Amazing Places: The History of the Indian Sari

The Sari or sometimesw spelled as Saree has a history of several thousand years. It symbolizes the tradition of a country rich in cultural treasures. Depending on the cultural region, the Saris worn by local women differ. Thus, the wearer’s origin can be recognized by the way of wearing, but also the type of fabric, its colors and embroidery.

In South Asia, women have been wrapping themselves in lengths of fabric made of silk, linen or fine cashmere for thousands of years. Since time immemorial, Saris have been an expression of culture and personality – and for this very reason are still popular in the 21st century.

The magic of India

Saris come in a wide variety. For example, from Kashmir comes the poetic Kashidakari Embroidery on the Sari or Saree, which reflects the immense scenic beauty and diverse flora of the area on fabric.

In contrast, the traditional Chikankari Saree is made of very fine, transparent fabric with noble thread work embroidery.

The Jute Saree, which is worn mainly in West Bengal and whose natural vegetable fiber captivates with a golden silk sheen, appears completely different.

The word “sari” or “saree” means “strip of cloth” in Sanskrit. But for Indian women, who have wrapped themselves in silk, cotton or linen for millennia, these strips of fabric are more than simple garments:

They are symbols of national pride, ambassadors for traditional and ultra-modern design, arts and crafts, and a prime example of the diverse differences among India’s 29 states.

Handicraft from India weaving

In India, about 4.3 million weavers make saris to this day – from blended fabrics, from silk, jute and linen. The dyes of the fabric are often rich and colorful.

The large swath of fabric has no seams. Instead, the fabric often features a wide decorative border of varying patterns on the sides and hem, including embroidery in its noble form. Its wearers wrap themselves artfully in the sari, usually draping the end of the fabric panel over their left shoulder.

The garment is more versatile than it appears at first glance: The sari gives room to walk, run, ride a bike, sit on the floor, bend over and stretch. It is airy and the perfect companion in a hot country.

The sari knows no size and no age of its wearers. Every sari can be worn by every woman. Only through them, the sari with its beauty and splendor comes into its own.

Only the woman who wears it decides how she wants to wrap it and how she wants to express herself. Fascinatingly beautiful, the sari emphasizes the grace and elegance of Indian women.

The history of the Indian Sari

The first mention of Saris is in the “Rig Veda,” a Hindu book of hymns dating back to 3000 B.C. Draped garments can also be seen on Indian sculptures from the 1st to 6th centuries. 

What Chishti calls the “Magical, Seamless Garment” is ideally suited to India’s hot climate and the customs of Hindu and Muslim communities. Saris also remain traditional for women in other South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

India is one of the last great craft cultures. It is a center for dyeing, printing and silk weaving, all of which are used in at least one of the estimated 30 regional varieties of sari.

In the Ganges-side city of Varanasi, weavers bend over ancient wooden looms to make saris of Banarasi Silk  – usually bright red decorated with metallic zari thread, which is especially popular in bridal wear.

In tropical Kerala, the predominantly white sett-mundu saris reflect those styles that were popular before industrialization brought candy-colored aniline dyes to the subcontinent in the 19th century.

In West Bengal, borders are emblazoned on Balchuri saris, whose designs can be found on the walls of the region’s terracotta temples made of baked clay. Each sari tells a story about the society and people around it.

Nevertheless, globalization and competition for cheaper goods have led to the widespread use of machine-woven saris in recent decades. Many poor copies of traditional costumes are shipped from China. Long-standing weaving families have become unemployed, their looms worthless.

Some women, especially in rural areas, still wrap themselves in panels of cotton, linen or other fabrics for daily work. “Saris are more commonly seen on older women, the aunts and grandmothers in some regions.

Younger women and city dwellers tend to wear more western clothing or a salwar and save the colorful saris for weddings or other celebrations.

The garment is also a symbolic rite of passage for young Hindu girls, who wear a sari or a half-length sari for the Ritu Kala Samskara ceremony, which symbolizes the transition to adulthood. The garment has even been used as a political symbol.

Picturesque view on Dal Lake and Srinagar

Like a gigantic triangle, the vast Dal Lake runs out below us in a bay, which is still adorned by a triangular, picturesque island in the middle.

On the shores of the mainland, the old and new cities spread out like a wildly jumbled Monopoly game. The Jhelum River intersects the board with its seven bridges.

Like Dutch Canals, the many waterways branch off from it and meander through the Metropolis of 1 million people, make a curve, flow past watered vegetable gardens and flow back into the gigantic Dal Lake, which is as large as the city itself.

A small blue dot marks the edge of Srinagar’s second lake, Nagin Lake.

Not only do the waterways of Srinagar remind us of Amsterdam – there is another amazing similarity.  Tulips – these do not originally come from Holland as many people think, but spread to Europe from what is now Turkey.

In Turkish, Persian and Urdu, tulips are known as Lâle, and this name has been used in ancient Persian writings since the 9th century. But it was not only in Turkey or the Ottoman Empire that rulers were fascinated by tulips; they were also admired further east in Central Asia.

The Mughal Empire was a state that existed on the Indian subcontinent from 1526 to 1858. At the zenith of its power at the end of the 17th century, the Mughal Empire encompassed almost the entire Indian subcontinent and parts of Afghanistan. Between 100 and 150 million people lived on 3.2 million square kilometers – almost 30 percent of the world’s population at that time.

All the early Mughal Rulers showed a great interest in the floral and wildlife of their surroundings, especially in the areas of northern India they conquered. Often we owe detailed descriptions of Indian nature and environment to the memoirs of the rulers.

Many species of tulips and roses, daffodils and hyacinths, among others, grew in the gardens they donated. Gardens, so the idea goes, reflect paradise with their blossoms and waterways.

This is another reason why the Mughal rulers had numerous gardens laid out in all the important cities of their empire. With its natural diversity of flowers and herbs, Kashmir was a special focus of the Mughals’ garden architecture.

In his memoirs, the Mughal ruler Jahângîr wrote that Kashmir was an “all-season garden” that pleased the ruler’s eye and provided a retreat for the poor people.

Meadows and waterfalls were so beautiful that they could hardly be described. In the enchanting spring, mountains and plains are covered with different kinds of flowers – and gateways, walls, backyards and roofs are lit up by tulips.

Even today, tulips play a major role in Kashmir. In 2012, Asia’s largest tulip garden, the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, was opened in Srinagar on the banks of Dal Lake.

On 12 hectares, tulips in numerous varieties and colors can be seen – including the black tulips that had fascinated the Mughal rulers more than 350 years before.

The Enchanting Mughal Gardens of Srinagar

After the strenuous climb to the Shankaracharya Temple, we decide to enjoy the fourth day after our arrival in the beautiful gardens of Srinagar. Early in the morning, we set off for the Mughal gardens of Srinagar. They were laid out in the 16th century during the time of the Mughal emperors and helped Kashmir to be called “Paradise on Earth.”

We were staying at Houseboat Ambassador and picked up by jeep – the drive to the Shalimar Bagh takes about 20 minutes. The Shalimar Bagh is probably the most famous Mughal garden in Srinagar, built by the Mughal emperor Jahangir for his wife Nur Jahan in 1619.

Immediately after entering the garden, we realized that we had seen a similar complex before. The fountains, the huge trees in whose shade visitors sit down to a picnic on manicured lawns, the perfectly trimmed flower beds with bright flowers, artfully pruned trees, terraced sections – everything reminded us of the Shalimar Garden in Lahore.

The gardens in Kashmir reportedly served as a template for the Lahore site. The place is a prime example of Mughal craftsmanship in horticulture and is very popular with tourists from all over the world.

The rectangularly designed complex, oriented in a north-east-south-west direction, is a good 12 hectares in size. It consists of four terraces, with a central axis in the form of a water channel called Shah Nahar.

The water channel is sourced from springs that rise above the Shalimar Bagh in the hills at the foot of Mount Bahmak. The canal connects the Ravi River with Srinagar, and it flows through the basins on all four terraces.

The garden also features fountains arranged in regular rows, sightlines of plane trees and rich floral decorations. After flowing through the garden, the watercourse pours into the Dal Lake. Access to the garden was originally only possible by water from the lowest terrace.

We spent quite some time at Shalimar Bagh, eating the watermelon we had brought with us and enjoying the sun, the view of the mountains and the relaxing peace.

Nishat Bagh - Garden of Delight

After we had refreshed ourselves at the Shalimar Bagh, we went on to the Nishat Bagh on the shores of the Dal Lake. We covered the distance on foot because you can walk along the Foreshore Road along the promenade of Dale Lake and reach the Nishat Bagh Mugal Garden in about 25 minutes.

Nishat Bagh is considered the second largest and most important garden in the valley of Kashmir after the royal Shalimar Gardens. “Nishat Bagh” is Urdu and means “Garden of Delight.” – Although it was not commissioned by a Mughal emperor and is therefore not a royal garden, it received great admiration everywhere because of its beauty.

Like other gardens in the Dal Lake region, the Nishat Bagh is not on level ground. Therefore, the typical Chahar Bagh Design had to be modified to suit the land’s topography. The architects had to move the water source from the traditional center of the square garden to the garden’s highest point.

The garden is rectangular shaped, 544 meters long and 329 meters wide, facing east-west towards Dal Lake. The garden has twelve terraces, each associated with a zodiac sign.

The terraces begin at the public’s road level that connects the garden’s watercourse to Dal Lake, and the twelfth terrace is located in the Zenana Garden.

A central watercourse, almost four meters wide and 20 centimeters deep, flows from the top of the garden through a fountain-adorned channel that occasionally splits into fountain pools.

Chadars, stone ramps engraved with wave patterns to embellish the flowing water, convey the water between the different terraces. At several points, stone benches cross the axial watercourse near a chadar and serve as seating platforms for visitors to rest on and enjoy the beauty of this garden.

The garden was initially planted mainly with cypresses and fruit trees.

Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden

If you are still in the mood to find out how beautiful nature can be, Srinagar is the place to be. The Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, covered in tulips in every direction, feels like a place straight out of a movie.

It is the largest tulip garden in all of Asia! Everywhere you look, there is a variety of colorful flowers. Besides the tulips, roses, hyacinths and daffodils also adorn this garden in the lap of the mountains. Note, however, that the tulips only bloom in March and April

We can really recommend a visit to the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden to every visitor of  Srinagar, as it is unique in its location.

Surrounded by mountains, some of which are still covered in snow, you can let your eyes roam over the vast 30-hectare sea of tulips.

Over 1.2 million tulips of 60 varieties, spread over 200 channels, are displayed in the garden. Several benches invite you to linger and enjoy the view.

Opposite the exit of the garden, there is an interesting exhibition of Kashmiri handicrafts and some offerings of traditional Kashmiri food, Wazwan.

We could taste the latter at very reasonable prices, in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian forms – a masterpiece of Kashmiri cuisine.

The Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden in Srinagar is the largest tulip garden in Asia! The magnificent garden is covered not only with tulips but also with roses, hyacinths and daffodils.

The best time to visit the garden is in March-April when the tulips are in full bloom.

Cashmere Sweater

Cashmere Sweater

Cashmere Sweater

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Silk and Cashmere from Srinagar

In former times, the former Silk Road led from Kashgar – the last stop on Chinese territory – over the Pamir Mountains through the Nubra Valley to the former capital of Kashmir and from there on to India. Camel caravans brought valuable silk from China to Srinagar.

The Silk Trade flourished in ancient times and has remained the most important industry in Kashmir to the present day. Even today, silk fabrics from Srinagar are in great demand because of their excellent craftsmanship. Kashmiri silk textile and silk goods, have established a name for themselves worldwide for their incredible quality, stunning shades and colors.

According to historical evidence, the silk fabrics from Kashmir were exported to many different cultures worldwide, like the Persians, Greeks and Roman Empires. Moreover, during the medieval period, the Mughals were great admirers of silk clothing and highly supported this specific industry in the Kashmir Valley.

Making Kashmiri Silk Carpets and other handmade goods is a major process in itself, and even though the prices may seem high, it is the amount of work and time that goes into it.

From those perfect designs in stunning colors and excellent quality, owning a piece in Kashmiri silk is nothing less than owning a work of art.

Today Srinagar is a major center for carpet making in the region. The Silk Industry and its associated activities employ over 50000 people and provide approximately Rs. Six crores (60 million) to the state’s income.

It also offers raw materials for the production of Shawls, Sarees, Carpets, Gabhas, Namda, Hosiery, and Needlework. Furthermore, it aids in the usage of culturable waste and less productive tracts for the various silk textile operations.

Srinagar definitely occupies a special place in the city textile industry. The beauty of the handicraft and silk carpets and goods will continue mesmerizing everyone who lays their eyes on it.


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