The Historic Silks of Banaras

5 mins 13th January 2020

India has a rich heritage of textiles and specific regions are known the world over for their handloom fabrics. One such city is Banaras - one of the world’s oldest living cities and among India’s holiest places. Banaras is also home to one of the most opulent extravagances of the world - the spectacular silks that have been woven here for centuries.

Banaras sari

Over the centuries pilgrim routes and trade routes converged along the banks of the river Ganges here to create a unique weave that captures many influences from Persia, China, South East Asia and different parts of the Indian subcontinent, as well. Banaras was a well-known cotton weaving hub during the early Buddhist period. During this period silk, too, was produced here 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.

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.

Different weaver gharanas or houses specialise in different kinds of weaves and they have their own pocket boroughs across the old city.

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 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.

Tanchoi is another popular variety of Banarasi silk. 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. The fabric made its way to India through Gujarat. It got incorporated into the Banarasi silk industry only in the 1950s.

[Also Read: Kashmiri Saffron: A Flower More Valuable than Gold]

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 Banarasi brocades have been the most showcased of the Banarasi saris internationally and were, in fact, on display at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 CE. It is heartening that they continue to be prized possessions even today.

Today, Banarasi saris are available in major cities across India. They are stocked by high-end retail chains as well as smaller apparel stores. For many Indian families, a Banarasi sari is also an heirloom that is handed down generations. The high price that some of these may command should not stop you from buying them for yourself or as a gift for your loved ones. Use an Axis Bank credit card/dedit card to shop for an exquisite Banarasi sari and enjoy deals and offers on them, in addition to weekly updated offers every Wednesday !

Disclaimer : This article has been authored by Live History India Digital, a Mumbai based Digital Content Company. Axis Bank doesn’t influence any views of the author in any way. Axis Bank & Live History India Digital shall not be responsible for any direct / indirect loss or liability incurred by the reader for taking any financial decisions based on the contents and information. Please consult your financial advisor before making any financial decision.