It is said that when Buddha attained Nirvana (eternal rest), his body was wrapped in a
Benares fabric, which shot rays of dazzling blue, red and yellow. Even the Rig-Veda
refers to the hiranyadrapi or a shining, gold - woven cloth, the
Mahabharata to the manichera and Valmiki's
Ramayana describes Ravana, the demon god, as donning a gold fabric.
Pali literature mentions the Kaseyyaka (silk of
Benares) worth a hundred pieces of silver.
Situated on a historic highway, Benares or Varanasi, as the city is called, became the centre for the cross - fertilization of cultures. The city attracted saints and sages, kings and conquerors, priests and pilgrims, traders and craftsmen. Each one of them brought their individual brand of identity, which united and grew together to give the city a specific transformation.
Central to Benares' existence is the ritual use of cotton. From the soft, multilayered cloth that serves as the first swaddling cloth for an infant; the eight strands of twisted yarn worn by every Hindu Brahmin male as part of his initiation rites; the splendid wedding saris patterned in gold and the muslin shroud, the only adornment of the cremation bier. Cotton is her heartbeat, but it is silk that has ensured world recognition for the weavers of Benares.
India harvests four varieties of silk: Mulberry,
Tussar, Eri and Muga. Mulberry silk, as the name suggests is from the silkworm that feeds on the Mulberry tree, Tussar is from the silk worm that feeds on the Oak, Arjun and Sal trees. Eri is derived from the silkworm that feeds on the castor plant and Muga, a golden hued silk is found only in Assam, and is harvested from the silkworm that feeds on the sum tree (a species of laurel).
The earliest weaving of silk fabrics in Benares is still an unresolved subject among art historians and researchers. Even the varieties of silk used are unrecorded. Some scholars suggest a possible date circa 1300 AD that coincides with a fire somewhere in Gujarat, which resulted in migration of Gujarat weavers into Benares. Few mention the movement of weavers from royal workshops in Delhi at the close of the Tughlaq Empire at the end of the 14th century. Others suggest a migration from Janupur with the collapse of the sultanate at the end of the 15th century. There is no mention of Benares as an important silk weaving center in the biographical records of the imperial Mughals.
Two streams of weavers make up the textile heritage of Benares. The first, the Benaresiwaal, are centered in its heart, Madanpura. They were known for the weaving of gossamer fabrics. Foremost amongst them is the fine cotton jamdani; a delicate figured muslin, now extinct in Benares.
By the 19th century, the trading of silk reduced the weavers' dependence on cotton. The Benaresiwaal weavers' sari, dupattas, dhotis, turbans, handkerchiefs, bridal veils, sashes, caps and yards of plain, striped and checked fabrics were eagerly sought after. Their designs, both in geometric and floral, were as varied as their many clients.
It was the trader, grihastha, who was the essential design and marketing link in the system. It was he who selected the design (according to market preference) determined the structure, provided all costs relating to the designmaker, suggested the color, purchased the silk and gold yarn, even set up the loom and ensured the quality of his product.
In the late 18th century, a second stream of weavers from Mau
Nath Bhanjan, a small town north of Benares, began their migration into the city. The undocumented journey of the Mauwaal is accompanied by a tale. Chittanbaba, a weaver of turbans, fled a plague stricken Mau. He came to Benares with a single loom. Distrusted by the Benaresiwaal, he built himself a hut outside the city. A grihastha recognising his skill, bought a turban and presented it to the Maharaja at Benares. He in turn, marvelling at the texture, gave the trader a valuable ring. In time he ordered a second turban and the trader went back to Chittanbaba, and in due course, presented him to the Maharaja. Chittanbaba, seizing this opportunity, elucidated his woes and the king gifted him a piece of land, Chittanpura. The Mauwaal settlement started and in a short period the weavers from Mau had settled in Pathanitola,
Adampura, Jalalipura, Pilikothi, Kachibagh and many areas immediately outside the city.
By the mid - 19th century, the Mauwaal had become an important landmark in the textile landscape and their work was acknowledged in a citation at the Lucknow Exhibition of 1835. Whereas the Benaresiwaal had concentrated his skill on finer fabrics, the Mauwaal was able to expand to a whole new range of new designs, textures and a whole range of new products in silk and gold: the kinkhwab, satin, dress materials takht
posh for which Benares is known today. The Mauwaal's contribution lay in creating heavier and more expensive textiles. They understood the importance of technology and created a different, mixed variety of products that ensured growth.
A weaver can only function well if the grihastha understands the constraints of the loom and appreciates and provides quality yarn. The nakshabandh or pattern -maker must work within the parameters of the number of threads in the warp and weft. The dyer must be able to balance his colors to create a harmonious palette. The winder and warper must work with precision. The draw boy must move in concert with the weaver. Above all, a great textile is the essential result of discriminating patronage. The arrival of nakshabandhs or pattern - makers into Benares is unrecorded. The nakshabandhs believe their progenitor to be Khwaja
Bahauddin Rehmatullah from Bokhara in the 13th century. Some suggest that they came from Gujurat, others believe Persia to be the source, and still others believe Agra to be the more immediate source for pattern - makers.
The patterns, originally etched on mica and now drawn on graph paper, are transferred with the use of threads on to a loom, enabling a pattern to be used repeatedly. This design system for duplication was the precursor of the use of the jacquard. With the introduction of jacquard loom in the 1950's by Jaffar
Ustad of Kachibagh that obliterated the use of the more delicate jala or floral
creeper motif. While the jacquard loom made work easier, the miniature scale was replaced often by a bolder and vulgar patterning. During the British period the brocade with gold backgrounds ornamented with colored silk called minadaar, were made. Original brocades that were sent to Tibet for use in Buddhist temples were all woven in gold with small twill diapered, basket or herringbone designs, and that the more flamboyant Tibetan
gyasar brocades that are now so distinctly from Benares, have a more recent history.
The introduction of satin into Benares came through Mau in the 19th century. The first tanchoi
satin loom from Mumbai in the 1920's. The most successful were the satins with an all - over design, called tanchoi though there are many etymological interpretations of the word, the most competent appears to be tan - body, choi - covered. The pattern that covers the body of fabric. This too was a contribution of the mauwaal weavers.
The design vocabulary of Benaresi textiles encompassed a small group of geometric patterns, a larger range of trellis designs but it is his floral repertoire that generally tests the weaver's ingenuity. The buti (small single flower), buta
(a large flower), jaal (shrub) were typical to Benaresi brocades.
Benaresi sari varies so much in designs, materials and patterns that each one can be a desired product. Benaresi plain silk saris with following motifs:
Butidaar (small flower motifs); Ari
Pattidaar (diagonally linear motifs); Khadi Pattidaar (straight linear motifs); Jaal (shrubs); Konia (large corner motifs); Ganga
- Jamuna (gold and silver brocade). Each of these can be embroidered or running - shuttle woven with or without colored thread inlay.
Benaresi silks with plain body, patterned borders and pallus of varying scales.
Benaresi silk saris without borders and pallu,
but with butis of varying sizes in the body.
Benaresi zari tissue silk saris of the following varieties:
Butidaar; Ari Pattidaar; Khadi Pattidaar; Jaal; Konia; Ganga - Jamuna.
Organza (pure silk but not degummed so the yarn is stiff) saris.
Benaresi pure silk chiffon saris.
Tanchoi saris and satin Tanchoi saris.
Gethwa saris with diagonal patterns.
Avadh Jamdani saris (woven in colored threads but without gold or silver). Famous all - over woven Jamdani shawl.