The Adinkra symbols are believed to have their origin from Gyaman, a
former kingdom in today’s Côte D’Ivoire.
According to an Asante (Ghana) legend Adinkra was the name of a
king of the Gyaman (Nana kofi Adinkra). Adinkra was defeated and
captured in a battle by the Asantes for having copied the “Golden
Stool”, which represents for them absolute power and tribal cohesion.
He was finally killed and his territory annexed to the kingdom of
The tradition had it that Nana Adinkra wore patterned cloth, which was
interpreted as a way of expressing his sorrow on being taken to
Kumasi the capital of Asante.
The Asante people around the 19th century then took to painting of
traditional symbols of the Gyamans onto cloth, a tradition that was
well practiced by the latter.
Adinkra also means ‘goodbye’ or ‘farewell’ in Twi the language of the
Akan ethnic group of which Asante is a part. It has therefore been
the tradition of the Akan especially the Asante to wear cloths
decorated with Adinkra symbols on important occasions especially at
funerals of family relations and friends. This is to signify their sorrow
and to bid farewell to the deceased.
Today, the Adinkra cloth is not exclusively worn by the Asante people.
It is worn by other ethnic groups in Ghana on a variety of social
gatherings and festive occasions
The Adinkra symbols express various themes that relate to the history,
beliefs and philosophy of the Asante. They mostly have rich proverbial
meaning since proverbs play an important role in the Asante culture.
The use of Proverbs is considered as a mark of wisdom.
Other Adinkra symbols depict historical events, human behaviour and
attitudes, animal behaviour, plant life forms and shapes of objects.
The symbols hold great meaning. Each of them has a unique name and meaning derived either from a proverb, a historical event, human attitude, animal behavior, plant life, forms and shapes of inanimate and man-made objects. Their meanings of motifs may be categorized as follows: Aesthetics, Ethics, Human Relations and Religious concepts.Adinkra symbols continue to change as new influences impact Ghanaian culture. For example, the Mercedes Benz logo, the star, has been adopted by the cloth makers. It now represents power and prestige in Ghana. Some exquisite examples of Adinkra cloth are worn at funerals.
In fact, the Adinkra symbols continue to change as new influences
impact on Ghanaian culture as some of the symbols now record
specific technological developments.The Adinkra cloth is stamped or printed with Adinkra symbols. It is
one of the few examples of traditional cloths in Africa.
The Adinkra cloth was hitherto the preserve of the royalty and spiritual
leaders of the Asantes. They wore it during very important sacred
Today the Adinkra cloth is used for a wide range of social activities
such as festivals, marriage, and naming ceremonies among others.
The 3 most important funerary Adinkra are the dark – brown
(kuntunkuni) the brick – red (kobene) and the black (brisi).
There are however, other forms of which cannot be properly called
mourning cloth. Their bright and light backgrounds classify them as
Kwasiada Adinkra or Sunday Adinkra meaning fancy cloths which
cannot be suitable for funerary contents but appropriate for most
festive occasions or even daily wear.
Other uses of the Adinkra symbols
Adinkra symbols can be described as small, symbolic pictures or
motives used to decorate colourful patterned cloth by fashion
designers in Ghana.
Designers in modern times use Adinkra symbols in creating and
decorating other accessories than cloth.
Other artisans/crafts men such as sculptors, carpenters, and architects
also use the symbols to design their products.
Some corporate institutions in Ghana now use the Adinkra symbols as
their institutional Symbol or Logo.
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 screenprinting.
The Adinkra cloth was originally printed from hand carverd stamps
from calabash or gourd (apakyiwa). 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
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.
In recent times imported cloth is used as the background of the cloth.
Sometimes the various symbols are used on one fabric and this also
has its significance.
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.
The original Adinkra cloth is not meant to be washed since it faded
easily as a result of the natural ink used without any chemical
Today, other types of cloth are used with the same adinkra motives
but stamped in indelible colours using the batik method.
Ntonso, a town in the Ashanti Region is noted for Adinkra cloth
production. It is popularly acknowledged as the “Home of Adinkra”
Here are some adrinka symbols and their meanings.
| SANKOFA (Go back to fetch it) Symbol of the wisdom in LEARNING FROM THE PAST in building for the future. Prov. "Se wo were fi na wo sankofa a yenkyi." (It is not taboo to go back and retrieve if you forget.) |
Nana Kweku Tekyi Armah