A Banaras brocade sari is not a mere garment — it is a living skill practiced by few weavers of Banaras. Woven in Varanasi, which is referred to as Benaras or Kashi, the brocades are home to one of the oldest textile weaving traditions of the world.
The “holy city of the Hindus”, Benaras, is on the banks of the river Ganga in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh. This city is home to several artisanal traditions and one of the best known of which is handloom weaving.
Prayers on the banks of the River Ganga draw crowds, and the evening arthi creates a magical ambience. The Ramayana and Mahabharata refer to the fabric woven in Varanasi as Hiranya(golden) vastra.
The industry, which flourished in the Vedic period, had reached its peak during the later part of the sixteenth century due to the patronage of the Mughal Emperors. The Mughals emphasized floral designs and the Naqshabands (pattern makers) gained importance in the royal courts.
Historically the most visible product of Banaras has been the “brocade,” a fabric made from silk or cotton with interwoven gold threads.
Brocades in Banaras textiles are the patterns that are created in weaving by transfixing or thrusting the pattern thread between the warp. In regular weaving, the weft thread passes over and under the warp thread. But when brocades are woven, special threads are transfixed in between the weft over warp.
Varanasi is well known for its different styles of weaving. When the silk background is hardly visible because it is overlaid solidly with gold and silver, the fabric is called kinkhab. If the background is entirely gold and silver and the pattern is in silk, it is called minakari.
The most elaborate embroidered look in brocade is described as kadwa. The Benaras weavers also excel in the Jamdani technique, both in cotton and silk. Some of the evocative names for banaras designs include chameli, jasmine, pannahazar, thousand emeralds, gendabutti, the marigold motif, pan buti etc.,
A typical sari will have floral, trellis or jail (lattice) designs with a prominent border, and an ornamental pallu, which may also add a konia. The Konia, paisley or floral motif is woven in the two corners where the pallu begins.
While the traditions of Varanasi’s textile weaving is ancient, the stability of its foundations has been shaken due to power loom imitations. Contemporary innovations in handlooms have enticed many fashion-conscious women to return to the Banaras saree as the most attractive fashion statement.