Banarasi sari, the royal fabric of Banaras, a dying art

Traditional Banarasi red-& white sari

Traditional Banarasi red-& white sari

A recent interview in The Hindu about the famed Banarasi sari, and the CSR effort of the TAJ Group of Hotels (part of the socially conscientious Tata Group) in keeping the age-old ancient weaving art alive, brought back memories of my visit to the dilapidated weavers colony in Banaras.

A visit to Banaras can never be complete without at least buying one sari or a few yards of the silk Banarasi fabric. Banaras was after all known for it! So, I really found it very unbelievable, when I could not spot too many shops selling the real stuff. Oh! There were imitations galore; gaudy, blingy, cheap and not a patch on the real thing.

Banarasi fabric with a traditional delicate design

Banarasi fabric with a traditional delicate design

I remembered reading about how the art of weaving delicate motifs on soft Banarasi silk was dying slowly due to multiple reasons, primary of them being lack of patronage, the coming of power looms and government apathy; the result of which was right before my eyes! It was hard to find a shop selling the real thing. When I asked around, I was told that since people prefer the cheaper varieties, one had to go to specific shops to get the ‘real’ Banarasi fabric.

I did what works best. Asked around, specifying that I wanted the old-style patterned weaves. Our taxi driver, who took us around the vintage city of Varanasi (Banaras) was a local, having being born and brought up there. It was he who recommended that I visit the weaver’s colony, since I was so keen.

Inside the small narrow not-so-clean lanes of Banaras leading to the weaver's colony

Inside the small narrow not-so-clean lanes of Banaras leading to the weaver’s colony

The gullis (very small lanes) are small and narrow and yes dirty; littered with goat and cow droppings.  Walking through the gullis felt a little eerie, especially more so since it was deserted and the only sound one could hear was the clanking sound emanating from the weaver’s looms. I was the odd one out, sticking out like a blue fish in the sea of yellow. I did get quite a few curious stares and glances, but most were happy watching.

Inside a loom where the famed Banarasi fabric is given birth to by deft fingers in dark rooms

Inside a loom where the famed Banarasi fabric is given birth to by deft fingers in dark rooms

Finally I found the loom, where the delicate fabric was in different stages of weaves. It was amazing to see art come alive in the dark, dingy rooms. The owner of the looms seemed to be an enterprising person, since he had retail cum wholesale shop near his loom.  Piles and piles of fabric and saris were stuffed in a little room. In days gone by, most of the thread used to be either pure gold or silver. Unfortunately not any more, the owner told me, until and unless it was a special order.  The silk yarn itself is so expensive and that’s the reason why the Banarasi saris have become expensive.

There was a time, when a wedding trousseau would not be complete, without at least a few Banarasi saris in it. Now many to have one in their trousseau consider it déclassé! Of course there are people like me, who scour the shops looking for the real thing; may the tribe increase! Amen!

I can see a very gradual change happening, the CSR effort of the TAJ Group being one of them.  There are many celebrities who have got married in recent times in the Banarasi sari; global celebrity Aishwarya Rai Bachchan being one of them (it was widely reported in the media how her sari was made on special order in Banaras).

What if you do not have time to visit the weavers colony, but still would like to buy a little bit of this vintage weave from Banaras? You will get a small selection of saris at Jaharlall & Pannalall on Dasaswamedh Road (next to the famous Dasaswamedh ghat).

Suppose visiting Varanasi is just not in your itinerary, but you would still like to own a little bit of  this royal Banaras weave? Then you could try stopping by at TAJ Khazana (chain of luxury lifestyle stores located across India, in many cities including, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Goa, in select TAJ Hotels). Apparently the front office staff at the TAJ hotels wears the Banarasi sari (part of the CSR initiative). So the next time you happen to be in a TAJ property, do take a moment to take a look at the royal handcrafted fabric draped across the lady staff members.

Some designers like Gaurang Shah and Sabyasachi Mukherjee patronize and craft some stunning traditional yet contemporary creations.

We lament the dying of an old age craft, but when it comes to patronizing it, we don’t do it. Each one of us can make a difference, I believe. Refuse to buy the cheap imitation of any classic old weave.  There is truly nothing like the real Banarasi yarn, it is a story woven in silk.

As Oscar Wilde has rightly said, ‘Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.’ The Banarasi royal fabric lives and breathes the very distinctive and individual air of Banaras.

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About nishi01

Savoring and writing…
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17 Responses to Banarasi sari, the royal fabric of Banaras, a dying art

  1. Very interesting write up Nishi dear. I am however thinking not so much about the poor situation of the Benarasi saari as much as how different this situation is from the Maharashtran traditional handicrafts (including saaris like the Paithanis). This mainly because I visited last summer and got myself a gorgeous (albeit very expensive) traditional Paithani and even a Narayan Peth. Such a super clean city Aurangabad and the looms and weaving all having pride of place in the town, full of tourists (local and foreign). I even had the privilege of chatting up with one such weaver and loom owner, who was more than wiling to share the socio-cultural history of this amazing craft. And nary a penny charged. And I am wondering about all the socio-cultural-economic reasons such differences across regions! Any insights?

    • nishi01 says:

      Interesting observation. In fact even in the South, the Kanjivaram sari weavers are doing so well. May b because Kanjivaram continues to seduce the average woman with its charms? Thank you so much for reading and sharing your pov.

  2. madammommy says:

    Great piece. The gullis and the cows took me down the memory lane. Must go back.

    • nishi01 says:

      Thank you for reading P! Indeed it is a great place to go back; take the kids along. It will be a unique experience for your little profound boy.

  3. haimantiitshot says:

    hi nishi
    i have to buy a benarasi saree for my wedding so can u plz mention the address of the weaver’s colony in benaras from where i can a royal piece for me. thanking you and waiting for ur response.

    • nishi01 says:

      Dear Haimanti,

      Sorry for the late response, you could touch base here: @JaharLal & Pannalal. This shop is rt at the Godhulia junction…very close to the famous Dashashwamedh Ghat. This is a shop, but has many authentic beautiful benarsis. Their contact number is : 0542-2450071. Hope this helps. Regarding going to the weaver’s colony, ask any local taxi/ auto driver, they will take you there. They mostly do cash transactions, so be sure to carry money on you. Hope this helps! Best wishes for a happy wedded life!

      • haimanti says:

        thanks for ur reply… can u plz tell me the name of the weaver.s colony and from where i have to take taxi aur auto…
        one more thing do you have any clue regarding the price range of the sarees ..
        your reply is most awaited….

      • nishi01 says:

        It is called the weaver’s patti…unfortunately the exact name escapes me. Any local living there would be able to help…try the hotel you would be staying. it is witthin city limits, so one does not really have to go too far. regarding the price range… pure silk Benarasi saris ( simple ones) are in the range of INR 4.5 K plus…. if you want an exclusive one weaved for yourself, the price would be much much more.

  4. Kanava says:

    Can you give me a good reliable saree shop address at varanasi for party wear light weight benaras sarees

    • nishi01 says:

      Hi Kanava, there is one address already mentioned in one of the comments section. check it out. Also you could try weaver shops located in the weaver’s colony. Ask anyone in Benaras they will be able to guide you there. They mostly deal in cash transactions there, since the place is direct weaving to selling.

  5. Nataasha Dubliish says:

    Thank you very much for this informative post . I am a fashion designer based in Delhi , planning to visit Benaras to meet and work with the weavers . Found your post very helpful and informative. Thank you!

  6. Nataasha Dubliish says:

    Hi Nishi .. Thank you very much :)… Just need some advise — In order to reach the weaver’s colony …I can just ask my hotel people to guide ? Any address you can guide with … ? Or is it famous and everyone knows about it there ? So I can simply ask … Thank you for all your valuable inputs ..

    • nishi01 says:

      Yes, do ask the hotel-people, they will be able to assist you; they can even help you to fix up transport to go there. it is not too far from the city. It is advisable go go during the morning/afternoon hours, since the weaver’s colony is in the narrow lanes and bylanes of Benaras. Have a great time in Kashi..

  7. Amit Sachdev says:

    Indeed a good info and god to see more and more corporations engaging in CSR activities

  8. Dhaaara says:

    Thanks for sharing a vital round up on the plight of banarasi saree weavers.Was wondering if you could guide me as I was trying to get a traditional banares silk saree woven for ‘ Ettumanoor Mahadeva’ as he holds his celestial court next year .Yes a special order saree indeed.Thanking you in advance

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