Varanasi has always been known for its textiles, especially hand-woven silk. The traditional Banarasi sari, with its silk covered with gold weave, is famous across India.
Traditionally, silk is considered the purest cloth for rituals and was used only to clothe temple deities. In fact, in ancient times, silk weavers used to live within the precincts of temples and perhaps that is how the silk trade came to the temple town of Varanasi.
Silk is woven into the very myth and history of Kashi. It is also said that after he attained Parinirvana, the Buddha’s body was wrapped in silk from Kashi, woven so fine it did not even absorb oil. A variety of silk called gaiser was specially woven for the monks of the Tibetan monasteries.
In India, the silk sari from Varanasi is a legend of beauty. It was called Kassiya or Kashivastra and, even today, every Indian bride craves for at least one Banarasi sari in her trousseau. The silk saris woven here use yarn that comes from Karnataka. It is the processing of the silk that give silk from every region its unique texture.
Silk yardage from the South is stiff as it is polished with wax. In Varanasi, the unprocessed or kora silk yarn is boiled and twisted, and then processed using arrowroot, reetha and flour. This soft skein is then woven into yardage called katan.
The most famous weaves are the heavy jamdani brocades woven with gold and silver thread called zari. Even fifty years ago, the zari was made of pure gold and silver, and these saris, when no longer worn, were sold for the precious metal they contained. Today real zari saris are only made to order, and what is available off-the-rack are saris with synthetic zari. The other weave special to Varanasi is the tanchoi, an embossed weave that is said to have come from China with the traders. The intricate baluchar pattern is originally from Bengal, and the Varanasi weaver added zari to it. The valkalam on the other hand uses only satin thread and many of its designs are taken from motifs seen in miniature paintings.
The motifs used on the Banarasi sari have beautiful names like guldasta (bouquet), ambi (mango or paisley), latifa (flowers), bel-buta (creeper and buds) and badal me phul (blossoms in clouds).
In 2009, the Weavers Association of Uttar Pradesh secured Geographical Indication rights for the Banarasi Saris and Brocades. This was done to ensure authenticity of the saris and to cut down on duplication by others.
For more information on Varanasi, do pick up our Varanasi City Guide: Revised Second Edition!
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