Handlooms of Varanasi – A disappearing craft

The first thing I notice when I get out of the taxi, besides the obvious commotion that is in most Indian cities, is the low hum permeating the air. It’s the background music to the honking cars and men hawking raw fruits and vegetables. A constant, soft click-clack in harmony with the energy of the city itself. I’m in Varanasi (also known as Benaras), on one of the many photo tours in India offered by Loculars, to meet one of the few men who continue the age-old tradition of hand weaving the beautiful silk Benarasi saris.

The Benarasi sari has been recognized for centuries for fine handwork. Even today, Benarasi saris are coveted for their craftsmanship. But as I learn through my visit, it may be an endangered art.

Varanasi has been famous for the weaving of saris and other materials since ancient times. During the Mughal era around the 14th century, Varanasi became a hub for the silk trade. According to a 2015 article in the New York Times, Islam traditionally forbids images of people and animals, so the weavers of the 14th century created intricate floral brocades and sophisticated intertwining patterns using gold and silver threads known as zari. The Benarasi sari has been recognized for centuries for fine handwork. Even today, Benarasi saris are coveted for their craftsmanship. But as I learn through my visit, it may be an endangered craft.

I’m escorted into a building facing the main street that has to be over 100 years old. I enter a hallway that leads to a very dark room that is no more than 12’ x 15’. It has a dirt floor and is lit by a single bulb. There is a small window with wooden shutters that someone opens to let in a bit more light. The room itself is cramped. A small bench sits against a peeling plaster wall just inside the door. One end of the room is chock full of boxes and bags stacked to the ceiling and brimming with unknown contents that are hard to make out in the darkness. A calendar and posters with Islamic script are tacked up next to the window, perhaps hiding crumbling pocks in the exterior wall.

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He works in a room lit by a single bulb.
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The weaver sits on the dirt floor with his feet controlling the treadles in a hole.
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The loom takes up the majority of the room.  Two sets of cardboard punch cards dictate the border pattern and the motif pattern.

Filling the room is an extraordinary wooden handloom worn by years of repetitive use. The warp threads, the ones that run lengthwise and are held steady in the loom, extend at least 4’ before curling up into a hefty roll. Besides the sheer amount of string and thread that overwhelm the room, there are two things that are remarkable to me. First, the weaver sits directly on the dirt floor with his feet comfortably hanging into a hole in the floor where he controls the treadles. (Treadles are those foot pedals that move the warp threads in an alternating manner that results in the weaving pattern.) What intrigues me, even more, are two sets of interlocking punch cards, rectangular cardboard pieces that remind me of player piano scrolls. These punch cards dictate the pattern and somehow regulate the rise and fall of the warp threads. On this loom, one set manages the main pattern in the sari and the other set commands the border pattern.

I learn that the weaver built the loom himself. (He wishes not to be named.) He also creates his own traditional Mughal patterns on graph paper before translating that into the cardboard punch cards. The sari he is currently weaving is a gorgeous indigo with a silver (zari) motif that repeats six times and an intricate zari border pattern. In the hand weaving tradition, there is one shuttle for each motif. (A shuttle carries the weft thread back and forth.) For the sari he is currently weaving, there are 8 shuttles. Six small shuttles carry the silver thread for the main repeating motif. One larger shuttle has silver thread just for the border. And the last shuttle is the largest and is wound with the indigo background silk thread. All these individual shuttles mean that the back of the sari doesn’t carry the threads from one motif to another, resulting in a very clean look and a lighter weight finished product. Saris are 6 feet in length, and saris made on a hand loom, like this one, can take several weeks to several months to complete, depending on the intricacy of the design.

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Each zari motif has its own shuttle.

The source of the low hum and click-clack that I heard on arrival is revealed to me as I’m taken to my next stop, a power loom factory. There are hundreds located in this neighborhood that lies just beyond the tourist agenda. This room is larger, just as dark, but large enough to hold six power looms, each lit individually. Each machine is churning out bright, multi-colored saris with geometric shapes or all-over designs, a clear divergence from the more traditional Mughal patterns. It is managed by one attendant and generates about 9 saris a day.  These saris sell for a fraction of the price in stores all over India.

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Power looms operate with little human intervention and can each weave one or more saris a day.
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Power looms use the same punch cards to manage the patterns

I visit several more power loom rooms of varying sizes all within a stone’s throw of each other. All humming and clicking in the background like the buzzing of bees in a large lavender field. As the Indian middle class grows and as there are downward pressures on the prices of consumer goods, I realize that the exquisite hand weaver I met is really an endangered species. The artisan who cherishes his craft is unable to compete both on volume and on price. But after spending several hours learning about the art of hand weaving, I appreciate the craftsmanship, the detail, and the expertise one man can bring to an ancient art.

Loculars thanks Sandy Gennrich for authoring this post. The above post is a first-hand account of taking this Loculars experience. This post first appeared on The Light Diaries