Undoubtedly one of the most famous products of our country, Kanjeevaram or Kanchipuram saris have been named after their place of birth and have dominated the world of silk saris for years now. The story of Kanchivaram silk begins in Hindu mythology where it is believed to have been worn by the gods themselves.
Settled in the small town of Kanchipuram, the art took off under the reign of King Krishna Devaraya when master weavers spun magnificent masterpieces with images of temples and deities from the region.
Before long, the beauty of the silk saris reverberated through the towns of Tamil Nadu, spanning to all of Southern India and eventually throughout the world. It became a must for all women to adorn themselves with this divine creation, especially during auspicious occasions – a practice that is still followed today.
Kanchipuram silk saris are woven from pure mulberry silk. While the silk belongs to Southern India, the pure gold and silver zari comes from Gujarat. The silk thread that is used to weave the sari is dipped in rice water and sun-dried before it is used in order to increase both its thickness and stiffness. This is then interlocked with a thin silver wire and woven after which a golden thread is used to complete the procedure. These handwoven saris hold their charm in the double warp and double weft, and are known for the 1.2 inches of the warp frame that can hold up to 60 holes through which 240 warp threads are woven. Around 250-300 threads are usually woven into the weft. This gives the sari its sturdiness and durability.
The saris adopt a wide palette of colors, most of them vibrant and festive including deep maroons, greens, yellows and pinks, and depict eye-catching designs that include temple figurines and mythological stories. Over the years, the traditional and much preferred stripes or golden dot designs have given way to more symbolic motifs such as fruits, animals, birds, suns and moons. A noticeable feature is that the body of the sari deeply contrasts from the pallu in styling and colour. This is because the two are woven separately and by independent weavers, with the latter being more elaborate and then joined together in a zig zag pattern called the pitni. Since the zari is made of three silk threads twisted with a silver wire, the fabric is extremely strong and durable. This however can also add to the weight, making a regular pure Kanchipuram sari as heavy as two kilos.
Kanchipuram saris vary widely in cost depending upon the intricacy of work, colors, pattern, material used like zari (gold thread). Traditionally made of nine yards, the sari today is shortened to a more practical six-yard length. Kanchipuram silks have created the main occupation for several in the city of Kanchipuram. As of now, there are about 5,000 families involved in the production and there are 15 silk and cotton yard industries and 60 dyeing units in the region to aid the production process. Considering the importance of preserving this wonderful art and occupation, the Government of Tamil Nadu applied for Geographical Indication for Kanchipuram saris. The Government of India recognized it as a Geographical Indication officially since the year 2005-06. This can be considered as a mark of authenticity and has helped improve the sales of Kanchipuram silk sarees. A Tamil film titled Kanchivaram was also made in 2008, on the weavers, which helped get their problems into mainstream media focus.
Last year, the government introduced a policy to promote e-marketing of local handlooms. Thirteen e-commerce entities have partnered with the Office of the Development Commissioner (Handlooms) to market handloom products from the weavers themselves. What this means is that now when you go online to buy a Kanchipuram sari, chances are the fabric is coming directly from the weaver, allowing them to make a decent profit.