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The surprising history of India’s vibrant sari tradition

The Saree - The Very Essence of Indian Womanhood

The word "sari" means “strip of cloth" in Sanskrit. But for the Indian women—and a few men—who have been wrapping themselves in silk, cotton, or linen for millennia, these swaths of fabric are more than just simple garments. They’re symbols of national pride, ambassadors for traditional (and cutting-edge) design and craftsmanship, and a prime example of the rich differences in India’s 29 states.

"The sari both as symbol and reality has filled the imagination of the subcontinent, with its appeal and its ability to conceal and reveal the personality of the person wearing it," says Delhi-based textile historian Rta Kapur Chishti, author of Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond and co-founder of Taanbaan, a fabric company devoted to reviving and preserving traditional Indian spinning and weaving methods.

The first mention of saris (alternately spelled sarees) is in the Rig Veda, a Hindu book of hymns dating to 3,000 B.C.; draped garments show up on Indian sculptures from the first through sixth centuries, too. What Chishti calls the “magical unstitched garment" is ideally suited to India’s blazingly hot climate and the modest-dress customs of both Hindu and Muslim communities. Saris also remain traditional for women in other South Asian countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

India remains one of the last great handicraft cultures. It’s a powerhouse for dyeing, printing, and silk weaving, all represented in at least one of the estimated 30 regional varieties of saris. In the Ganges riverfront city of Varanasi, weavers bend over old-school wooden looms to make Banarasi silk ones, usually in bright red, trimmed with metallic zari thread, and prized by brides. In tropical Kerala, predominantly white sett mundu saris reflect styles popular before 19th-century industrialization brought the colorful aniline dyes—and Crayola-box brights—spotted around the subcontinent today.

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