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Silk Fabrics & 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 TughlaqEmpire 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 ofBenares 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, theBenaresiwaal, 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 theBenaresiwaal, 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 LucknowExhibition 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'scontribution 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. Thenakshabandhs believe their progenitor to be Khwaja Bahauddin Rehmatullah fromBokhara 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 thejacquard. With the introduction of jacquard loom in the 1950's by Jaffar Ustad ofKachibagh 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 firsttanchoi 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.