Banaras/ Varanasi or Kashi has an ancient history of textile designing. The most exquisite brocades in silk and gold are woven by the weavers on silk pit loom. The weavers of Varanasi are best known for their skill in brocade weaving and known as Kinkhabs. There are many exquisite designs in this variety and it is even impossible to copy or imitate the saris as the loom is very intricate in construction. The origin of this old technique has been obscured by time, but the Moghul influence is seen in the motifs, which often depict floral patterns and hunting scenes.
Banaras is famous for its socio-economic and religious importance all over the world. The city is equally important as a Brocade Weaving Centre throughout the country. The weaving industry, which flourished during the Vedic period and touched its peak at the time of mogul period, explains how the act of weaving was a part and parcel of the life of the Banaras people. Whether it is the religious activity or earning of livelihood for the population, the weaving activity surpassed all other occupations. From the historical perspectives, the textile industry has found place from rig Vedic literature to post independent India.
Since the Rig Vedic times, we hear about several kinds of textiles among which figures out the cloth of gold (the Hiranya) as a distinguished type, the god in their resplendent grandeur wear it, as they drive in their stately chariots. The Hiranya cloth has been usually interpreted as the earliest equivalent for the present day zari work or the kimkhab (brocades). We also find specific reference to the embroidery in the Vedic literature.
Varanasi, a religious city and a center of weaving flourished as the capital of the Kasi Kingdom in the days when Buddha was yet alive. In Sutras9, it is mentioned that when Prince Siddharth become a bonze, he took off luxurious silk clothes of courtly state of Kasi and wore instead earth-cikiyred robe namely kasayani vastrani. Clothes permitted to bonze in those days were made of cloths woven of waste silk fibres from wild silkworms, what was called ‘bark fibre’ cloths then, and those of hemp. There is also a story in Sutra of a person who becomes to embrace Buddhist faith by making offering to Buddha of cloths interwoven with gold threads. In “Jataka”, the Kasi Kingdom is mentioned as a principal center of manufacturing cotton as well as those of silk in the 5th century or 6th century B. C. Cotton cloths of Kasi were exquisitely woven, smooth, bleached completely white, and their fibres were fine and soft. Tradition says that when Buddha died, his remains purified with balm were wrapped with brand new cotton cloths of Kasi. (Textile art of India, Kokyo Hatanaka Collection Page No.361). Richard Lanmoy in his book “Banaras seen from within” has mentioned that the Buddhist jatakas (3rd –2nd B.C) are a mine of information about life in ancient India. It has been mentioned that Banaras was a cotton growing region and famous for producing thread of a fine and soft texture. The city was equally reputed for its silk and wool.
The Mogul Period
The historical evidence depicts that the Banaras weaving industry reached its peak during the mogul period due to the patronage of mogul emperor like Akbar. From the Akbar period onwards, we begin to get an uninterrupted account of the zari work and brocades through the Mughal and Rajasthani painting. It is significant to note that in the sixteenth century the old designs abruptly came to an end; we find from the contemporary paintings that wholesale-personalized motifs were introduced although modified to the Indian taste. More emphasis was given to floral designs. For example, Persian motifs due to the influence and importance of Persian masters in the court of emperor Akbar; Ghias Naqshaband being the greatest Persian master among them to the royal atelier of Akbar.
However, the ancient and mogul period description about the Banaras silk industry is not complete and hence creates a doubt about the silk industry of the city. With regards to the Banaras zari and brocades, the first time well recorded description was made by several British travelers to Banaras during British rule in India. George viscount Valentia, in his travel-account furnished some interesting information about Banaras textiles in early 19th century. Valentia held a Durbar in Banaras; some textile traders also attended the Durbar and displayed some very good examples of zari and brocades. Valentia remarks that the brocades showed close patterns and were quite expensive, so that they were worn only on important occasions. Valentia rightly observed that the prosperity of the Banaras people mainly rested on its brocades and zari manufacture and trade as these textiles were popular items of export to Europe. The description of Valentia not only provided the historical existence of the silk industry of Banaras but also explained how the socio-economic aspect of the people is influenced by textiles industry during that period (Voyage and travels of Lord Valentia Part – I, London 1811). The historical evidence of the post Mogul period clearly proves the existence and importance of the Banaras silk industry in the contemporary history.
Bishop Heber had described that “it had a very considerable silk, cotton and woolen manufacture of its own”. These included some expensive types and probably zari and brocades.
Mrs Colin Masckenzie, a traveler to Banaras in 1847 A. D. records some interesting information about the zari and brocade textiles. She described that an Indian prince who visited their party wore “wide trousers of cloth of gold” or brocade. This seems to be very popular among the gentry of Banaras, which is corroborated by her later account and also by the surviving examples of that period.
The brocade weaving of the Banaras is cluster based and scattered all over the Banaras district and some adjacent districts. The Banaras city is the main center of weaving. The maximum weavers of the product belong to the city only. Yet the other production centers of the districts cannot be over looked so far as the production and the employment is concerned. The main centers of the brocade weavings are at Varanasi, Azamgarh, Mirzapur, Bhadohi (Sant Ravidas Nagar), Chandoli, Chunar and Chakia.
With such an impressive history associated with the city and its weaving skills, it is no surprise that the skills and talent has been inherited by generations. With the Indian government taking more steps towards promotion of handloom crafts, and the new found interest and appreciation for the product among this generation, we can look forward to add more to the already glorious history of the city and its craft.