Bengal / Curating Design / Fashion / India / Indian Textiles / Indira Barve / Photography / Sari / Silk / Tamilnadu / Textile

Indian Textiles- The Sari



History of the Sari

The sari is a strip of unstitched cloth, worn by females, it is draped over the body in various styles which is native to the Indian Subcontinent. It is a seamless rectangular piece of fabric measuring between four to nine meters decorated with varying pattern, colour, design, and richness. The etymology (origin) of the word sari is from the Sanskrit word sati, which means strip of cloth. This evolved into the Prakrit sadi and was later anglicised into sari. There are more than 80 recorded ways to wear a sari.

In the history of Indian clothing the sari is traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which flourished during 2800–1800 BC around the western part of the Indian subcontinent. The earliest known depiction of the sari in the Indian subcontinent is the statue of an IndusValley priest wearing a drape, or dhoti. This draping style was worn both by men and women.

Women during Buddha’s time

Ancient Tamil poetry, such as the Silappadhikaram and the Sanskrit work, Kadambari by Banabhatta, describes women in exquisite drapery or sari. The ancient stone inscription from Gangaikonda Cholapuram in old Tamil scripts has a reference to hand weaving. In ancient Indian tradition and the Natya Shastra (an ancient Indian treatise describing ancient dance and costumes), the navel of the Supreme Being is considered to be the source of life and creativity, hence the midriff is to be left bare by the sari.

Dhoti worn around the hips

Sculptures from the Gandhara, Mathura and Gupta schools (1st–6th century AD) show goddesses and dancers wearing what appears to be a dhoti wrap, in the “fishtail” version which covers the legs loosely and then flows into a long, decorative drape in front of the legs. No bodices are shown.

vishnu-sculpture by hartjeff12

Ajanta caves show various women’s garments

The tightly fitted, short blouse worn under a sari is a choli. Choli evolved as a form of clothing in the 10th century AD, and the first cholis were only front covering; the back was always bare but covered with end of saris pallu. Bodices of this type are still common in the state of Rajasthan.

Imergence of top garment, image courtesy

In South India and especially in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, it is indeed documented that women from many communities wore only the sari and exposed the upper part of the body till the early days of the 20th century. In Kerala there are many references to women being bare-breasted, which shocked the Europeans arriving on Indian shores. 

Watercolour, Styles_of_Sari image courtesy wiki

Vintage Photographs of Indian Women show the various sari draping

image courtesy 

Malabar Woman – 1915

Indian Woman in a Zenana (harem) in Jaipur – 1859

Navari Sari, Maharashtra 1920

Mysore_Sari, long flowing pleats

Gujrati_Sari, Pallu drapped to front

Bengali Couple, Bengali style sari 1930

working women, Etnological Photo Rajesthan Women 1935

Life Magazine did a series on Sari draping in 1951

image courtesy

Life: A woman demonstrating how to put on an Indian sari

A woman demonstrating how to put on an Indian sari

how to put on an Indian sari: pleats

Pleats detail, tuck pleats into petticoat

Drape around hips

Fold rest of the fabric over shoulder

Pallu can be draped to cover your head

A woman modelling an Indian sari

This unstitched cloth is commonly worn tucked at waist into and over a petticoat (antariya of historic Indian costumes), pleated and wrapped around the legs to make a long skirt and then thrown over the shoulder covering the upper body wearing a blouse (uttariya). This style of draping sari is called nivi, originally worn in Andhra Pradesh, India. Besides nivi various other draping styles also exists in India resulting from the regional influences namely Bengali, Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Dravidian, Gond, etc.

Usage of diverse colour, motif, pattern and weave over the untailored length of a sari make it a representation of rich regional traditions. The Sari is usually divided into three parts:

  • An end-piece or pallu/pallav
  • A field or jamin
  • Border or kinara

The end-piece is the loose end of the sari covering the bosom and thrown over the shoulder.  It is usually the most exposed and hence usually the most embellished part of the sari. The field of a sari may be embellished with prints, embroidery, etc or left plain as per design may be. The borders of a sari run along the entire length giving it an extraordinary appeal.

Decoration of the sari with distinct weave, motif and fabric as a result of regional influences has given us a wide variety to show interest in.

Contemporary styles of wearing a sari

The Nivi style is the most common style of wearing a sari today, though for festivals and marriages the traditional styles such as gujrati, navari,south indian half sari, bengali are still used.

Four Women – 1930’s, Nivi style

Sari draping for Formal presentations

Sari draping for Formal presentations, Midriff is covered

choli and sari

Gujrati sari

South indian half-sari

Bangali sari, image courtesy

Other Posts in this series:

Indian Textiles: Cotton Sari

Indian Textiles: History


4 thoughts on “Indian Textiles- The Sari

  1. Pingback: Free Piano

  2. Pingback: Indian Textiles – Paithani Sari | play-create-learn-share

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s