The Banaras Story

by Aparna Sharma

Banaras is one of the most intriguing and amazing cities I have travelled to. Although, I grew up in India, I discovered this city only in my thirties after I moved to Thailand. After a few years of practicing yoga, I was really curious about what makes this city so special to many people so I packed my bags and went to find out.

“Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. I think this quote by Mark Twain is a beautiful tribute to this amazing city. The city is the centre of Hinduism, it is also home to Buddha’s first sermon and it is one of the ancient cities visited by Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang and was the birthplace of the famous Saint Kabir.

Banaras is a city located in the heart of India along the holy river Ganges, it is popular for spiritual tourism. It is possibly the most visited pilgrimage destination in all of India. It is very popular amongst the Hindus to die in Banaras and be cremated there. Myths and hymns speak of the waters of the Ganges River as the fluid medium of Lord Shiva’s divine essence and a bath in the river is believed to wash away all of one’s sins. Shiva is one of the most revered to Hindu God’s who is also known as Adiyogi, the person from whom yoga originated.

india women

I was intrigued by the number of non Indian tourists visiting this city. I spoke to an Italian woman when I was there and she was in awe of this city, she said that she has never seen anything like this city in her life. The burning ghats where the dead bodies are cremated has always been very intriguing to non Indians, I am more in awe of why they are so fascinated. I spoke to a few people out of curiosity and they told me that they have never seen anything so raw in their life.

The Ganga Aarti performed every evening on the banks of the Ganges is a huge attraction for local tourists and foreign visitors. Watching this larger than life event is one of my favourite things to do in Banaras. A few priests perform this aarti using all the elements of nature. I personally love the vibes from this aarti and it is something to be felt and cherished. The lights, the smoke from the lamps and torches, the incense sticks add so much energy to the performance.


This city is also very famous for the art of weaving. This art has been passed on from one generation to the next for thousands of years. Unfortunately, that art is endangered today by mass production and fake imitations. There are a lot of power looms today which are being sold as handlooms and I saw lots of cheap quality imitations in the market. Thousands of looms have remained untouched for a decade now, the consequences of this is not only the economic struggle but the loss of a beautiful chapter in history.

The route to the six yards of a beautiful banaras sari is extremely fascinating. I have always been extremely passionate about preserving heritage and culture. When my yoga journey took me to Banaras, I decided to go meet the weavers and understand this dying art form. A beautiful handloom sari is almost like a painting, it can take a few months to make a masterpiece. I visited a few silk houses to watch the weavers. The looms had gold threads running through the length and breadth of the machine.

While, the motifs are crafted out of these gold zari threads, the rest of the sari is usually made of silk that is dyed in a variety of colours. Fortunately, most places are trying to use natural dyes in order to preserve the holy river Ganges from getting further polluted. The sari designs are first created on a paper, a separate pattern is needed for each row and hundreds of such patterns are made for a single sari.

The effort and time required to make a single sari can vary from anything between 15 days to six months. A handloom can cost 10 times more than a similar looking power loom but the latter can never replace the artistic value of a handloom. The designs and patterns have been influenced by the history of India. Back in the Mughal era, the designs on Banaras saris largely consisted of Islamic motifs such as floral patterns, stylised leaves and use of jali work which is similar to the work used in Islamic architecture. The Taj Mahal has a lot of jali work and motifs in intricate inlay work crafted from and
within stone.

There was a lot of similarity between the Mughal period architecture and the spree patterns. Almost all of those patterns are still being weaved in Banaras. During the British period, there was a lot of geometric patterns used on the Bananasi silk saris. The most popular design today still remains the Mughal floral patterns which is my personal favourite. Due to the constant need to innovate, various new designs including patterns of Hindu Gods can be seen today.

banaras floating

I also saw a sari which was a tribute to the city of Banaras itself, the design of the sari pays homage to the ghats of Bananas. This city is also very popular amongst fashion designers. A lot of Indian fashion designers have made collections using the beautiful handloom fabrics of Banaras. Donna Karan who has been practicing yoga from a very young age had mentioned about how this city has influenced her.

I read one of her quotes on how she was influenced by the many shades of white and the different fabrics used by the people of Banaras. I wish more people are willing to respect the work of the craftsman and pay a fair price for this art form. Otherwise, it would be difficult for this art form to survive. There is currently a lot of work done by young designers in India to preserve the traditional forms of weaving. A genuine Banaras silk sari can be bought for anywhere between 100 to 3000USD in Banaras, of course these prices would vary depending on where you are buying it.

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