Festivals,  Heritage,  Sarees

My saree stories: Part 18 (Ode to the Laal Paar)

This edition of my saree stories is a Durga Puja special. It is an ode to the laal paar saree. Red bordered sarees or laal paar sarees embody the quintessential Bengali woman. Red symbolizes fertility, while white stands for purity. The laal paar can range from the simplest taant or Gorod saree to the grandest korial. On the request of one of my readers, this year on the ten days of Durga Puja I decided to showcase ten laal paars from all across the country. From Bengal to Odisha to Assam to Telangana. Hope you enjoy this red and white journey!

Saree #171: The Gorod or Garad saree

The simplest saree worn on Puja day is the Gorod. The word gorod means white. So essentially a garad or gorod saree is one where the silk has been left undyed. A typical gorod saree is either white or off-white, depending on the silk used, and has a plain red border, a plain white body and a red pallu. I did own a plain light weight gorod, but I couldn’t find it. Perhaps I have given it away to someone.

Gorods are pure silk sarees produced in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal. This gorod saree which I’m wearing is a little more ornamental than a typical gorod would be. It would be classified as a gorod-korial saree instead of a plain gorod. Although the border is plain red, there is a second line which has paisley motifs. The gorgeous pallu is full of paisley patterns, and these are scattered over the body as well.

I am often intrigued by how something which we call the kairi or ambi buti eventually came to be called paisley. In Bengali, this pattern is called the kalka pattern. This mango-shaped motif is something which is valued by the Zoroastrians as well, as it is their symbol for fertility. During the colonial times, the British discovered the kairi buti and transported it home, and it took the western world by storm. First the weavers could not replicate it easily. But eventually people in a small town of Scotland successfully started producing these patterns on shawls using power looms. That little town of Paisley gave this design its western name. The story of paisley is a story of how cultural exchanges happen.

What characterizes the gorod is the tissue paper-like feel. Especially when the saree is starched. As a child I always used to wonder why all the Bengali aunties at the pooja pandal would look so puffed up in these red and white sarees. Now that I have worn a gorod, I know! A new starched gorod for Pujo means the saree is impossible to tame as it crackles like gift-wrapping tissue paper. My saree made this peculiar noise whenever I walked. Initially I kept feeling I was hearing a mini-waterfall or water splashing down a sink thanks to a tap left open somewhere. Then I realized it was my saree swishing away! And when I was driving on my scooter, my pallu went flappety-flap like a flag flying in the air. Some experience indeed!

Saree #172: The Korial-Banarasi saree

The term korial is essentially derived from the word ‘kora’ meaning plain or blank. The previous saree was the Korial-Gorod which was plusher and more ornamental than the plain gorod. This saree is a more luxurious version of the korial saree, the Korial-Banarasi saree. These sarees have heavier embellishments in silver or gold zari.

This saree of mine is a rare banarasi made with katan silk. It has a kadiyal border with meenakari work. And again you can see the stunning paisley patterns make a reappearance on the pallu. Let us today learn about the vocabulary of Banarasi sarees.

The fabric of a Banarasi saree makes a difference to how it drapes. If you prefer a figure clinging drape choose georgette, and if you are looking for a more defined drape then katan is the thing for you. Katan (pronounced कतान) is made after twisting together threads of silk to provide it strength and durability. This fabric has a luxurious feel with lustre.

What is a kadiyal border? If you look at the border of a Banarasi saree, the body and the pallu have a distinct demarcation despite having two contrasting colours. If a weaver weaves continuously from the body to the pallu, there should be a part where the threads of the two colours show a hazy blend. If you remember, in the korvai technique used in Kanjeevaram sarees, the body and pallu are woven separately and joined together. The karigars of Banaras however have mastered the kadiyal technique which helps to create a sharp border between the two parts of the saree. This remarkable feat requires careful dyeing and setting of the warp in different colours and multiple changes in the weft shuttle while weaving.

The body of the saree has kadhua motifs in gold zari. The word kadhua or kadhwa comes from the words ‘kadha hua‘. The kadhua technique is one of the most time consuming and technically difficult procedures. It means that each motif on this saree has been woven individually. This technique can only be made on a pitloom and requires two weavers to work simultaneously. You don’t see loose threads on the reverse of the butis. Kadhua motifs cannot be replicated on the power loom.

Next let us discuss meenakari work. After the zari work is done, meenakari involves adding supplementary resham threads of different colours during hand weaving. If two colours are added to zari, the process is called alfi. If three colours are used, it is called tilfi. Meenakari is a very time consuming and painstaking art. So in case a weaver is making a tilfi pattern, for one motif he has to weave four times, three times for the coloured silks threads and once for the zari. To weave an inch of the design he has to perform 82-85 steps. So imagine the level of difficulty and expertise.

The only intention of explaining this craft was to make you respect what you are wearing. It is our heritage, and we need to treasure what we have.

Saree #173: A Korial silk-cotton laal paar saree

I had received this laal paar saree as a Rakhi gift from my brother and it was waiting for an occasion. And I hadn’t tried a different drape since long. And a lazy Sunday seemed just right to experiment with something new.

The Bengali athpoure drape too is unique. The border is highlighted in a straight line running from the shoulder to the floor. Instead of the usual pleats you have box pleats. And my favourite part is the bunch of keys tied in a knot to the end of the pallu and thrown across the shoulder. The beauty of the pallu is amply highlighted, while the chabhi ka challa shows who is the boss! And of course, you need the big red bindi and shakha-pola to go with it. And there, you are done!

Saree #174: A Taant saree from Shantipur

Although the first three sarees were silks, West Bengal is home to some of the finest cotton weaving traditions. Bengal cotton handloom sarees are called taant sarees. These airy thin drapes are super comfortable in the hot and humid region. While the sarees themselves are soft and thin, the borders are thick and bear decorative motifs.

This saree has been woven by a lady from Shantipur in Nadia district in West Bengal. Since we are celebrating the strength of the feminine energy during Navratri, this saree seemed apt to me, because hers has been an arduous journey. She had to pick up her life after her husband met with an untimely demise, and she chose to follow his profession to make ends meet.

Shantipur has been a hub of handloom weaving since the 15th century and taant is representive of some of our finest handloom traditions. Initially the Mughal rulers patronized the weavers of taant along with the artisans who wove muslin and jamdani. Post-independence, the introduction of the jacquard loom has made things easier for the weavers. Another town which is popular for cotton weaves is the adjoining town of Fulia or Phulia. After the partition of Bengal, weavers from Tangail in Bangladesh migrated and settled down here. They follow their own ancestral weaving traditions.

Based on their origins or their weaving traditions, taant production regions are further categorized into Fulia and Shantipur styles (from Nadia district), Dhaniakhali (from Dhonekhali in Hooghly district), Begumpuri (from Begumpur in Hooghly district), Kalna (from Burdwan district) and Atpur (from Hooghly district). Each region has its own signature style of tantshilpa (the art of weaving).

This soft taant saree with an intricate Ganga-Jamuna border, combines the weaving styles of the original Shantipur weavers and the migrant weavers from Tangail who settled in Fulia. This particular saree has been inspired by a pattern frequently seen in Begumpuri sarees. If you look closely you will see a beautiful floral pattern woven on both borders. The popular motifs used by weavers of taant sarees are: phool (floral), kalka (paisley), bhomra (bumble bee), rajmahal (royal palace), ratan chokh (gem-eyed), benki (spiral), tabij (amulet), ansh (fish scale), and hathi (elephant). A number of patterns from the skies such as ardha-chandra (half moon), chandmala (garland of moons), nilambari (blue sky), and tara (star) are also used.

Saree #175: A Dhaniakhali saree

This taant saree is a Dhaniakhali (also pronounced Dhonekhali) from the Hooghly district of West Bengal. These cotton sarees were originally woven in the ‘kora’ or natural shade with contrasting red or black borders. But now we see other colours being introduced. Dyed yarn was used first in 1942.

The typical Dhaniakhali is known by its simple decorative borders. These are slightly coarser than the usual Bengal cottons, last for long durations, and affordable, and hence was the preferred ‘ghar ki saree’ for long by the women of Bengal. In fact these days it is known as the Mamta saree, as Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee prefers these sarees in white with green or grey borders. She is averse to red and crimson borders, understandably!

Normally, cotton yarns of 80 to 100 counts are used both in warp and weft with extra warp. Additionally ‘sar’ reed which is a plant from the bamboo family is also used and it provides the traditional coarse texture and flexibility to these sarees. Dhaniakhali sarees are woven on two kinds of looms: the barrel dobby or Jacquard loom. This method was originally used for weaving soft dhotis with thin decorative borders with serrated edges.

With time the thickness of the borders were increased from 2.5 inches to 6 inches or more. These broad borders without any ornamental designs are called maathapar or beluaari paar. Another practice used by Dhaniakhali weavers is hank yarn sizing. By this the cotton fibres are bound together and coated with some natural adhesives so that the strength and resistance to abrasion improves. It helps in making the fabric smooth and strong. The natural starches used by weavers for this purpose are sago, arrowroot, wheat, and puffed paddy (khoi).

A dhaniakhali saree is distinguished by the presence of ‘khejur chori‘ or braided design in the pallu. Here an arrangement of special weft threads of twisted cotton yarns in two colours is woven in pallu.This particular saree that I am wearing is a Basak Dhaniakhali with a matsya design. I was not too keen on wearing horizontal stripes, but the beautifully woven fish designs all along the saree and the affordability too made me change my mind.

Saree #176: The Begumpuri saree

Begumpuri sarees are cotton handloom sarees woven in the town of Begumpur, which is around 30 km from Kolkata. The success story of the revival of these sarees is very interesting.

Initially the weavers of Begumpur wove simple sarees with coarse cotton yarn in solid colours with maathapar or plain borders sans any designs. Occasionally you would find some stripes, checks or a nakshapar design. The sarees weren’t very popular and the weavers were languishing for want of business. Since they got paid less than Rs 100 for such back breaking work, most were seduced towards the knitting machines to produce collars and cuffs for the export market. From 4000 weaver societies, the number drastically came down to an abyssmal 400 registered handloom weavers.

It is here that schemes introduced by the state government and the Begumpur Handloom Cluster Development Society came in handy. New techniques of weaving such as the Jacquard loom were introduced. Traditional looms gave way to the frame looms. Weavers were also trained in designing, dyeing and other preparatory processes that involved sizing the yarn. They were encouraged to produce thinner and finer yarn to get a softer texture. The colour palette they used was considerably broadened. They were introduced to newer more comtemporary patterns such as the Naksha border, Ganga Jamuna border, and temple border. The wages of the weavers improved.

Today if you look at a Begumpuri, the extra weft work in the pallu is reminscent of the Assamese and Manipuri traditions. And with these new aesthetics, these sarees got a fresh new lease of life. Today, these sarees are sought after for their comfort, their bright colours and their beautifully embroidered borders. Costwise, they are priced slightly higher than the Shantipur and Fulia taants and the Dhaniakhali sarees. Each saree takes anywhere between 2-6 days to complete depending on the complexity of the pattern.

I identify a Begumpuri saree by their bright colours with contrast borders, and also by their distinctive extra-weft serrated pattern in the body and pallu. These soft 100 count light-weight sarees do not need frequent starching and drape like a dream. This is a timeless classic.

Saree #177: A red and white Mekhela Chador from Assam

Now let’s head to states other than West Bengal and explore their weaves as well. This is a red and white Mekhela Chador which is from Assam. This one is made with nuni silk. The word nuni is Assamese for white mulberry leaves (Morus alba). When I first bought this mekhela I thought the silk was very transparent, thin and flimsy. However although it looks delicate, this silk is rather durable.

Assam is a state where you will hear the clackety-clack of a loom in almost every home in the villages. I sourced this from a local weaver in Assam, and these ladies are extremely adept in the craft of weaving these mekhela chador. The motifs are traditionally geometric florals. These are first made into graphs, and then translated on to the extra weft. From a distance it looks almost like embroidery done on the loom. Such is the dexterity of their craft.

Let’s talk about this attire of the beautiful Assamese women, the mekhela chador. This will remind you of the dhavani pavadai (half-saree) that is popular in Tamilnadu. But there are distinctive differences. There are two parts to this garment. The lower half is the mekhela which is draped waist downwards. It is like a sarong which is stitched into a cylindrical lungi-like shape. You wear it over an underskirt, and tuck the upper half into it adjusting for your height. Unlike the regular Nivi drape of the saree, you can get only one or two pleats in your mekhela. The second difference is that these pleats open to the right, and not to the left. The upper half of the garment is the chador (pronounced sadowr). This dupatta like length of cloth has one end tucked into the left side of the mekhela. The other end is either placed over the left shoulders like a pleated pallu or simple wrapped around the shoulders. Unlike the dhavani or half saree, there is an art where you need to get triangular folds which fall down like a waterfall at the waist. That is an art which I haven’t yet conquered despite watching several YouTube tutorials!

Traditionally another piece of cloth called the riha which is a wrap for the upper body also accompanies the mekhela chador. But now its use is restricted to the bridal trousseau and pujas or the Bihu festival. Fitted blouses are worn along with the mekhela chador. Unlike the dhavani pavadai which are usually worn by unmarried teens, mekhela chadors are worn by women of all ages.

Traditionally, the weavers use geometric motifs in beige, red and orange. But now they have been encouraged to experiment with other colour schemes. Pure muga mekhela chadors are not affordable by most. Hence weavers have been encouraged to experiment with cotton blends. This trend allows the mekhela chador to be part of everyday wear.

Saree #178: A Bomkai saree from Odisha

This laal paar saree is a cotton Bomkai from Odisha. Bomkai sarees are also called Sonepuri sarees. The name Bomkai comes from the name of the village Bomkai located in the Ganjam district of western Odisha. In Bomkai, the art of bandha is explored along with extra weft work.

At one time, Sambalpur was under the Maharajas of Patna. These Maharajas ruled a cluster of 18 fortresses called Athara Garhjat, and a large area to the east of Ratanpur kingdom. The Maharaja was killed in battle, but his wife gave birth to a son, who was called Ramai Deb. Patna was then divided among eight chieftains who were always in a feud. Ramai Deb is said to have killed all these chieftains and regained hold over Sambalpur and surrounding territories. He is often credited with introducing these sarees to Sonepur, which gave them their name as Sonepuri sarees.These sarees are available both in cotton and silk. Traditionally these sarees were made with low-count cotton yarn which is usually, coarse and heavy, and dyed in intense colours. The colours of the body and border/pallu are usually bright and contrasting ones.

The magic of these handloom sarees lie in the pallu where intricate thread work can be seen.These beautiful weaves are woven by weavers from the Bhulia community. These weavers all have the last name ‘Meher’. The weaving of the sarees are extremely labour-intensive. It is an extension of the tie and dye method and has unique designed bandha work in the borders.

Bomkais are special because they are produced using the jala technique of weaving. Jala technique with extra weft work is extremely time consuming. While weavers usually use Jacquard looms these days, the traditional way was to use jala drawlooms. In this jala technique, the patterns are first drawn on paper and then woven on wooden frames.

The jala is an attachment atop a loom. It consists of threads which contain the complete sequence of orders to make an intricate design. These threads are attached to their corresponding end to the warp below. When each jala thread is raised, the corresponding thread in the warp is also lifted. This allows the weaver to pass the extra weft which allows these ornamental patterns to be made. The supplementary warp model of the borders in the saree is called as mikta panji. This is a trellis work with diamond form that gives the saree its distinctiveness.

In Bomkai sarees, sometimes butas are woven over the body using extra threads in weft direction. In the border, dobby design along with ikat is used. Here there is a chevron pattern in the border. In this saree you can see the feet of Laxmi woven over the body. The gorgeous red pallu has several motifs from a prayer. Besides Laxmi pada, you can see lotus or padma motifs. There are also decorative lamps and bowls of sweets served as offering.

Saree #179: A moirang phee from Manipur

This lal paar saree is a handloom cotton moirang phee from Manipur. This saree comes from the Moirang village in Bishnupur district. Moirang lies 46 km away from Imphal. It is of historical importance as the first INA flag on Indian soil was unfurled here in 1944.

This moirang phee saree has a design which is called the ‘Moirang Pheejin’ woven on both the edges of the fabric. Notice the elongated and pointed triangular motifs at the edges. The origins of this design are in an epic called Moirang Kangleirol, which is of mythological importance in the village of Moirang. Locally Moirang phee is called Yarongphi. It is said that King Meidingu Loiyumba (1074-1122) assigned the task of weaving Yarongphi to the local villagers. This fabric was then sent as a gift to the Meitei rulers, who were then the royal family of Manipur.

In the local language, the Moirang Pheejin design is called as Yarongphi. Ya means ‘tooth’, rong means ‘long’ and longba means ‘pronged’. So essentially Yarongphi means long pronged teeth. These symbols depict the pointed teeth of a Pythonic god in Manipuri mythology called Pakhangba.

The triangular motifs are woven sequentially and they show elongation at the odd numbered steps. These motifs face the centre of the cloth and are aligned parallel to the weft threads.

Cotton yarn of 40 to 80s count is used. The fibres used to make the yarn are derived from lashing (cotton balls) and kabrang (mulberry cocoons). These fibres are spun into thread, dyed using plant extracts and then sized using rice starch to give the yarn sturdiness. These threads are then stretched across bamboo rods and then wound over bobbins. These sarees are woven using a loin-loom or a throw-shuttle or fly-shuttle loom.

Saree #180: A Gadwal silk from Telangana

First things first. A Gadwal saree is not from Garhwal in Uttarakhand, but from Gadwal in Jogulamba Gadwal district of Telangana. It is pronounced गदवाल and not गढ़वाल.

These sarees are available in cotton, silk-cotton or pure silk, all adorned with a woven silk pallu. My saree is a silk saree with a gorgeous zari pallu. They usually come in bright colours in the body with contrast shades in the pallu. The dyed yarn is sourced from Chirala. The motifs on these sarees are inspired from nature. Sometimes you can spot peacock, paisley, floral, elephant and swan-shaped butis. Motifs from temple architecture also make an appearance.

Although Gadwal was ruled by one of the vassals of the Nizam dynasty, the local kings patronized the weavers. As the story goes, Raja Sitaram Bhupal Bahadur (1804-1840) sent three of his weavers to Benaras to learn the tricks of weaving spectacular pallus. They came back suitably inspired and equipped with the know-how, and created their own masterpieces which now go by the name of Gadwal sarees. It takes anywhere between 4-8 days to weave a saree like this, depending on the complexity. These sarees are really valued in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. It is said that at Tirupati, the Brahmostsavam begins with the offering of new Gadwal weaves to Lord Venkateshwara.

Though Gadwal silks have begun to make an appearance in the market, the original sarees had a cotton body and a silk pallu. Just like the body of the saree and the pallu are joined together using an interlocking korvai technique in Kanjeevarams, the interlocking technique in Gadwal sarees is unique. The weaver has to make three knots using yarns of different colours in a weft to create the top and bottom borders and the body of the saree. Maharani Adilakshmi Devamma is said to have encouraged more innovations such as the designing of kuttu borders. Here weavers join the cotton body with the silk pallu using the kupaddam technique or tipaddam (interlocked weft) technique. This technique is also called the kotakomma (temple) or kumbam style. After the Maharani’s interventions, the weavers used more fine count yarn for these sarees, and the permutations and combinations used in the colours became more appealing.

Another unique feature is how these sarees are folded. You will find that they are almost rolled around a piece of wood into a tall rectangle, rather than folded like a regular saree.

Hope you enjoyed this Laal Paar journey. Catch up with my previous saree stories, if you haven’t done so already.

My saree stories: Part 1
My saree stories: Part 2
My saree stories: Part 3
My saree stories: Part 4
My saree stories: Part 5
My saree stories: Part 6
My saree stories: Part 7
My saree stories: Part 8
My saree stories: Part 9 Navratri special
My saree stories: Part 10
My saree stories: Part 11
My saree stories: Part 12
My saree stories: Part 13 Odisha weaves
My saree stories: Part 14
My saree stories: Part 15
My saree stories: Part 16
My saree stories: Part 17 Odisha weaves


  • danaradler

    I love your stories, they are what I searched for!… this must be a truly auspicious moment, as the first one I read about concerns Durga Puja, reminding me about my friends in Kolkata… I must say that I’d like to hear, if possible, your own impressions about those regions and designs you describe (why that/those colour? any particular memories about it?)… thank you for the accessible way in which you write about sarees, excellent way to learn – and, I’m sure, lots of time invested in this! which I fully appreciate!

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