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At a Glance: Brocades of Varanasi


The brocade textiles of Varanasi are known for their appealing patterns, precious materials and complex techniques of production. From bright saris for ceremonial wear, often referred to as the ‘Banarasi,’ to gayasar fabrics which are a part of Tibetan Buddhist rituals, they are produced in several styles and for a variety of consumers.


A characteristic feature is the use of gold or silver zari along with coloured silks to create various motifs. The zari used for weaving is of a special kind and has been produced in Varanasi for centuries.


Banaras, now known as Varanasi, was a renowned center of textile production even in ancient India. References in Pali texts, among others, suggest that Banaras was earlier primarily a centre for cotton weaving and that the widespread use of silk may have started sometime in the 17th century. Banarasi weavers supplied the Mughal court with ornate fabrics for costumes and furnishings, the details of which are recorded in miniature paintings from that period as well as in the travel records of visiting Europeans.


However, tangible details of the production and trade of brocade textiles emerged only in the 19th century during British rule. The Banaras textile industry has been described in travelogues, large-scale national and international exhibition catalogues as well as the district gazetteers of this period. 

Location and Community

The most important center of production is Varanasi city. The areas within the city where most of the weaving activity is concentrated are Madanpura and Alaipur. Besides Varanasi, other centers are Azamgarh, Mirzapur, Bhadohi (Sant Ravidas Nagar), Chandoli, Chunar and Chakia.


A majority of the weavers in Varanasi are from the Muslim community (Ansaris). Weaving is still very much a hereditary profession even though things are changing rapidly. As demand declines and wages can be low, more and more young people from weaving families are seeking opportunities elsewhere.


The silk is mainly sourced from Kashmir, Bangalore or China. The zari is either from Varanasi itself or from Surat.


A traditional Banarasi sari is woven with pure silk and asli (real) zari (silver is of 98 per cent purity). However, it is very common today to find saris made of synthetic materials such as artificial silk and ‘tested zari’ (either the purity of the silver is low or it is made entirely of synthetic materials).


Brocade weaving is a complex process carried out in various steps. First, the design that will feature on the textile is made on graph paper by the nakshaband or pattern drawer. Then the yarn is readied for the warp and weft. Then the warp threads are opened up and attached to the loom. The weft yarn is reeled onto bobbins using special equipment. Once the warp and weft are ready the weaving is done on either a jala or jacquard loom.


If the weaving is being done on a jala loom, the nakshaband then recreates this pattern onto a frame loom using threads. Through this, a jala is produced, which is attached to the loom so as to transfer the pattern or motif as a repeat on the main fabric. The jala acts as a master harness lifting and dropping the threads. Two people are required to operate this type of loom—the weaver seated at the front of the loom and the helper at the back to help control the jala itself.


In a jacquard loom, the designs for the textiles are punched onto cards which are then sewn together and attached to the top of the loom from where they control the heddles. The cards lift a series of warp threads so that weft threads can be inserted. This creates the silk and gold patterns on Varanasi brocades. 

Themes and Motifs

A sari typically features a main field with floral butis (motifs) or allover jali (lattice) design along with borders on the sides. One end has a wide ornamental border called the pallu. Some popular motifs include asharfi (coin-shape), genda (marigold flower), makhi (fly pattern), chand-tara (moon and star), paan (betel leaf), lateefa (floral bouquet) etc. A variety of allover designs are also popular such as doriya (stripes), charkhana (chequered pattern), bel (creepers) and shikargah (forest scene with animal and human figures).

Status today

Besides saris, the Varanasi textile industry produces a diverse range of products such as dress materials, furnishings, scarves, hangings, etc. with traditional as well as innovative designs to cater to the contemporary market. These days designs are also being prepared digitally.


Manufacturing techniques used in Varanasi too have been undergoing tremendous change. While several handlooms are still operational, powerlooms, which are driven by electricity and have higher levels of production, are now being used extensively. Simultaneously, efforts are on, in the government as well as private sector, to raise awareness among consumers and revive handloom production. The local industry is also being affected negatively by the influx of cheap imitations from China.