India is a developing country with a majority of its masses living in rural areas. While agriculture is the main source of employment providing work to 70 percent of the rural population, handloom also provides a major source of employment to the rural people in India. “The spinning wheel is a nation’s second lung,” said Mahatma Gandhi, The Father of our Nation, who considered the spinning wheel as a symbol of revolution. So, handloom weaving is the most important cottage industry and it is also a labour-intensive industry in India. In India, 72 percent are engaged in cotton weaving, about 16 percent in silk weaving and rest are related to art silk and mixture.
Kanchipuram is one of the biggest production centres of pure silk handlooms. The artisans are intolerant towards the entry of power looms and the introduction of any new techniques of productions. The reason for their continued opposition to modernisation is to preserve their rich tradition of weaving and to prevent the loss of their livelihood. Another reason is that most quality-conscious weavers are concerned about the stable fineness of their handloom fabrics.
In Kanchipuram, there are around 60,000 silk weavers, out of whom 50,000 weavers work under the co-operative fold. These co-operative associations serve as a social asset in terms of giving employment, ensuring a fixed wage, and implementing Government schemes. But at present, these weavers face a number of problems related to their occupation. This detailed report analyses the history of Kanchipuram and weaving, the life of weavers, and how the textile industry has diluted their rich culture.
Sarees are one of the world’s oldest surviving garments and were India’s first seamless garment for women and that has now become the symbol of Indian feminity. Today, wearing sarees might be a fashion statement, but our ancestors wore it as a humble drape a thousand years ago. The origin of a saree is traced back to the Indus valley civilisation in 2800-1800 BCE in North-West India. According to Wikipedia, the word saree is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Sattika’ meaning ‘Strip of cloth’.
Traditionally, a saree was a piece of unstitched cloth that is draped around a woman’s body. One saree has varying densities so that it can be draped in a particular way, neatly. The border and pallu (a portion of cloth that falls from over the shoulder), is made heavier and decorative. But today, a saree’s definition is a textile that is woven at a mill including contemporary materials.
A saree is 9 yards long, but sometimes can be longer depending on draping styles. According to saree enthusiasts, it is said that India has 100 different ways to drape a saree, but only a few are known. The others remain undocumented because each person has her style of wearing it. “A properly draped saree requires zero safety pins,” said 72-year-old Viji Rani, a resident of the Temple town, Madurai.
Sarees became popular in the Indian subcontinent after the cultivation of cotton, in the fifth millennium BC. The cultivation was followed by weaving, which went on to become a big business after the introduction of dyes. Women traditionally wore silk and cotton sarees with block-prints, embroidery, and tie-dye patterns. Years later, the garment underwent modernisation and women had precious stones, gold threads, and other expensive ornaments woven into their sarees to stand out.
Today sarees are going through a golden phase. Which means, not only are the traditional varieties being rediscovered, but contemporary designs are also integrated along with it. No matter how simple or how exquisite, the beauty of the garment remains.
Popularly known as the “City of Silk” and the “City of 1000 temples”, Kanchipuram, is located 70 km away from Chennai and is famous for its handwoven silk sarees with delicate zari work. It is considered to be one of the seven sacred cities in India, as it houses more than 1000 temples.
According to a senior journalist in Chennai, V.V.S Manian, who has compiled many books about cities with spiritual significance in Tamil Nadu, Kanchipuram, was the vital capital of the State for a long time, from the first century to the seventeenth century. “It was a gorgeous city laid out in the shape of a lotus, according to a poem written during the Sangam period,” he said.
According to historical records, the Pallavas during the sixth-century had built several temples in Kanchipuram. Two of them are Ekambareshwar Temple and Kailasanathar Temple. While the Ekambareshwar temple is the largest shrine in Kanchipuram, the latter is the oldest temple in the city. The Kailasanathar temple was built of sandstone by Pallava ruler Rajasimhar, and its existence is debated to be between 680CE and 705CE. The temple is famous for housing a 16-sided Shiva statue, which is not found anywhere else in India.
Another temple in the region, known all over the country, is the “Sri Varadaraja Perumal Temple”, dedicated to Lord Vishnu. “Recently, the city was bustling with people from all over India, including the Prime Minister, to visit the lord “Attivarathar,” said Murugavel. The speciality of this temple is that the idol is carved from a fig tree bark and is kept immersed in water for 40 years. “During a Muslim attack on the city centuries ago, the idol had to be kept safe and it was immersed in the temple-tank. It was left this way for many generations and then forgotten about. In 1699, when the tank went dry the idol revealed itself and the high priests of the temple decided to keep the Lord underwater and bring him out every 40 years for 48 days only,” he said.
Surrounded by a serene environment and ancient Dravidian architecture, the temples attracts visitors from all over the world. Hiuen Tsang, a Chinese traveller who visited India in 640CE, during the rule of emperor Harsha, had many references to Kanchipuram in his book “Si-Yu-Ki (Record of Western Countries).” Though his accounts of Kanchipuram are not entirely dependable, it is the best source available to know about the rich culture and heritage of the city. During his visit to the city, he came across many followers of Jainism and Buddhism.
According to him, King Ashoka had once built a stupa for a statue of Gautama Buddha. Though there is no stupa to validate the account of Hiuen Tsang, a seven-foot-high Buddha Statue in the Kamakshi Temple stands testimony to the influence of Buddhism in the region. “The stylistic patterns on the statue are proof that it was built in the third-century BCE,” said Perumal, a veteran journalist who has been living in Kanchipuram for 85 years.
The story of Kanchipuram silk saree begins in Hindu Mythology. Legend has it that Kanchi weavers are descendants of Sage Marakanda, who was considered to be the master weaver for the gods themselves. The early weavers of Kanchipuram were from two major communities of Andhra Pradesh, the Devangas and Saligars, who migrated to the town of Kanchipuram. They used their excellent skills to make sarees that bore the images of the sculptures and figurines found on the temples, around the village.
Going deeper into the history of Kanchipuram, according to research conducted by Dr Nandita Krishna, a historian, environmentalist and the Honorary Director of CP Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation, Chennai, Kanchipuram was a place of education. Princes from the Deccan region, especially the Konkan coast, were sent to the tiny town of Kanchipuram for their university-level education. She says, “It is an extraordinary thing that all the royals were sent here for their education. But that was not it, In those days since the town could not have survived on education alone, there was a need for trade and that was weaving.”
INTRODUCTION TO SILK WEAVING
Kanchipuram silk sarees are exclusively known for their rich gold borders, traditional designs, and dense fabric in contrast colours. The tradition that is more than 150 years old is purely hand woven from processed silk yarn and “Zari”- a silver silk thread coated in gold colour.
An original Kanchipuram silk saree would cost from Rs 5000 to Rs 1,50,000. The most expensive sarees are the one that are designed using pure zari thread and silk. These kinds of sarees are usually worn during weddings and are mainly purchased with an intention to resell it one day.
There are more than 5000 families and 45,000 weavers producing silk sarees in Kanchipuram. But Kanchipuram-style sarees are also woven in other parts of Tamil Nadu such as Mannarkudi, Kumbakonam, and Rasipuram. But, these sarees are lighter in weight and lack originality.
The basic raw materials required to weave a saree are:
Mulberry silk: This is procured from Karnataka and this tough yet soft silk thread grants lustre and adds a smooth finish to the saree.
Zari: Pure silver thread coated in gold colour is used to add rich-finishings to a saree’s border and pallu. This thread is imported from Surat, Gujarat.
Dye color: Procured from local markets, weavers mix the colour powder with hot water in large copper vessels. Some weavers, especially the government-aided ones, skip this step as they are given pre-coloured silk threads.
Rice starch: Or natively known as “Kanji”, the excess water after boiling rice, is used to add stiffness to the yarn before sent for weaving. This starch is also used on the saree after weaving, before folding it.
PROCESS OF WEAVING
The raw silk is divided into three parts and dyed in different colours to make three different sarees. While the portion of the saree covering the body is dyed using multiple colours to give a contrasting look, the portion of the saree that falls over the shoulder (Pallu) is usually given a single bold colour.
To start the dyeing process, water is boiled in a copper container. Once it is at a high temperature, the dyeing materials - washing soda, soap oil, dye colour are added to the water. The off-white silk yarn is then dipped into the vat and then dropped into a container with normal water, to remove any excess colour. The silk is left to dry for two to three days. The popularly used colours include red, green, blue and variations of yellow. While weavers associated with private organisations dye their thread, government-aided weavers are provided pre-coloured silk to reduce costs on the side of the weaver.
The silk thread and zari, before going onto the weaving loom, is separated neatly using a wheel onto a small pen-like instrument and, to weave horizontally. The silk thread is also separated to avoid any tangles which leave uneven surfaces in the finished product. “After sending my children to school, I sit down to do this, and it is the most important step, because, without this, weaving cannot begin. If there is an error in this step, the finished product won’t look professional and will be rejected. This will cost us time and money, ” said Hemavathy, the wife of a weaver.
The separated silk threads are attached to the weaving loom from end to end. “The yarn ball needs to be carefully placed here, and we make sure that there are 5000 lines of thread, as that count needs to be maintained to stitch a saree,” said Deenadayalan, a weaver who has been learning the art of weaving since he was young, and has been doing this professionally for more than 20 years. Deenadayalan lives with his wife, who also helps in weaving, and has two daughters. He works as part of the ‘Murugan Weaver Co-operative Society, a government-run silk saree store.
On top of the weaving loom, there are continuous pages of cardboard stencils that move with stitches made. The designs are first drawn by hand according to the requirement and then designed on the computer. Using a cutting-machine, the design is cut into a cardboard sheet which acts as a stencil on the weaving loom. Then the threads are made to take the shape of the design while weaving.
Traditionally woven sarees are very heavy and soft with fine counts of silk. The weight ranges from 750gms to 1000gms. The pallu and the borders are embellished with beautiful motifs and intricate designs. Most of the designs on the sarees are inspired by the temples in the city. It includes the peacock's eye, swans, parrots, flowers, statues and more. A popular design in sarees found here is known as “Ganga-Yamuna” design. This refers to two different coloured borders in one saree.
The weavers wake up at 4 am and weave till 10 pm, during the month of December because they need to meet with the demand for January, as all the weavers go on leave for 10 days on account of the festival “Pongal”. But during this time, there is high demand like any other day. They don’t make much of a profit from weaving sarees, and approximately earn Rs 1000 in one day, depending on the design, but the families continue to live on a budget every month, year after year. Apart from living every year on a budget, weavers do not get paid for one full month during monsoons. “The time taken to finish one saree is approximately one week depending on good weather conditions; during rains we cannot carry on with business as usual because the silk threads and the woven saree needs to be dried after washing with starch. Every year for one month we have no business because of the rain. Our machine absorbs the moisture and does not give the desired results while weaving. The government can provide us with better equipment, but it has been so many years, we just manage with what we have,” said Murugavel, a weaver of a government-run weaving society.
“We get the silk from the government society and then add dye to it. We weave a maximum of four sarees in one month, and get a labour fee of Rs.22,000 from the government, while private weavers only get Rs.15000. Though it is more than what they get, our process is more tedious compared to theirs. With the rise of IT jobs in the city, many youngsters moved away from weaving. I can’t blame them because those jobs pay more and the lifestyle a person can lead does seem better. I will be the last of my family to practise weaving, and wouldn’t want my children doing the same.”
The weaving looms are built-in in each home. Usually, the weaver builds his handloom because the measurements need to be perfect and even if one part is placed differently, or it is misaligned, the final output will not be perfect. There are many machine-operated weaving looms, but that is not the same as hand weaving a saree, as you can see an uneven pattern on the saree,” he said.
RISE OF DUPLICATE SAREES
During the rule of the Pallavas, silk sarees were considered to be a royal attire. The weavers who were common-folk were allowed only to practise the art but never allowed to wear them. The royal family would weigh each element of the saree, the silk, zari and any other precious thread before giving them to the weaver. Once the weaver provides the finished product, the King would first weigh it to make sure that the weaver had not meddled with anything.
Then, over time, those who could afford to pay for a saree were allowed to purchase one. Today, the demand for these sarees is much higher than what the weavers can supply. To keep the sale going and make profits, many private-owned shops started to mushroom in Kanchipuram. This led to duplication or adulteration of zari, which is considered to be the main element in a Kanchipuram saree. The zari which is meant to be pure silver thread coated in gold is sometimes replaced by plastic thread coated in gold. “The difference can be spotted only by an expert eye,” said Sulochana, who has been weaving for 15 years now.
Though there are many ways to identify a fake Kanchipuram saree such as seeing a clear demarcation between the saree and the border, the colour of zari, and fine weave lines which can be seen only when a saree is hand-woven in a particular style. “Not everyone can easily learn this method of weaving, it takes many years to learn this technique. I have been learning this since childhood, since when my father used to be a weaver. Not everyone will become a weaver because if you cannot perfect the art, it is a great loss of money and the government will not provide you with the necessary raw material,” Sulochana added.
The textile industry has grown rapidly over a few decades, technology and machinery have developed so much and has taken away the precious livelihood of many weavers. The machines are designed to make saree faster than a weaver are also equally good. The raw-material used may or may not be pure, but customers cannot tell the difference from original to duplicate by merely looking at it. Taking this to their advantage, many stores sell sarees worth Rs 5000 for Rs 40,000 or more.
HOW TO IDENTIFY DUPLICATES
Kanchipuram sarees customarily have a differentiating zari outskirt. This is an element that recognises these sarees from numerous sorts of silk sarees made in India. Weavers take a silk string and curve a silver string over it and afterwards it is plunged into unadulterated gold to make the zari outskirts. Nevertheless, these days, tried zari, which is resold zari, is being utilised. This tried zari is less expensive as a copper wire that is electroplated with silver is used rather than silver strings. With the measure of silver utilised going down significantly the cost of the silk saree also reduces. But in textile showrooms, it is sold at the same price as an authentic zari saree would be sold.
Another technique used to test the purity of the saree is by culling out a couple of strings from the end twists of the saree and lighting it on fire. Once the fire has died out, you will discover cinder left behind. If the smell released from the cinder resembles burnt hair or cowhide, you are taking a look at an unadulterated Kanchipuram silk saree. On the other hand, if there is no debris after the flames consume the thread, it means the saree has been made using counterfeit zari.
Apart from the fire-test, there are a few common indicators such as the weave pattern, colour of zari, border demarcation, and the weight of the saree, to identify an original saree. According to saree-enthusiasts, the only way to truly know if a saree is authentic is during its resale. The significance of a Kanchipuram saree is determined by how much it can be resold for.
“Once the saree is worn out, which takes a minimum of 25 to 30 years, it can be given to any of the pawn shops in Kanchipuram. They will remove all the zari from it by melting it, then weigh it, and pay you based on that day’s silver price. My mother’s wedding saree is known as a tissue saree, it is made predominantly of zari, and is very heavy. It was presented to her on her wedding day by her in-laws. This was considered to be very precious, and many people in the family would borrow that saree for any of their family events. Not everyone could afford a pure silk saree then. Her in-laws had bought it for Rs 400, but when my mother resold it many years later, it fetched her a price of Rs 5000,” said Sathya, a native of Kanchipuram.
BROKERS IN KANCHIPURAM
As you walk through the streets in Kanchipuram, you come across customers, local people, and some men who seem to be wandering, but are staring at you. You will not notice these men, but they will be watching every move you make. They don’t intend any harm but they are paid-brokers who are employed by certain stores in the city. The brokers are deployed in common areas such as near the temple or around the bus stop. Their duty is to suggest stores, which have hired him, to you in order to get a commission.
One broker, who had seen me walk from one store to another said: “Are you looking to buy sarees, madam? In this area there are a number of shops, all these stores get their stock from the store I work at. We sell pure silk sarees wholesale, so it is the best quality at a cheap rate.” If you are stranded looking for directions, you will surely come across a broker riding by on this two-wheeler. One broker said: “Are you lost? Do you need help? No madam, this shop is on the other side of the road, and it is blocked. There is a shop similar to that in the next street, and it is much better. I am taking the same route, I can lead the way for you.”
Over the last few years, the sale of silk sarees in Kanchipuram has been hit by many of the continuous changes in government policies. “GST has ruined a lot of business for us. Customers used to come here and then walk back home with 20 sarees, now they buy only two or three,” said a private store manager, on condition of anonymity. With a 5% Goods and Sales Tax (GST) on silk products, the sellers had to first increase the price of sarees by 25% to attract profits. “If I had to sell a saree worth Rs 15,000 with 5% GST on it, customers would refuse to buy it and that led to sales dropping hard. Now, the profit margin has been reduced to 10-15%, which means we only reach break-even with no profits,” he said.
Another issue faced by the industry is the rising costs of inputs and weavers not turning up for work. Many of them have left the art and moved to the city in search of better-paying, stable jobs. Data from multiple silk weavers’ associations in Kanchipuram show that the number of handloom units has dropped from 2,00,000 pre-GST to just around 10,000 today. This situation has arisen because of traditional handlooms competing with better-equipped power looms while paying the same 5% GST. As a result, hand-woven silk, the product of generations of family trade has not found resonance among the new generation of weavers. “The only way to keep this tradition going is by providing government subsidies for materials, and by providing training and secure jobs to the younger generation,” the store owner added.
Weavers who are members of the silk co-operatives feel that owing to various reasons their satisfaction towards weaving keeps fluctuating. Due to globalisation and modernisation of the textile industry, the handloom co-operative weavers face several problems like meagre wages, poor working conditions, inadequate benefits, and insufficient work throughout the year. The involvement of members and considering their opinions will certainly improve the performance of silk weavers’ co-operative societies.
WHAT THE WEAVERS WANT
Yarns should be provided at an affordable or subsidized price to make silk handloom products competitive and affordable in the market. While private shops sell adulterated silk sarees at cheap prices like Rs 2500 - Rs 3000, co-operative society shops are selling pure silk sarees, with the same design at Rs 7000.
There must be newer technology for handlooms for better production. Technologically advanced looms are available across the country but they are not available to government-aided weavers in Kanchipuram. Weavers believe this will have a direct impact on the production, productivity, and quality of the sarees. It will also favour diversified products and widen the market.
Irregularity in supplying raw materials, inefficient administration, insufficient wages, lack of professional marketing, and operational management, are some of the weaknesses in the co-operative silk societies. Removing these drawbacks will play a pivotal role in the effective functioning of weavers.
Finally, creating awareness among the public. This is the biggest influencer in the sale of consumer products. People need to know the difference between purchasing from co-operative societies and private showrooms. “The State Government should launch a special publicity drive to promote silk handloom products,” said a retired weaver who was associated with a co-operative association.
But it is not all negative, some government policies have been introduced over the last decade which have improved the livelihood of the handloom weavers.
Free distribution of sarees and dhotis to handloom and power loom weavers. According to this scheme sarees and dhotis required for distribution is produced by the weavers of co-operative societies, then procured and supplied to taluk office for distribution by "co-optex". This scheme provides continuous employment and also fulfils the clothing needs for the weavers and their families.
Free electricity for the homes equipped with both handlooms and power looms. Electricity up to 100 units bimonthly for handloom weavers and up to 500 units bimonthly for power loom weavers is provided. This scheme is being implemented through the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB).
Free school uniforms for the children of the weavers. “Government schools are not like private schools; every child in this village is given all the facilities that are required. “I have two children, they are studying in 2nd std and UKG respectively. The government schemes have helped us a lot by providing books, pens, bags, and cycles. Earlier only three of four children would be seen having a cycle in the village, now everyone has it and this has reduced our financial burden,” said Hemavathy, a weaver.
But there are also schemes which are less heard of in the remote areas of Kanchipuram. Though weavers complain about lack of infrastructure, a crucial scheme implemented across India to improve the lives of the weavers is the “Deendayal Hathkargha Protsahan Yojana”. According to this scheme, financial assistance is provided for various components such as basic inputs, infrastructure support, and design inputs. The funding pattern of this scheme is on a sharing basis between the Centre and state governments in the ratio of 50:50.
WHY DO PEOPLE LOVE KANCHIPURAM
Although other cities in Tamil Nadu have caught up with the sale of Kanchipuram silk sarees either by sourcing them from weavers for their stores or by setting up their factory, employing skilled artisans, and sourcing raw materials, Kanchipuram remains to be the go-to shopping destination for any silk related attires. Despite the availability of authentic silk and zari sarees elsewhere there are other reasons as to why people visit Kanchipuram to fulfil their shopping needs:
Nivetha, a resident from Chennai, who has shopped in Kanchipuram multiple times, said: “The price of sarees is cheaper compared to textile shops outside Kanchipuram. There is also a common belief that the sarees sold outside this city are not the original ones. At the same time, I have even heard people say the private shops here have adulterated silk. Another reason to shop in Kanchipuram is that the sarees here have more designs. If you don’t like what is shown at one shop, you can hop to the next. There are multiple choices to choose from.”
Kanchipuram easily has a wide variety of sarees as it is the land of weavers. Even if the sarees are woven by machine using contemporary designs, they lack the traditional touch that only a weaver can give. Anitha, a resident of Coimbatore, who was shopping at Kanchipuram with her family for a wedding, said: “We have visited Kanchipuram many times and there is a big difference between how sarees are sold in other parts of Tamil Nadu and here. Firstly, the shopkeepers here are very patient and never complain to show us 100 different pieces, even if he knows we are not convinced to buy any. They have a wide variety of designs that are very hard to find in other parts of India.”
When a purchase for a reasonable number of silk sarees for wedding festivities is made, apart from the wedding silk saree, a huge saving is made. Keerthi, a resident from Bangalore who had visited Kanchipuram a few years ago, said: “We travelled from Bangalore to Kanchipuram recently for my brother’s wedding shopping and we bought 15 sarees. They were priced at Rs 3,000 each, with intricate temple designs, rich border colours, and zari work. After returning to Bangalore, we ran short and decided to buy five more sarees at a textile store here. It was the worst decision we ever made, the sarees had poor colour, lustre, and no designs. But we paid Rs 5000 for each saree.”