Sarees: The globally admired distinction of the Indian woman

Article of the Month - Jan 2009

This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet.

(Viewed 104005 times since Jan 2009)

Table of Content

  • Introduction

  • Saree During Early Days

  • Evolution of Term ‘Saree’

  • Early Reported Sarees and Other Unstitched Wears

  • Saree: Indian Woman’s New Ideal

Sarees, an artistically crafted unstitched length of textile, the single substitute for both, the upper and lower components of female attire, is the globally venerated distinction of the Indian woman.

Being the significant segment of costumes of women – Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists, in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, besides India, saree defines the cultural unity of the subcontinent. In India, saree is the foremost wear of almost every woman – elite or tribe, urban or rural, rich or poor, young or old, professional or housewife, literate or illiterate, whatever her caste or religion, even her hierarchical status, a Buddhist monk, Jain sadhwi – female ascetic, or a Christian nun.

Till recent days and even now, most women of well-bred Muslim families in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, at least after they were married, preferred wearing sarees, whether at home or outside. Thus, while some costume forms, for example, the styles of caps, reveal the wearer’s religion, the saree reveals her cultural identity. In India, a saree – expensive or economical, printed or plain, fine or coarse, hand-woven or machine-made, cotton, silk, or synthetic, is a woman’s first preference and quite often her weakness. As a gift, no other item evokes such diverse feelings as a saree. Gifted to the deity as part of ritual offerings it expresses devotion, to an old mother, reverence and gratitude, to a wife or friend, intimacy and love, to a daughter, affection, and concern, to a housemaid or domestic servant, generosity and satisfaction. Whatever a son or daughter first earns – a salary, or profit in a business, it often converts into a saree for his or her mother, and the mother’s pride and delight often melts into tears, her wrinkled face glowing with the luster of a thousand roses.

Cream Ari-Embroidered Georgette Sari From Kashmir

Not a mere component of attire, the Saree is an integral part of India’s tradition and entire life. A ritual in the temple or at home, celebrating a birth or marriage or mourning a death, a saree has its own sanctity on all occasions. For a hostess on an Indian aircraft or one hosting a dinner or lunch in a family dining hall, or a woman – politician, official, artist, or whoever, representing India on any world forum, a saree is her essential wear, not as something prescribed by a code or convention but by her own choice for in it she believes reflects the essential India – her culture and ethos, besides the essence of her very being.

Among those thronging the venue of an Indian festival, in India or abroad, not merely resident or non-resident Indian women but also some of the foreign guests and participants are seen wearing sarees. Non-resident Indian women, who till a few decades ago were inclined to exclusively use the fashions of the land they lived in, are now looking back to their Indian identity, and in saree, they find its best source. Climatic constraints and working conditions apart, saree is fast emerging as one of the leading fashion costumes on ramps across the world. Regional varieties apart, a designer saree – each with a design distinction of its own, is now a new class of feminine wear.

Straw Sari from Kashmir with Ari-Embroidered Multicolor Flowers

Ordinarily an untailored length, the saree is a textile structured with highly sophisticated and diversely conceived design vocabulary. It is truly a large canvas that is seen portraying narratives, myths, customs, or whatever, or the themes and motifs that reflect the tastes of a people, peculiarities of a region or land, and indeed, the designer’s ingenuity. As enormous are the styles of wearing sarees, something which is not the scope of a sewn costume. While good fitting is the merit of tailored clothes, which reveal a figure – frail or fat, in its exactness, a saree is an imaginative wear that the wearer drapes to her fancy using it to add volume to her frail figure or relieve it of its awkward bulk. The saree is unique in managing both, the extra bulk and the odd-looking frailness. Its inherent grace and elegance apart, a saree breathes, at least to an Indian, a kind of divine aura, perhaps for being since times immemorial a component of the divine drapery.

Saree During Early Days

Whatever its name, an unstitched length of textile has the worn by Indian women since as early as the Mauryan period (300–185 B.C.), if not before. Worn on the body’s lower half, below the waist, the wear was known as antariya.

In Ajanta murals, this antariya, the saree's predecessor, has a massive range, with no two sharing a common design pattern or colour scheme. As varied are the styles of wearing them. Sarees in Gupta sculptures are equally elegant and fine but appear to have a relatively short length. Saree's length was the same short in subsequent periods. Sculpted figures, the lone source to form an idea of the kind of costumes people used in those days, reveal two styles of wearing a saree, one, formal, and the other, casual, the former revealing the attire of divine figures and highly placed women, and latter, in common women folks’. The formal style was uniform all over. It pursued more or less the style of Mauryan antariya. It was put on below the navel but above the hip-line, and a textile, which Sanskrit texts name Katibandha, or a girdle, secured it. It reached foot-joint or at least ankle level and had a well-pleated front.

The Gupta Empire

A saree in casual mode was fastened a little below the waist leaving the hips’ upper edges uncovered and the navel, fully exposed. Katibandha, or girdle, was hardly ever a feature of this casual wear. Knots with which the saree was secured on the waist were sleek, and pleats, which adorned the front, a few.

In most forms, the saree's middle part was laid behind, and the ends were drawn in front. Stylistic variations are revealed in the manner of arranging these ends. In one of the more prevalent styles, the right end wrapped the right leg and the left, the left, and finally, carried from under them both were tucked at the back. Widths, wrapping the legs, terminated fluted at ankle or foot-joint level. Sometimes seams of these terminuses were left open to let the legs reveal their charm. Different from the front where both legs were independently wrapped, the saree’s middle part, laid on the back, covered them together. Obviously, it was either a semi-sewn saree like the contemporary dancer's use or had a concealed string into which its ends were tucked from inside.

In some cases, these ends were carried from outside separating one leg from the other and also on the back side, like the contemporary Maharashtriyan langad dhoti. In yet another variation, one end was larger than the other. The smaller one was tucked at the back as usual but the larger one was pleated and then tucked, identical to what Tamil women do nowadays.

Caviar-Black Kanjivaram Sari from Tamil Nadu with Zari-Woven Motifs on Anchal

Sometimes the saree's widths, covering the legs, were turned upwards from knee-height generating a kachchha or tight loincloth-like look.

In yet another innovation, ends carried from under the groins were turned to their respective sides and tucked pleated with the precision of an ornamental lace. Though rarely, the saree was also wrapped skirting around both legs together in lungi style, but so tight that it only more sensuously revealed the wearer's figure.

Women in the South wore it loosely skirted. The style prevalent in the southwest region was different and quite exotic. A saree was put on with one-third kept to the left and two-thirds, to the right. Wrapping round each leg independently both ends were carried to the back and tucked. The right end’s extra length was turned rounding the right hip to the parting of legs on the front. Here it terminated left-inclined; its width tapered to right, and its width’s edge, rippled waves-like.

Evolution of Term ‘Saree’

Scholars have abstained from using the term saree for the type of wear Indian women used for centuries. They denoted these as ‘unstitched lengths of textiles’. Most scholars opine that saree, the term as well as the kind of textile, emerged around the late 19th century, not before. Such an opinion is not tenable. Whatever the early Sanskrit denominations, the vernacular term ‘saree’, among others denoting Indian textiles, had evolved with specificity by the 14th century, if not before.

Indian Saris Traditions - Perspectives - Design

Apart from their abundant use in writings of the 15th-century poets like Kabir and Surdasa, terms such as chadara, kambaria – sheet, and blanket…, were common man’s metaphors to reveal deeper meanings and contexts, besides denoting specific textiles. Kabir’s verse “Das Kabir jatan se orhi, jyon ki tyon dhar dini chandaria” (Kabir, the God’s slave, wore his chadara carefully and relinquished it spotless as it was given to him) is quite significant. By chadara – his metaphor for life, Kabir not only denotes a textile, or by ‘orhi’ its use – the way the life was lived, but also a profound philosophy. “Ye le apani lakuti kambaria, bahutahi nacha nachayo” (take back your loincloth and blanket, for them she has much exploited him), a verse by Surdasa, has the same symbolic width. Disgruntled Krishna of Surdasa threatens mother Yashoda to throw off her ‘lakuti’ and ‘kambaria’, as for them – symbolic of his ties with this world, he has been much used. Without any ambiguity the 15th century legendary Mirabai alludes to the term ‘saree’ in her verse “kaho to kusamana saree rangayun, ya chhitakayun kesa” ( If He, her Lord, so desires, she shall have her linen saree dyed, or dishevel hair). In her absolute surrender, Mira is ready, if it pleases her Lord Krishna, to get her ‘kusamana’ saree dyed or dishevel her hair, that is, drape herself as ‘Yogini’ – female ascetic.

Such deeper metaphoric meanings that these terms reveal could evolve only after they had been in use for a long and comprised part of the common man’s diction.

Early Reported Sarees and Other Unstitched Wears

Unfortunately, not many textiles from such an early period have so far come to light. Whatever survives are artworks, cloth paintings, functional textiles like the city or pilgrimage route maps or posters of itinerary bards, wall hangings, iconic representations of deities – printed, painted, or embroidered, or those used for performing rituals. As for the actual unstitched wear, a fragment of a saree from the seventeenth century, in the National Museum, New Delhi, and a few others in other collections are so far reported earliest examples. This paucity is not without reason. The influx of foreign costume styles that were reaching India with Islamic invaders during the 15th-16th centuries was massive. Though the conflict in the common man's mind against invaders and everything related to them was unceasing, Indian princes had begun conceding their political superiority and styles of costumes by the 16th century itself. Obviously, not common man’s, worth storing could be the garments of nobility, and nobility’s formal and functional costumes were invariably sewn ones. Later, Akbar set a new model of court life, costumes and all. Eager to look like Mughals, Rajput nobility, by around the early 17th century, adopted the Mughal model of costumes and everything. However, in private moments and for performing rituals even nobility used sarees and dhotis.

Snow-White Dhoti and Veshti Set with Zari Woven Border

The 17th-century sare piece, though just a fragment, not only has a saree’s decisive features distinguishing it from other textiles and revealing its regional identity, but richly crafted using expensive silk it also reveals its feudal links. Despite that, being relatively humble, a saree, even if from a royal wardrobe, was rarely an object to preserve. Saree’s, and even dhoti’s, more decisive presence revealed in miniatures, even those rendered at Akbar's official atelier, portraying dhoti and saree-wearing men and women. Special care has been taken in portraying costumes of divine figures. Rama and Sita, in folios of the Ramayana, and Hayagriva and Shiva, in those of the Harivansha Purana, illustrated at Akbar's atelier, have been represented in dhotis and sarees.

Thus, whatever the costumes at court or on formal occasions, royal wardrobes weren’t without richly produced sarees. Weavers' families at Chanderi, Varanasi, Surat, and Ahmedabad … claim that saree-weaving has been their hereditary profession for hundreds of years and that across generations they had been weavers for many ruling dynasties. Specimens of actually reported sarees suggest that by the early 17th century many weaving centres had developed their own regional forms of saree. Thus, however, meagre its production, a saree was a weaver's pride, something he sought to excel in and discover his distinction.

Saree: Indian Woman’s New Ideal

As showcase paintings of artists like Raja Ravi Verma, the saree had begun regaining its earlier status by around the 1870s-1880s.

Though sewn Mughal fashions yet defined Rajputs’ formal costumes in the north, Hindu princesses in the South, and rich, affluent, and common women folks all over wore a saree with pride. Characters in myths and legends that Raja Ravi Verma and his contemporary artists illustrated were essentially in sarees. This endowed saree with divine sanctity.

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  • Good job. Keep it up. Saree is most beautiful and elegant attire for women of any nationality. Particularly women from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Srilanka. Saree is equaly gorgeous with or without blouse and bra. Saree is at its highest grace when worn below navel low on hips. Najma
    Najma October 04, 2010
  • This one is number one
    Asokan September 15, 2010
  • sari this word came from?
    ravi June 07, 2010
  • The sari is so beautiful - sophisticated, feminine, elegant. I wish I had occasion to wear one more often, but as an Australian I can admire those who wear it.
    Elly M June 15, 2009
  • I'd like to thank you for the interesting and enlightening article I received today regarding the history of the Sari. Since I was a child, I've found an inveterate beauty in the Indian culture, particularly in its arts--the architecture, literature, music, and its textiles. The vibrant colors and patterns within the latter are of a pulchritude found nowhere else on earth. In recent years, I've grown to appreciate the Sari, in particular, not merely as a beautiful item of clothing, but as a true work of art. I'm constantly keen to learn about many different things, especially that which interests me, and I very much appreciate the information you shared in regards to the Sari. It's provided me an even greater admiration and respect for the artists who so beautifully and meticulously craft these textiles. I was unaware of the deep history of the Sari, and I'm eager to reread the article so as to commit the information to memory. It was a pleasant surprise to find the illuminating article, as well as the wonderfully illustrative pictures. Thank you for the learning experience! I enjoyed it! Best regards,
    Julie P.
    Exotic India Newsletter Subscriber
    January 21, 2009
  • Thank you for the informative and beautifully written article about the sari. The photos were wonderful, and I especially appreciate your listing books to find more information. I look forward to your next newsletter. Thank you again.
    Ruth Hatch January 20, 2009
  • Excellent and well-researched article, like always. Pl continue to keep up the good job. Thanks.
    Revathi Chand January 20, 2009
  • This comprehensive article on Sari should be read by all Indians at least as a fundamental duty to know our only well known custom all over the world which is being neglected by Indians in the recent past which is rather sad. I hope there comes a time at least all Indian shakthi swaroops (wmen folk) wll srart wearing this unique piece of cloth to cover their joys and sarrows. Glory to Indian Sari
    Pakirareddy January 19, 2009