Heritage,  Sarees

My Saree Stories: Part 20 (Embroideries of India)

India is home to several stunning forms of embroidery. Here is my humble attempt at recording some of the popular embroideries which are featured on sarees. These come from several states of India, and there are distinct differences between them. Here are the first ten forms of embroidery from Kashmir, Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab and Gujarat.

Saree #191: An exquisite Tilladozi from Kashmir

My saree features exquisite Tilladozi embroidery from Kashmir. I toyed with the colour of a saree with Tilla work and finally settled down on midnight blue in Kashmiri silk last year. Then I worried about whether to ask for gold or silver hand embroidery. And when I finally made up my mind, I was told that it was snowing hard in Kashmir and this would take months. I decided to wait. And the year long wait was worth it.

Tilladozi was brought to Kashmir by a revered saint Shah-e-Hamdan. He migrated to Kashmir with a group of 700 craftsmen from a place called Zari in Iran. So exquisite was this hand-made embroidery that it found immediate favour with the royalty. The Mughals patronized this craft and Tilladozi began to adorn the robes of the rich.

How is Tilla work different from Zari?

Zari uses silk threads coated with gold or silver for embroidery, while Tilla work uses metallic wires. Originally gold and silver were beaten into wires and used to make Tilla embroidery. As these pieces aged, the metal took a more antique look. Now of course, that is unaffordable. And copper wires plated with the hues of silver or gold are used as a replacement. Further, due to the thickness of the metal wires the embroidery looks a little raised compared to zari and has a depth which makes the embroidery stand out. Every Kashmiri bride used to own a pheran with tilla work in her trousseau.

To make this embroidery, the Naqash first traces the design on paper. Chinar leaves, paisley patterns and floral designs are often preferred. Then the traced design is perforated. This process is called trombun. The next step is called chaamp traavun. Here the perforated sheet is placed on the cloth and ink is used to trace the design and transfer it on the cloth. Only after this does the expert Tilla artisan take over and delicately fix the Tilla wires over the pattern. It is painstaking work which requires good eyesight. Tilla artisans are gradually diminishing in number as machine embroidery fakes fill the markets at cheaper prices. One feels sorry that a legacy is being lost as these artisans are hardly paid their effort’s worth.

Do tell me if you liked the custom made saree and the pattern I chose. I wore it tonight for a party as I felt that it was a saree meant to dazzle in the evening rather than in the day.

Saree #192: A saree with Sozni embroidery from Kashmir

Ah! The allure of the majestic chinar trees! Especially in autumn, when the leaves acquire varied hues of red, amber and yellow. It is a symbol of Kashmir’s literature, religion and romance. The locals call it ‘booen’. A number of people confuse the chinar with the maple tree. But these are not the same, although they are close cousins. Chinar trees are called the old world sycamore or the oriental plane trees in English. Did you know that at Kos, in Greece, there is a Tree of Hippocrates, under which the father of Medicine, Hippocrates, is said to have taught? That tree is a chinar too!

The chinar trees line up near both Hazratbal and the Khir Bhavani temple. It is believed that the local name ‘booen’ comes from Goddess Bhavani. On an island in the Dal lake in Srinagar stand four majestic chinars, and it is called Char-Chinari.

I have been hunting for an affordable saree with Sozni embroidery since a long time. And I really wanted something which was deeply symbolic of Kashmir. What better than the chinar!

Sozni embroidery is a meticulously done needle craft which originates in Kashmir. It was introduced in the 14th century, and continues to provide livelihood to the people of Kashmir. Here the embroidery is layered to make the fabric look encrusted like a tapestry. Traditionally this is done on handwoven Pashmina shawls and because it is such an intricate craft, these are exorbitantly priced. These artists are perfectionists and create subtle variations in design using transitions in the shades of thread.

To embroider these on sarees or shawls, imprints of the designs are first made using steady hands. A Naqash carves these intricately designed blocks out of walnut wood. These serve as a template on which the artisans embroider their design. A master artisan called tarah-guru does a sample to decide which colours will work best. Another craftsman called voste approves the design or asks for changes. This is then passed on to other artisans who complete the embroidery. Most artisans work from homes where this craft helps them relax and take their mind off the surrounding stress.

Sozni essentially involves satin stitch, but there are nuances to layering and choosing the right shades, which adds texture to the design. If the artist is not satisfied with the effect, they undo the embroidery and start all over again. Each piece takes months to years to make depending upon the design.

There was no way I could have afforded a fully embroidered sozni saree. So satisfied myself with this purchase of a silver silk saree which has a lovely self-embossed cobblestone pattern. The saree has pattis of sozni embroidered chinar leaves stitched over the borders. And in koniya style, some large chinar leaves adorn the corners as well. I tried my best to showcase the embroidery using a different drape, as the usual style didn’t do justice to it.

It was the poet Iqbal who wrote:

Jis khaak ke zameer mein hai aatish-e-chinar
Mumkin nahi ki sard ho woh khaak-e-arjumand.

I have never been to Kashmir, though it remains on top of my bucket list. Everything I read and see about it beckons me: the heritage, the colours, the views, the crafts and the food. I just hope the embers of the chinar cool down, peace returns, and one day, I can see the place in its original pristine glory.

Saree #193: A tussar silk saree with Aari embroidery from Kashmir

This is a tussar silk saree in a denim blue colour which I picked as I desperately wanted to own an embroidered saree from Kashmir. And what’s the beauty of Kashmir without the chinar leaves.

This is Aari embroidery done in such vibrant fetching colours that it kept me upbeat all day. The word Aari refers to the crochet-like hooked needle which is used to do this embroidery. This kind of embroidery dates back to the Mughal era and you will notice the preference given to flora and fauna in these colourful designs.

Saree #194: Chikankari embroidery from Uttar Pradesh

My love for delicate chikankari embroidery is enduring. The delicate embroidery done in white all over is irresistible. These designs speak volumes without being too loud. I find their subtle elegance irresistible.

If you look closely there are some stitches which you can identify. In the lime green saree you can see the Bakhiya or shadow work. This is a flat straight stitch where the shape is filled on the wrong side and the shadow effect is seen on the front. These designs are bounded by running stitches called Rahet or Dohra Bakhiya. These are double lines of running stitches which give a neat outline to the shadow work. The third stitch which is prominent is called Murri which is a raised stitch in the form of a small knot. To make this grain like shape, diagonal stitches are worked several times to form a knot on a basic tepchi stitch. Tepchi refers to long darning stitches. The lavender chikankari saree has a mix of murri and hool stitches. Murri refers to the grain like work done on the periphery of the flowers. Here diagonal satin stitches are worked several times with a knot on a basic tepchi stitch to form a grain shape. Hool is a fine detached eyelet stitch. Here, a hole is punched in the fabric and the threads are teased apart. It is then held by small straight stitches all around and worked with one thread on the right side of the fabric.

Lucknawi chikankari embroidery is so subtle that it is best adorned with simple pearls for that elegant look.

Saree #195: Lambani or Sandur embroidery from Karnataka

This saree is a purple cotton ilkal. But its highlight is the one metre pallu entirely embellished with lambani embroidery.

The Lambanis are a semi-nomadic tribe who originally belong to Marwar. These tribes are said to be descendants of the Roma gypsies of Europe, who migrated through Central Asia and Afghanistan before arriving in the deserts of Rajasthan. This particular piece is done by Lambanis from Sandur village in North Karnataka, and hence it also goes by the name Sandur embroidery. Sandur is near Hampi and now this handicraft has its own Geographical Indicator number.

The word Lambani comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Lavana’ meaning salt. Don’t quite know if it refers to the salt desert where they originally belong to. Or maybe it is to do with the fact that they used to barter cattle and salt originally. This vibrant exquisite embroidery is embellished with intricate stitches, decorative applique, mirror and patchwork.

Lambani embroidery is a beautiful amalgam of pattern darning, mirror work, cross stitch, overlay and quilting stitches. The 14 types of stitches used in Lambani embroidery are Kilan, Vele, Bakkya, Maki, Suryakanti Maki, Kans, Tera Dora, Kaudi, Relo, Gadri, Bhuriya, Pote, Jollya, Nakra. The banjara women use this craft to create their own colourful blouses and skirts and to make the trousseaus for their daughters. While this piece is decorated with small mirrors, others use cowrie shells, beads as well as coins and tassels. This handicraft can now be seen in other household items like bed covers, cushion covers, wallets and bags. I felt privileged to own such a stunning piece of our heritage and wear it all day.

Saree #196: Kasuti embroidery from North Karnataka

Today’s saree is an Ilkal with kasuti embroidery. Kasuti is embroidery from North Karnataka. The craft is popular in the regions of Dharwad, Belgaum, Hubballi and Bijapur districts of Karnataka. It is inspired from rangoli designs and the term is derived from the words ‘kai’ meaning hand and ‘suti’ meaning cotton.

The word Kashidakari in Hindi has similar origins as Kasuti in Kannada. There are literary references which show that this craft dates back to the 15th century to the Chalukya period. Women courtiers in the kingdom of Mysore were expected to be adept in 64 crafts and Kasuti was one of them.

The beauty of this embroidery is that it is done by counting the threads of the warp and weft. No tracing or drawing is done earlier as an outlines.

Four types of stitches are used in Kasuti: gavanti, murgi, negi, and menthi. The most common is gavanti which is a double running stitch, which is worked in horizontal, vertical and diagonal directions. This term means ‘knot’ in Kannada. Murgi is the zigzag ladder like running stitch. Negi is the ordinary darning stitch which is worked in long and short lines. The term means ‘to weave’ in Kannada and the stitch looks like weaver’s patterns. Menthi is a term which means fenugreek or methi and is usually used to fill areas. It is a forked stitch. The motifs are usually religious such as temple gopurams, chariots, palanquins or the tulsi katti. This saree has elephant motifs with howdahs and mahouts, and temple lamps, besides the traditional rangoli patterns.

Suddenly felt bright and beautiful as I accessorized this with some Kemp jewellery.

Saree #197: Katab applique work from Kutch in Gujarat

This is a Maheshwari cotton silk saree which has been wonderfully embellished all over by applique work from Kutch. This work is known as Katab in Gujarat. I read somewhere that the word Katab is probably a distortion of the English “cut-up”. But I have no way of confirming if this is true.

The process of applique involves stitching pieces of cloth decoratively onto a larger piece. Applique work in Kutch was developed out of embroidery traditions of native communities such as the Mahajans (business men), Kathis (land owners), and Rabaris (nomadic camel herders). Some of these migrated from Sindh in Pakistan during the partition. They pieced together quilts or coverlets using bold colours. One can find distinct patterns used by each community. They decorate tents, canopies or even covers for their animals using pieces of cloth of different colours or textures. Imagine the luxury of such beautiful craftsmanship if you were a king who went out hunting and this was what your tent looked like!It is believed that the Huns brought applique to India around 500 AD.

Similar decoration, sometimes embellished with embroidery and mirror work, is used to increase the visual depth and richness of the cloth. These days torans, friezes, cushion covers, table runners made with applique are the rage. Why should sarees be left behind?!

Saree #198: Kantha embroidery from West Bengal

I own a number of sarees with kantha work and it is difficult to choose which I like best. Kantha work is popular in the eastern part of the subcontinent, not just in West Bengal, but also in Tripura and Bangladesh. Traditionally kantha embroidery, which uses a simple running stitch was practised by women in rural areas to make thin quilts from stacks of old cotton sarees.

Eventually this has become a handicraft industry where women use motifs of flowers, animals and birds, as well as geometrical shapes to adorn multiple products. Besides sarees, this embroidery is used to embellish shawls, pillow covers, dupattas, kurtas and bed covers. I have tried to showcase different types of embroidery using the simple kantha stitch.

Saree #199: Sujini or Sujani embroidery from Bihar

One of the many diverse art forms that lie relatively undiscovered in Bihar is the Sujini or Sujani embroidery. It took me many months to find a saree which showcased the beauty of this craft in a justifiable manner. I’m showcasing two of these sarees.

The first masterpiece in purple silk has red birds embroidered in Sujani style all over. The second is a tussar silk from Bihar. The texture of this silk is rougher than mulberry silk. This is because the threads of the cocoon are broken when the moth emerges by proteolysis of the shell. The Antheraea species of silkworms which feeds on Terminalia trees is the source of this wild silk. Because it is made from broken threads, it is called katiya. For me this saree was love at first sight. Especially because of the Sujani embroidery which made it look so elegant in its simplicity.

The earliest known examples of Sujani embroidery date back to the mid 1920s. Women hand embroidered these masterpieces in the confines of their homes. Sadly most of these early pieces are lost. The word Sujani is a combination of su (good or easy) + jani (birth). Women made quilts for babies by stacking together old soft sarees. A simple running stitch was used to decorate these quilts. Then using black, white or red threads drawn from the borders of old sarees, motifs from daily life would be embroidered all over. These motifs would be filled with coloured threads using simple satin stitches.

There are two deep rooted beliefs in Bihar behind Sujani. The first is that no new clothes are bought for a child before he or she is born or until the 6th day. It is considered inauspicious. It might have to do with high rates of infant mortality in those days. And people invoke the blessings of Chitiriya Ma or the Goddess of Tatters. It is symbolic of reminding you that all parts belong to the whole and must return to it. So babies are always covered with old or used clothes. It is a tradition we follow to date.

The second, of course, is that the delicate skin of the new born must not be chafed by the starch in new clothes. And what better than soft clothes which smell of mummy and remind you of her embrace. The motifs used in Sujani are purposeful. The life giving forces (the sun, clouds and moon), fertility symbols, sacred animals and scenes from the kitchen or courtyard where women lived made their way into the embroidery. There is a difference between Bengal’s kantha embroidery and Bihar’s Sujani embroidery. While kantha stitches define the outline, Sujani involves filling the motifs too with coloured thread. Eventually these women were encouraged to explore the use of Sujani in more economically viable areas such as sarees, kurtas and bedcovers. Bhusra village in Muzaffarpur district is seeing a revival in this craft. The Sujani Mahila Jeevan organization is helping a dying tradition survive by getting together around 400 women who know this craft and helping them to market their creations. These days Sujani themes are more contemporary and explore social issues such as female infanticide, dowry, domestic violence, environment and education of the girl child.

Saree #200: Phulkari embroidery from Punjab

This saree is from Punjab, the land of five rivers. This saree is adorned with Phulkari embroidery. I picked up this saree on my last trip to Chandigarh.

Phulkari embroidery uses darning stitch on the wrong side of coarse cotton cloth. Brightly colored silk threads are used to create geometric designs. The designs were not drawn but made by counting the threads on the yarn. Traditionally, this embroidery was done on coarse khaddar fabric as it made it easy to count the yarn.

‘Phul’ means flower and ‘kari’ means work. Phulkari finds a mention in 7th century chronicles like Bana Bhatt’s Harshcharitra. Why, even Waris Shah’s version of Heer Ranjha from the 18th century talks of phulkari embroidery being part of Heer’s trousseau.

In Punjab, phulkari embroidery can be seen on embroidered dupattas for everyday use. Here the embroidery may be sparsely made on the edges or centre of the cloth. However for ceremonial occasions like weddings this embroidery covers the entire cloth, such that the base cloth is not visible. These pieces are called Baghs. I did pick up a few of these fully embroidered pieces as gifts. They are expensive but a nice addition to your collection.

Phulkari embroidery is a painstaking and time-consuming art that strains the eyes. The biggest challenge to hand-embroidered Phulkaris today is that the market is flooded with relatively inexpensive machine-made Phulkaris manufactured in factories in Amritsar and Ludhiana. Consumers have become less discerning. Relatively low remunerations have made hand made phulkari embroidery an economically unviable option for many young women, who do not want to take it up as a means of livelihood.

As I mentioned earlier, India is home to lots more different forms of embroidery. Such as gara work, sindhi stitch, soof, rabari mirror work, zardosi embroidery, and so many more I will try to follow these up with another post after a few months.

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
My saree stories: Part 18 (Ode to the Laal Paar)
My saree stories: Part 19 (Ikats of India)


  • Smita Srivastava

    Hello Anshu this is Smita Srivastava from the D and S fb group.Read all your blogs from 1 to 20 and thoroughly enjoyed each one.Would love it if you could write one on the types of banarasis..there are so many varieties..would love to learn how to describe them in the correct textile lingo.
    Thanks and love

  • Radhika

    I am very interested buying genuine handwoven sarees , as close to weaver source as possible. Can you please enter in separate section or along with saree description where you bought and contact information.Also, helpful, if you write quick tip to identify if handwoven saree. That would be helpful for those who share similar interests like you. My goal is to buy sarees from all states and weave style. Shefali Vaidyaji on twitter has been major source of inspiration for saree lovers.

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