robe,

but sārees are one piece of cloth and tassels at the ends are common for decorative purposes ( also to stop fraying)

My grandmother, who never wore anything else in her adult life, would always tie up the end of her work cotton sāree in a knot and sometimes store things like small keys etc in it as well.
We used to play with the tied up end in our hands like a ball.


You don’t happen to have a picture of this?

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From a shawl with knotted edges and tassles. Ball and tail?


Oh, right, I have seen such things. But this really doesn’t look like a second class garment?!

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I also wondered if this was the case. Below is an image of carded (rather than combed cotton) ready for spinning.


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This one is a fine garment! But is also wool so finishing is different to cotton. But with cotton hemp etc any item with a boarder or sewn hem will be far better, more labour intensive and more expensive than something that is simply finished with knots, I suppose?

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I am not sure. I have done some sewing, but never did knotting. Making a straight hem doesn’t seem that hard to me, but fiddling all the threads together to make these knots rather does …

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I don’t have a picture of the knot because it would be behind the shoulder as you drape the sāree so the last bit falls behind your shoulder. This is the best I’ve got :grin:

I have an old thin cotton one my mom was throwing out, it’s not finished as you can see

This would be how the knot looked. Bit bigger sometimes depending on what was inside. It did bounce around and she would tuck it into her waist for safety.
Work wear sārees usually are left like this.

The fancy ones are fringed with tassels image

Looks very much like a ball and tail


Thanks for the pictures! Is this you, the small one with your grand-mother? :wink:

This confirms that this is not what is considered second-class clothing. So the guḷavālakāni should rather be something else.


Yes :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:.
Also the fall at the back is not on the selvedge so it has to be finished or it will eventually fray.
Even when you purchase a sāree these days you have to pay extra for finishing touches like tassels.