The ghats of Varanasi, chaotic yet serene, soiled yet pure, is the haven of pious pilgrims from all over the world. The city of salvation, Benaras or Varanasi, is also the abode of the most magnificent weaves in the world- the Benarasi Silk sarees.
Just like the holy ghats of Varanasi represent the confluence of roads of millions of pilgrims; the silks of Varanasi exhibit the merger of textile art originating in diverse regions, including Persia, China and different parts of the Indian subcontinent.
Tracing the Origin
The exquisite artistry of Benarasi silks is deeply rooted in traditions. Various ancient scriptures mention the flourishing textile art of Varanasi. Buddhist texts dating back to 500-800 BC, like Mahaparinibbana Sutta, describe the superiority of cottons produced in Varanasi, its skillful spinners and weavers; and the soft waters of Varanasi, which is still considered good for bleaching fabrics.
Silks were also produced during that period. According to folklore, silken shawls known as kauseya-pravana were donned by Buddhist monks called bhikkhus. However, silksbecame popular during the reign of famed Mughal Emperor, Akbar. The Persian motifs in Benarasi silks represent the influence of Persian masters in Akbar’s kingdom.
The art of brocade weaving was popularized by Gujarati weavers, who migrated to Benaras in the 17th century, owing to the famine in 1603. These influences enriched the designs, techniques and skills used to craft the Benarasi silks.
The influx from Persia and Central Asia into Varanasi, led to the evolution of the ancient art of silk weaving. Today, there are a number of gharanas across Benaras, which are weaver houses specializing in different Benarasi weaving styles. Earlier, silks were sourced from China. Today, the booming South Indian silk industry, supplies the silks.
Benarasi- The Fashion Buzzword
The buzz in the fashion circuits is ‘’Indian textile’’. From old trunks to international ramps, the Benarasi silks owe their revival to the concentrated efforts of ace ethnic designers. Now, draping a Benarasi has become a classy style-statement. From the grand closing in Delhi fashion week, where 16 blue-chip designer labels collaborated to present these traditional drapes in a modern appearance, to Prime Minster Modi presenting Michelle Obama with Banarasi silk sarees, these traditional weaves have become a fashion favorite.
Notable members of Indian fashion fraternity, like Ritu Kumar, Manish Malhotra and Anita Dongre, got together with weavers and textile manufacturers, to support and promote the lavish Benarasi weaves.
Benarsi sarees have always been an essential part of the wedding trousseau of Indian brides. But these heritage sarees are now becoming the mainstream. In fashion shows, Benarasi drapes are flaunted not just by the models, but also by many guests. In one of the fashion events aimed at promoting these beautiful weaves of culture, wives of important bureaucrats of Delhi, graced the event in their exquisite Benarasi sarees.
Shovana Narayan, the famous Indian Kathak dancer, reveals that she has a good collection of Benarasi silks, and the oldest among them is a green and yellow saree, gifted to her by her mother, which was originally bought in 1948. Shovana said that her winter wardrobe mostly consists of Banarasi silks and that she adores the “delicate designs and intricate zari work’’.
On a concluding note…
A fashion tip for contemporary women, from designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee- “Style your mother’s Benarasi sari with a modern blouse”.