Banaras (Anglicized: Varanasi), is a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Situated on the banks of the river Ganges a life-giving source, Banaras or Kashi (the original name of the city, from the antiquities as found in ancient texts such as the Paippalāda recension of the Atharvaveda) has been a part of human civilization since around 1200 BCE and is considered as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Thus, its rich cultural and industrial heritage is not surprising. With fertile soil and ideal conditions for thriving mulberry cultivation – the primary source of nourishment for silkworms – the city has been one of the oldest and most renowned silk-weaving industrial hubs in the Indian subcontinent since about the  6th century BCE.

Banaras silk, colloquially known as Banarasi,  is a type of brocade silk fabric that is renowned for its intricate designs, fine texture, and superior quality and is considered to be one of the most luxurious and expensive fabrics in India.


A glimpse into its history

Although the history of the silk industry in Banaras can be traced back to ancient times, experts usually attribute the history of modern-day banarasi manufacturing to the Mughal era (1526-1761) in India. After being introduced to the art of brocade weaving by traders from Persia and Central, the development of the weaving industry was encouraged under Mughal patronage across the empire. The weavers of Banaras were skilled in weaving different types of fabrics, including silk, cotton, and muslin. However, it was the abundance of silk in the region that ultimately established silk fabrics as the cornerstone of weaving in the region.

During the reign of Emperor Akbar, the Banaras silk industry saw significant growth. He generously sponsored the establishment of royal ateliers and other weaving centres or karkhana throughout the city. With the absence of any sumptuary laws unlike medieval Europe, these centres employed hundreds of skilled artisans who produced fine silk fabrics for both the royal court and the common mass.

Following this, the colonial era (1858-1947) under the British East India Company also witnessed a significant rise in production. The potential of the industry made them invest heavily in it. Moreover, the British populace who had settled in India established a market for the fabrics. It was one of the most important industries in India during the colonial period and played a significant role in the country’s economy under the patronage of the likes of Lady Mary Curzon,  wife of the first Marquess Curzon of Kedleston and the then Viceroy of India.  Lady Curzon was a close friend of Queen Alexandra, wife of King George V of Great Britain and it is widely believed that Queen Alexandra’s coronation gown, under the supervision of Lady Curzon, was designed and made in Banaras. However, the exact origin of the gown remains uncertain, as the final alterations were completed by the House of Worth in Paris.

Queen Alexandra of Great Britain in her coronation robes, by W&D Downey, 1902; Acc No RCIN 2106307; Source: Royal Collection Trust, LINK

The design of Lady Curzon’s own dress for the occasion was not only highly fashionable but also subtly political. The dress utilized a fabric that had been conventionally worn by Mughal rulers and incorporated the peacock feather motif, which is an important symbol in Hinduism. The dress’s purpose may have been to establish a visual sense of continuity and associate British rule with Indian courts of the past, serving as an assertion of dominance. The richly decorated fabric featuring numerous beetle-wing cases was purchased from the workshop of Kishan Chand, a skilled Indian craftsman, while Jean-Philippe Worth (1856–1926) designed the dress in Paris.

Portrait of Lady Mary Curzon Vicereine of India in her peacock dress for the Delhi Durbar, by William Longsdail, c. 1903; Source: National Trust Collection, Kedleston Hall, Eastern Museum and Art UK, LINK


Peacock dress of Lady Mary Curzon, Vicereine of India (font, back and closeup), by Workshop of Kishan Chand and House of Worth, c. 1900-02; Source: National Trust Collection and Kedleston Hall, LINK

The weave and design

Being a traditional craft with centuries of history, the weaving techniques of the banarasi are passed down through generations as a cherished heirloom. Involving several stages, including the preparation of the silk yarn before dyeing, the designing of the fabric, and then the weaving of the fabric on a handloom, the production procedure of banarasi is laborious and time-consuming. 

Famous for brocades, the silk is woven with gold and silver metal threads or zari that form the design elements on the fabric. The zari is made from fine metallic wire, which is wrapped around a silk thread and then woven into the fabric using the same technique applied to the silk threads.

The motifs that embellish the fabric are typically inspired by both the traditional motifs brought from Central Asia and Persia –pomegranate, paisley etc. – as well as the flora and fauna of the region – peacock, elephants etc. Two such examples survive in the collection of The Zay Initiative. These two delicate and exquisite brocade scarves woven in silk and gold metal threads showcase both borrowed motifs as well as indigenous ornamentation.

A grey silk brocade scarf with horse head and peacock motifs, Varanasi, c. 19th-century Acc No: ZI2020.500783 ASIA; Source: The Zay Initiative, LINK

A black silk scarf with paisley, lotus, elephant and antelope motifs, Varanasi, c. 19th century; Acc No: ZI2020.500784 ASIA; Source: The Zay Initiative, Link


In the book, “Masterpieces of Indian Textile,” author R.J. Mehta provides in-depth knowledge of the history and development of the textile, highlighting the intricate designs and patterns that are unique to banarasi and how the evolution of the weaving techniques has resulted in the evolution and development of existing motifs and the creation of new illustrations. For example, traditionally in the early years of its production – i.e. during the Mughal era – the designs were primarily inspired by Indo-Persian Islamic architecture. However, over time, motifs more indigenous to the subcontinent such as the kalga and bel, or floral motif, encased between twin leaves, or the butidar, which represents the scattering of small flowers across a grid have been introduced.

Banaras silk brocades come in a variety of weaves, including Katan, Organza, Georgette, and Shattir, and each has its unique characteristics. Katan silk is known for its fine texture and high durability and is similar to satin with a glossy finish, while Organza is sheer and lightweight, and Georgette has a crinkled texture. Shattir silk is a variant of Katan silk, but is coarser and more durable, and is commonly used for making traditional sarees.


Cultural impact of the Banaras silk industry

With its deep cultural significance in India and its association with luxury, tradition, and elegance its impact on the Indian society is significant. The industry has also had a significant impact on the livelihoods of the people living in the city. The industry provides employment to thousands of weavers, artisans, and craftsmen, who depend on it for their livelihoods. It has played an important role in alleviating and developing the economy of the region. Their exquisite craftsmanship and intricate designs, make the fabric highly sought after for traditional Indian clothing which forms an essential part of Indian fashion – a  significant role in preserving India’s cultural heritage. It is a must in traditional Indian weddings, irrespective of religion, where they are passed down from generation to generation. The intricate designs and patterns on the fabrics are a testament to the storied heritage of India and serve as a reminder of the importance of preserving traditional crafts.


Challenges faced by the Banaras silk industry

Despite the importance of the Banaras silk industry, it faces several challenges – from the easily available and mass-produced synthetic imitations to technological advancements in the weaving industry – that threaten its existence. One of the biggest challenges faced by the industry is competition from cheaper, fabrics produced from power looms. The advent of modern technology has made it easier to produce fabrics at a lower cost, which has made it difficult for traditional weavers to compete.


The Banaras Silk industry, nestled in the heart of the ancient city of Varanasi, holds a prestigious place in India’s cultural heritage. The creation of the opulent Banarasi fabric is a craft handed down from generation to generation, tracing its roots back to the Mughal era and through to the British colonial period. The fabric, a symbol of elegance and luxury, is a testament to the industry’s skilled artisans who have not only enriched the region’s economy but have also continued with tradition. Despite facing considerable challenges from mass-produced synthetic replicas and technological advances in weaving, these artisans have remained undeterred, preserving their craft, and securing the Geographical Indication rights for ‘Banaras Brocades and Saris’. Their exquisite work continues to fascinate audiences globally.

In light of these realities, the importance of backing skilled artisans and initiatives like The Zay Initiative cannot be overstated. They play a pivotal role in maintaining our shared cultural tapestry, their efforts transcending the boundaries of mere fabric creation. Amidst a world rapidly evolving under the influence of modernity, their work anchors our collective history, ensuring that future generations have a link to appreciate and learn from. Their endeavours keep alive a tradition as precious and enduring as the Banarasi fabric itself.


About Rajrupa Das:

Rajrupa Das, a proud Kolkata native, is a dedicated museum professional with a Master of Letters in Dress and Textile Histories from the University of Glasgow. Growing up in Kolkata, a city that beautifully juxtaposes historic charm with modernity, Rajrupa developed a profound appreciation for culture and history. She believes understanding a culture starts with its food and fashion, both deeply influenced by geography and environment. Rajrupa earned her Bachelor in Fine Arts and Art History from the esteemed Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata. Her experience spans from being a curatorial assistant at Glasgow Museums Resource Centre to working at INTACH and serving as a Museum Coordinator for Women’s Museum UAE in Dubai. Earlier, she contributed to Sabyasachi Couture as a researcher and design analyst and worked in the corporate sector for leading organizations. Rajrupa’s research interests encompass the evolution of dress, textile designs, colonial influences, and innovative museum practices in developing nations.