Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India...
The word saree is derived from the Sanskrit word, ‘शाटी,’ which means, “a strip of cloth.” The saree is a piece of garment that originated in the Indian subcontinent, however, it is not simply a garment; it is a form of expression, a story, and centuries of Indian history draped around a woman’s body. All over India, from north to south, east to west- there are not only a variety of sarees produced, but each of these sarees differ in small intricacies such as the material, production technique, and design. Therefore, the sarees produced by each state convey the history, tradition, and rituals of that particular state.
In the temple town of Thirubuvanam, several silk weavers design and produce beautiful, elegant sarees for women. These sarees are decorated with heavy zari work, bright colours, motifs, and exquisite designs to convey the femininity and boldness of women. The patterns on the saree are inspired by the temple architecture of Thirubuvanam due to which they can be seen as emblems of South India. It is the softness of the silk, glimmer from the golden zari, prismatic appearance, and cultural expression through the motifs that make the Thirubuvanam saree stand out amongst several others.
They say that when you buy a Thirubuvanam saree, it is not simply 5.5 metres of textile that you own, it is a slice of culture, tradition, and spirituality.Most of the times, these sarees are worn on special occasions such as weddings and marriages Picture this, the groom has been found, the date has been decided, everything is set in motion- it is now time to decide upon the most important bridal arrangement- the saree for the marriage. After consultation with the panjangam, the bride decides upon the designs, patterns, and motifs she would want on her saree for her most special day. The path near the famous temple of Kampaheswarar, Thirubuvanam is lined with sari shops on either side showing the prevalence of this market and its attachment to religion. Amongst this rush of sellers, customers, and markets, the bride has to find the perfect Thirubuvanam saree that will not only be representative of her but will also allow her to feel beautiful and special. Not only her, but every other woman who attends the marriage ceremony will be dressed in these Thirubuvanam sarees.
The temples play a central role in influencing the culture of Thirubuvanam, many times, women also adorn these sarees for various temple festivals. Apart from this, women often dress up in the bright colours of the Thirubuvanam sarees for other prominent festivals such as Pongal and Onam which are celebrated with immense joy and pleasure all over South India. These sarees can also be presented as gifts given on special occasions from family members, relatives, or even distant acquaintances. Their richness and significance in Tamil culture makes them socially appropriate and extravagant gift items.
Since the sale of these sarees is for the purpose of special occasions, the customers also check for special days in the week to purchase these sarees. For example, Sunday is considered to be an auspicious day for purchasing wherein people wait in long queues, however, there are no sales on Tuesdays and Saturdays. In general, the months from April to May experience less sales.
What also makes Thirubuvanam sarees special is that they are passed down from one generation to another. Thus, from a mother to her daughter, these sarees serve as reminders of maternal ancestors and their love.
In the 21st century, these sarees cater to both traditional as well as contemporary tastes. They can be worn by a 19-year-old girl or a 60-year-old woman- showing that the variety of styles and patterns fit the needs of every customer. In the Indian ethnic fashion, these sarees are considered to be extremely opulent and well-created garments. The richness of these sarees makes them most suitable for formal and semi-formal occasions.
Therefore, Thirubuvanam sarees are not just garments worn by women to look beautiful, there is a cultural, religious, and emotional significance attached to these sarees, as a result of which, they are worn and used by women from this state and from all over the country.
The usage and significance of Thirubuvanam sarees are inextricably linked. The reason for their significance is their usage -not only in India but all over the world.
The design and production technique of these sarees is known to set them apart and contribute to their significance. The weft and the wrap of the sarees are made with filature silk that results in the creation of lustrous high-quality silk. In the case of wedding sarees, the zari isextremely heavy and thus, the weaver uses the zari as a wrap itself.
The visuals and designs on the saree are also significant since they are largely derived from nature and South Indian culture. Motifs of mangoes, kalasam, temple, rudraksham, diamond,Neli, Kodi, and even Visiri are displayed on saree. Colours like parrot green, coffee brown, and golden yellow are the most popular ones. Thereby, making this saree one of the most exotic and coveted varieties of silk sarees in India.
The price of the saree ranges from 3000 to about 2 lakh rupees. For festivals, women usually prefer buying sarees between the range of 3000-10000 rupees, however, for weddings the price paid is much higher. In the most extravagant sarees, real gold is used for the zari work. Therefore, the weight of the saree is also a significant indicator for identifying its worth. Later on, these sarees can be sold in second-hand and the weight of the saree determines the amount one receives for it. It is also possible for the weaver to extract the gold from the saree later on. The Thirubuvanam sarees have an extremely strong construction that is displayed by the sellers in the selling process.
While sarees from Rajasthan and Gujarat and even the Kanchipuram sarees of Tamil Nadu are popularized by the media to an extent, the Thirubuvanam sarees are less widely known and therefore, less worn by women throughout the country. This adds an element of exoticity, not only for Indian women but also for foreign women who wear these sarees. The mystique surrounding the saree contributes to its popularity for women across all demographics.
The Thirubuvanam Silk Handloom Weavers Co-operative Production and Sale Society (THICO Society) has also contributed to the significance of the Thirubuvanam sarees. It is the largest cooperative society of Tamil Nadu that was registered in 1955. The production of the Thirubuvanam sarees began during the reign of the Chola dynasty after which it continued under the master weavers of that area. This led to a lower income and poorer facilities for the weavers. The establishment of the THICO society facilitated the improvement of these conditions.
The Geographical Indication (GI) tag given to the Thirubuvanam sarees has also ensured that the authenticity of the product remains intact and no counterfeit products can be sold in the market. This has also increased the sale of these sarees all over the world. These sarees also have excellent draping qualities and natural resistance to creasing and wrinkling. Notably, this is the only society with an ISO Mark, which speaks volumes about the quality of the goods.
Moreover, the usage of these sarees by women for various festivals, rituals, and even as gifting items, has contributed to their cultural, religious, and emotional significance. Thereby, showcasing that these sarees play an essential role in this town and the modeling of its culture.
The tradition of wearing sarees or saree-like drapery goes way back in time. Indian history has accounted for several mentions of sarees since time immemorial. Various paintings, poems, and literature point out the significance of sarees and their evolution.
The word ‘sattika’ has been mentioned in early Sanskrit literature which evolved to become the word, ‘sari.’ This sattika or sari was composed of three pieces, namely- Antriya (lower garment), Uttariya (veil worn over the head and shoulders), and Stanpatta (chest band). This is mentioned in Sanskrit and the Buddhist Pali literature of 6th century BC. Other works in Sanskrit such as the Kadambari by Banabhatta and ancient Tamil poetry, Silappadhikaram, describe women dressed in exquisite drapery or sarees.
Although in ancient India, women often wore sarees that bared the midriff, texts from the Dharma Shastra state that women should be dressed in a way that does not reveal the naval. Contrary to this idea, the Natya Shastra states that the navel is the source of life and creativity, as a result, it must be left bare while wearing a saree.
It is widely accepted and known that saree-like drapes were worn by women in ancient India wherein the lower garment was known as ‘Nivi’ and the upper body was usually left bare. Works by Kalidas mention ‘Kurpasika’ or a tight-fitting band that was worn by women to cover their chests.
Tamil works like ‘Silappadikaram’ from the Sangam period indicate women wearing a single piece of clothing to cover their lower body and head while the midriff was left entirely bare. Similar saree styles can be found in the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma in Kerala.
One must also notice that in Hindu culture, all goddesses in temples and shrines are dressed in beautiful sarees. These sarees are changed regularly and special colours are worn on certain days. Festivals and other celebrations call for even more extravagant and beautiful sarees for the goddesses. Moreover, movies, TV serials, and even animated cartoons featuring Hindu goddesses always showcase these goddesses being dressed up in sarees. This further allows us to understand the deep connection between Hindu mythology and saree garments.
The literary and historical sources from India point out the different styles of draping a saree and the different names given to it. Even today, we find different sarees and draping styles all over India. It is this difference and diversity in Indian sarees that adds to their beauty and cultural significance. Every saree is an expression of a state culture embedded in the Indian culture. As a piece of clothing, these sarees speak volumes about India’s notion of ‘unity in diversity’ and how a single piece of cloth worn differently by Indian women, connects them and creates a perfectly balanced blend of religion, culture, and distinctiveness.
The Chola dynasty was the longest-ruling dynasty under whose reign the crafts of South India flourished greatly. The production of the Thirubuvanam sarees also started under the rule of the Chola dynasty. Today, these sarees have been prevalent for about 150 years.
It was believed that the city of Thirubuvanam was built by King Chola’s family and named after Kulothunga Chola III, also known as Thirubuvanam Chakravarti. The most lucrative venture of Thirubuvanam was its trade in handloom silk and pure dhotis. However, since that time, this industry underwent a series of changes and ultimately confined its production to the beautifully woven silk sarees for women. Therefore, the royal patronage helped Thirubuvanam to progress its craft of silk saree weaving. Under the rule of the Chola kings, the weavers of these silk sarees had plentiful resources and facilities.
Another historical evidence claims that these weavers came from the Saurashtra community. The Nayak and Maratha rulers had requested these weavers to settle down in Thirubuvanam to weave special silk items for the family of the kings. Since then, a large number of Saurashtrian weavers and their families settled down in this temple town.
It is said that about 1000 years ago, this cluster was by the Saurashtrian weavers from Gujarat who had come down South to explore various vocational opportunities. These weavers first settled in Madurai and then later went on to settle in other areas of Tamil Nadu, Thirubuvanam being one of them. Thus, a group of highly skilled weavers settled down in this region and currently reside in a lane that is named after them. In the earlier days, these weavers had shops outside of their houses, however today, these have been replaced by bigger shops and traders.
These Saurashtrians earned the title of ‘Pattunulkarar’ which meant ‘the silk weaver’ for the fine quality of their weaving. Even though their mother tongue is Saurashtrian, these weavers have picked up on Tamil since it is main language of communication in this region. As a result, Tamil has entered into their households as a primary communication language as well.
However, gradually as the power of the kings diminished, and British rule grew in power, a feudal system was established. Under this system, the traditional weavers were placed in a hierarchy and provided with extremely low incomes in comparison to the work put in by them.
In the present day, the weavers can work under the master weavers or cooperative societies.
In 1955, the THICO society (The Thirubuvanam Silk Handloom Weaver’s Cooperative Production and Sale Society) was established wish helped in the revival of the Thirubuvanam silk saree production. Under this society, the weavers began gaining more profits, and weaving became more than a business- it became a way of life. At present, the Society has 1836 weaver members and employing 2002 families. The Society is functioning in its own building with 37 sales outlets in Tamil Nadu and 2 in Pondicherry. This society now sustains the livelihoods of thousands of individuals in Thirubuvanam.
Another society called Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Co-operative Society Ltd or Co-optex is also popular in this region. Co-optex was established in 1935 and primarily works for the marketing of all handloom fabrics that are produced in Tamil Nadu. It has a network of about 200 showrooms all over India. This co-operative society has proven to be successful in successfully meeting the challenges and demands of the society.
The historicity of this craft is based in the royal patronage of the kings and its prevalence in today’s day and age is due to various cooperative societies. The Thirubuvanam silk sarees have an indispensable position in Indian tradition, especially in Tamil customs and rituals. The history of the weavers and their craft captures the essence of ancient India and the Thirubuvanam silk sarees, with their culturally inspired motifs and designs, tell us more about the majestic Tamil culture than a history book will ever be able to tell.
The Thirubuvanam silk sarees feature a unique combination of softness and strength. These sarees usually measure 18 feet in length and 4 feet in breadth and weigh around 450-1250 grams. The weavers take about 15 days to make these intricately designed sarees.
The basic pattern of the saree includes one side of the border in a striking colour, different designs of motifs and heavy zari work. Zari, which refers to the embroidery done using threads of gold or silver for pattern creation, is one of the most expensive type of embroideries and enhances the rich-looking appearance of the saree. The zari work itself weighs around 400 grams. However, many times, these sarees can also have dual tones. The most popular colours are green, brown and golden.
The most common usage of the Thirubuvanam sarees is for weddings and marriages. Therefore, the sarees designed for these purposes are considered to be extremely special. The wedding sarees are popularly called south silk sarees. These contain heavy zari work and the blouse piece attached to these sarees is the most sought after by every bride. It may take 25 days for the weavers to make these wedding sarees. Other simpler sarees are also designed with 3/4th borders where a joining line segregates the blouse from the rest of the saree and the pallu is woven with the main body, without a joint. It may take up to 4-5 days for weaving these sarees.
The silk saree is folded like an ‘Angavastram,’ and this fan fold is called as ‘visirimadippu’ in Tamil. The weaving technique of ‘Korvai’ is used which is a labour intensive, intricate, interlocking process used for joining the Udal to the pallu and borders. There are two kinds of warps used in Thirubuvanam sarees. These are the zari warps and silk warps.
There are different names for identifying these sarees, these are- Rukhmani, Todarkodi, Ananda, Violet, Samudrika, and Chilli red. Here the Samudrika implies ‘beautiful’ and comes in a multitude of pink shades and multicoloured ‘jaal.’ On the other hand, a saree like Jangla which implies ‘ a web of creepers,’ is woven in a single coloured zari.
There are also different types of motifs on the Thirubuvanam sarees that largely draw their inspiration from nature and architectural constructions of Thirubuvanam. These are-
Borders- This includes the Korvai or contrasting borders. The three bells denoting the chalangai or anklet, the chequered pattern of the peacock’s eyes, bunches of grapes, creepers, and mangoes- all are included in one saree.
Colours- Usually single colours like parrot green, coffee brown, and golden yellows are popular. However, other colours such as the blueish-green (inspired by the peacock’s neck) red-orange (inspired by a lion) and violet-green (inspired by the leaf of a new mango tree) may also be used.
Each of these motifs has a deeper meaning either in Tamil religious rituals or the legacy of the thousand-year-old temples. The Thirubuvanam sarees are designed in a way that prevents wrinkling, creasing, and provides sufficient stiffness and drapability.
The uniqueness of Thirubuvanam Sarees: There are mainly three reasons that set apart the Thirubuvanam sarees. These are- first, the warping of the saree. All of these sarees are woven in a single warp. Therefore, it is extremely smooth and spreads over the entire body with much grace and elegance due to the two-warp weaving style. Second, the Thirubuvanam saree is woven continuously on the loom and the pallu is simply made to run on from the body of the saree. This technique is called the ‘poraiilapu’ and it ensures that there is no unevenness or splitting of the yarns. Third, the usage of filature silk which results in high-quality, lustrous, and uniform sarees. Other special features of the Thirubuvanam saree are that it is uniformly thick, has better drapability, and no wrinkling.
There are a large number of challenges that are faced not only by the weavers of Thirubuvanam sarees but also by the overall handloom industry.
Government spending is mainly directed towards the agricultural sector and other prominent sectors due to which the handloom industry is often ignored. In particular, the handloom industry of Tamil Nadu faces a problem with a lack of financial facilities. Various commercial banks have failed to provide the cooperative societies with resources and this has directly resulted in the failure of the cooperative movement in Tamil Nadu. At the same time, there has been an unexpected sprout in the power looms which has led to a scarcity of yarn. Therefore, the main challenge is the lack of yarns. This points out the need for the government to supply yarn to the handloom industry.
There has also been a sharp increase in the cost of production of these textiles due to which there has been a challenge in the process of selling. This is further worsened by the problem faced by this industry in the marketing of its products and pressures of globalization. It has been suggested that the government must take more initiatives to modernize the power loom sector to make in competitive domestically and internationally. Thereby highlighting the need to improve the infrastructure in the industry.
Labour Experiences: In a study done in 2018, the weavers in Thirubuvanam were studied in order to understand their experiences and working conditions.
The study revealed that the majority of the weavers were male and fell under the age group of 50 and above. More than 95% of the respondents stated that their handloom location was attached to their residential area. The respondents also expressed their happiness due to THICO society since they were paid in advance and an Annual General Meeting was organized especially for them and redressal of their concerns. During this meeting, the workers were allowed to freely express their opinions. 80% of the weavers said they were satisfied with the dividend schemes, however, over 70% expressed their dissatisfaction with the government. These weavers stated that they were not made fully aware of the welfare schemes directed towards them and were charged exorbitantly high rates of interest on loans. All of these workers stated their desire for government incentives and subsidies, uninterrupted power supply, continuous work, and housing facilities.
Another set of problems faced by this industry is the lack of skilled workers and decreasing interest of the new generation in the silk saree weaving. In earlier days, a team of two weavers, either husband-wife or parent-child, would come together to undertake the back-breaking and labour intensive task of joining the borders and saree body together. However, today, children express a lack of interest in weaving, and therefore, the work of two weavers is being done by one. This leads to an increase in the time taken for weaving and slows down the speed of the weaver since he is burdened with more work, this further impacts his/her wages.
All of these problems have culminated in a drop in the sales of the Thirubuvanam sarees that has endangered the livelihoods of several weavers. In an interview, Manimurthy, the Secretary of Silk Saree Weavers Association said that “the government has shown no interest in reviving the dying art. A rebate will go a long way in helping us. Since the handloom industry was no longer profitable, many traditional weavers opted for other professions. “If this trend continued, the knowledge to make traditional handloom sarees will be lost forever.”
The process of making Thirubuvanam sarees is a labour intensive and back-breaking task that requires plenty of days and heaps of effort. However, one must note that the process and production technique of the Thirubuvanam sarees is what makes them unique and significant in South Indian culture.
The following raw materials are used in the process of making Thirubuvanam sarees-
Silk yarn (kora)- This silk yarn comes from ‘Genus Bombyx’ silkworm that feeds on the leaves of the mulberry tree. The filature silk from this silkworm gives the finest quality of raw silk and the highest fibre production. This is the basic and most important raw material used in the production of the silk sarees.
Zari- This refers to the embroidery done using threads of gold or silver for pattern creation. It is one of the most expensive type of embroideries and enhances the rich-looking appearance of the saree. The weavers usually use half point of golden copper zari which comes all the way from Surat and can be bought only in the Madurai market.
Chemical dye colour– This is used to dye the silk and zari in different colours for making the sarees more colourful and bright. Different colours of the dye are bought from the local markets and this colouring powder is mixed with hot boiling water for dyeing the silk yarn.
Other chemicals and materials- These could help in the dyeing process.
Glue solution- This is a natural glue solution that is applied to the weaved saree to attain stiffness.
Paper card board- This is used for the making of punch cards that contain designs for the Thirubuvanam saree.
Silk is the basic raw material that is required in the production of the Thirubuvanam silk sarees and the process of sericulture is carried out to meet the demands for silk saree production. In the process of sericulture, waste is often generated that must be utilized and disposed off appropriately to ensure zero wastage or pollution.
Source of silk waste: In the process of production and manufacture of silk, a significant portion of the cocoon fibre is unfit for working up or reeling into fine silk fabric. Most of the waste is generated in the reeling process. The waste can come from-
Various techniques can be used for the treatment of these silk wastes such as degumming, boiling, beating and opening, carding, and combing, drawing and spinning, to produce various other products like embroidery and knitting silks, ribbons, silk cords, cheap silk dresses and polishing goods.
Initiatives have been taken by government bodies and several private companies to minimize the waste and efficiently make use of the raw silk.
Majority of the times, chemical dyes are used for the purpose of adding colour to the sarees. This is done since the chemical dyes ensure that the saree has bright and vibrant colours that are preferred by the customers. As a result, natural dyes are no longer given preference. Due to this, after the dyeing process, whatever portion of the dyed water is left has to be thrown away. This contributes to significant amount of wastage and pollution.
The intensive process of making Thirubuvanam silk sarees requires a large variety of tools and technology. These are-
Different types of Thirubuvanam silk sarees are produced for different rituals and festivals. For example, the silk sarees made for marriage are very different from the ones made for a semi-formal event such as a house warming party. Not only this, but the colours of the saree also vary according to the ritual for which it has been designed.
Various temples have special ceremonies in which the sculptures and statues of goddesses are adorned in sarees. Therefore, different rituals call for different colours, patterns, and designs of the Thirubuvanam sarees.
Woven from the pure mulberry silk in contrasting colours, the Thirubuvanam sarees display a unique combination of strength and smoothness. The process of making these sarees can take anything between 15-24 days, depending on the usage of the saree.
The conceptualization of the design is the very first step of beginning this process of silk saree making. 2-3 local designers usually sit down either with the master weavers or with the cooperative society in order to conceptualize the design and colour for the saree according to the market demands. After this is finalized, the process of weaving the saree begins.
This process involves multiple steps that must be undertaken with utmost delicacy and diligence. The steps are as follows-
List of craftsmen.