Varanasi, the oldest city in the Indian history and Mythology is believed to be the holy places on Earth where the diverse cultures intersect and permeate through the glorious rich heritage that India has experienced. The city synonymous with oldest rituals, authentic Indian touch of royalty rests peacefully on the banks of River Ganges. The temples adorning the site of Aasi Ghat in Old Varanasi reminds us of the pious and chaste feeling of salvation. Varanasi is considered to be the hub of traditional rich Benarsi weaves that behold the eyes of the wearer and admirers all at once.
The luxe gold threadwork and intricate detailing of patchwork and embroidery reflect the skill of trained artists and craftsmen who immaculately curate such astonishing sarees in the quaint valleys tucked in the other side of the bustling Varanasi.
History and Origin
The ancient city was blessed with the art of Brocade and Benarsi weaves when Varanasi became the capital of Kasi Kingdom which was under the rulership of Emperor Siddhartha. It has been mentioned in the Buddha Sutra that when Prince Siddhartha decided to renounce the worldly luxuries and riches, he took off his silk clothes, which were woven tirelessly by the weavers of Kasi, to get into the simplest of attires. Even in literature like Jataka Purana, it is said that when Buddha was alive, Kasi was the quintessential center for cotton and silk textile. In 5th and 6th century BC, exquisitely woven cotton fabrics became one of the most sought-after commodity. It is even said that when Buddha attained moksha or salvation, he was wrapped in the chaste cotton silhouette.
Zari and brocade are the two most highly demanding textiles and signature specialty of Kasi. The weavers from Gujarat migrated to Kasi in the 17th century due to famine in 1603. These weavers through their proficient skill and high innovative ability curated pieces that resonate elegance and charm. Development of such attractive weaves made Kasi the textile capital and it further grew to prominence during the Mughal empire under the rulership of Emperor Akbar. Akbar was the connoisseur of all things fine, ostentatious and luxuries.
He loved the rich visually appealing weaves and brocade of Benaras that sewed the generations together through rich craft and skill that is unparalleled. From Persian exotic wines to gem-crusted sword and emeralds and floral motif jewels, Akbar had it all. He had many wives and he would tailor-made the Benarsi zari work harem silk sarees for them Not just the sarees and clothing, Akbar would refurbish his palace and use Benarsi zari weaves to decorate his massive palatial glory. During the British colonization, they were left baffled as they first experienced the luxe zari thread work of Benarsi brocade. However, the weavers were organized only until Independence.
Benarsi Weaves Changing Trends
The royal city underwent a paradigm shift when it came to experimenting and embracing innovations in terms of style and design aesthetics. Between 30-500 AD, the floral patterns, animal, and bird depictions were the highest selling hotcakes which were later replaced by the “Butidar” motifs in the 13th century. In the 16th century, with the onset of Mughal rule and Islamic influence, Benarsi weaves exhibited a cultural change as the weaves were narrating tales of florals and jaals that were intricately designed. However, in the 19th century, Indian designers refurbished this style and curated Victorian style wallpapers using the basic Mughal lattice and geometrical patterns that reflect the old-world charm.
Benarsi sarees can be divided into broad categories like Pure Silk (katan), Organza (kora) with zari and silk, Georgette and Shattir. Today, the benarsi silk sarees are named after their signature weave style like Tanchoi silk saree, Organza silk saree, Kora Cutwork saree, Jangla saree etc. as a part of reminiscing the revival of lost handicrafts.
How Are Benarsi Weaves Processed?
Traditionally, the Benarsi weaves are thrusted in the warp to create spectacular designs at regular intervals. This evolves design buti by buti and this type of loom is called as Drawloom or Jalla which was used to weave fabrics. In modern times, benarsi weaves are no longer processed mechanically rather they are pre-planned on Jacquard looms which allow the design to exhibit. “Tanchoi” is a sub-set of Brocade and it requires silk yarn as the raw material while Jamdani is another weaving technique which involves inlay of design hand by hand and it only works for cotton fabrics on traditional pit-looms.
While only motifs are embroidered using zari threads, the rest of the saree is woven in silk and colored in striking bold hues. In recent times, natural dyed colors are gaining popularity since the chemical dyes are polluting the River Ganges, hence weavers are going organic and embracing the natural way.
The weaving centers are known as Karhanas where the master weaver manages the weavers under him who are known as “Kaarigars.” The workshop where only single loom weaver is working is called as the “Bunker”. This further employs two types of weaving processes: Alaipura and Madanpura. In the Madanpura city, the weavers are known to weave incredible tales through delicate and fine traditional works of art exhibited through khinkhab. While the Alaipura weaves are easily distinguished through their eccentric experimentation and design innovation that makes them look class-apart. Their weaves are often messy and left rough on the edges.
As and when you enter the abominable lull of Kaarkhanas, you shall notice the colorful zari threads adorning the charming hues of rich Benarsi fabrics, yet the disappointment reflected in the weavers face is not something you can easily deceit. Their shattered hopes and withered expectations of selling such handcrafted exquisite artwork at peanuts is not something which they vouched for. The power loom manufactured benarsi weaves and brocades are flooded in the markets and sold at such non-competitive prices that the handloom weavers bear great losses. Since the duplicates and authentic weaves are hard to distinguish, it isn’t so tough to fool the customers today and as a result, the Benarsi weavers and craftsmen find it extremely hard to sustain their livelihood.