Babloo Mehendra whips a cobalt scarf through a silver ring and grins. "See? Pure silk. You can pull pure, natural fabrics through a ring, but not mixed or synthetic. You can do it with all our shawls; it's a sign that we sell pure silk products here. The real thing." In his tiny and immaculate shop near the edge of the River Ganges, Mehendra sprawls a mounting pile of silk scarves and saris, the jewel-coloured fabrics shimmering. Proud of his organic dyes and pure silks, he pauses over a wide and dazzling silver-green brocade. Six metres of it - the amount it would take to wrap a full sari - can cost up to $1,000 (Dh3,670)
"It takes a day, maybe two, to weave a shawl," Mehendra says, "but it can take up to six months to create something like this, weaving single silk strands together by hand for the colour and texture, and then adding embroidery, metallic threads and beading. So it's expensive but it's worth the level of work. It's a unique trade to this city." Varanasi, India, is so renowned for its silk trade that shoppers travel from across the country to search for wedding fabrics and wholesale opportunities. Many of the city's silk emporiums export their products around the globe.
Nestled at the crossroads of the Varuna and Asi rivers from which it takes its name, Varanasi has long attracted pilgrims, traders, conquerors and craftsmen. Each has left a commercial legacy and helped establish the city as a trade centre. What started as a ritual use of cotton fabrics in burial ceremonies held along the city's ghats has expanded into an artisan industry. The beginning of Varanasi's silk-weaving history is a subject of debate, but locals say the silk empire began in roughly 1300AD when many skilled Gujarati weavers decamped to Varanasi following a great fire.
Weavers from Delhi and Rajasthan followed, and the development of new types of hand looms broadened production abilities. In the 18th century, artists introduced new designs in gold and silver thread. Varanasi became a creative melting pot, and patterns, brocades and styles developed. Although the industry's exact age is not known, Varanasi, or Banaras, silk is mentioned in the Hindu Rig Veda and Buddhist history texts, which, together with images from the Mughal court, provide clues to its evolution. They also point to Varanasi's prominent and long-standing role in silk production and brocade craftsmanship.
Originally a leading Mughal-era export to Tibet and Saudi Arabia, silk has become a modern commercial trend, cementing Varanasi's reputation as a centre for fine silk production. (All four of India's silk varieties - mulberry, tussar, eri and muga, each named after the plants on which the silk worms are fed - are used to produce Varanasi's famous cloth.) Even with its rich heritage, the industry has not been immune to economic downturn or increased competition. Despite intermittent government bans on the import of cheap, pre-made silk, Mehendra says Chinese silk clothes (allegedly smuggled into India) still threaten the existence of Varanasi's silk industry, as demand for the hand-woven, hand-printed and embroidered silks local weavers produce declines in the face of less expensive imports.
"A pure silk sari starts at maybe Rs600 (Dh48) and goes up to Rs40,000 depending on the embroidery," says Prikash Ahmed, who comes from a family of weavers. He has been weaving silks for more than 12 years. "But cheaper fabrics and imports can sell for around Rs300, so we lose out if people chose the cheaper fabric, even though the quality is not as high as Varanasi silk. "Some of the Chinese fabric is poorer quality, but it costs less because it's ready-made and manufactured on mechanical looms, not by hand. Less work goes into it. It is not an art like Banaras silk but more people can afford it.
"Everything is getting more expensive in India. It costs more to buy food or pay for electricity, so people spend less on clothes and expensive products." Artisans working on traditional, hand-operated looms are also unable to match the level of production or the uniform weave that machines generate. A clutch of NGOs and charities have been established to lobby for more industry support in Varanasi and to provide sustainable, fixed-price outlets where weavers and traders can market fabrics at their full value.
Varanasi Weavers Trust is one example. The non-profit organisation aims to encourage economic stability among members of the silk community by introducing fair trade opportunities and lobbying for government-supported emporiums for local products. Nalin Kumar Pandey sells silk shawls and home furnishings at the Beni Shawl Emporium, a government-supported shop that ensures fair trade by fixing the prices of the goods on sale. It discourages bartering, Pandey says.
"People know we are selling pure silk products and that they are handmade by local weavers and embroiderers. We don't mix threads or natural fabrics with synthetics and we don't carry imported products, so shopping here benefits workers and those who buy the products. It's a way to sustain Varanasi's pure silk work." Since Varanasi is home to an estimated five per cent of India's one million weavers, decreasing trade has been hard on the city's artisans.
"It is more difficult to get a lot of work now because so much fabric comes from China," Ahmed says. "We still make a lot of fabric here in Varanasi, but there are less jobs now than there were when I started this job. Not everyone can always get work. " Still, demand for traditionally made Varanasi silk remains. Much of it is produced in the Muslim Quarter, away from the ghats that line the Ganges and behind the old city. Tiny tailors' shops and fabric houses are crammed together along Varanasi's characteristically narrow lanes.
Silk scarves are typically woven from one or two colours of thread and follow a basic, Mughal-inspired pattern of scalloped flowers and wide borders. Sari fabrics are left unembellished, ready for artisans to add gold and silver embroidery or inlay with sequins or tiny glass beads for wedding saris, which form an integral and highly valued part of a bride's trousseau. Small flower patterns, foliage outlines, corner designs and brocade work are the most popular designs. Two-tone fabric, which changes colour in the light with the warp and weft of the weave, is also popular.
Workers say raw silk and smoother, more refined finishes are equally popular. "Tourists love to come here and buy the raw silks because they have more texture and colour," Ahmed says. "And we export a lot of raw silk abroad for clothes and bags, bedcovers and furnishings. "But Indian people come for the sari fabrics - for weddings, parties, formal clothes. They know they can get the best here because we have manufactured this cloth for so many years that everyone knows how good the quality is."
At his ghat-side shop, Mehendra flicks a bright magenta silk shawl over his arm and says: "Tomato dye. We always use vegetable dyes, natural dyes. They last longer and give more vivid colours. Natural dyes don't damage the fabrics, either. "People look for quality, not synthetics or plastics. You can feel the difference when silk is mixed with satin or a synthetic material. The dye doesn't hold as nicely, either. So people appreciate the natural colours and threads."
In Varanasi's fabric bazaars - hidden in a network of narrow, blue-painted alleyways behind the ghats - one shopper says: "If you want the best price but still quality silks, you have to shop here in Varanasi. The weavers have been doing this work for many years, so the ability they have has been passed down. The fabrics are still the same quality that made Varanasi famous for silks originally." Shoppers preparing for India's busy wintertime wedding season also boost trade. One of them, Poonam, says: "I do buy cheaper silks, ready-made from China or elsewhere. But for gifts, weddings, parties - all special occasions - you want a quality product. That is made here, and that you can see it being made. You can request designs, exact colours and styles. When you are spending a lot, you want it to be perfect.
"People will always want this level of quality, and they want to own something with a history, something made by people with skill and who have had the trade passed down to them. "Varanasi silk is a special thing. It will not be lost."