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It is a richly patterned silk fabric characterized by the use of gold and silver thread. Silk Brocades are luxury textiles.
In the Tibetan language, the word for silk brocade is gya-ser, this term being widely prevalent even today amongst the textile traders of Banaras. There are however regional names also; for instance, in both Ladakh and Bhutan, it is called gos-chen. literally meaning the 'great garment.'
Tibet's Connection with Silk:
The gift of silk was first brought to Tibet from China; by the Chinese princess who married King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet in the first part of the seventh century. Slowly, this fascinating textile penetrated all aspects of Tibetan daily life, developing into an integral part of their religious and secular ethos.
Traders belonging to the Marwari community - from Rajasthan and well known for their business acumen - settled in Kalimpong (near Sikkim), first took the samples of this Chinese brocade to Varanasi. Some people believe it was the Nepalese traders who took the initiative. Over time, Banarasi brocades overtook their Chinese counterparts in popularity.
The reasons for the partiality towards the brocade from Varanasi were (are):
a). The quality of the gold was better.
b). The fabric was thicker.
c). In modern times, brocade from Varanasi is still entirely hand-woven whereas the Chinese brocades are now machine made.
d). The Indian merchants take even small orders while their Chinese counterparts insist on orders for large quantities.
Uses of Silk Brocade in the Religious Life of Tibet:
1). For the design and decoration of shrines as altar (chos-kyap) and seat coverings, drapes and canopies (u-lep) marking the seat of a high religious person.
2). Used for pillar covers (ka-phen) and door hangings (cheb-le).
3). For framing thangka paintings.
4). To adorn images of deities.
5). For making dance costumes.
6). As altar over hangs for the seats of high lamas.
The Kasim family of Varanasi - A 200 Year Old Institution:
The Kasim Family of Banaras are virtually synonymous with Tibetan Brocade and were the first to manufacture these at Banaras, more than 200 years ago.
Since then it has been a constant passion with the family and the only time production fell was in the early 1960s when China occupied Tibet. Reminiscences one of the Kasim brothers:
'Our father was adamant that we will not give up gya-ser weaving, He said that this brocade is connected with someone's religion and religion never gets over.'
Slowly, a revival began around 1965, when the Tibetans in exile sought out gya-ser brocades again to decorate the monasteries being established in India. There was a further demand from Tibetan communities spread around the world as well as from Buddhist pilgrims who came to Sarnath and Bodhgaya, sacred cities near Banaras, highlighting the continued importance of silk brocades in the lives of Tibetans.
The contribution of the Kasim Family was acknowledged by the Dalai Lama himself when he introduced them at a gathering by saying 'These are the people who make the fabric of our religion.'