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Unveiling the Sari: A Journey Through Time, Tradition, and Threads

Explore the enduring beauty and evolving story of the sari, from its ancient origins to its modern embrace of technology.

09 Feb '24
8 min read


My mother's wardrobe, with its spectrum of colours, was the starting point of my journey into the world of saris, weaving strong recollections into an elaborate tapestry. These elaborate textile art pieces are more than just clothes; they are the foundation of our family's heritage and customs, with each thread weaving a tale and tying me into a rich, timeless legacy. 

I was captivated by the sheer versatility of the saris my mother wore, transitioning from moments of household chores to attending grand weddings.

Beyond aesthetics, a deep tie between us is as complex as the patterns are woven into the fabric, connecting us to our beginnings.

The origin of the sari most likely dates back to the birth of civilization in India. Literary references to this piece of clothing can be traced back to Vedic times. 

This article aims to highlight the timeless beauty of the sari, exploring its evolution into one of the most cherished Indian textiles and its integration with technology.

Historical Perspective and Evolution

Early Origin

The word 'sari' or ‘saree’ derives from the Prakrit sattika, which appears in early Buddhist and Jain literature.

The sari dates back to the Indus Valley culture, which thrived between 2800 and 1800 BCE. The tradition began during the Indus Valley period, as evidenced by a shawl draped on the statue of an Indus priest. The evolution into the sari variant might have occurred later, demanding a more extended piece of cloth, typically ranging from 4 to 9 yards, to elegantly drape both the lower and upper body.

Indus Valley priest wearing a shawl.

Ancient Tamil poetry, exemplified by Banabhatta's Silappadhikaram and Kadambari, vividly portrays women adorned in graceful drapery, specifically saris. According to ancient Indian custom and the Natya Shastra, an ancient treatise on traditional dance and costumes, the exposed midriff in a sari symbolises the divine source of life and creativity, emphasising the significance of the navel as the wellspring of the Supreme Being.

Sculptures from the Gandhara, Mathura, and Gupta schools, dating from the first to the sixth century CE, depict goddesses and dancers wearing what appears to be a dhoti wrap in the ‘fishtail’ variant, which loosely covers the legs before flowing into a long, beautiful drape in front of them. 

According to sources, ordinary costumes included a dhoti or lungi (sarong), a breast band, and a veil or wrap that could be used to conceal the upper torso or head. The two-piece Kerala mundum neriyathum (mundu, a dhoti or sarong, and Neriyathu, a shawl, in Malayalam) is a remnant of ancient Indian dress patterns. In contrast, the one-piece sari is a recent innovation by uniting the two components of the mundum neriyathum.

Mughal Rule

When Muslims ruled India, many Hindu ladies adopted Persian-inspired clothing and costumes. Churidars and salwar kameez were in vogue during that time. To this outfit, a sari-derived scarf, the dupatta, was attached to function as a head cover. The use and type of fabric varied depending on the class of the people. Silk was often recognized as the material of choice for the wealthy, although wool, cotton, and goat hair fabrics were also highly appreciated due to their sensory properties (softness, warmth, etc.).

Interestingly the weaving legacy of Banarasi saris traces its roots to the Mughal Empire marked by the arrival of Persian artists who immigrated to India, bringing along their exquisite weaving techniques. Eventually, these techniques blended with Indian aesthetics and craftsmanship, resulting in the gorgeous  Banarasi saris that we know today.

Weavers first established themselves in the profession during the Mughal Empire in the fourteenth century. They used silver and gold zari threads to create one-of-a-kind, exquisite silk brocades. During the 18th and 19th centuries, they began to receive greater recognition for their outstanding work.

British Rule

The sari underwent substantial changes in the nineteenth century as India became a British province. The British brought Western types of clothes, which rapidly gained appeal among India's elite. However, the sari has remained a symbol of Indian culture and heritage, worn by women of all classes.

When India attained independence in 1947, the sari became a symbol of national pride and a means for women to express their ethnic identity. During this time, designers began experimenting with conventional draping ways, resulting in new sari styles and variations. 

The sari rose to new heights of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s when Bollywood stars embraced it and turned it into a fashion statement.

Sari in Contemporary Couture

Saris are no longer solely worn on traditional occasions. Wearing a sari for any occasion has become more popular in recent years than it was previously. Most ladies of all ages and backgrounds choose to dress up in saris when they want to look beautiful. Today's fashion designers create saris that reflect a modern woman's style. 

Sari has dominated the Indian women's clothing market and continues to do so. Even though trends and priorities shift dramatically each year, the sari's popularity remains unwavering. Even now, influencers and designers are deeply invested in the sari culture. 

Saris are now worn with pants, numerous drape designs have evolved, trendy blouses for the sari, and they can even be layered with jackets! 

Cultural Significance of the Sari

Wearing a sari in Indian culture represents respect for elders and family values. It is thought that wearing a sari adds elegance and grace to a woman's appearance. It is also regarded as a symbol of modesty and femininity, encouraging women to feel confident and strong. 

Sari is also perfectly suited to India's scorching heat and the modest clothing codes of both Hindu and Muslim cultures. Women in other South Asian nations, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, still wear saris.

The folds of a sari reflect the joyous mood of festivals. During Diwali, the holiday of Lights, and Durga Puja, the holiday dedicated to the goddess Durga, ladies wear saris in brilliant colours, representing the excitement and vibrancy of the events. The sari's incorporated details contribute to its traditional significance. 

Technology's Impact on the Sari Industry

Technology in the Sari universe serves as a bridge that connects every link in the supply chain, not merely a tool for manufacturing. 

For instance, Nalli Silks has introduced a cloud-based inventory management system to improve real-time stock visibility across its 30 outlets. This enabled them to cut stockouts by 20%, optimise inventory levels, and increase overall operational efficiency. They also built an e-commerce platform to cater to online clients, combined it with an order management system, and used social media marketing. These measures led to a considerable boost in online sales and brand awareness.

Another important advancement in the integration of technology into the world of ‘Saris’ is the introduction of automation into power looms. With their sensors and control systems, automated looms guarantee even tension, accurate weaving, and few mistakes in complex sari patterns. 

E-commerce Elegance

The delivery and exchange process from the seller to the final customer has been completely transformed by the sari weaving industry's incorporation of e-commerce platforms. Through internet channels, traditional weavers—many of whom are situated in distant areas—can now present their works to a worldwide audience. 

This change has also boosted Sari’s market share. In the financial year 2021, the market size of saris, blouses, and petticoats amounted to Rs 288 billion in India.

Handwoven Threads over Modernity

Despite the appeal of modern replicas, these invaluable possessions are nevertheless valued for their authenticity and craftsmanship. Handloom sarees, made by craftsmen in rural regions, are far more durable than powerloom sarees. With appropriate care, sarees can last for decades without losing their sheen. 

Reasons to pick up handloom sarees:

  • Human touch and uniqueness: Each handloom sari displays the artisan's hard work. One saree takes about 2-3 days to create and reflects our country's culture through the various designs woven throughout it.
  • Best suited for Indian weather: These hand-woven sarees are ideal for Indian weather because they are comfy and breathable. Because they are lightweight and easy to transport, gorgeous sarees can be worn with grace and pride at any time of year.
  • Eco-friendly Saris: These sarees are designed on handlooms that do not utilise electricity, making them more environmentally friendly than powerloom sarees. 

From social media influencers, and celebrities to renowned designers, the sari has become a symbol of elegance and a blank canvas for endless creativity. Indian designers like Sabyasachi, Manish Malhotra, and Tarun Tahiliani, among others, brought this draped attire to the global fashion map through international runways and film festivals. 

Film celebrities like Deepika Padukone, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, etc have walked in major film festivals like Cannes adorning a sari. In the year 2002, a fresh-faced Aishwarya Rai Bachchan walked the highly desired Cannes red carpet for the Devdas premiere. Her chosen outfit on this significant occasion was designer Neeta Lulla's mustard yellow sari.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali at Cannes Film Festival, 2002 (Source: Alex Disuja, Flickr)

The sari's resurgence is no coincidence, but rather a reflection of the changing fashion environment and societal perspectives. With its timeless grace and versatility, the sari has successfully crossed borders and captured fashion fans all around the world.

Category : Fashion


Written by Deepali Singh