South India Heritage

Art History/Craft History, Craft, Handloom, Art

South India Heritage: Kanjeevaram Silk Saris of Tamil Nadu

Bhasin, Jyoti


Zilch make out a woman as being Indian so stalwartly as the sari – the exemplary Indian female piece of clothing. The origin of this magnificent garment is ambiguous due to lack of appropriate historical records though it is reckoned that it is more than 5000 years old and is mentioned in the Vedas. The 6 yard, unstitched, fluid garment is woven of myriad materials in different hues with the well known types of saris being the Kanjeevaram from Tamil Nadu, Paithani, a typical peacock and parrot motif sari from Maharashtra, Banarasi, Bhagalpuri, Odisha Ikkat, Maheshwari, Chanderi, Gujrati Patola, and Jaipuri Leheriya.

The material and the print on the sari can vary according to choice and the occasion. The common materials for a sari are silks (the queen of textiles), cottons; chiffons, organza and georgettes. Out of these the ethnic traditional wear that is worn in most parts of the country is colourful silk saris.

In collection of saris of Indian woman all around the world is incomplete without a Kanchipuram (Kanjeevaram) sari, one of India’s most precious traditional treasures. Saris represent the essence of womanhood and this one adds special charm to it. The sari speaks of the beauty, grace dignity poise and also the power hidden in every single Indian woman. A Kanjeevaram sari is bound to be a crowd puller and it can woo anybody with its absolute beauty.

The rich weave and feel of Kancheepuram Saris are also known as Kanchipuram and Kancheevaram, Kanjeevaram and sometimes Kanchivaram saris hold everyone in their wave for the past 150 years. This sari is a spectacular commencement of the craftsmen living in a small town, Kanchi (Kanchipuram) a famous historical and mythological town 60 km from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. It is a world-renowned ‘Silk Paradise’. Silk weaving in the handloom sector is clustered in and around Kanchipuram, which is famous for silk saris. Be it simple contrast border silk saris or those with gold zari dots and patterns, the kanjeevaram silk sari continues to hold pride of place among the various silk sari varieties available in the country. Kanjeevaram can be worn by women of all ages.
Kanchipuram historical records divulge that it was during the sovereignty of Krishnadeva Raya that silk weaving ascends to prominence. During that time, the Devanga and Saligar weavers (from the Sanskrit word, salika meaning weaver), claim to descent from Sage Markanda, the weaver of the gods, were alleged for their weaving expertise in silk drifted from Andhra Pradesh and settled in Kancheepuram.This tradition of silk sari weaving at Kanchipuram arose out of temple-traditions with the famous Kamakshi temple situated there. Primarily because within this seemingly minuscule town there were more than 129 finely crafted temples In days gone by they have been worn by Maharanis, wives of Zamindars, nobles and other affluent people and weddings and festivals (Deepavali, Pongal, etc) were an occasion for the purchase of many silk saris.Many of today’s established Kanchipuram Silk weavers trained in the cultural centre of “Kalakshetra” during the 1970’s when the Maharaja of Mysore descended on the Varadaraja temple, sporting silk, he caught the fancy of the residents of the temple city producing saris with designs that are some what ‘heavy’ in both style and fabric weight, with very wide borders. Today, there are over 30,000 weavers in the town their creations are marketed by a number of co-operative societies located all over the state. The silk weavers of Kanchi settled more than 400 years ago and kept up an unflinching tradition of producing impeccable silk saris.Research suggests that silk was a new entrant into Kanchipuram, for till a century and a half back, Kanchipuram was primarily a cotton weaving centre. It was the Thanjavur-Kumbakonam belt and Arni along with Salem that produced the pattu pudavai. But, today the finer, better-woven and more expensive silk saris are from Kanchipuram.
About 75% of Kanchipuram’s population is dependent on the silk sari industry, either directly or indirectly. Yet, the city does not manufacture silk or any other raw material that goes into its silk saris. The Silk industry is entirely made up of Handloom weavers and merchants.
Silk Threads
The mulberry silk is extremely fine as well as durable and comes from Karnataka and washed in the enhancing water of the Palar River, and has an astounding lustre, typical texture, sturdiness and finish. Precisely, the silk thread used for weaving the Kanjeevaram Saris is made up of three single threads twisted together. These days, the three-fold silk thread had been restored with a two-fold one in order to trim down the production cost.The tedious procedure of making a Kanjeevaram sari starts with the chore of preparing the silk threads. This engross, firstly, twisting the thread and then dyed in a variety of colour as silk is very amenable to dyes and will maintain its sheen after dyeing. The threads are dipped in rice water and dried in Sun. The twisted yarn is said to be much stronger than crepe and guaranteed to last 30 to 40 years. This is basically due to the fact that India has the exclusive feature of producing diverse varieties of silk. The heavier the silk, longer is its durability
  • Gold zari- The State of Gujarat holds an implicit cartel in the manufacture of ‘Zari’ especially, the City of Surat. Zari is used while making a sari. It is a Silk thread twisted with thin Silver wire and then immersed in pure gold. It is believed this tradition started during the Mughal period. First, gold is made into a liquid form and then coated on the silver. This enhances the beauty and the value of the silk. The quality of zari also determines the quality of the sari. If quality of zari is good, then the lustre of sari would linger for a longer extent or else the sari would be firm and hard. The sari is unique in itself since it is entirely hand woven with dyed silk yarn with interleaved designs made with ‘Zari’.
Earlier, the zari was supplied from Surat. But now the Padiyur Sarvodaya Sangh (PSS), a certified unit of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) near Kangayam, is the distinct unit in South India where dyeing, weaving and zari production of silk saris are done. From cocoon to ornamental silks, the unit practices everything under one roof. Every year it manufacture five crore silk saris, and of these, 2.5 crore saris are distributed in the local market.


The main characteristic of the Kanjeevaram sari lies in the time consuming method of interlocking its weft colours as well as its end piece and in the process creating solid borders and a solid “Mundhi. Simple saris can take up to 10-12 days for preparation. However, decorative ones require up to 20 days of workmanship. This technique is called as the Korvai technique of attaching the additional warp threads (in contrasting colours) at certain fixed point along the length and width of the warp, thereby developing a well demarcated and harmonious ‘separation’ from the main field using two or three shuttles to create a sari. In ordinary weaving the shuttle carries weft yarns moves across the entire width of the warp. In korvai weaving, however three ( two if a single border is woven) separate shuttles ply the weft yarn, not across the entire width but individually, one at each border and one across the width of the centre of the warp. Three shuttles are operated by two weavers and the assistant the third. In this labour-intensive industry, children are often employed as assistants. A child is able to perform the tasks required as efficiently as an adult, can be paid much lower rates, and is likely to remain with the weaver for longer periods than a mature counterpart, who will acquire skills only to start his own business.

The product of the single warp is neither a homogenous fabric length nor even a single sari but it is group of sari each of which is cut from the warp and is completed and weaving of the next sari begun on the same warp. The length of the rectangular warp is determined by the number of saris to be woven and is marked at regular intervals accordingly. In Kanchipuram three saris per warp are woven, the length is approximately nineteen and a half yards (each sari is six yards and extra for wastage). Interlocked Zari borders are common down both sides of the sari and the garment is finished with matching gold Zari Pallu. This joint is woven so strongly that even if the sari tears, the pallu or border will not detach. If well done one hardly sees where one colour ends and the other begin.
The sari continues to hold pride of place among the various silk sari varieties available in India. The motifs used in a Kanjeevaram sari pallu are most often the Pallava temples, palaces and paintings. The traditional designs found in body of the Kanjeevaram sari include pyramidal temple borders, checks, stripes and floral “buttas.”
Emblematic motifs such as, fresh mango, sweet grapes elephant, the sun, moon, chariots, swans, elegant peacocks, parrots, lions, coins, the graceful three bells of an anklet diamond, lotus, pot, creeper, flower, parrot, hen, and depiction of stories from mythology are very common in Kanchipuram saris Some of the traditional motifs featured in the Kanjeevaram saris are Rudraksham (representing Rudraksha beads), Gopuram (representing temples), ‘malli mogu’ and ‘gopuram’, ‘mayilkan’ (peacock’s eye), ‘kuyilkan’ (nightingale eye) borders. Patterns are also formed by lines and squares and when the jasmine motif is found either inside a square or scattered all over, it is called mallinaggu. The Thandavalam motif has parallel-line motifs running all over the body of the sari. In the pattu motif, the pallu and the border alone have floral motifs independently woven on them.
The paisleys, peacocks, yali (horse like motif) and temple designs remain the same old ones. However, these days’ scenes from great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, along with the Bhagwad Gita being used as motifs introduced from the Baluchari of Bengal. Tribal designs as well as modern patterns are also seen.
These saris are usually made in bright or earthy-scarlet, brilliant reds, saffron, orange, emerald, henna green, maroon, black, , peacock blue ,turquoise and ochre with bright divergent borders. Even the colour combinations are vibrant. A mango yellow body is set off by a deep maroon border. A parrot green body is complemented by a bright pink border. These days silver is being used in addition to gold. Weavers also make tissue saris, using only gold or silver metal threads.
With their alluring colours and wonderful designs, Kanjeevaram silk saris are worn by the rich and prosperous across India.

The sheer magnitude of textures, colours and designs of Kanjeevaram silk saris of India is inconceivable. Kanjeevarams are expensive and can cost anywhere between Rs. 2000 to Rs. 50,000. The cost of the sari depends upon the amount of zari intertwined with the silk. The more the zari work, the more expensive the sari will be.

The Kanjeevaram silk industry has dealt with many highs and lows and has made its charisma felt internationally. However, the prevalent challenges faced by it today are undertaking amendments to suit shifting customer inclinations, use of modern technology, merchandise mix and value-added products.

The consumers are now apprehensive about the price and the weight and prefer pastel shades and simple designs. The market for such high cost silk saris is shrinking and mainly restricted to wedding purchases. In order to attain these requirements the kanjeevaram silk sari has undergone a transformation.

  • The recent development in the designing field shows the introduction of Jacquard loom. Though this technique the materials are changing with the market demand. The weaving of elaborate and more difficult motifs on the pallu have been made easier and thus feasible in affordable rate. The recent array in the pallu is – Krishna in different phases, Krishna with Radhaji – his eternal consort, the motifs are still conformist and conventional in order to hold the custom and tradition of a Kanjeevaram sari. Even computerized Jacquard borders are made and attach to the main field.
  • It has kept lick with modern prints and its rich and splendid affluence prolongs to provide a festive touch to any occasion. Today the designer silk saris with embroidery or even embellished with crystals are made to fulfil the taste of the customers. Even the wedding saris are made with rich woven pallavs depicting paintings of Raja Ravi Varma. One of the hottest trends in these saris is using ancient paintings and the images of gods and goddesses in the pallu
  • The weavers have started blending silk and cotton for producing the body of the sari. Sometimes, the body of the sari is made in cotton and the border in silk. Weaving borders using a combination of silk and polyester is also undertaken by some weavers. This is due to the fact that the shift in demand is not just because of the high price, but also because in this modern world, women are opting for light-weight and subtle saris
  • The gold and silver content in the zari is also being reduced. This brings down the cost of the sari to a great extent. These practices have adversely affected the status of the Kanjeevaram silk saris and are disturbing their sales in a negative manner. For instance, while in a traditional Kanjeevaram silk sari the norm is to have 0.6 per cent of its zari weight in gold and 57 per cent in silver, in most saris now, the gold content is less than 0.2 per cent and the silver content less than 40 per cent. While one mark (242 Gms) of pure zari costs Rs.3, 150, the duplicate costs Rs.250-300, thus bringing down substantially the cost of the duplicate silk sari.
  • As an substitute, the use of texturised zari in the place of pure zari has also encouraged so that the convolution in designs in Kanjeevaram silk saris weaving is maintained and at the same time the cost of silk saris is brought down to the economical price range
  • The silk industry came out with three types of saris: the contrast variety (the traditional variety in which the border and body are interlocked), the semi-contrast variety (in which there is a warp and weft with different colours in the border and warp runs from the body into the border thus avoiding interlocking of the body with the border) and the plain variety (in which the body and border are of one colour).For a contrast sari, the weaver needs a helper (usually a child) to throw the shuttle across the sari but the semi-contrast and plain saris are produced without this help.
  • The new designs are inculcated in the sari with collaboration with several design centres in India, including the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, Kalakshetra in Chennai, Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai, the Co-optex design division and several private designers to cater to the changing design needs.
  • To gratify the varying likings of consumers, the traditional silk units, have begun weaving churidar sets. It will not be long before they start making furnishings

Initiative by Tamil Nadu Government for Silk Industry

The Tamilnadu government and TIFAC (Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council) have mutually set up a testing unit for zari in Kanchipuram, which checks the content of gold and silver in zari. This facility can be used by both co-operatives and individuals by paying a nominal fee. As per the Geographical Indication Act, any sari sold as a Kanjeevaram sari should follow certain set standards regarding weight and zari and the sari should have been produced in the region. Legal action can be taken against anyone selling a duplicate sari as a Kanjeevaram sari.

The Tami Nadu Government is planning to assign a special logo to Kanjeevaram silk saris to certify their authenticity to protect the interests of the weavers. This industry has recently been passing through a crisis on account of the availability of fake Kanchi silk saris. The silk yarn should be purchase from Tan Silk, the government’s shop, through the centralized purchase committee of the government to ensure its quality. The government also runs dye house ensures the quality of the colours. Throughout the year the government gives a rebate of 20 per cent or Rs.200 (whichever is higher) on all saris. This has helped considerably in clearing stocks.

The zari is made in the government-run Tamil Nadu Zari factory in Kancheepuram, but the silver wire needed for its production comes from Surat because the technique is a closely held secret of a few families there. The NFDDC, a unit of the Defence Research and Development Organization in Hyderabad, is now working on how to draw wire from silver. If this project is successful, the dependence on Surat for silver wire will be reduced which will bring down the cost of the production drastically.

The government has undertaken a campaign to eradicate child labour from the Kanchipuram silk industry. Under this campaign, committees have been formed to dissect sari-producing units. Some loom owners have been charged with making use of child labour. To discourage the use of child labour, the government has developed equipment, which cost Rs.500 that performs the job of a helper.

Until now the silk sari has not been duplicated by the power looms due to its uniqueness, but soon that may also happen and the industry should be geared to take on the power looms as well. The situation is such that Government’s support has become vital for the industry to keep up the healthy performance.

It is important that this sector, which provides livelihood to thousands of families, is backed by the Government in these tough times.

In Kanchipuram, silk saris are sold either through Co-operative societies or by private merchants.

In the year 1949, the first co-operative society of weavers was formed, called the Kamatchi Amman Society. This society consisted of 79 weavers, who were provided financial support and several other benefits. Over the course of time, more and more co-operative societies were formed. Today, there are about 24 co-operative societies about 18 are very large, most of which are managed by the Tamilnadu government. Some of the reputed co-operative societies of weavers are the Kamatchi Amman Silk Society, Murugan Silk Society, Varadharaja Swamy Silk Society, Kanchipuram Silk Society and others. The Kamatchi Amman Society now has about 2000 members and is one of the biggest. Totally, there are about 50000 weavers who work through various co-operative societies.

There are around 60000 silk looms in operation in Kanchipuram. The yearly turnover of the town exceeds Rs. 200 crores, with exports of approximately Rs. 3 crores. According to experts, the exports have not risen to their full prospective, as the demand for saris outside India is negligible. Product diversification is being considered by the industry, which would definitely lead to a rise in exports.
In the private sector, there are over 200 traders in Kanchipuram alone. These private manufacturers procure saris from independent weavers in Kanchipuram and export them to other cities in India as well as abroad. Some of the more famous ones are Sri Kumaran Silks, and Nalli Silks in Chennai. The large cooperative societies are government-run and hence have a very small profit margin. Also, the profits reach the weaver directly. Hence, cooperative societies are usually less expensive. Private merchants commonly have a larger profit margin. Private merchants also have other costs like advertising, middle agents, etc
Normally, the cooperative societies do not undertake dicey experiments with new colours or grand designs. Private merchants, on the other hand, offer a much wider choice – the distinctive attribute of private enterprise. Such saris usually start at Rs.15, 000 and go as high as a couple of hundred thousands. This is the world’s first Kanjeevaram sari with 50,000 colours on it .This sari is made by RMKV and Sons a renowned shop for Kanjeevaram saris located in Tirunelveli and at Chennai.
The Kanjeevaram saris reflect a weaving and dyeing tradition hundreds of years old. They are worn by the Indian women, who reveal the gratifying beauty of graceful spectacular creations of the weavers. With its startling colour and texture, this clothing reflects the high status and classic choice of the wearer. The demand and recognition of the saris has reached globally.
A unique feature of the Kanjeevaram silk sari is its strength, which is made possible by the twisted yarn – double warp and double weft that gives it the weight; its vibrant colour contrasts and its exquisite design beautifully integrating the different colours of the body and the border and pallu.

Kanjeevaram saris are one of the inimitable arts of India and its legitimacy should be defended. This craft of making saris are definitely facing problems due to changing market demand. This cluster is changing, even as the traditional style remains intact. Thus, specialists believe, that this is one industry that will not be affected relentlessly by the global financial crisis. Then again, future is uncertain. Therefore, it is vital that authorities start preparing for confronts and keep this industry from fading.


  • http/
  • http/
  • http/
  • http/


Your views


Access 70,000+ practitioners in 2100+ crafts across India.


10,000+ listings on arts, crafts, design, heritage, culture etc.


Rich and often unfamiliar vocabulary of crafts and textiles.

SHOP at India inCH

Needs to be written.



Cama, Dr. Shernaz

Weaving Dreams

Ratnakar, Pooja