Kanjivaram: The Romance of Silk

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    The vivid colours and opulence of the heavy Kanjivaram silk are iconic, as are its designs inspired by the grand temples of the land it comes from. But few who drape this or admire its richness realize how old this silk is or even how it represents a coming together of traditions which thrived under the royal patronage of the Pallava rulers who lorded over the town of Kancheepuram, where it comes from. The Kancheepuram silk saris are popularly known as Kanjivaram saris after the old British name for the town 'Congeevaram'.

    Kancheepuram silk saris are popularly known as Kanjivaram saris after the old British name for the town ‘Congeevaram‘

    The city of Kancheepuram, also known as Kanchi, is located 72 kms from Chennai and is one of the most ancient cities in India. The town grew in prominence under the rule of the Pallava dynasty. Kancheepuram was their capital from the 6th century CE onwards. It had well laid out roads, high fortifications and prominent buildings, which attracted visitors from around the world. It was also a great seat of Hindu and Buddhist learning. The renowned Chinese pilgrim and traveler, Xuanzang, who visited Kancheepuram in 640 CE, described it as a large city, 6 miles in circumference and its people were known for their bravery and love for learning. After the Pallavas, the town was ruled by the Cholas, Pandyas, the Vijayanagara Empire, Nawabs of Arcot and finally the British. While the kingdoms rose and fell, the Kanjivaram silk industry continued to thrive.

    Like everything else from antiquity, the Kanjivaram silk too has a legend woven around it. It claims that the traditional weavers who have been weaving the Kanjivaram Silk for hundreds of years are descendants of Sage Markanda, the master weaver of the Gods who is supposed to have woven tissue from the lotus fibre. However, the historical facts tell a different story.

    Scholars trace the origins of the Kanjivaram silk industry to the patronage of the Chola dynasty, which succeeded the Pallavas. It is believed that Raja Raja Chola I, between 985 CE – 1014 CE, invited a large number of weavers from Saurashtra in Gujarat to settle down in the area and establish looms. However, during this time, it was just a local specialized craft, produced on a small scale.

    The transition of Kanjivaram silk from a local craft to a massive thriving industry happened only 500 years later, in the reign of Krishna Deva Raya (1509-1529 CE), the ruler of Vijayanagara Empire. During his reign, the weaving communities of Andhra Pradesh, the Devangas and Saligars, migrated south and settled in different parts of the empire. This second wave of migration of weavers meant that the old silk tradition of Kanchi was infused with new skills, new designs and techniques, taking the industry to new heights.

    The transition of Kanjivaram silk from a local craft to a massive thriving industry happened in the reign of Krishna Deva Raya

    The Kanjivaram silk industry thrived for a few hundred years, but a war between two foreign powers almost brought the industry to the brink of extinction. In the 18th century CE, the English and the French fought a series of wars known as the Carnatic wars, for supremacy and control of the Coromandel Coast. In 1757 CE, the city was burnt by the French during the war. This was a big blow to the industry. However, with the British victory, and a period of relative peace, the Kanjivaram silk industry rose again like the proverbial phoenix. It thrives to this day!

    The Kanjivaram silk saris are prepared from pure raw silk known as mulberry silk and are characterised by the heavy use of zari in gold and silver. Though the actual weaving takes places at Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu, the silk for the same comes from Karnataka and the zari is brought from Surat in Gujarat.

    Kanjivaram Silk as a weaving art has been passed down for generations within the weaving community. The handloom industry suffered a major setback a couple of decades ago when the Indian government tried to encourage power looms instead of the traditional handloom. This led to mass unemployment among the weavers and availability of cheaper copies of Kanjivaram silk in the market.

    It was only in 2005 that Kanjivaram silk or Kancheepuram Silk has been recognised under the Geographical Indicator by the government of India. This indicator acknowledges the unique design and traditional weaving method using the traditional technique, weight and other details and means that this silk can only be produced from the town of its origin. Today, more than 30,000 weavers are a part of this thriving industry.

    Cover Image courtesy: Temple of Kanchi

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