The Glory of Benarasi Saree
Jhini jhini bini chadariya,
Kaahe ka tana,
kaahe ki bharani,
Kaun taar se bini chadariya?
I have run mere cotton threads for the warp and weft. But how did God, the Master Weaver, make this finely woven fabric we call skin that we wear all our lives? What is the warp? What is the weft? What fine thread does he use?” — Lines of the Sufi saint Kabir, the most loved weaver of Kashi/Banaras/Varanasi
Situated by the banks of River Ganga, the longest living city of the world gets its name from the river’s two tributaries ‘Varuna’ and ‘Asi’. Described by Mark Twain as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend — and looks twice as old as all of them put together”, the name of this ancient city is synonymous with some of the oldest temples and finest fabrics of India.
The Vedic texts like Rig-Veda, dating as far back as 1500 BCE, referred to the kingdom of Kasi as the abode of the ‘Tantuvayas’ or weavers who made clothes of various kinds such as cotton, silk and brocades (‘Hirayana’).
The reference of ‘Kasika vastra’ or ‘Kasiyani’ to exquisite fabrics may be traced to the writings of Kautilya and Patanjali.
Incidentally, the etymology of the word ‘Saree’ can be traced to the Sanskrit word ‘Sati’, which means a strip of cloth. This evolved into the Prakrit ‘Sadi’, and is known by different names in various Indian languages: in Hindi, Gujrati, Bengali, Bihari and Oriya, it is known as ‘Saadi’; in Marathi ‘Sadi’; in Kannada ‘Seere’; in Telugu as ‘Sheera’ and Tamil as ‘Podavi’.
Richard Lanmoy in his book, ‘Banaras seen from Within’, has mentioned that the Buddhist jatakas (3rd-2nd BCE) refer to the city as the hub of “a cotton growing region, and famous for producing thread of a fine and soft texture”.
In the Buddha Sutra, when Prince Siddhartha decides to renounce the world, he takes off his silk clothes woven by the weavers of Kasi to get into the simplest of attires. This was the period when exquisitely woven cotton fabrics from Kasi were the most sought-after commodity across the world.
Between 350 to 500 of the CE floral patterns, animal and bird depictions gained popularity. By the 13th century ‘Butidar’ designs were in demand. Ralph Fitch, an English traveller who visited Varanasi in 1583, described the fabric as being “fine as the filmy webs and spider weavers”.
After a famine in 1603, the silk weavers from Gujarat migrated to Kasi and perfected the art of brocade and Zari work which received a fillip when master craftsmen from Central Asia and Iran came to India in the train of the Mughals. The patronage of Akbar and his grandson Shah Jahan to Hazrat Khwaja Bahauddin, the inventor of the naqsha, and his descendants created the new naqshabandi blend in weaving. This is when the brocade came to be known as ‘kinkhab’ or ‘kamkhwab’, which means kin (golden), khab (dream); a golden dream or kam (scarcely), khwab (dream); a fabric seldom or rarely seen in dream. It is heavy, woven with all over gold or silver threads called Zari.
Francois Bernier, a French physician who visited India during the reign of Shah Jahan, called Banaras “an outstanding centre of textile manufacture” and gave it the moniker ‘Athens of India’.
With the decline of the Mughals and the ascendance of the East India Company, the Victorian influence on design became quite marked. George Viscount Valentia held a Durbar in Banaras and was witness to some very good examples of Zari and brocades. He wrote about them in his travelogue ‘Voyage and travels of Lord Valentia’, published in London in 1811. During the same period, Bishop Heber noted that Banaras “had a very considerable silk, cotton and woollen manufacture of its own”.
Varanasi’s location gave it a distinct competitive advantage. Lying south of the Himalayas and on the banks of the river Ganga meant that it could connect with the local riverine trade as also overland trade routes which connected the subcontinent with the Far East, West Asia and Europe and with the Silk Route to the north.
Equally important was Banaras’s position as a preeminent centre for Hindu rituals of rites of passage, particularly rituals related to death. The city drew rich and poor people from all over India as well as Buddhists who were drawn to Sarnath. Visiting pilgrims carried the brocade home to distant corners — from nine-yard sarees for South Indians to bridal wear and miniature costumes for idols in household shrines.
In the period immediately after independence, the Government of India established Weavers Service Centres in different parts of the country, including Banaras, to support craftsmen in creating new patterns and motifs for a modernising public. There was experimentation with motifs, asymmetrical layouts and non-traditional imagery, such as winged angels and a borrowing of visual elements from other textile traditions.
However, the popularity of the Banaras brocade was also the cause of many fakes like Kela sarees which used polished threads made from the banana tree resin to give the sheen of a gold or silver. Bangladesh and Chinese products also flooded the market. Then there was the competition from power looms. Although the Handloom Reservation Act, 1985, restricted and restrained the mechanised production of fabrics reserved for handlooms, its breach was ubiquitous because there was no organised body to ensure its compliance.
All this spurred nine weavers’ organisations to form a committee and approach the state government for its support and the GI application for “Banaras Brocades and Sarees”. These included the Banaras Bunkar Samiti, Human Welfare Association, Joint Director Industries, Director of Handloom and Textiles, Eastern UP Exporters Association, Banaras Vastra Udyog Sangh, Banaras Hath Kangha Vikas Samiti, Adarsh Silk Bunker Sahkari Samiti, and the Handloom Fabrics Marketing Cooperative Federation.
The GI tag granted to “Banaras Brocade and Sarees” includes the two million odd weavers not just to the city of Banaras in the areas of Lohta, Bazardiha, Sarai Mohana, Lallapura, Saraiya, Bagwanala and Badi Bazar, but also the weaving clusters in the neighbouring districts of Chandauli, Bhadohi, Mirzapur and Azamgarh.
(Sanjeev Chopra, a retired IAS officer, is a historian and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Till recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie)