Varanasi is colourful, chaotic and full of surprises. The holy city is said to have been created from a single drop of the Ganga that fell onto Earth from Shiva’s matted locks. And every Banarasi you meet will have a legend to tell of his or her city. Pilgrims and visitors alike head straight for the ghats to see the spiritual side of this wonderful city. And the sight of diyas floating on the Ganga amidst the chanting of mantras and gulaal being released in the air is simply magnificent. But step away from the ghats and you’ll find that Varanasi, one of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth, has a rich history of arts and crafts. Here’s a quick look at four local arts and crafts that you must check out on your next visit to the city.
1. Glass beads
In India, glass bead making can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization. But over the years the art got lost. P.C. Jose, the owner of glass bead manufacturing unit, Vibgyor Impex, explains that in 1938, a Czechoslovakian couple, the Henricks, established a glass bead training centre at Banaras Hindu University during their visit to India. It was largely due to their efforts that re-introduced Varanasi to the trade. Back then, Czechoslovakia hadn’t split into two — Czech Republic and Slovakia — and the little town of Jablonec nad Nisou, in the Eastern European country had already established itself as a premier manufacturer of glass beads and jewellery.
As the art picked up in Varanasi, businessmen sensed an opportunity and many glass bead manufacturing units were set up in Uttar Pradesh. Jose says, “The trade flourished. Back in the 90s, I had a staff of 125, yet I could not cope with the orders I got. Many of my orders came from foreign buyers.” India soon began to compete with Jablonec nad Nisou. Unfortunately, about a decade ago, the trade dwindled as cheaper Chinese beads took over the international scene. Jose explains,”The big players managed to sustain, while most of us were badly hit. Today I have a staff of just four people. In fact, India now imports from China. But Jose hasn’t lost hope, “I am still passionate about the trade and am trying to find new ways to revive it while also searching for newer markets.” Recently, the Geographical Indication Registry of India recognised the handicraft, which will help safeguard its uniqueness against Chinese imports.
2. Banarasi silk
Hidden within the sacred texts, you’ll find the cloth of gold. Hiranya, which means ‘cloth made from gold’, finds mention in the revered Rig Veda as the attire of the Gods. Some scholars believe that this description comes close to the embellished zari and brocade work, almost synonymous with Banarasi silk. The timeless Jataka Tales and Pali texts also support the evidence of a bustling cloth trade on the banks of the holy Ganga, in Kashi (yet another name for Banaras or Varanasi).
There’s no debating the fact that Banaras has been an important centre for weaving since time immemorial, but historians believe that it was Mogul Emperor Akbar who gave the weaving industry a shot in the arm. Records from the British era reveal undisputed evidence of silk weaving in Banaras with many accounts of the colonizers being baffled by the intricate handicraft.
Post Independence, several small scale industries grew in the region and Banarasi silk became much sought after. Created from gold and silver threads woven into silk, the end product is gorgeous. We visited Bressler Silk House in Hukul Gunj, where a loom sits at the very entrance with resham threads running through the length and breadth of it. While India can boast of different types of silk sarees — Kanjeevaram, Mysore silk, Bhagalpuri silk, etc. — Ojha of Bressler Silk House, explains that it’s the designs that set Banarasi silk sarees apart. The Banarasi saree weaving is an intricate craft. At first, the design is created on paper, the pattern is then punched into paper, making it look much like Braille. Following this, separate pattern guides with hundreds of such patterns, known as naksha patras, are created for a single saree.
It is essentially these patras that bring alive the Banarasi fabric with beautiful ethnic motifs and jali work. It takes a few weeks to several months to weave a Banarasi saree. Given the effort, the sarees often come with a hefty price tag. Unfortunately today, imitations eat into the market share of skilled artisans, with pure silk being replaced by mixed varieties, and the authenticity of hand work is often replaced by the uniformity of the power loom.
3. Carpet weaving
Yet another art form that can be attributed to the Moguls, is carpet weaving. Iqbal Badri of Indo Cottage Industries, a leading carpet manufacturer, starts with a legend. Centuries ago, Persian master weavers passed through Bhadohi, a village that is 45 km from Varanasi, and they brought the first loom to India, and created the first carpet in the country. This trade too flourished under the Moguls who had an eye for the arts. Today, Bhadohi is the carpet manufacturing hub of India. The trade has also spread to surrounding areas, particularly Mirzapur and Varanasi. Badri explained that what sets the region apart is its karigari. Weavers who swiftly knot carpets, entirely by hand, using a coloured pattern as a guide. He showcases a lovely floral design that he says took the weaver months to make. He proudly displays other works of art: carpets in solid colours with geometrical patterns, others in muted tones with tribal motifs, etc. Badri revealed, “The skill is passed down over generations. I started at the age of 7 and never looked back.”
4. Paan Banaraswala
Remember Amitabh Bachchan in the superhit song, Khaike Paan Banaraswala? It’s the first things that pops in our minds when one mentions Banaras. But what few people know is that paan making is an art in this city. We met Rajendra Chaurasia, the second generation of paan makers at his family owned, Keshav Tambul Bhandar, in Lanka (an area of Varanasi).
Chaurasia showcased his skills as he added a smaller patti to the bigger leaf, for ‘auspiciousness’. Each ingredient comes with health benefits and a dash of colour. While the betel leaves are rich in Vitamin B and C, multi-hued mukhwaas aids digestion, dark brown kattha has cooling properties and is often used in Ayurvedic medicines to help digestion, a red-brown gulkand adds a sweet taste while also being an anti-oxidant. The different ingredients make the vibrant green leaf look like an eccentric artist’s palette. Everything disappears as the ingredients get wrapped skillfully in a triangle with a bright red cherry on top. Everywhere you go in Varanasi, you can spot the love of art — from the attention to detail with which the paan is fashioned to the intricacy with which a silk saree is created. It’s no wonder that the city has is known as the cultural capital of the country.
Image credit: Pinterest
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