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Unveiling the History of Banarasi Brocade

Varanasi is best known for being a holy city on the Ganges founded by Lord Shiva and of importance to the Buddha as well. It is a city well known for temples, particularly the Kashi Viswanath, Durga and Bharat Mata temples, the latter being the only temple in India dedicated to Mother India. Learning and the arts, particularly music, have flourished here through the ages and continue to be hallmarks of the city.

The holy city of Varanasi   Close-up of a traditional pink Banarasi brocade saree
L: The holy city of Varanasi
R: Close-up of a traditional pink Banarasi brocade saree

The textile industry fits into this milieu and brocade weaving with gold and silver thread, zari, has been a Banarasi specialty since the Rig Vedic period between c. 1750-500 BCE. It was during this time that the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, the Vedas, were composed. Banarasi brocades, or kimkhabs, woven with gold and silver thread gained widespread renown during the Mughal period of the 14th century, and with the arrival of Europeans.

Mughal Emperor, Akbar, one of the greatest patrons of Banarasi brocade
Mughal Emperor, Akbar, who reigned from 1556-61, one of the greatest patrons of Banarasi brocade

Between 1583 and 1591, Ralph Fitch, a gentleman merchant from London, chronicled his accounts of trade in Varanasi using its anglicised name, Banaras. He noted the city’s growth in the cotton textile industry. He was among the first English traders to travel to India, and was made an esteemed consultant of the British East India Company. Silk weaving in the production of Banarasi brocade heightened with the migration of silk weavers to Uttar Pradesh following the 1603 famine of Gujarat. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, Banarasi brocade developed and thrived, enhancing its elegance. The city continues to be the centre of silk brocade and Banarasi saree production in India, and the textile industry is one of the city's main employers.

These stills of Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan as the title characters in the 2008 film Jodhaa Akbar show the opulence of Banarasi brocade. Today, as in the days of the Mughals, silk weaving and brocade production are small scale "Cottage Industries."

Opulent costume of Jodhabai played by the beautiful Aishwarya Rai in Jodhaa Akbar   The brocade attire of Akbar played by Hrithik Roshan in Jodhaa Akbar
L: Opulent costume of Jodhabai played by the beautiful Aishwarya Rai in Jodhaa Akbar
R: The brocade attire of Akbar played by Hrithik Roshan in Jodhaa Akbar

 

Images: Saree Pe Vaaree, Gaatha, Indian Makeup and Beauty, Divya Vithika