Despite the chaos there is always an air of serenity on the ghats of Varanasi (Benaras). A sense of being part of a continuum. Of being one of the billions of people who have stood exactly where you have over millennia and wondered about life and death. So it is ironical that this city of death or salvation, whichever way you look at it, is also home to one of the most opulent extravagances of the world - the spectacular silks that have been woven here for centuries.
Over the centuries pilgrim routes and trade routes converged at Varanasi.
Bizarre as it may sound the ghats and the silks of Varanasi have a strong connection - they both represent a confluence of roads and travelers who have passed through this city. Over the centuries pilgrim routes and trade routes converged to interweave through the looms of Benaras. Not surprisingly then, that pick any classic Banarasi sari, and you will find influences from all over - Persia, China, South East Asia and different parts of the Indian subcontinent, as well.
Banarasi cotton finds mention in Buddhist texts dating back to 500-800 CE
Varanasi was a well-known cotton weaving hub during the early Buddhist period. The fineness of the cottons of Varanasi has been mentioned in early texts like the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, a Buddhist text, dating back to 500-800 CE. In this work there is mention of how vihita kappasa or calendared cloth (calendaring is a process used to make paper or cloth smooth and glossy) , from Varanasi was used to cover the mortal remains of an important ruler as it does not absorb oil. Majjhima Nikaya, another Buddhist scripture dating back to the 3rd-2nd century BCE, also talks about the fineness of the cotton produced in Varanasi, the skills of the women spinners and weavers and the softness of the water which was considered to be good for bleaching. During this period silk, too, was produced in Varanasi and it is said that Buddha sanctioned the use of kauseya-pravara (silken shawls) or chadar to the bhikkhus or Buddhist monks.
Even though the usage of silk fabric has been mentioned in Buddhist Texts, it was mainly the cotton industry that flourished during the ancient times. It gained more prominence during the time of Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605 CE) and it is during his time that the influx of Persian motifs, because of the influence of Persian masters in his courts, took place.
Persian motifs gained prominence in the designs during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar
However, brocade weaving gained prominence with the influx of skilled brocade weavers who migrated from Gujarat in the 17th century CE and enriched the craft with their skills, techniques and designs which, later, got incorporated into the Banarasi silk sari. The influx from Persia and Central Asia led to the evolution of the workmanship that involved the use of zari made of gold and silver and the procuring of certain silk material from China and Central Asia to create the weaves we see today.
The Banarasi silk gained prominence only in the 19th century CE
For a long time, Banarasi silk was used mainly for furnishing fabrics, light turban cloths, yardages and loom-engineered garments and it reached its peak during Shah Jahan’s time (1628-1657 CE). However, it was only in the 19th century CE that the quintessential Banarasi silk sari gained prominence. The combination of these influences can further be seen in the motifs of a Banarasi silk sari.
Look at the motifs and you will see how complex and varied the influences have been. In fact, over the centuries weavers here have even developed a hierarchy and system that makes this specialisation possible. Different weaver gharanas or houses specialise in different kinds of weaves and they have their own pocket boroughs across the old city.
For instance, the weavers of Mauval Gharana, residing in the northern part of Varanasi, were of Gujarati origin and followed the standard norm of design. The designs mainly comprised corner-paisley (konia), diagonally-flowing shrubs (ari-jhari) and figure-centric embellishments which are loosely termed as shikargarh.
The weavers of Banaraswal Gharana, residing in the central-southern parts of the town were more open to design experimentation thanks mainly to the patronage the gharana received and the their pan-India trade. However, two Mauval nakshabands, or designers belonging to the Mauval Gharana during the ‘Empire of India’ exhibition in London in 1895 CE, added a new range of designs inspired by European wall-papers which remained in vogue until the 1940s.
Different weaver gharanas or houses specialise in different kinds of weaves
The Different Banarasis
The Butidar sari is a quintessential example of the many influences that have worked their way into the Banarasi loom. These saris are marked by gold and silver thread work, showcasing the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Jamuna whose waters are believed to be black and white respectively. The commonly used motifs here include flowers, betel leaves, the moon, and tiny flowers.
The Jamdani, considered to be the finest among the Banarasi silk saris, is a blend of cotton and silk. While the fabric used is silk, cotton threads are woven onto it. The motifs include embroidered Jasmine, emeralds, flowers like the marigold, betel leaves, diagonal stripes and floral mango brocades.
Tanchoi, another popular variety of Banarasi Silk has an interesting story behind it. It’s believed that around 1856 CE three weavers from a Joshi family of Surat were commissioned by Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy, a Parsi Merchant, to travel to China and learn the skill of weaving this particular silk. On returning, they adopted the name of their Chinese Teacher, Chhoi, who had taught them the skill of silk weaving. Tan, close to the Gujarati word tran meaning ‘three’, referred to the three brothers. Hence, the silk came to be known as Tanchoi. The fabric made its way to India through Gujarat. It got incorporated into the Banarasi silk industry only in the 1950s. In Varanasi, the Tanchoi fabric has paisley motifs all over the sari and is highly inspired by the Jamawar shawls of Kashmir.
The Jangla has motifs made of the muga silk, an indigenous silk from Assam. The sari has motifs of spread vegetation wherein the flowers and creepers are made of silver and gold threads respectively. The borders have brocades made of muga silk and silver zari.
The Banarasi Tissue sari, often part of wedding trousseau has densely patterned lotuses on it, done with gold zari, seen floating in a glimmering pond. The effect of ‘drops of water’ is created by using the cut-work technique. The borders have a diamond pattern which is enclosed by a running paisley. These motifs were, perhaps, inspired by Buddhism since clouds, lotus flowers and flames as motifs are said to have been made by the weavers of Benaras for Buddhist monasteries earlier.
DID YOU KNOW
The Banarasi brocades have been the most showcased of the Banarasi saris internationally and were, in fact, on display at the Great Exhibition at London in 1851 CE.