Indian Silks over the years

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Anupama Nair

The rustle of silk has fascinated most women from time immemorial, all around the world, be it a queen or a commoner. Indian silks were popular across the world from ancient times till the present day. Textiles from the Subcontinent is as “vast and enchanting, as an ocean of many tempting colors”  The history of silk is more than five thousand years old. Silk is one of the oldest fabrics known to man. The history of silk can be traced back to 2700 BC in China, and the use of silk was limited only to the Chinese at time. Silk in the Indian Subcontinent is a now considered a luxury. The silk is called as “paat” in East India, “Resham” in the North and “pattu” in the South.

India is a known as a country of remarkable variety and a unique liveliness. In its spellbinding background of clothing styles and colorful clothes, the silks of the Indian Subcontinent stand out with their soft textures and aesthetic appeal. The fabric is used to create a varied range of textiles that furnish to the clothing desires of all the categories of people here as well as the rest of the world. In fact, we make clothes suitable for most countries of the world be it shimmering European gowns or tuxedos or shirts, we make it all. I have even seen Europeans and Americans wearing our sarees with such grace. Today, Indian Subcontinent ranks as the largest consumer of silk,  and the second largest silk producer in the world after China. When it comes to the types of silk fabric produced in the Subcontinent, every region from Peshawar to Chittagong and Kashmir to Kanya Kumari, and even Sri Lanka boasts of its unique kind. Such fabrics are interlaced from different kinds of natural silk produced in the region. I  am providing you a glimpse of the types of natural silks found in Indian Subcontinent and the types of silk fabric weaved from them.

Saree is frequently worn by women in the Subcontinent. Sarees bring out the best in a woman, age is no barrier – be it farewell in school or Traditional Day in office, old or young there is an unparalleled charm and grace. Did you know Saree is developed from the Sanskrit word “Shati”, meaning a strip of cloth?

You might be surprised to hear the discovery of silk was by an accident. The Empress Leizu of China, was having tea one day when a silk worm's cocoon fell into her cup. In its attempt to get out, the thread of the cocoon began to unroll and the Empress thought of weaving the thread. Her husband, encouraged his wife to study the life of silk worm, and so she learned the art of raising silk worms or what is now called sericulture.  She taught this skill to her people, as well and thus the silk industry was born

For many centuries, the Chinese kept silk as a secret from the rest of the world. Only in around 1000 BC the Silk Routes were opened across Asia, linking the Mediterranean countries, as well as North Africa and Europe. By then, countries such as India and Japan learnt the science of sericulture and soon became a part of the eastern monopoly of silk production.

India, also has a long history of sericulture. The archaeological discoveries in  Harappa and Mohenjadaro suggest that sericulture, using wild threads from native silk-room species, existed in India between 2450 BC and 2000 BC, and the Indus silks were obtained from more than one species. The fibers discovered were dated to around 2450–2000 BC and were processed using similar techniques as found in China. 

There was a type of silk famous then called Jamawar. Kings and nobles bought the fabric by the yard, wearing it as a gown or using it as a wrap or shawl. It was then the Jamawar weaving centers in India developed in the holy cities and the trade centers. The most popular jamawar weaving centers were in Assam, Gujrat, Karachi, Malwa and South India. The brocade weaving centers in India developed in and around the capitals of kingdoms or holy cities like Benares and Kanchipuram, because of the demand for expensive fabrics by the royal families and temples for dressing their deities. The ancient centers in the north, were mainly Delhi, Lahore, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Varanasi, Mau, Azamgarh and Murshidabad were the main centers for brocade weaving. 

The US is the largest importer of Indian silk and silk products over the recent years, followed by China and the UAE. The annual export of silk and silk products from India is estimated  around US$ 400 million. Amazing isn’t? In fact, India is the only country in the world that produces all the five kinds of silk namely Mulberry, Eri, Muga, Tropical Tasar and Temperate Tasar. The top ten largest silk producing states in Independent India are Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur and Maharashtra.

There are four categories of natural silk produced in India for commercial purposes. These are known as Mulberry silk, Tasar silk, Muga silk, and Eri silk. Among these four kinds, the mulberry silk contributes to more than 80% of the silk produced in the country. 

The Muga silk is one of the rarest silks produced in the world. It is known for its shimmering glossy texture and extreme durability. This silk is produced by the larva of a silkworm named Assam silk moth. Muga silk is considered to be among the strongest natural fibers and has a distinct natural yellowish-golden tint. One of the most expensive varieties of silk produced in the world, Muga silk is used to make mekhela chador (traditional Assamese wear), sarees, kurtas, stoles, etc.

Eri silk, also known as Endi or Errandi silk is one such variety of silk, which is processed from the open-ended cocoons of the domesticated silkworms native to Assam. Since the silk is obtained without killing the silkworm, it is also referred to as “Ahimsa silk or peace silk”. This is one of the reasons that the Buddhist monks of India, China, Nepal, and Japan prefer this silk of non-violent origin.

Tasar silk also known as Kosa silk in Sanskrit is primarily produced in the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. The Oak Tasar silk is a finer variety of the Tasar silk produced in India. Tasar silk is generated from the larvae of the silkworm that live in wild forests hence called ‘wild silk’. India occupies the second position as a producer of Tasar silk and is the exclusive producer of Indian Tussar.

Sarees made from this silk are its most famous produce, though it is also used to generate fabrics for furnishing, dupattas, and dresses. The Tasar silk sarees produced in West Bengal have a typical papery effect. Bhagalpuri silk and Kosa silk are two kinds of well-known sarees made from Tasar silk.

Bhagalpur, a small town in Bihar, which goes by the nickname ‘Silk City’ is famous for its Bhagalpuri silk sarees and the intrinsic artwork reflected are stunning, to say the least. Apart from the striking motifs and designs, the multi-colored silk threads used to weave these sarees also give them a vibrant look and feel. Kosa silk, is produced in Chhattisgarh and the classic Kosa silk sarees are characterized by their dull golden hues. Apart from sarees, Kosa silk is used to make lehenga, dhoti, kurta, etc.

The most popular and renowned variety of silk produced in India is the mulberry silk. The states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and Jammu and Kashmir are recognized as the main producers of this silk. Mulberry silk is known for its exquisite quality. Textiles produced from pure Mulberry silk are highly durable and attracts attention due to its fine texture and lustrous sheen that can enhance the beauty of any attire designed from it. This silk is also used to create evening gowns, dress materials, fabric for furnishing, dhotis, kurtas, etc.

Banarasi silk or Benarasi silk is one of the finest variants of  mulberry silk produced in India. Primarily weaved in the holy city of Varanasi or Banaras in Uttar Pradesh, this silk attracts attention due to the zari and brocade work in gold and silver thread on the fine fabric. Benarasi silk sarees are famous all over the world for their splendor and exquisiteness.

Kanjeevaram silk or Kancheepuram silk traces its origin to the Kancheepuram town in Tamil Nadu. Made from pure mulberry silk threads, this silk is renowned for its strength, lustrous shine, and grandeur. Kanjeevaram silk sarees are among the most popular silk sarees in the world. With their rich hues, captivating broad borders, and enthralling designs, this silk has been enhancing the beauty of the Indian women since long. The specialty of this saree is that the border and the body are woven separately and joined later.

The Baluchari silk derives its name from the Baluchar village, where this rich weaving tradition originated more than 200 years ago. The unique feature of a Baluchari silk saree is the elaborate representation of religious scenes on its “pallu” and borders with silk threads.

Chanderi, a small town in Madhya Pradesh is famous for Chanderi silks. The traditional Chanderi silk sarees and dress material, entice wearers with their amazing texture, luxurious feel, light weight, and soft pastel hues.

Mysore silk from Karnataka is known for its radiance, durability, and non-crush quality. The most distinctive feature of Mysore silk sarees is the pure gold zari work done on the single-toned sarees with golden borders. Mysore silk is used to create lovely silk stoles, shawls, kurtis, dhotis, scarfs, and pyjama kurtas.

Originating from the city of Dharmavaram in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, this rich ethnic silk is known for its brocaded gold designs. Dharmavaram sarees with their intrinsically woven broad borders and shaded pallus have traditional motifs adorning the body of the attire. Paavadas or lehengas are also made from this silk. Kuchipudi and Bharat Natyam dancers mostly use this silk for their dance attires.

Pochampalli silk sarees are renowned for the intricate motifs and amazing designs reflected on the fine Pochampalli fabric through ikat style of dyeing. It is the exceptional blend of silk and cotton along with the bright colors that make these sarees truly unique.

Garad silk sarees are distinguished by their red borders and plain white or off-white body. Made in Murshidabad in West Bengal, Garad silk sarees are known for their unique texture resembling a tissue paper and light weight. This silk is made from Mulberry or Tasar silk yarns. To maintain the natural color, the yarns are not dyed. Weaved from pure silk, the Kota silk sarees are a distinct produce of Rajasthan. These sarees are distinguished by their square-like patterns, vibrant colors, fine weave, and light weight.

From the coastal land of Odisha or Orissa comes the lovely Ikat silk sarees. This weave is created using a tie and dye method which lends the saree its unique look and feel. Typical design motifs on an Ikat silk include animals, birds, fish, beads of rudraksha, temple tops, and geometric patterns. A remarkable feature of this saree is that it reflects the same colorful motifs and patterns on both sides.

Evolved from a white muslin cloth outfit Chikankari sarees are now, using variety of fabrics with a colorful palette. This Chikankari embroidery similar to kurtas is famous for its diverse effects created using different types of thread and stitches. The delicate embroidery work artfully done by experienced craftsmen is the pure definition of finesse and magnificence.

With thick and a glossy gold border, the “kasavu” sarees are famous in the state of Kerala, and are worn on every important religious ceremonies, like Onam and Vishu. They are now popular all over India.

Thus, it can be seen almost all states of India produces its own silk material.

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