Silk Sarees of Tamil Nadu

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Item Code: NAB992
Author: Nesa Arumugam
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 8170175100
Pages: 156 (Illustrated Throughout In Color)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 7.3 inch X 8.8 inch
Weight 920 gm
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Book Description

From the Jacket

Silk Sarees of Tamil Nadu takes the reader on a journey from "silkworm to the pattu pudavai (silk saree)" of Tamil Nadu. From yarn and dye, to designer and weaver, the book is an expression of the author’s love of this noble art of silk weaving in Tamil Nadu.

Her fascination with the designs as being expressive of the Tamil psyche and spiritual ethos is expressed in a comprehensive manner, with an awareness of their enduring beauty. “The designs are deep and meaningful, not just decorative. And they speak through the woven fabric. Nothing is but has a bhava, an inherent emotion, which, to those who will see it, invokes a response, a rasa, an answering emotion, and therein Art exists. And it seemed sad that this experience has not been explored enough. The rich spirituality of the designs can enrich all of us. This fascination with the meaningfulness of the designs in Tamil Nadu, some of which are, of course, pan—Indian, was the grain of sand that irritated the writer’s oyster. Without affectation, this book is an expression of that appreciation.

The sericulturist, the silk yarn spinner and reeler, the dyer, the artist-designer and the weaver, all come together to create the handwoven silk saree, and each is given his regard and due in the book. Students of Indian, textiles, seekers of meaningfulness in art, wearers of sarees, lovers of Tamil culture, and general readers who look to read about traditional art and informative asides in journal entries, will all find something of relevance to them in the Silk Sarees of Tamil Nadu.

Nesa Arumugam (aka Nasa Eliezer) has a deep and abiding love for Indian taxtiles. As a freelance writer, she has published more than 400 articles in magazines in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and India. Other books published: Recipes of the Jaffna Tamils, Cooking for Jey, A Tale of Two Journeys and The Meddling Monkey and Other Animal tales. Also A Dictionary of Silk in India. She ran a Saree Shop (Ashwin Australia) from her home in Melbourne, Australia, for twenty years, importing the finest traditions of Indian silks. Her many stage productions included A Dream of the Drape, the story of the saree.


Decades of feeling silk, wearing silk, admiring silk and being completely humbled by the beauty of silk had to find expression somewhere. This book is it. The mystic feel of the fabric, as if one were touching another dimension of the senses, never fails to seduce. The legendary discovery of the fine filaments, spat by the silkworm, by the young Chinese princess four thousand years ago, has led the world into the sensual enjoyment of a fabric that has no comparison.

The Indian handloom weaver has held my regard for more than forty years. Whether it be the pearly tales told on the Baluchari pallu or the sumptuous satin brocades of Banaras, the gossamer whispers of the Jamdani, or the subtle gleam and sheen of the Paithani, or the luxurious Jamavars — whatever the wondrous fabrics that we proudly call Indian, the weaver is the magician who turns the airy almost invisible, filament of silk into something rich and enchanting.

I could have chosen to write on any tradition of silk weaving in India, it would still have expressed this love. But I have chosen the Silk Sarees of Tamil Nadu because they express more than just a feminine love of a seductive fabric. It is a part of a heritage that people like me have been separated from by a long history of migrations. It yet evokes an instantaneous response from the heart. Tamil Nadu is custodian of a Dravidian culture in her fabrics. It is the designs, above all, that bring an unbidden joy on sight. They seem to be rooted in the earth of the land. The artists, long gone and as well as those living, tell stories of their subconscious beliefs, breathing life into tales they must have heard told while in the womb and at the laps of grandmothers and from village story tellers. The artist and weaver see them on their temple walls and see them enacted in festival dramas. They feel the significance of tree and animal as part of these stories from their myths and history and they give voice to this in their art. Not enough has been written about them for those not fortunate enough to breathe these as part of their lives.

This was the fascination for me. The designs are deep and meaningful, not just decorative. And they speak through the woven fabric. Nothing is but has a bhava, an inherent emotion, which, to those who will see it, invokes a response, a rasa, an answering emotion, and therein Art exists. And it seemed sad that this experience has not been explored enough. A few lines, mentioning some of the common designs in the Kanchipuram saree and a page or two on the “Sarees from the South”, are hardly sufficient for so meaningful a tradition engendered in the psyche of the Tamils as seen in the Tamil Nadu silk saree. The rich spirituality of the designs can enrich all of us. The saree with hamsas (swans) walking gracefully along the border of a saree as the wearer walks, or the Kanchipuram saree that alludes to love, both sacred and profane, in the parrots on the pallu, are expressive of thoughts that oft lie too deep for careless expression. This fascination with the meaningfulness of the designs in Tamil Nadu, some of which are, of course, pan-Indian, was the grain of sand that irritated the writer’s oyster. Without affectation, this book is an expression of that appreciation.

The book has also taken its own journey the wonderful people who are a part of this experience with the Tamil Nadu saree brought great conversations, great experiences that I could partake of vicariously and an affection for the people who have kept this tradition alive for us. They are acknowledged collectively and singly at the end of the book. It is hoped the reader, too, will go through the book on a journey from the mulberry leaf to the Tamil Nadu silk saree.

On this project, I have had many help-mates. Special mention must be made of Kumaran Silks, Chennai, who for the last twenty years have been indulgent in a bemused way of my fascination with what they live with and by — silk sarees. Their generous spirit and patience in putting me in touch with the many persons connected with silk weaving in Tamil Nadu is an integral part of the journey of this book. Also John Eliezer, who has never wavered from patient and interested support in this work and without whose technical help I would have found it difficult to bring this book to fruition. The late Mr. N. Veerappan of Kanchipuram was a delightful, blithe spirit whose friendship is an intrinsic part of this book. His joy in the traditional designs was infectious. He actually looked upon his prodigious output as a freehand artist with ink pen with chuckling amusement. For one who dazzled heads of state and the rich and famous with his lightning-speed drawings, and whom the many artists and designers from the Weavers Service Centres in Tamil Nadu still say “Veerappan Sir is our Master! ”, he was extraordinarily humble. My interaction with him from 1975 when I first met him was full of unadulterated joy. A great artist, and an even greater soul.

The Weavers Service Centres of Kanchipuram, Salem and Chennai have always entertained my queries and many went out of their way to help further my knowledge of their work in preserving and fostering the textile arts. They serve not only the weavers but also vagrant curious ladies who happen to enter their doors, asking about their work!

Many of the weavers and dyers were equally indulgent in sparing their time. My conversations with them in my limited Tamil and with my even more limited knowledge of weaving will always be a source of remembered joy. The reader will glimpse some of this, I hope, in the journal entries. The good humour, the ready smile, the amused interest in my queries, and the good-natured “No problem, Amma!” attitude towards my interruption of their work made my incursions into the world of weaving and dyeing not a study but a joy-filled picnic.

I appreciate the publisher, Mr. Shakti Malik, for his ready faith that this book was worth his while to add to the impressive list of Abhinav Publications.

Well, the book is not an erudite scholastic venture nor does it pretend to be a complete study of the silk traditions of Tamil Nadu. It is an invitation to the reader to make the journey somewhat, following the trail of the spit of the Bombyx Mari silkworm from its cocoon to the comforting, sensual and uplifting experience of seeing, touching, handling, and feeling, if not actually wearing, a Pam; Pudawai, a Tamil Nadu Silk Saree.



The beliefs of a people come through their art in all its forms. Textiles are a part of that aesthetic expression. To understand the whys and wherefores of the design and weave of the Silk Sarees of Tamil Nadu one has to be mindful of the land and her people, and the artists and artisans who produce them. It is to know something of their history, temporal and spiritual. It is also to be aware of what they hold to be dear and true. The gods they worship, the rituals they perform, their rites of spiritual passage, their objects of joy and desire, their attitudes to love and death, their visions of Paradise on earth - all these and more are woven into the textiles of the Tamils. It is a joyous coming together of many streams of Tamil thought. One just learns to read this in the silk sarees, as if they were one sort of books of the people, as much as Bharathanaryam or Carnatic music. The silk sarees of Tamil Nadu are a part of the Tamil psyche and ethos.

Thamilagam. Thondaimandalam. Cholanadu. Thamilthesagam. Tamil Nadu. The state in the peninsular south of India. The ancient Damila land. It is one of the oldest continuous civilised regions of the earth. Nature smiles here. The holy River Kaveri winds across a lush land, pregnant with stories of great kings, saints drunk with spiritual bliss, and a people who are conscious of their gods and the glory of their history. It winds to the sea through the Thanjavur district, breaking into distributaries and fanning out into a rich delta.

"The Tanjore district is the very heart of Tamul country. The Cauvery, replenished twice a year with the waters of the west and east monsoons, forms here a mighty delta .. .In the month of January after the North-East Monsoon has poured its floods, the country develops its abundance. The luxuriant attire which it then assumes dazzles the eyes - nothing but verdant rice-fields and leafY groups of trees - not the least corner uncultivated. "

The Bishop writing in the Colonial Church and Missionary Journal in 1856 could be writing of the region for always.

Great dynasties took turns of power over the Tamils. The early Pallavas and Pandyas from around the l st or 2nd century were conquered by the mighty Cholas, great temple and empire builders. Then came the Vijayanagar kings adding to the great monuments. In between there were other potentots with big dreams. These south Indian imperialists built Tamil lands from within and they vied for a place in history by making them bigger, better, greater.

The Muslims under Malik Kafur had a little flirtation with Tamil empire. The Europeans came and briefly played their divide et impera games for four hundred years. But for all of that, Tamil Nadu remained intrinsically Tamil, unconquered by any foreign domination, culturally or spiritually. They all left their marks, adding shades to an already rich tapestry of Dravidian culture. While in the North the genteel and elegant elements of Persian and Mughlai Indo-Saracenic culture influenced much of the design in the arts, the South remained fundamentally and largely Dravidian Tamil.

Into this, came waves of deep spiritual experience. Tamil Nadu is drunk with her saints and seers. The depth of feeling for their religion colours all aspects of their art. The 63 Shaivite nayanmars and the twelve Vaishnavite" alvars, singing in ecstasy, the hundreds of individual seekers who brought distant, imagined visions of God into the individual heart, the Bhakti movement that unleashed a fervour of love of the Divine upon the people in the form of Shaiva Sidhantha philosophy, the four great Saints, Thirunavakkarasar (called Appar), Thirugnanasambandar, Manikkavasagar and Sundramurthi - all affected the Tamil psyche. This pervaded the Tamil vision of life in its many forms.

The Pallavas and Cholas distilled their gods, so far only imagined in awe, into concrete form that the Tamils could now address in 'person'. The stone monoliths and rock- cuts of Mahabalipuram, port of the Pallavas, were crowded with reliefs of gods, and heroes from the Hindu tales. Here was Krishna holding up the Govardhana mountain and there the youthful goddess Durga, riding her leaping lion to conquer Mahishasura, buffalo-headed demon of evil Ignorance, and over here, heroic Arjuna does penance. It was the beginning of the genesis of the gods from their cold abodes in the Himalayas into stone and metal forms in the green and lush lands of the Tamils. The Chola Bronzes were magnificent in their perfect symmetry and restrained energy. The persona of Shiva in Mount Kailash was distilled into the bronze form of Nadarajah, the Cosmic Dancer, enshrined forever in Chidambaram, an inconceivably perfect expression of the nature of the Divine in relation to man. These forms, then, "gave to airy nothingness a local habitation and a name".

With the temples rising to express lofty thoughts of their deities, the temple sculptors chiselled these on wall and pillar in the language of myths and legends. They embellished these with designs of flower and creeper, of strange animals and recognised emblems. The temple was a library of stories, enshrined amongst wealthy detail of Nature. The spiritual journey of the pilgrim, as he circumambulated along the dark corridors through avenues of carved pillars towards the sanctum-sanctorum, was helped by the sculptor's art to turn his thoughts slowly inwards by the commonly understood images. Step by step, he was led to the God-form within.

This deep-felt spirituality was also a part of their poets and writers. The Three Sangams or Literary Meetings, starting from around 300 BC to 600 AD, saw a literature so vast in its treatment of all aspects of the human condition that experts say the like of which has not been seen in anyone people. Tholkkaapiam, the Tamil Grammar, survives from the second Sangam at the turn of the Christian Era. The Third Sangam brought the Ettuthokhai (Eight Anthologies) followed by Pathtbupaatu (Ten Songs) which together constitute the greatest monument to ancient Tamil poetry. The Thirukkural, a collection of 1330 couplets by the Jain weaver-poet, Thiruvalluvar, is the moral and ethical code of conduct that has dominated Tamil behaviour and social thinking for well nigh two thousand years.

Despite the high thinking and religious fervour, the Tamils were conscious of the Earth and Nature. A.L. Basham says the Tamils love classification. They classified poetry and even the landscape of their land. With reference to the emotional content of the poetry, they assigned it to the likeness of one of the five regions of the land: kurunji (hills); paalai (dry lands); mullai (jungle and woodlands); marudam (cultivated plains); and neydal (the coast)." The relevance of this observation here is that the Tamils were conscious of Nature as being expressive of Man's thoughts and feelings. It was just not the beauty of it; it was its inner life that was shared by Man as seen in his artistic outpourings. The lines, the colours, the character of plant and branch, of flower and seed, all were precious metaphors to his expression. He saw the forces in Nature that protect and have to be protected in the interest of his inner well-being.

The village gods best exemplify this. One sees the colourful temples at the edges of villages, at forest openings. Here Ayannar sits with his cohorts of horses and elephants bearing weapons, protector of the village and its environs. Ellai-amma, the fiercesome goddess at village boundaries and the Seven Virgins, the Saptha-kannis, assure that they will brook no destruction of the region. Havoc results in all who do not protect the common land and break the Natural Law. It is wonderful to see the vibrant colours through the trees in forest clearings. ot the restraint and sophistication of one-tone stone or metal here! The colours are drawn from the brighter side of the spectrum. The village gods and the great temple towers, the gopurams, dotting the countryside, crowded with hundreds of images in every colour imagined - all speak of a people in love with colour. Their sense of colour is vibrant, incandescent, some would say at times deliriously bordering on the gaudy, in combinations. The Tamil Nadu silk sarees are a part of that ethos: a celebration of colour.




Preface 7
Introduction 9
Chapter 1 15
Masters of the Loom  
Weaving Communities of Tamil Nadu  
Chapter 2 33
The Yarn  
The Silk of Warp and Weft  
Chapter 3 39
Nature’s Palette  
The Dyes  
Chapter 4 51
Expressions of Love  
Symbolism of the Traditional Designs in Tamil Nadu  
Chapter 5 93
Translating the Designs  
From Artist to  
Chapter 6 97
From Yarn to Saree  
The Creation of a Hand-woven Silk Saree  
Chapter 7 103
The Pattu Pudavai of Tamil Nadu  
Hand-woven Silk Sarees from Tamil Nadu  
Chapter 8 123
The Noble Kanchipuram  
The Pride of Tamil Nadu  
Glossary 136
Glossary of Tamil Terms 141
Bibliography 149
Acknowledgements 151
Index 152


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