Banarasi Silk - Varanasi's Brilliant Brocade
Banarasi (or Varanasi) silk saris come from the holy city of Varanasi (or Benares) in Uttar Pradesh (so many names!). There are strong cottage industries for these saris in Varanasi, Gorakhpur and Azamgarh. There are 1.2. million workers in total who produce these saris.
In Varanasi, the training for young weavers can begin as early as 10 years old and the craft is passed down parent to child. It takes about three weavers working on power looms anywhere between 15 days and six months to complete a single Banarasi sari.
There are four categories of Banarasi saris - Kora (silk organza with zari work), Katan (pure silk), Georgette, and Shattir. And according to design experts these categories break down further into Jangla, Tanchoi, Vaskat, Cutwork, Tissue, and Butidar.
Banarasi saris have roots in the Mughal era, 14th century C.E., where Varanasi was the center of brocade weaving. They still retain a lot of Mughal influence today, especially in the design motifs. Most Banarasi saris have vestiges of the intertwining floral and foliate motifs, called kalga and bel, common in Mughal craftwork.
In 1603, many Gujurati silk workers fled famine and set up shop in Varanasi. The earliest mention of zari in Varanasi wasn't until the 19th century and it's possibly only in the 18th and 19th centuries that Banarasi silk production was fully developed.
The brocade embroidery is incredibly fine and appears 3-dimensional, as opposed to the 2-dimensional brocades of the South. All Banarasi saris have a signature line of narrow, upright leaves (jhallar) patterned along border along the inside and outside of the sari.
The special chemical dyes that have been traditionally used in the production of Banarasi saris have been discontinued because they pollute the Ganges River. Instead, dyers are using the natural dyes, which come from things like pomegranates and marigolds, developed by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology and the Banaras Hindu University.
Along with kanjivaram saris, Banarasi saris are the some of the most expensive saris in India. Because Banarasi saris require fine silk, expensive zari thread, and multiple skilled weavers, various cheap and mechanically-made knockoffs have filled Indian markets.
In 2009, UP secured the Geographical Indication Label, an international property right, that ensures the cloth comes is genuine Banarasi and comes from Varanasi. This is similar to how champagne has to be certified by the French government and sourced from Champagne, France.