Dr G Shreekumar Menon
The saree in a way represents the glorious culture of Sanatan Dharma. This uniquely crafted wonder is the asset of every Hindu family of Bharat. The word saree is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Shatika’ meaning a long piece of cloth. This single un-stitched piece of cloth has survived triumphantly, spanning time-periods of thousands of centuries, dynasties, foreign invasions, foreign cultural influences and continues to exist in the present era in almost the same format as it originated! No other garment can claim such a distinction and chequered history.
In ancient times men too draped long pieces of clothing around them. This form of dressing existed across all civilizations of the ancient past, but it is only the Hindus who have steadfastly adhered to this clothing, improvising it, beautifying it, and enhancing its range and texture. Today, it represents the greatest cultural heritage of the Hindus.
A legend states that the saree was born on the loom of a weaver who dreamt of a woman, the shine of her tears, the drape of her long hair, the color of her many moods, and the softness of her touch.
The saree has a deep association with every Hindu holy scripture. Saree is mentioned in the Rig Veda, the oldest surviving religious literature of the world, composed over 10,000 years back. In Sanskrit it is called ‘Chira’ meaning cloth. But, the actual word “Saree” is derived from the Prakrit language where it was called “Sattika”. Over the centuries it evolved into “Sati” and finally “Saree or Sari”. The saree holds pride of place as the continuously worn dress in the history of mankind.
In the ancient epic, Ramayana, which records events that occurred in the Treta Yuga, in the Aranya Kanda, the abduction of Sita Devi by Ravana is detailed. While proceeding in the Pushpak Vimana, Sita tears a piece of her saree, and puts the jewelry on her person, in it, and throws it out, in order that Lord Sri Rama can trace it and thereby know the direction in which she is being taken. The saree here, apart from being a garment becomes a life-saving repository.
In the next Dvapara Yuga, during the events leading to the Mahabharata War, the trigger incident, of attempted disrobing of Draupadi occurs, and, is narrated in the Sabha Parva of the Mahabharata. Draupadi Vastraharan, also referred to as Panchali Cheer Haran, is the attempt by Dushasana to disrobe Draupadi who was also having her monthly periods, during that time. The divine interference of Lord Krishna, creates the miracle of the unending saree uncoiling interminably.
Harishchandra the legendary Indian king of the Ikshvaku dynasty, appears in several Hindu holy scriptures such as Aitareya Brahmana, Mahabharata, the Markandeya Purana, and the Devi-Bhagavata Purana. The most famous of his tragic life ordeals is the one narrated in Markandeya Purana. Raja Harishchandra was the epitome of honesty, and he had to undergo a miserable time being tested by Sage Vishwamitra. The final denouement in the tragic life of Raja Harishchandra and his queen Taramati happens at the crematorium, where the penniless couple have no money even to pay for the burial of their only son Prince Rohitashva. Queen Taramati prepares to tear the saree that she is wearing partly for covering the corpse of her son and the remaining for defraying the expenses of the cremation. At this point, divine intervention takes place, Lord Vishnu appears and releases the King and the Queen from all their travails, as also restoring their son Rohitashva back to life. It is the precious saree that comes to rescue the family in their acute moment of crisis. The famed Harishchandra Ghat at Varanasi is the revered spot where this incident occurred.
The saree is closely associated with every Hindu Goddess. During the auspicious Navratri time, different forms of the Goddesses are venerated in different colour sarees. On the first day as Goddess Shailaputri, she is in yellow colour saree, second day as Goddess Brahmacharini in green colour, third day as Goddess Chandraghanta in grey, on day four as Goddess Kushmanda in orange, day five as Goddess Skandmata in white, day six as Goddess Katyayani in red, day seven as Goddess Kaalratri in blue, day eight as Goddess Maha Gauri in pink, and on day nine as Goddess Siddhidatri in purple. The Goddesses wear these nine coloured sarees in nine different ways, on these nine days! Such is the versatility of the saree.
To please the Goddesses, there is a special offering called Oti-Bharane, observed in different parts of the country, wherein saree and blouse piece is offered along with coconut, turmeric, Kumkum, bangles, mangalsutra and rice are given, especially during Navratri time.
The saree that has evolved down to us is so versatile and flexible a garment, that it can be worn with ease and comfort by the young and old alike. Today, there are more than 80 recorded ways to wear a saree! No other garment, anywhere in the world can claim such versatility. Saree in today’s form is a rectangular piece of cloth, usually 5-9 yards in length or 47 inches by 216 inches. It is framed on three sides by decorated borders. Two of these borders stretch longitudinally across the entire length of the saree, and the third is a broader, richly decorated, end-piece known as the ‘Pallav’. The Pallav is a broader, and more intensified version of the two longitudinal borders. This end piece is the part of the sari that is draped over the shoulder and left to hang over the back or front.
Sarees have diversified into innumerable designs, textures and patterns. Different parts of Bharat have developed their own unique saree identity, that have become global symbols. Rajasthan and Gujarat have developed the Bandhni style. Also known as Tie-Dye or Lehriya, Bandhni saris use an ancient technique of tying the cloth in patterns before dipping it in a dye bath. Bandhni saris are associated with festivals, seasons, and rituals for which there are particular patterns and colours. Some variations are decorated with mirrors and bead work.
Bandhej sarees use the Gujarati style of tie-dye. The multi-colouring method involves working the lightest shade first, after which the fabric is tied and a darker colour is introduced. The quality of Bandhej saris can be determined by the size of the dots. The smaller and closer to the size of a pinhead the dots are, the finer is the quality of the saree.
Another famous saree of Gujarat is the Patola saree, which are very expensive and depict painted peacocks from Patan. Patola saris are elaborate as they have intricate five-colour designs which are resist-dyed into both warp and weft threads before weaving. Only about 25 to 30 sarees are made in a year, hence are extremely expensive.
Much celebrated Paithani saree originated during the Satvahana dynasty that existed from 2nd Century B.C. to 2nd Century A.D. Since its place of origin was Paithan in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, so this silk saree is called Paithani.
Chikan embroidery is a specialty of the Uttar Pradesh city of Lucknow. Its unique style was developed during the Mughal period (from the 16th to the 18th century). It is also called Lakhnavi Chikankari.
Kota sarees get their name from Kota, a district in Rajasthan, this type of sari uses a fine woven fabric containing a checked pattern in the weave itself. These saris are very delicate, lightweight, and porous, which helps with surface ornamentation techniques like tie-dye, hand-block printing, embroidery, and appliqué work.
The Banarasi sari is a favourite choice of brides. The signature design of Banarasi saris is a narrow fringe like pattern – called Jhalar – found along the inner and outer border of the saree.
Taant or Bengal cotton is a favourite of those who love cotton. Another famous saree of Bengal is the Baluchari type of saree. Made of silk and woven on looms, the borders of these saris depict stories from Indian epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana. Baluchari saris use only silk threads.
The Kantha saree of Bengal is renowned for its delicate embroidery, Kantha saris are identifiable by a decorative motif with a running stitch. This art is practiced by rural women in Bengal.
Chanderi saree is the traditional saree made in Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh. This fabric traces its origin to Krishna’s cousin Shishupal who was the one to introduce it.
The origin of the Maheshwari sarees dates back to the 18th century, when the state of Indore in Madhya Pradesh was ruled by Queen Ahilyabai Holkar. She got craftsmen from Surat and Malwa to design special 9-yard sarees to be gifted to royal guests and relatives. These sarees are made in the town of Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh. These sarees were originally worn by ladies of royal status. The unique feature of the Maheshwari saree is its reversible border.
Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar popularized the Chiffon saree. She was widowed early in life, but she transformed her mourning clothes into high fashion. She had sarees woven in France in White Chiffon, it became very popular because of its softness, lightness and caressing drape.
The Kanchipuram sarees of Tamilnadu are typically made by the gold-dipped silver thread that is woven into best quality silk. The silk base of these saris is thicker than any other silk sari, which makes it quite expensive. The most common motifs found in Kanchipuram saris are Peacock and Parrot.
Madisar is a type of saree worn by ladies of the Brahmin community in Tamilnadu, which is 9 yards in length instead of the common 6 yards. It is a very important part of the Iyer and Iyengar communities. Brahmins wear Madisar saris for any important occasion – starting with marriage, Seemandham, important poojas, and death ceremonies.
The classic Kerala Kasavu saree uses gold thread in the border.
Karnataka is famous for the Mysore silk saree. There is also the Ilkal saree, made in Ilkal town in Bagalkot district in Northern Karnataka.
The wedding sarees of Dharmavaram in Andhra Pradesh are special and famous for the rich pallav that are woven with brocaded gold patterns to give a gorgeous look.
Venkatagiri Saree is a sari style woven in Venkatagiri of Nellore district in Andhra Pradesh. It is registered as one of the geographical indication (GI) from Andhra Pradesh by Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999.
The varieties of sarees produced across Bharat can by itself be a wonder of the world.
Contrary to general belief, sarees are not clumsy. Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi, fought the British forces wearing a saree, and riding on horseback.
Rani Abbakka Chowta was the first Tuluva Queen of Ullas, near Mangalore, Karnataka, who fought the Portuguese in the latter half of the 16th century. She wore the saree in the battles. Another great woman warrior of Karnataka who fought battles wearing saree was Rani Kittur Chennamma.
Today, the saree industry is extensive and sarees are mass produced in thousands of colour combinations, textures, motifs and weave patterns. There are 10 major saree production hubs in Bharat, located at Kanchipuram, Mysore, Varanasi, Chanderi, Bishnupur, Kota, Maheshwar, Karaikudi, Sambalpur, and Sualkuchi. The enormous glittering range of sarees produced is unmatched and unparalleled, anywhere else in the world. This unique garment worn by Hindu women is nonpareil.
The author Dr G Shreekumar Menon, IRS (Rtd) Ph. D (Narcotics), is
- Former Director General National Academy of Customs Indirect Taxes and Narcotics, and Multi-Disciplinary School of Economic Intelligence India
- Fellow, James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, USA.
- Fellow, Centre for International Trade & Security, University of Georgia, USA
- Public Administration, Maxwell School of Public Administration, Syracuse University, U.S.A.
- AOTS Scholar, Japan
Dr G Shreekumar Menon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org