A selection of different Banarasi weaves, motifs, and textile design explorations
Literature that goes back 2500 years, stored with the Maha Bodh Society, describes the event of the Lord Buddha’s cremation in which his body was wrapped in fine cloth woven in Sarnath, on the outskirts of Varanasi, where Buddha is said to have begun his teachings.
The accepted birth and death dates of Lord Buddha are 563 – 483 BC.
A bright fuschia pink Varanasi handloom sari with a contrast border in a geometric design and butis, scattered motifs, of a small flowering plant, are highlighted in muga silk to replicate the effect of zari, or gold threads.
Butis, or scattered motifs, are an important part of many textile designs. A master weaver in Varanasi points to them on this wall piece woven for an important crafts fair in Oxford, England.
He indicates that each buti is different from the other, highlighting the variety in their traditional design repertoire.
Floral butis and leaf patterns in silk thread and zari are spread over the body of a handwoven Varanasi sari.
Geometric patterns are arranged on a handloom silk sari to offer a contemporary effect with a blue and green colour palette.
An old blouse (to be worn with a sari) tailored in the 19th century, with zari motifs on an old rose silk fabric woven in Varanasi, shows flowers, leaves, paisleys and trellis motifs laid out together in a harmonious design.
A silk handloom sari with silk threads superimposed with motifs, that give the appearance of hand embroidery, is similar to one of the embroidery styles done in earlier times in western Gujarat.
Weavers and designers ‘innovate’ by borrowing from motifs and techniques of other craft traditions of different areas, making commercial concepts of having patents and copyrights meaningless in the Indian context.
The decorative embellishment of coloured thread over motifs gives the effect of embroidery. The upright peacock and flowering tree motifs are imitative of an old embroidery tradition from Gujarat in the western part of India.
Bold, dramatic effects can be achieved in handloom weaves using silver, gold and black covering an entire sari or veil piece.
A stunning contemporary sari design from a handloom in Varanasi, shows a subtle colour palette, where an embossed effect in the weave creates a monochromatic pattern over the body of the sari. It is highlighted by a finely woven geometric border and motifs made of a pair of parrots.
A thin line of orange along the border edge lifts the colour to another level while remaining simple.
A combination of flowers embedded within diagonally placed trellis makes this bright orange handloom silk sari a favourite choice for weddings.
Detail of a Varanasi silk handloom sari shows the extent to which gold threads and bright colours are used to weave textiles that are apt to be worn for festivals or ceremonial occasions.
One of the most lasting and popular patterns of handloom sari weaving in Varanasi is created when silk and gold threads alone are used for embellishments all over the body of a golden hued sari, with a simple zig zag geometric design framing the ends and the borders.
Jamawar tanchoi is also termed tanchoi. These are silk on silk brocade weaves with an extra weft silk for the patterning.
Saris are in pastel colours, often with a monochrome effect. Finer, smaller patterns usually cover the entire surface.
Apparently the three Chinese brothers of the Choi family came to Varanasi to sell silk. It is likely that one of them was named Tran Choi. Weavers claim that the name of this textile is a corruption of the Chinese name.
The Jangla could be described as an extravagant type of brocade in which the pattern spreads boldly across the entire fabric.
A gentle salmon pink sari, designed by a prominent weaver-designer of Varanasi in the jamdani technique, has a combination of finely executed flowers and trellis patterns.
Jamdani is a technique where double weft forms an overlaid pattern, that looks finest when weaving the length of fine cloth in silk, cotton and muslin.
Jamdani weaves have the effect of fine embroidery, since the patterns give an embossed effect on fine cloth. They are created by bringing in a double weft for the motifs and borders.
It may or may not have some additional ornamentation in gold and silver threads.
A jamdani weave wall-hanging in white silk on finely woven white cotton fabric, is interspersed with gold zari. The image of Lord Krishna is taken from the Pichhwai painting style of Nathdwara in Rajasthan.
The reverse side of a sari, called rakhtambari for its blood red colour, shows how the weft is done in a continuous design in the jamdani weaving technique. The joining threads are cut away by specialized workers skilled in the task.
The fabric earlier came in 100” strips but was later developed for wider looms on requests from clientele in Tibet.
The Muslim weaving community and Tibetan monasteries have a long and proud association.
Gold zari threads are laid on black silk for an ornamental, large sized bed cover made specially for ceremonial use.
The technique of weaving the gyaser also identifies under the name of kinkhab. It is the result of a process where the base fabric is completely overlaid and has a pattern with gold and silk threads. It is therefore very heavy and can only be used for ceremonial or religious trappings or drapes.
The patterns in brocade, in contrast, are scattered, leaving the areas where the weft is finer and plain and the patterns alone have a warp and a weft that is double. The latter is therefore more suitable for draping, particularly the sari.
Smaller gyaser pieces serve as table top or stool covers in Tibetan establishments. Nearly all the handloom fabric woven in the gyaser or kinkhab tradition is carried out in Varanasi.
The designs and symbols on hand woven gyaser fabric are made exclusively in motifs that are typically Tibetan-Buddhist patterns. Many carry auspicious symbols relevant for blessings or prayers.
What looks like an innocuous merging of multi-coloured yarn is the famed and little-known fabric of Varanasi. It is a subtly shimmering cloth woven on a handloom, out of yarn made by spinning lengths devised out of peacock feathers that have been shed in groves and forests.
This cloth is said to be exported at high prices to upholster the sofas of princely families in oil-rich countries of the Middle East.
Pure zari and red silk is hand woven in Varanasi into ashrafi, gold coin, motifs.
Small and big paisley motifs form a Kashmiri styled design on this red silk sari woven on a jacquard loom.
Master weavers in Varansi have started imitating the complicated and intricate paisley shawl designs of Kashmir.
Here a sari imitates a Kani shawl, one of the oldest handicrafts of Kashmir, using silk threads in the warp and weft.
Kashmir and Varanasi share the paisley pattern freely as an inheritance from the Mughal era. In Kashmir, these very same designs would be woven on handlooms in wool, whereas in Varanasi it is always woven with silk yarn.
This silk sari in bright magenta with a pattern woven in silk thread shows a new design exploration by a master weaver, in which he tries to replicate the ghats, boats and the River Ganga in Varanasi.
This finely woven woolen shawl, handwoven in Varanasi, duplicates the famed pashmina shawl of Kashmir.
The most elaborate embroidered look in a brocade is described as kadwa. In a brocaded piece the reverse will show sections of loose threads joining one pattern to another.
These are left as they are or cut away by specially trained cutters who do not damage the base cloth.
Master weaver Maqbool Hassan holds up a thickly embossed patterned area on silk. He has achieved this new texture by using thicker raw silk threads.
Dress material in a variety of colours and patterns, in zari or silk threads, is available off the shelf for custom-made clothing.
Stores in big cities like Delhi offer the widest variety of Varanasi handloom silk.
Traditional Chikankari embroidery work from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh is paired with rich silk brocade fabric from Varanasi to create high-end fashion wear for the European market.
Patterned silk fabrics in bright reds, pinks and oranges are often stitched into wedding outfits by brides who chose lehnga-cholis and dupattas, elaborate flared skirts and tops with veils, rather than a sari for the wedding.
Lehengas with matching veils and blouse pieces, ready for tailoring, hang in a large Varanasi textile store in Delhi.
It follows fashion trends and offers to weave and stitch on order.
A specially commissioned sari, woven on the outskirts of Varanasi city, replicates an old piece ordered in earlier times by a member of the courtly family.
Each ashrafi, gold coin motif, is scripted with a greeting by name, addressing someone in the family.
Paisleys on the corners of the end-piece, a pallu, are called konia, or corner piece, when placed diagonally in that space.
This jamdani patterned stole, woven in Varanasi was specially developed for an exhibition on calligraphy and craft.
See more of how the Banarasi Sari is created.
Text: Jaya Jaitly and Charu Verma
Photography: Sunil Kumar and Charu Verma
Artisans: Maqbool Hasan, Haseen Mohd., Sribhas Chandra Supakar, and Ram Lal Morya
Ground Facilitator: Charu Verma
Video Documentation: Sunil Kumar and Charu Verma
Curation: Ruchira Verma
- Director: Jyoti Neggi
- Production: Studio Gola