The word ‘zari’ exudes opulence, beauty and grace and has been adding glitter and glamour to our wardrobes for centuries. But what is the story behind this rich and regal tradition? Although zari, as we know it today, is more closely linked to its Persian roots, especially the Mughal period, the fact is that gold and silver thread weaving was being done in India well before that.
Researchers tell us that the sacred cloth of gold, or hiranya mentioned in the Rig Veda, is the equivalent of present-day brocades or garments woven with zari. While the precise birthplace of this craft is uncertain, some of the earliest references are from China and Egypt. However, textiles expert Dr Vandana Bhandari from NIFT-Delhi writes in her book Jewelled Textiles: Gold And Silver Embellished Cloth of India that it is the craft as practiced in India that is most documented and appreciated the world over.
Both written and sculptural sources testify to the presence of rich embroidery on scarves, veils, shawls and leather items from the time of the Kushans (1st century CE) but it was the Guptas (4th-6th centuries CE) who ushered in a period of prolific activity in the arts and crafts. Here, the paintings of Ajanta constitute a significant historical source.
Indian women are depicted in gold-embroidered clothes with gold paint.
An important literary source was Acaranga Sutra, the great 6th century CE sacred work in Jain literature that mentions gold embroidered material as something that should be shunned by monks.
Banabhatta, biographer of King Harshavardhana of Kannauj (590-647 CE), in his texts Harshcharitamanas and Kadambari writes in great detail about various clothes and footwear embellished with gold and precious stones. Similar references are found in the 8th century Sanskrit classic, Kuttanimatam by Damodargupta, the minister of Jayapida Vinayaditya of Kashmir. Detailed references to gold- and metal-thread clothing abound at this time as word of India’s riches spread far and wide and trade activity increased. The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant, in the 13th century, details the riches of the Tamil Pandya kingdom. He writes of carrying back cushions and mats ‘skillfully embroidered with gold and silver wire’.
Apart from a boost in the textile trade, another major factor that led to an increase in demand for embroidery of this kind was an increase in the gold trade across the Silk Road, whose expansion as a major overland trade route received a thrust with the rise of Islam. The faith spread from Arabia to Central Asia and touched the shores of India in 712 CE.
Accounts of gold-embroidered textiles are numerous in Arabic literature and these exquisite creations stirred the imagination of weavers and embroiderers in India. These, in turn, were infused with the creativity of Indian craftsmen and their numerous influences including the folk idiom. From these came a variety of new ways of embellishment, and textiles from the subcontinent became increasingly sought after.
Gold and silver embroidery in India attained new heights of perfection with the establishment of Muslim empires in the subcontinent. Zari was used on brocades, velvets, coats, trappings, harnesses, canopies, tent fabric, wall hangings, floor spreads and even shoes! In fact, it is mentioned by Shihab Al Umari (1300-1349), the biographer in Muhammad Bin Tughlaq’s court of Delhi, as well as in the accounts of the various Delhi Sultanate era historians like Ziyauddin Barani, Ibn Batuta and others.
The Sultanate period gave further impetus to the craft. Robes embroidered in gold and silver to be presented to royal guests became a fashion. Perhaps the most significant reference is in the Futahat-i-Firozshahi, memoirs of Firoz Shah Tughlaq, who not only identified the different types of clothing and their use but perhaps also, for the first time, gave currency to the word ‘zardozi’(‘zar’ for gold and ‘dozi’ for work). This was also the period when the art form became institutionalized with the establishment of workshops or karkhanas.
The art simultaneously flourished in other parts of India as well, such as Gujarat, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, and medieval Hindu kingdoms in and around the Deccan began to use Persian terms for the gold- and silver-embroidered cloth that they were already producing.
As Bhandari notes, in the past, only those who ranked high in the social hierarchy – royalty and the priestly class – had the privilege and honour of wearing garments and using garments embellished with precious metalwork. Copper, bronze, tin, platinum, iron and lead were also commonly used in ancient times.
From the 15th century, Europeans, fascinated by these aesthetic wonders, were importing brocades and even trying to make some of their own!
Story Behind The Shimmer
But what exactly is zari and how is it made? ‘Zardozi’ is the most common term for this kind of embellishment and is often used in a generic sense. However, each region has its own name for this kind of work: ‘zardozi’ in Bhopal, Hyderabad, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh; ‘kamdani’ or ‘badla’ in Lucknow; ‘danka’ and ‘gota-patti’ in Rajasthan; ‘tilla’ work in Jammu & Kashmir and parts of Western India; and ‘dori’/’marori’ work and ‘mukke-ka-kaam’ in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
While the names may change, the process of zari-making is the same. In general, zardozi turns a variety of gold or silver alloy into a flattened wire known as badla, which is usually wrapped around silk or cotton thread. This composite thread is flexible and available in different thicknesses in two main colours – sunehri (golden) and rupehri (silver). Post-industrialisation, some of these processes became mechanized but the embroidery is still done entirely by hand.
Weaving Dreams In Gold & Silver
The most distinct and popular schools of embroidery were in Agra, Varanasi, Burhanpur, Bhopal, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Lahore, Delhi, Madras, Aurangabad, Bombay and Surat. Even today, most of these places are renowned for metal ornamentation. Of these, Surat led the way in mechanization and creating cost-effective products with the use of electroplating, extending the reach of zari to the middle class. But while Surat has also excelled in producing inexpensive, imitation zari, which uses copper alloy instead of gold, the pure zari produced in Benaras remains unparalleled.
The designs on brocades are largely based on natural elements like flowers, leaves, fruits, birds and animals. The keri, or mango, is a common motif used most often on saree pallus. Persian-inspired abstract, geometrical patterns are also common.
The Real Deal
So how do you spot the difference between imitation and pure zari? There are a few things to look out for: pure zari feels softer and smoother while imitation zari tends to be a little rough and stiff. Pure zari is heavier than imitation zari. And, finally, pure zari also tends to be much heavier on the pocket! But now that we know why it is so valuable, we may be more willing to pay the right price for that royal feeling!
As Vandana Bhandari writes, “Today, designs and motifs on textiles in gold and silver have become more complex and opulent. From the more mystical connotations of heaven and earth, cosmic energy and life forces that they originally embodied and continue to represent, these precious metals are now the ultimate artistically crafted symbols of wealth and social status.”