I thought I’d let you know an exciting bit of information – I got a new saṅghāti yesterday!
The sanghati is the ‘outer robe’, the third of the three robes of bhikkhu. The other two are the lower robe, like a sarong (in Pali, antaravāsaka) and the upper robe (uttarasaṅga), which is the main robe you’ll see monks and nuns wearing.
Bhikkhunis have an extra two robes. They have a ‘bathing cloth’, which is used mainly for bathing outdoors. And also the somewhat mysterious ‘saṅkacchika’, which is a cloth that covers the breasts. Some regard this as a ‘vest’, but I’ve never seen a woman wearing a vest in ancient Indian artwork. Women in ancient India usually went topless, but it seems a simple cloth was sometimes tied across the breasts. See, for example, the woman on the right in this ancient fresco from Sri Lanka, or this Indian sculpture (pg. 96).
The sanghati is double-layered, and is used to provide extra warmth and protection. Often, the sanghati is hardly used, although in some strict Vinaya traditions they will wear the sanghati outside the uttarasanga when in the village, or just when on alms-round. Otherwise it’s used like a cloak for warmth, or as a bed sheet. In Thailand, the sanghati is used almost entirely for ceremonial purposes: you’ll see the Thai monks when in formal occasions have a folded robe draped over their left shoulder – that’s the sanghati.
I got my sanghati when I was in Bodhinyana, about 13 years ago. It’s been with me ever since. Now, it’s just looking too sad. There comes a point when the cloth just wears out, and patching really doesn’t work any more. Luckily, we had one in our stores that is suitable, so that’s it.
When we’re finished with our old robes, we don’t throw them away. They can have plenty of uses: as a bedsheet, a rag, stuffing for a cushion… Everything is recycled.