What is a Ceremonial Indian Sari?

by Jyotsna Kamat

The Indian Saree (a.k.a. Sari, Seere, Sadi) is more than 5000 years old. It is mentioned in Vedas, the oldest existing (surviving) literature (3000 B.C.) Patterns of dress change throughout the world, but the Sari has survived because it is the main wear of rural India. 75% of the population wear the versatile sari. We can certainly call this cloth versatile because it is worn as shorts, trousers, flowing gown-like or convenient skirt-wise -- all without a single stitch!

Saree (original--Chira in Sanskrit, cloth) is of varied length. From 5 yards to 9.5 yards tied loosely, folded and pleated, it could be turned into working dress or party-wear. For day-to-day dress of middle class women, a 5-6 yard sari is comfortable to manage household chores. The working class tucks the same length above the ankles. If they have to work in water or fields, they tuck the front pleats between their legs to the back and tie the upper portion round the waist. This leaves them free movement of hands and legs.

One Saree. Many Incarnations

A nine yard Saree used to be a connoisseur's pleasure with Saree embellishments, embroidery and gold designing. At the same time it was as safe a dress as trousers. It was worn in a similar way as the working Saree. But some pleats covered the ankles as well. A gold silver or cloth belt was fastened which kept pallu, (upper cover) pleats and folds intact. Jhansi's Queen Laxmibai, Belawadi Mallamma and Kittur Chennamma fought enemy troops on horseback, wearing a Saree this way. Tight tucking of the front pleats in the back was called Veeragacche or soldier's tuck.

Woman Wearing Saree From a Wall Painting in Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh 14th Century A.D.Generally, the climate of the Indian subcontinent is warm and humid. Saree and its male counterpart dhoti was most suited for this climate. Earlier, there was hardly any difference between a Saree and dhoti because men also liked to flaunt colorful Sarees with brocaded borders. They could perhaps be interchanged in needy times. Only the upper portion of the Saree-length which covers the chest, left shoulder and at times head is missing in a Saree for men.

Styles in wearing Saree vary from region to region. Gujarat style and Bengali style are different. So are Mangalorean, Kannadiga, Kodava, Tamilian, Malayali, etc. The Saree is worn in at least 10 to 15 styles throughout the India, though the ways of wearing above used to be common. In Maharashtra and North Karnataka region, wearing a 9 yard Saree (without a petticoat -- long underskirt -- which was superfluous) was in vogue until the 20th century. My mother, who was a good swimmer, used to wear a 9 yard Saree tightly and swam in the river Kali or Arabian sea along with my father. Wearing a swimming costume was just not dreamt of. But the versatile Saree was good enough to move through the waves.

Some people think that the Indian Saree is influenced by the Greek or Roman toga, which we see on ancient statues. This is not correct. Saree is essentially Indian and designed to suit local conditions. Cotton was cultivated in India centuries before Alexander the Great landed on the borders of India, and Indian cloth (chira or Saree) was a wonder to Greek eyes. In fact, Herodotus and other ancient western historians thought there were cloth-growing trees in India!

Raja Raviverma, the distinguished painter of the 19th century, toured the entire sub-continent in search of the ideal female-wear. He wanted the best dress for the various goddesses he was commissioned to paint. He selected the Saree which drapes the body beautifully at the same time exhibiting contours of the female anatomy -- bust, waist, and hips. Most of the female deities he painted are in this style.

An old or worn-out Saree is equally utilitarian. Grandmothers used to stitch quilts folding soft and worn-out Sarees and putting bright new cloth on cover for children which kept them warm. Worn-out, thicker Sarees were used as bed covers or blankets in the cradle (as the babies wetted it frequently). For village women, folds of Sarees serve as pouches, bags and haversack to carry groceries and at times babies as well. Some used to make a stand-by cradle out of Saree length for the baby. Tying the ends to a nearby tree. White Sarees could be turned into towels, napkins, diapers etc., even after they are worn out.

Dhoti is an abridged version of the Saree sans pallu (the throw of the Saree). Many Hero-stones (memorials for dead heroes) show the dhoti worn like breeches or shorts with Veeragachche; dagger and other weapons were tucked in dhoti folds.

With globalization, the dress of Indians is also getting Westernized. But being most utilitarian and multi-purpose, the Saree is still reigning in rural India. For all rituals and ceremonials it shines supreme to this day.

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