When you think of Varanasi or Benaras as it was referred to earlier, your mind conjures up images of temples and burning ghats. But, a walk down the lanes of the city will invariably lead you to look for something that Varanasi (Benaras) is equally famous for the Banarasi Silk Sarees. These sarees produced exclusively in Benaras are a treat for the eyes with their rich colors and attractive patterns and motifs of gold and silver threads on silk fabric. These saris are very popular from time immemorial with it finding a mention in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is believed that Sita wore a Benarasi Silk sari at her wedding. These silks were popularized in the 14th century during Moghal rule with the Moghal emperors as patrons of this handloom industry.
The Benarasi silks have such a vast variety of sari types with subtle differences in the weaves and patterns which make each sari stand out from the other. Some of the most well liked saris are the Brocades, Jangla, Tanchoi, Butidar, Vaskat, Cutwork, and Tissue saris with elaborate motifs and designs of creepers, birds, buttis, bells, etc on the border and pallu which is draped over the shoulder.
The rise in demand for Benarasi silks
These sarees are most in demand during the festive seasons and especially for weddings.
Benarasi saris are the most sought after apparel and a bride looks most impressive and beautiful in a Benarasi sari. The demand for these saris was unparalleled and still is much sought after at all occasions. Earlier, raw material was available in plenty and the demands for these silks were on the rise, with weavers earning good profits. The cottage industry was at its zenith in this period.
The collapse of the Benaras silk industry
The global meltdown affected the whole economy and the traditional cottage industry also had to face the effects of the slow down. The handloom trade which was booming slumped due to a decrease in demand. The silk fabric, being an expensive purchase, was confined to only the higher class and still is out of bounds to many who cannot afford the high prices. This has led to fabrics being made using power-looms, which has compromised on the quality of fabric which is brought in from Surat after being cut and embroidered to give the impression of being real Benaras saris, but these sarees end up as cheap imitations of the original.
The government has imposed a ban on the import of Chinese silk yarn. The threads obtained from this yarn give these saris the sheen and texture they are so famous for .The weavers have to depend on silk which is smuggled into India, which hikes up the price of silk yarn.
Weavers have resorted to cost cutting by reducing the length or width of sarees. These saris when sold on the market fetch a lesser price, cutting into the producers profits. The weavers are finding it difficult to make ends meet because of lesser earnings and are resorting to alternative jobs to survive.
The weavers are with their backs to the wall because of the drop in demand and stagnant supply. The poor artisans hope that the government will take quick and effective measures to improve their situation. At present the Benaras silk industry is a floundering unit and if no hasty measures are taken, we may just see the extinction of a beautiful tradition, which would break the hearts of all who have come to know and love this art of silk hand-loom weaving which defines Indian heritage and culture.