Handloom Banarasi sarees: Traditions of a thousand years 

Neelambari jamdhani saree

Handloom Banarasi sarees are the result of ancient craftsmanship and a continuous inflow of cultural influences. With their stunning zari patterns and sumptuous textures, handloom Banarasi sarees have remained, century after century, the garment of choice for any celebration. 

The weaves of Banaras, or Kashi and Varanasi as it’s also called, were written about 2,500 years ago. The techniques, fabrics and motifs might have changed with evolving markets and civilizations, but even in ancient times, Banarasi fabrics were associated with royalty and reserved for special occasions. 

How are Banarasi sarees woven?

Banarasi sarees, whether silk or cotton, are woven on pit looms. Hand-drawn designs are converted into jacquard cards, which are then loaded onto the loom to guide the weaver in the placement of the threads. However, this description only broadly outlines the process. What makes a handwoven Banarasi saree so revered is the craftsmanship – the individual skills and time-honoured methods passed on within the family. 

Banarasi fabrics are further refined in terms of techniques and fabrics. For example, Banarasi Jamdani sarees employ a double weft, while Banarasi Tanchoi sarees require a single or double warp and multiple weft threads. 

A weaver handcrafts a Banarasi silk saree for wedding on the pit loom.
A weaver handcrafts a Banarasi saree on the pit loom. Image courtesy: Unstable.atom/Wikipedia

What are the different types of Banarasi sarees?

There’s incredible depth to the weaving traditions used to create handloom Banarasi sarees.
The choice of fabric, the quantity of zari, and the use of additional warp and weft yarns can transform the look and feel of a handloom Banarasi saree

Handwoven Banarasi silk sarees are of four main types, depending on the silk that’s used:
Katan, which is a pure silk saree that’s compactly woven and features beautiful zari brocades.
These sarees tend to be heavier than the other kinds of Banaras silk sarees.  

Kora or organza, which is gauzy and features detailed zari patterns. Kora Banaras silk sarees are woven using raw silk threads; zari threads can be used for the weft, giving the saree a translucent quality and noticeable sheen. 

Khaddi georgette, the sheer silk saree with a grainy texture, is preferred for its beautiful drape.  

–  Shattir is an innovation that’s lighter and has more contemporary designs. Shattir Banarasi silk sarees can often be worn to daytime events. 

Khaddi georgette Banarasi silk sarees for weding that are light and easy to wear, yet filled with the rich patterns associated with a Banarasi weave. 
Khaddi georgette Banarasi silk sarees are light and easy to wear, yet filled with the rich patterns associated with a Banarasi weave. 

From the lens of design, Banarasi silk sarees can be further distinguished into the following varieties. 

Khinkhwab: With its lush brocades of pure zari, it’s hardly a wonder that this Banarasi silk saree is called ‘khinkhwab’ – a golden dream. 

Tanchoi: Made using a technique learnt in China, Tanchoi sarees are crafted from a single or double warp and multiple weft threads of a similar shade. Tanchoi sarees usually have a monotone or tone-on-tone palette and can also be identified by their silk brocades and the unique satin texture of the base fabric. 

Minakari: Inspired by the Persian art of enameling, Minakari was perfected in India under Mughal patronage. Silk threads of different and often contrasting colours are used to highlight the motifs of the Banaras silk saree, adding more dimensions to the design. 

Kadhwa: While Kadhwa Banarasi silk sarees have the embossed texture of embroidery, they have been solely crafted on the loom using extra weft threads that highlight the base design of the saree. These sarees take special skill to weave, for the reverse side bears no sign of the extra weft threads that were used. 

Jamdani: The craft of Jamdani extends from Uttar Pradesh in India to Dhaka in Bangladesh. Jamdani weavers use a double weft to create the motifs.These patterns can be further embellished using gold or silver zari. 

This handloom Banaras tissue silk saree for wedding with the Jamdani motifs blends two celebrated weaving traditions from northern India. 
This handloom Banaras tissue silk saree with Jamdani motifs blends two celebrated weaving traditions from northern India. 

The motifs of Banarasi sarees :

various color collections for banarasi silk sarees for wedding

The paisley, called ‘kairi’ or ‘ambi’, perhaps is the motif most strongly associated with the Banarasi weaving heritage. While the shape exists as the ‘manga’ (mango) in southern India, the Banarasi version is rooted in the Persian arts. The versatile symbol can be woven in the shape of a droplet, elongated like a leaf, embellished with flowering vines and miniature patterns, or nestled at the corners of the pallu as the ‘koniya’. 

The jaal pattern is also much favoured among the weavers of Banaras. The latticed design usually extends across the body, with flowers and creepers gently twirling around them. Floral motifs gained popularity in the Mughal era, and flowers bloom abundantly on the fields and borders of a handloom Banarasi saree

The blossoms themselves commonly occur in Mughal art and architecture – roses, irises, crocuses, lilies and marigolds. Lotus blossoms, hibiscus and champa also make an occasional appearance. The flowers are woven with lifelike brilliance, their contours often traced with gold zari or silk threads. Apart from standalone buttis, the flowers are also woven as bouquets or the flowering vine (called ‘bel’). 

The erstwhile royal pastime of hunting finds expression in Banarasi sarees as the ‘shikargah’ pattern. Here, the weaver recreates elephants, deer, tigers, horses and birds in exceptional detail, alongside a rider on horseback. 

Modern renditions now include design influences from across India, such as Ikat, Patola, Paithani as well as birds and geometric patterns. This feels like a natural extension of the craft of weaving Banaras textiles. With a legacy that spans millennia, the city’s weavers have grown adept at threading together diverse influences while still maintaining the opulence of the peerless Banarasi weave. 

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