The Silk Weavers of Varanasi

In India’s holiest city, an ancient community of handloom weavers faces an electrically powered future.

An intricate red, green, and gold pattern in silk fabric on a loom

One of the hallmarks of the tradition is its use of the kadhua and phenkua techniques. The former refers to when threads are woven in one by one; phenkua (which literally means “to throw”) involves weaving in threads by passing a shuttle—which holds yarn—back and forth.

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Hunched over a handloom shuttle, 50-year-old Abbas Ali looks up from the delicately woven threads of his emerald silk sari and greets me wearily. We’re in a narrow by-lane deep inside a cluster of warehouses in Bajardiha, a neighborhood consisting of weavers’ clusters in the northern Indian city of Varanasi. The city is one of the holiest in the country, packed with temples of specific historic or cultural importance, such as the Kashi Vishwanath temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and cremation grounds lined up amid its famous ghats (riverfront steps). Each day, thousands of devotees flock to pay obeisance by the Ganges River; many Hindus believe that dying and being cremated here leads to salvation.

Varanasi has been shaped by Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist influences due to a combination of factors: the city’s mythological links to the widely revered deity of Shiva, its proximity to the site of Sarnath where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, and being located on the banks of the Ganges linked to ancient trade and commerce routes. Although it’s better known for its religious sites, Varanasi is also famous for its silk weaving. Across the world, designers and brides flock to the region for its silk saris, known as “Banarasi saris,” which literally means “saris from Varanasi.”

Historical accounts trace the origin of Banarasi silks to around the 16th and early 17th century, when many weavers and merchants immigrated from the country’s western region of Gujarat, bringing the technique of “warp and weft” with them. (“Warp” refers to the longitudinal threads that are held vertically on the loom and lifted up; “weft” refers to the latitudinal threads, which are placed in a shuttle.) When the Gujaratis arrived in Varanasi, their craftsmanship and quality of silks attracted the attention and patronage of Mughal rulers, a ruling empire in premodern South Asia from the 16th century up until the 19th century, who later popularized the clothing. Soon, silks became synonymous with luxury and a staple in ceremonies and major occasions like weddings. Today, pieces are often passed down as heirlooms.

But in the past few decades, much to the despondency of local artisans, many in this trade have turned to machine-operated power looms, squeezing handloom weavers out of business. These fears are compounded by the threat of cheaper, mass-produced artificial silk saris and synthetic Chinese yarn replacing the time-tested pure silk and zari (threads made from gold or silver wiring, usually embroidered into Banarasi saris). Using a machine, one can make three to four saris a day; by hand, a sari can take anywhere from a week to several months, depending on the intricacy and level of detail in the embroidery.

There are no official statistics that document the decline, but according to master weaver Haseen Mohammad, changes began in the 1990s. “Until then, 75 percent of the silk weavers used their hands, and 25 percent were on the power loom machines,” he says. Today, however, Mohammad says the statistics are reversed, with nearly 150,000 on power looms and 25,000 maintaining the time-tested handloom tradition. Mohammad himself has nearly 70 artisans working under him, meticulously crafting brocades by hand. His multiple-storied bungalow also doubles as the warehouse, where the artisans work out of the large basement; as the master weaver, he sits on the second floor above with the finished products (saris) to display.

A majority of these artisans also happen to be Muslim, a fact that’s increasingly hard to ignore due to the rise of India’s Hindu nationalist government. For one weaver named Mohammad, the lack of government support backing this heritage craft “seems as if [they are] targeting Muslim weavers.”

Meanwhile, for 23-year-old weaver Umm-e-Habiba, there are other worries: demonetization—where two of the most widely used currency notes were legally banned from circulation, affecting the weavers who depend on cash instead of electronic payments—and the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which came into effect under the right-wing Indian government in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Habiba works in a warehouse in the town of Mubarakpur located nearly 60 miles from Varanasi and is part of the roughly 22 percent of women in the community of Banarasi weavers. A sizable portion of the earnings of artisans like Habiba also goes to “master weavers” who typically take the bulk of the profits when a sari is sold. For a sari sold in the market for nearly 10,000 rupees (US$122), handloom weavers will earn 1,500 to 2,000 rupees, or $24 at best. “There is a GST of nearly 12 percent on our work and a 5 percent tax on yarn,” Habiba says. “This and demonetization have made our lives difficult.”

Sixty-one-year-old Shahid Junaid, who is a member of the city’s famed “Haji Munna” weaving family—a clan of handloom weavers catering to brides, designers, and politically influential locals since the 19th century—also finds it difficult to ignore the disparities between handloom and power loom weavers. Junaid, who is an eighth-generation weaver, says he learned his craft by observing his father. Seated on a floor covered with white mattresses in his warehouse, he shows me some of the well-known Banarasi designs made by artisans working under him: an exquisite jangla (jungle) sari with the popular depictions of interlaced floral or bird patterns, the shikargah (depicting hunting scenes featuring men, animals, or birds), and individually embroidered butis (motifs) of paisleys and florets on raw silk.

Junaid says handloom weavers often have fewer resources and struggle with equal access to policy initiatives introduced by the state’s government. The government also subsidizes electricity to power looms, which many weavers see as a bias in favor of machines.

To Junaid, the beauty of handwoven work is the fact that every piece is unique to each weaver. “If someone else comes in to sit on this sari and work, they will not be able to replicate the existing design because a certain kind of hand and foot size has already been working on that piece,” he says. “Anyone can come in and operate the power loom machine.”

Abbas Ali agrees. “Power loom workers claim benefits, but it is us who are the real bunkars [members of the weaving community],” he says. “How can someone who uses a machine be a weaver?”

Sabah Gurmat
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