The historic city of Varanasi on the banks of the river Ganga was once famous for the cotton fabrics it produced before we got the Banarasi silk saree that we know today. Varanasi’s ability to keep up with demands that kept changing with time have made its textile industry so renowned all over the world. Banarasi sarees have become iconographic of the prowess and skill of the Indian handloom industry. Let’s look at what a Banarasi saree is and where it comes from!
What is the history of Banarasi sarees?
Varanasi was already famous for the quality of cotton fabric that is produced. It was said that the softness of the water from the river Ganga did good for its bleaching. Trade and pilgrim routes have merged and met in this city to give us the coveted Banarasi saree replete with its Chinese, Persian, and South Asian influences. While Buddha is known to have sanctioned the use of silk shawls for monks, silk only gained prominence in this city after the arrival of the Mughals, especially during Akbar's reign in the 16th Century.
The unparalleled skill of the weavers coupled with demands from royalty encouraged the industry to grow. They are even said to have had precious stones encrusted in the garments in addition to the usage of pure gold and silver zari. Varanasi soon grew to become the textile capital of the region.
Brocade weaving, however, became a part of the Banarasi fabric when skilled Brocade weavers from Gujarat migrated to Banaras because of a drought in the 17th Century. For a long time, Banarasi silk was used mainly for furnishing fabrics and turban cloths. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the Banarasi silk saree gained prominence!
One look at the motifs is enough to see the Persian influences in the making and evolution of this fabric. You can see them in the most commonly used butis, paisley, jhallar, bel and shikargah motifs.
Where do Banarasi sarees really come from and what makes Banaras so integral to their creation?
The sarees of Varanasi hold a strong connection with its ghats. They both represent the confluence of stories and cultures in the oldest city in India. They represent the ever-changing times that demand newer innovations. While the methods of making it have evolved, the styles have remained more or less the same; the ‘modern’ styles are often inspired from the ancient patterns. And the Banarasi brocade is, like it always has, here to stay, for a long time.
Brocade is a speciality of the Banarasi fabric. It is a type of weave in which patterns are created by thrusting zari threads at intervals so as to create the design-motifs inspired from life and nature. A drawloom or Jalla was used to weave the brocade fabric. With the advancements in technology, the drawloom has now been replaced by Jacquard looms.
Karkhanas or weaving centres are spread out across and around the city of Varanasi. They house kaarigars or weavers who work under a master weaver. A master weaver has anywhere around 15-20 weavers training or employed under him.
How has the art of making a Banarasi saree evolved to the present day?
While the influence and impact of the Mughals on this garment cannot be refuted, it is interesting to know that the silk used to make these sarees was once imported from China! The silk that is now used to make Banarasi sarees is procured from South India.
Varanasi has witnessed centuries of the handmade textile evolution. This has obviously resulted in changes in preference of colours, patterns and styles. Floral patterns, animal and bird patterns, butidar designs, jaals and even designs inspired by Victorian style wallpapers and geometrical patterns have been popular at different times in the history of a Banarasi silk saree.
Today’s fashion trends are a mix of these traditional patterns and modern colours and styles. Banarasi sarees are often named after the motifs and patterns woven in them.
L-R: Paithani border with small butis, Kalga and bel motifs, Shikargah motif
Why are Banarasi sarees considered familial heirlooms?
If a style has to survive from the time of the Mughals to the world we now live in, it most certainly has to be timeless! Made of real gold and silver zari and the finest quality of silk, the Banarasi saree, in addition to precious jewellery has been handed down from the older to the younger generations.
A Banarasi saree has been an important part of almost every Indian bride's wedding trousseau. The high quality material and weaves that incorporate the rich zari designs lend durability to this fine garment. All one has to do is handle them with care.
Banarasi sarees have always kept up with the changing times because they are a representation of the changing times.
What makes them truly wonderful is that the designs and patterns incorporated into the garments' fabric have always made a statement of their own. And by the looks of it will continue to do so!