Handloom Kanchipuram silk sarees are filled with motifs of prosperity and fulfillment. Drawn from mythology and the bounty of Nature, these symbols invoke abundance in the language of silk and gold.
Kanchipuram might be better known for its temples (and its handwoven sarees for their temple borders), but it’s also situated in one of the most fertile regions of Tamil Nadu. As the harvest season grows near, its fields are green with paddy, its trees heavy with fruit, and its granaries evidence of the red soil’s richness.
Each motif in the Kanchipuram weaving tradition is symbolic. Kanchipuram’s weavers incorporate motifs derived from agriculture, Nature and mythology to connote fertility, auspiciousness and prosperity. As the harvest festivals of Pongal and Makara Sankranti draw near, we revisit some of the most popular motifs in the Kanchipuram repertoire and reflect on how each celebrates abundance in its unique way.
Drawn on damp earth at daybreak, the kolam’s sacred symmetry is a harbinger of prosperity and a celebration of co-existence.Typically created using rice flour, the kolam invites all beings to feast on the fruits of life, thus signifying abundance.
The curvilinear lines of the kolam are constantly referenced in Kanchipuram silk sarees. Just as women carefully draw these sacred patterns at the entrance of their homes, our weavers faithfully reproduce these motifs on our sarees, filling them with symbols of auspiciousness.
The lotus, hibiscus, mallow and champa – sacred flowers grow lush in forests and fields, to be offered in shrines and used as adornment. A delight to the senses and a symbol of plenty, each flower holds in it the promise of fruition.
Floral motifs abound on handloom Kanchipuram silk sarees, appearing as flamboyant buttis, lush garlands, and flowering creepers growing in a thick canopy. Each flower has meaning; the lotus symbolises wealth and purity, the hibiscus brings good fortune, and the jasmine is associated with sensuality. Kanchipuram’s weavers handcraft them in rich detail, celebrating them as evidence of Nature’s creativity.
c.Thazhampoo reku :
The flower of the screw pine, which grows on silted river banks, is treasured for its medicinal properties. The fragrant blossom is threaded into women’s braids on festive days, and is artistically interpreted as a temple motif in Kanchipuram sarees.
The iconic thazhampoo reku motif is a hybrid of architecture and Nature. The temple motif is modelled on the ridged flower of the screw pine, a sacred plant ingrained in Tamil culture. The thazhampoo reku motif is a signature of handloom Kanchipuram sarees, particularly among those woven using the korvai technique.
In Hindu mythology, the wish-fulfilling tree emerged with the churning of the ocean of milk. Also called the ‘Tree of life’, the kalpavriksha is equally revered in Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
Brimming with life, the kalpavriksha tree is home to a dazzling variety of birds, fruits and flowers. Derived from mythology and reimagined in every art form, the kalpavriksha is beloved for its generosity in granting the seeker’s every wish, both spiritual and material.
As bright as a new leaf, the kili (parrot) pervades Indian art and mythology. Its strong association with femininity and fertility makes it a favourite among weavers of bridal sarees; it’s often featured in Tamil temple architecture as well, owing to its relationship with Goddess Meenakshi. The parrot is believed to inform the Goddess about the many art forms, and is revered as a teacher and messenger in many religious texts.
f.Malli moggu :
Offered to deities and woven into wedding garlands, the malli moggu (jasmine bud) is symbolic of love, beauty and sensuality. The jasmine creeper grows abundantly in gardens and homes, favoured for its fragrance and reputation as a bringer of good fortune.
The malli is most often depicted as a bud on the cusp of unfurling its petals. The motif is a straight line with a gentle swell, and is also called the ‘raindrop’ by Kanchipuram’s weavers.
The malli moggu is typically featured as a butti on the body of the saree, proudly standing apart with its distinctive shape.
From tulsi and neem to betel and banyan – leaves are revered for their power to nurture and heal. When one considers fields with young green stalks promising a rich harvest, it’s little wonder that green is the colour of growth and prosperity.
The ilai (leaf) motif is a favourite among Kanchipuram’s weavers. Leaves don’t just make the region’s fields and forests more verdant, but its sarees as well. They are mostly used as decorative elements, framing manga (mango) and floral motifs or making vanasingaram (glory of the forest) canopies more lush. The leaf is an ubiquitous pattern, often melting into the background, yet profoundly enriching the canvas.
The thilagam (tilak) is drawn on one’s forehead to mark the ajna chakra or third eye. It symbolises the infinite wisdom available to us, and our ability to command it. While most other motifs focus on external wealth, the thilagam is a reminder of the abundance that lies within us.
In spiritual practice, the shape and substance of a thilagam depends on the deity that one believes in. In the Kanchipuram weaving tradition, the thilagam is teardrop-shaped; wide at the base and tapered at the top. It’s a simple motif with a profound meaning, and generously used across Kanchipuram sarees.
The symbol of wisdom, wealth and purity, the kamalam (lotus) is revered in India. The flower grows in murky ponds and remains unblemished, blossoming anew every day, and reminding us of the possibility and power of renewal.
The kamalam motifs of Kanchipuram silk sarees are dainty, compact creations. In Banarasi sarees, the lotus is curvy and flamboyant, often depicted in the Persian style. The lotus motifs of Kanchipuram silk sarees instead tend to be simple, eight-petalled designs that show the flower in full bloom.
The much-loved mango symbolises life, while garlands of its leaves adorn the doors of Hindu households on special occasions. Mango flowers were said to be the arrows of Kamadeva, the God of love. Indeed, the mango celebrates life’s sweetness.
Grown in temple courtyards and savoured in homes, the fruit is captured in India’s many crafts. In the Banarasi weaving tradition, it’s the elongated and ornamented ‘ambi’; in Kanchipuram, it’s more rounded and liberally woven into buttis, borders and flowering vines. It represents vitality and fruition, inviting us to savour life.
A gold coin (pavun) represents wealth in its most basic yet universal form. In Hinduism, material well-being is one of the four traditional pursuits of the householder. The acquisition of and detachment from wealth is considered a stepping stone to spiritual awakening.
The coin butta is traditionally represented with V-shaped lines radiating from the dot at the centre. There are many variations, yet what remains constant is the versatility of this motif, so often used as buttis on the body or threaded together with more complex patterns on the border and pallu.
The right-facing swastika is associated with the sun deity Surya, symbolising well-being and prosperity. In Jainism it represents the Tirthankaras, while Buddhists see in it the footprints of the Buddha. Drawn since the Indus Valley civilisation, it invites the best that life has to offer.
The simple geometry of the swastik motif lends itself to several interpretations in global arts and architecture. It is inlaid into checked and circular designs and adds to the linear patterns of mosaics. As old as civilisation itself, the swastik has been drawn on everything from courtyards and coins to saree borders, invoking life’s blessings.
A combination of motifs are woven into handloom Kanchipuram silk sarees; each is selected for its meaning and beauty, as well as the occasion to which the saree will be worn. So, which motif would you choose for a wedding or celebration?