“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” – Mark Twain.
The sacred city of Banaras - Kashi, in religious scriptures - has been known as a famous weaving centre in India since time immemorial. An epicentre of the arts, learning, philosophy, music and religion, this city has attracted travellers and scholars from all over the world. It has enchanted Hindu saints, Sikh gurus, Buddhist monks, Mughal rulers, music virtuosos and celebrated poets alike.
Benaras (From James Prinsep’s Benares Illustrated)
Kashi has been acknowledged through religious scriptures and Buddhist history (Jataka tales) as a famous weaving and trade centre in ancient times. Mentions and descriptions of the Hiranya, a distinguished cloth of gold worn by Gods, are found in the Rig Veda. The Hiranya has been historically construed as the earliest equivalent for the present-day zari work or the kimkhab/kinkhab brocades of Banaras, which are woven with metallic threads of real gold and silver wrapped around a cotton or silk core. The city also finds mention in the Mahabharata and Ramayana - they refer to the fabric woven in Banaras as Hiranya Vastra or Putambar Vastra.
The Vedas refer to male and female weavers known as tantuvay/tantividyas and siri, respectively. Details regarding their guilds and techniques have also been mentioned in the Vedas and Jataka tales. Banaras and its surrounding areas had great cotton-growing regions. According to Pali literature, this grand city was a reputed textile manufacture centre, famous for its Kasikuttama and Kasiya. The Majjhimanikaya refers to Varaaseyyaka, which was known for its fine texture.
Kashi continued to flourish as a regional capital under the Nandas, the Mauryas and the Sungas. The famous writer of the 2nd century B.C.E., Patanjali, had clearly described the Kasika textile in the Sunga period. According to him, the textile of Kashi was of better quality and more expensive than the similar material of Mathura. Buddhist Sanskrit text of the same period, Divyavadana, refers to such fabric known as Kasika Vastra, Kasi Kasikamsu and so on.
According to the Sutras, when Prince Siddharth became a Buddhist monk, he removed his royal silk robes, among the best that weavers of Kashi created, and took to wearing an earth-toned robe known as ‘kasayani vastrani’. In those days, robes worn by Buddhist monks were made of hemp and waste woven silk fibres from wild silkworms. The Sutra also includes a story about a person who came to embrace the Buddhist faith by making an offering of fabrics woven with gold threads to Buddha. According to the Jataka tales, the Kashi Kingdom was a principal centre of manufacturing cotton and silk in the 5th century or 6th century B.C.E. Cotton fabrics of Kashi were beautifully woven, smooth, bleached completely white, and their fibres were fine and soft. Literature with the Maha Bodh Society that goes back over 2,000 years suggests that on his death, Buddha’s remains were purified with balm and wrapped in fine cloth woven in Sarnath.
Maharaja Shri Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh Bahadur, the Maharajah of Benares (1822 - 89), wearing a handwoven Banarasi brocade sherwani
(Source: Royal Collection Trust, UK)
Originally fabricated solely for royalty, the Banarasi is imbued with a rich history that echoes through its weaves. It is renowned for its unique weaving style, which is attributed to the weavers of Banaras. Although historians document the strong influence of Hindu motifs and Rajasthani paintings on early brocades, it was observed that somewhere around the 16th century such initial designs abruptly came to an end.
There are references in history that suggest the arrival of weavers from Gujarat, fleeing from famines, floods and fires in the region between the 14th and 16th centuries. It is believed that Banaras’ weaving industry started using silk for brocades around this period.
Persian, Mughal, and Central Asian influences dominate the brocades that we see in the present day. This weaving style, now collectively known as the Banarasi weave, has been impacted by numerous foreign influences and improvised by multiple indigenous techniques. Banaras’ weaving industry absorbed the weaving skills and techniques from all over India and beyond, and reached its peak during the Mughal era under the patronage of Emperor Akbar. It was during the Mughal period in the 14th century that weavers from Banaras established their presence in the industry by creating unique and intricate silk brocades using silver and gold zari threads. The Banarasi weave started receiving more appreciation and developed proficiency during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Some European visitors to Banaras have also described the textiles industry prevalent in the city through their works. Ralph Fitch (1583-91) in his work had described Banaras as a thriving centre of the cotton textile industry and mentioned that Banaras manufactured turbans in great numbers for the Mughals.
Tavernier, who visited Banaras in 1665 C.E., noticed a caravan sarai in Banaras, where the weavers directly sold to clusters without any middleman involved in the trade. He mentioned cotton and silk textiles, which bore the quality grading and making in the form of imperial seals, failing which the merchants were flogged. It is generally believed from Tavernier’s account that he saw Banarasi zari and brocades in the sarees. He also described the Bindumadhava temple of Banaras, where over the holy platform he noticed brocades and other silks. It is presumed that they were manufactured in Banaras. During Shahjahan’s reign, Banaras continued to be known for the production of cummerbunds, turbans, and garments like odhanis and dupattas for women.
The articulate documentation of the British records further bear witness to the ancient city being a significant weaving centre and reveal that its brocades were even exported to Europe.
George Viscount Valentia was a British peer and politician who travelled eastwards to India, Ceylon and the Red Sea. He provided some important details about Banaras textiles in the early 19th century. He conducted a Durbar in Banaras that was attended by some textile traders, where they brought some excellent examples of zari and brocades. According to Valentia, brocades had close patterns, were quite expensive, and were worn by prosperous people on important occasions. He observed that the prosperity of the people of Banaras mainly rested on the trade of these textiles, especially their export to Europe.
Mrs. Colin Masckenzie, a traveller to Banaras in 1847, mentioned an Indian prince who had visited their party. He wore “wide trousers of cloth of gold” or brocade, which seemed to be very popular among the gentry of Banaras. This was corroborated by her later account and by the surviving examples of that period.
CGM Birdwood, a lover of the arts and student of the social systems of India, published a book called The Arts of India in 1880. Presenting an interesting theory, he describes ‘The traditional descent of the kincobs of Benaras through the looms of Babylon, Tyre and Alexandria from designs and technical methods which probably, in prehistoric times, originated in India itself, and were known by Hindus already in the times of the Code of Manu, and before the date of Ramayana and Mahabharata’.
An important proof of the importance of the Banarasi saree and brocade can be found in the Uttar Pradesh district gazetteers of Varanasi published by the Government of Uttar Pradesh in 1965. There has been clear mention of the manufacture of the textile fabrics of Banaras. It also elaborates the manufacture of silk fabrics in the city by employing twelve thousand weavers along with the source of the raw materials, quality and type of fabrics, different articles produced, embroidery work, tie and dye, use of silver and gold threads, and their designs.
For most of the British period, the use of handlooms were halted, with the exception of a few unique pieces commissioned for the royal court. Consequently, Banaras' weaving population had diminished. However, the fate of handlooms improved only after India achieved Independence as Mahatma Gandhi and his followers attempted to revive weaving skills and create employment opportunities for the rural economy and handloom weavers across the country.
Today, designers and brands seek expertise of master weavers and produce shimmering Banarasi silks in traditional and unconventional patterns and colour palettes. Indian brides remain loyal to the famed Banarasi drape as it makes an important part of their trousseau.
Although the weaving industry in Banaras has faced numerous obstacles, it continues to survive and remain an epicentre of weaving traditions in a country that accounts for the largest proportion of handloom products produced in the world.
One of the most exquisite fabrics in India, the Banarasi is known for its fine, lustrous silk, and the silver and gold zari work in meticulous hand weaving. It is adorned with intricate intertwining foliate and floral motifs, bel and kalga, paisley, jhallar, etc., inspired by Mughal designs. Other characteristics include figures with tiny details, a compact weave, metallic visuals, jaal, and meenakari work. Earlier, silk for the Banarasis was imported from China, being connected to the silk route to the north, owing to its location south of the Himalayas and on the banks of the river Ganga. However, silk is now mostly sourced from the southern part of India. Depending on the intricacies involved in the design, a Banarasi saree may take two weeks to a year to complete.
‘Zarkashi’ - Real Zari Sarees by Tilfi
Handwoven Banarasis have been made for the discerning since the ancient ages. These textiles have undergone numerous changes over centuries, having been exposed to diverse cultures, rulers, religions, and socio-economic conditions. The beauty of the Banarasi lies in the skilful artistry involved in its production. This beautiful and intricate craft will continue to stand the test of time like it has for centuries past.
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