The Story of the Saree

(Please note this blog article has been edited from Vimla Patil’s article “The Origin of the Saree”, July 2012 and will be published as a series)

 

The saree is one of the world’s oldest and perhaps the only surviving unstitched garment from the past. Here’s a look at the its multifaceted, multicultural journey through time. 

 

They say cotton and the art of weaving it into fabric came to India from the Mesopotamian civilisation. The men and women of the contemporary Indus Valley Civilisation were familiar with cotton fabrics and wore long pieces of material which could best be described as loin cloths. These lengths of fabric were worn in the kachcha style, meaning that after draping it around the waist, the wearer passed one end of the cloth or the centre pleat between the legs and tucked it up behind to facilitate freer movement of the lower body and the legs. Early history records that this style of clothing was not only limited to Mesopotamia or the Indus Valley but was common to Egypt, Sumer, and Assyria. The relics of all these civilisations, now available in seals and figurines, prove this fact. Women of most of these civilisations, it seems from available evidence, wore only such loin cloths, leaving the upper part of the body bare, except in winter when animal skins or woollen shawl-like garments were used for protection from harsh weather.

 

When the Aryans came into the plains of the mighty north Indian rivers, they brought with them the vastra for the first time. Though a Sanskrit word originally meaning a garment or cloth, for them meant a piece of treated leather made into wearable clothing. As they moved southwards, they adopted the practice of wearing cotton weaves, in the manner of the Indus Valley inhabitants. In time, this style of wearing a length of cloth around the waist, especially for women, and the cloth itself came to be known as neevi. Therefore, it is quite likely that the simple loin cloth worn by the women of the Indus Valley civilisation was the early precursor of the many-splendoured saree of India.

 

In the epics of India, which were written much after the Indus Valley period, several assorted items of dress were described, like the kanchuki, which was a piece of cloth worn across the breasts by women. This was probably the earliest form of the choli. Many women, featuring in the classical literature generated by the epics, were described as beautiful in clothes made from silks encrusted with gold and gems.

Yellow silk neevis called Pitambar and purple silk shawls called Patola were considered auspicious. Though there were some elementary stitched garments, the neevi and the kanchuki remained the major mode of apparel for women. The art of dyeing these fabrics with vegetable dyes originated with the need of wealthier people in society to wear fancier clothes. By the time the epic era came to a close, women were wearing extraordinarily beautiful clothes with ornate embroidery. They wore exquisite jewellery too. The word patta for silk seems to have originated during this time and todate, carries the same meaning in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada as well as in several south Indian dialects.

 

The normal outfit of a woman progressively became a three part ensemble. The lower garment wrapped around the waist was the neevi. The kanchuki covered the breasts and a shawl-like garment, called the uttariya, completed the outfit. They were ornamented, dyed or embroidered according to the status of the women.

 

By and large, in the epic age or even until much later in the Puranic age, women did not cover their heads as a traditional or religious requirement. If they wore veils, it was only to enhance the beauty of their elaborate hairstyles or to show off the bejewelled ornamentation on the veils themselves. The Barhut and Sanchi relief sculptures show women of all classes wearing the neevi or the length of cloth around the waist just below their navels, and for the first time, with the pleats hanging in the vikachcha style in front and touching their toes in a graceful fall. The vikachcha style of wearing the neevi did away with the passing of the cloth between the legs and the tucking of the central pleats behind. Instead, a short decorative piece of cloth was draped around the hips and knotted in front. This piece was called the asana.

 

But soon, the next stage in the development of the saree was to come. The Greeks had already discovered the belt or a cummerbund-like cloth to clinch their long flowing robes at the waist. Meanwhile the Persians were already wearing their length of cloth gathered and held together at the shoulder and belted at the waist. These new features of wearing the same garment immediately caught the fancy of India's women, particularly of the affluent classes, who used the gathered and waisted look, adapting it to suit their lighter, more ornamental fabrics.

 

The Persians were also the first to introduce the art of stitching into India. Additionally, from Central Asia, the migrating tribal hordes brought the style of wearing loose jackets and coats of various shapes to the deserts of Rajputana and the plains of the Punjab and the Ganga. Taking a cue from these, women in India began to wear a stitched short jacket to cover their upper torsos. Such jackets are shown in many sculptures of this period in Mathura and in the caves of Ajanta. In time, this jacket became more compact and snugly fitted the bosom in the case of women who wore the saree and longer, more flowing in the case of women who wore the kurta. The shorter, tight fitting blouse acquired the name choli. Sant Dnyaneshwar (1275-96 AD) has written the words ‘chandanachi choli’ in his composition proving that the choli was known in the early years of this millennium. 

 

In spite of these advancements, the saree and choli evolved very slowly through the ages. Its final form, as is seen today, came about only in the Moghul period when women's garments went through one more major revolution. The Moghuls had perfected the art of stitching and with their royal riches and absolute power, the cities they established flourished, with people emulating their way of life and their way of dressing. They wore long coats made of silk and brocade with narrow trousers. Their turbans were objects of great beauty and were studded with invaluable jewels. Despite the fact that the majority of men of those ages changed their lifestyle and began to wear a trouser and a coat instead of the loincloth, the unstitched, magical saree still came out the winner as far as the women were concerned. Miniature paintings of several schools and hand-illustrated manuscripts of the medieval period of Indian history showed the diaphanous garments of women developing into the gracefully draped saree of today for the first time.

 

The paintings of this era, when compared with the sculptures or frescos of the earlier centuries, suggest that the saree in its modern form finally came into existence in the post-Moghul period and could have been a natural mixture of the three-piece unstiched garment of the earlier times and the stitched clothing which the Moghuls brought into India. The pallu or daman as the upper end of the saree was called, may have been invented and used from then on to cover the head

or as a veil, for this was required by the Muslim society in an empire ruled over by Muslim dynasties. The modern way of draping a saree with a distinct pallu and border, with or without an all over design, with one end pulled across the front to fall over the shoulder to either hang at the back or to go over the head to the other shoulder, appeared first in the paintings of the post-Moghul period. 

 

And thus the saree came to be. While the saree is primarily identified with India today, it’s history chronicles the quaint mingling of influences from Greece, Persia and other Central Asian countries.

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