The Weavers of Varanasi by Jayant Neogy

Varanasi is the ancient name of Banaras located in UP, India, a city considered most holy to the Hindus. It is the longest continuously occupied city in the country. While some claim a 5000 year old history, the city may actually be about 3,500 years old, making it one of the few oldest continuously occupied cities in the world.

One of the reasons for its longevity and existence in the same location is because the river Ganges, on whose Western bank the city lies, has remained remarkably unaltered in its course over Milena. While both city and river hold a place of reverence, the city has another very old tradition that makes it famous. This is its unique handloom weaving industry that has flourished for centuries.

Caught in his own web of tradition?

Caught in his own web of tradition?

Indeed, silk weaving is the dominant manufacturing industry in Varanasi. Weaving is typically a cottage industry, operated from home in which the entire family pitches in. Most of the weavers are Momin Ansari Muslims. The Arabic word “Ansari” means helper. For generations they have passed on their craft from father to son, hand-weaving silk on room-sized foot-powered looms.

The pride of the weavers are their very fine silk Banarasi saris. The saris are adorned with intricate designs and zari (gold thread) embellishments making them popular during traditional functions and weddings. In the past, the embroidery were often done with threads of pure gold. Today, silver and gold plated silver threads are more common. In addition to saris, the industry also produces dress material, stoles and furnishing fabrics.

Proud of his workmanship

Proud of his workmanship

Although much sought after and prized in the past, the industry is now threatened by the rise of power looms, computer-generated designs and competition from Chinese imports. To combat the threat to their livelihood, many weavers have upgraded to Jacquard looms. Many such looms use punched cards to control the weaving process. While this does reduce the time to weave a sari, the mechanization reduces the variety of designs and the uniqueness of each sari that used to be one of the hallmarks of the saris woven in Varanasi.

Now what design is he dreaming up?

Now what design is he dreaming up?

Some weaving co-operatives are supported by the UP State Government who also helps to sell their products in well-appointed emporiums. A visit to one such emporium showed me that the weavers are dedicated, proud of their heritage and craftsmanship while being very individual and unique characters as well. This is a study of three such proud weavers of Varanasi.

Comments

  1. says

    What a fantastic piece – thank you so much for sharing this. I teach a course in materials and it is so difficult to find images of contemporary weaving across the many different cultures that practice it. I plan on including this blog post as a reading assignment for the students and I hope to se more!

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