If you’re shopping for a list of bargain sari stores, skip this article.
However, if you’d like see where it all begins and watch reels of yarn, spun, dyed, and transformed into spectacular pieces of textile art, read on. The towns and villages listed in this piece are in the very heartland of handloom, home to some of India’s most exquisite weaving styles and traditions. Although weavers rarely sell their wares at source, most villages with weaving clusters tend to have cooperative shops, or a nearby town with several outlets. So carry that extra suitcase with you.
If you’re drawn to the jagged geometry of ikat weaves, drive 90min east of Hyderabad to the village of Bhoodan Pochampally. Best known for its single and double ikat patterns in silk (although they work with cotton too), the village is a curious mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Planted outside the humble homes of local weavers are vibrant frames of tie-dyed yarns—neatly stretched out under the open sky to prepare the weft or length of a sari. Indoors, the clacking looms bring complex patterns to life. The technique of ikat was introduced to the region in the early 1900s and about 40-odd villages in the Nalgonda district adopted the style, infusing it with the colours of their own imagination. The village of Pochampally—until then, only known for its association with the 1951 Bhoodanor land gift movement—eventually became the nerve centre of double ikat.
More: Pochampally is 44km/1.5hr from Hyderabad and is best done as a day trip. If you wish to stay in the village, book a room at the APTDC Rural Tourism Complex that also houses a weaver’s museum (090102-64700; tstdc.in; doubles from Rs 1,000). The real action however, is outside the sarkari complex, in the weavers’ homes in the surrounding village. You’ll just have to ingratiate yourself with the locals to watch them at work.
The gossamer weaves of Maheshwar owe much to the 18th-century Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar. Although weaving has been a part of this riverside town for over 1,500 years, Ahilyabai is believed to have revived Maheshwari saris during her reign, often encouraging weavers from other states to move here. Originally woven purely in cotton with gilded borders of zari sourced from Surat, the saris now combine the lustre of silk with the lightness of cotton. The geometric border patterns are inspired by the stones, steps, and layout of the town’s arterial ghats, and by silhouettes of temples in the vicinity, lending each sari a sense of place, a skein of history.
More: Maheshwar is 95km/2hr by road from Indore. Jaypore—an online store that stocks Indian textile—periodically organises trips to Maheshwar. More here. The Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar is a luxurious heritage hotel, and a suitable base to explore the city. (doubles from Rs26,334; minimum stay 2 nights). Don’t miss visiting the Rehwa Society, a not-for-profit unit to help local weavers,started by Ahilyabai’s descendant Richard Holkar and his former wife Sally Holkar in 1978 (rehwasociety.org).
Generations of nervous brides in India have been reassured by the silken rustle of a Banarasi sari. And yet, handloom weavers of such heirlooms have found it harder and harder to survive in the temple town of Varanasi, particularly in the last decade or so. The few that still ply the trade work on traditional wooden jacquard looms, and watching them painstakingly weave the zari, usually made of real silver, is a rare treat. The textile’s floral motifs, paisleys, peacocks, and chintz trace their roots to ancient and medieval times, the Mughal reign, and the colonial rule in India. Visit the village of Sarai Mohana, or the twin villages of Kotwa and Ayodhyapur to meet a few weavers and revel in the abundance of both textiles and talent.
More: Kotwa and Ayodhyapur are both about 45min from Varanasi. Although you can explore the weaving clusters yourself, consider opting for a guided tour, such as those offered by Loom to Luxury in partnership with the non-profit Nest (Rs2,700 for a 4hr-trip, including a hotel pick-up and drop from Varanasi;0895343212; email@example.com). Since the Taj Hotel group is a patron of the Sarai Mohana village, their Varanasi properties—Nadesar Palace and The Gateway Hotel Ganges Varanasi—also conduct tours for guests on request.
Chettinad saris hold their own on overcrowded sari shelves, thanks to their classic checks, wide borders, and bright, earthy colours. Once worn by the women of the house without a blouse or an underskirt, they were valued for their heavy, yet breathable cotton. Traditionally, the saris were woven a few inches short (in width) to reveal dainty ankles and silver anklets with bells. It must be pointed out, however, that the Chettinad cottons inherited their aesthetics from the kandangi silks, prized local handloom saris that were patronised by the wealthy Chettiar community up until a century ago. It holds to reason then that even today, the best place to see the Chettinad cotton weavers at work is in the Chettinad town of Karaikudi and the village of Kanadukathan, the last bastions of Chettiar heritage and architecture.
More: Karaikudi is 90km/2hr from Madurai and is a good base to explore the Chettinad region, which has a rich craft heritage. Kanadukathan is a 20-min drive from Karaikudi. Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom Weaving Centrein Karaikudiis a good place to stock up on saris and watch the weavers at work (9488567554/9442047995). Heritage hotels like The Bangalain Karaikudi organise textile tours in the area for guests who express an interest.
It is believed that the colours of a Sambalpuri ikat never fade. Identifiably Odia—even more so perhaps, than the tribal Bomkai weaves and the chequered Santhali saris—ikat is the best-known ambassador of handwoven saris from Odisha. Its motifs reflect chakras and patterns inspired by the carvings at local temples, marine elements like the conch and fish, and familiar wildlife like deer and peacocks. Woven in silk or cotton, Sambalpuri ikat uses tie-dyed yarn to create designs on canvases of bright oranges and pinks, yellows and blacks.To see the Bhulia Meher community work the traditional looms, travel to the weaving clusters in and around Bargarh in the Sambalpur district or to Sonepur in the neighbouring Subarnapur district (about 56hr northwest of Bhubaneshwar.
More: Bargarh is about 324km/7hr from Bhubaneshwar, and Sonepur is 275km/5.5hr from Bhubaneshwar by road. Sonepur is more convenient for those travelling alone, since it’s relatively closer to the capital city of Bhubaneswar. Heritage Tours Orissa conducts 6 night/7 day textile tours.
Baluchari saris are masterpieces in silk, an exquisite ode to Indian history and mythology. Borders and pallus reflect scenes at the court of the Nawabs of Murshidabad, horses from the stables of the English “nabobs”, even episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Unfortunately, patronage for this labour-intensive weave has declined over the years—but this is not the first time the Baluchari community has faced crisis. Legend has it that the weavers were forced to abandon their original address in the village of Baluchar, near Behrampur when it was destroyed by the meandering Bhagirathi River. They moved to Bishnupur to stay afloat, set up weaving clusters, and continue to practice their craft even today, drawing inspiration from the 16th-century terracotta temples in the area. Watch them at work in their homes in the Patrapara, Krishnaganj, and Gopalganj, all neighbourhoods within Bishnupur.
More: Bishnupur is 146km/4hr by road from Kolkata, and a good base to explore the region. It can be pretty exhausting for a day trip and is best to spend the night at any of the modest hotels in town. If you have the time to spare, visit the Bishnupur Museum too.
Had it not been for the saris that borrow its name, ilkal would have been just another dusty, nondescript town in north Karnataka’s Bagalkot district. But that was not to be. Not with the vivid contrasting colours of the local weaves seeping into the everyday lives of its residents. Known for the use of the top teni technique that attaches a separate border and pallu in silk or artificial silk to the body of the cotton sari, the Ilkal sari is brightened up by Chalukyan-era kasuti embroidery. In recent years, the livelihood of these handloom weavers have been threatened by power looms, but a few families are still holding the fort.
More: Ilkal is 106km/2hr from Hampi and 70km/1.5hr from Badami. It is an easy day trip from both places. For a more informed interaction with the artisans, sign up for a trip with Kutch-based Somaiya Kala Vidya, that has collaborated with Ilkal weavers to facilitate guided tours in the area (www.somaiya-kalavidya.org; write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org).
The mekhala chador is so comfortable, you could go hiking in one. But there’s far more reason to recommend the two-piece sari from Assam. Woven in indigenous silks—the golden muga or pale pat silk—as well as in cotton, chadors often brings the outdoors in with motifs of local flowers and vines, peacocks and butterflies, even the Kaziranga rhino. The designs evoke the times of the Ahom kings or emulate patterns used in traditional jewellery. To watch it all happen in real time, on a real loom, travel like all brides-to-be to the sleepy village town of Sualkuchi, 35km northwest of Guwahati. When the din of the flying shuttles in the looms becomes too much to handle, walk past paddy fields and narrow lanes to the 400-year-old Vaishnavite monastery of Hatisatra. And if you arrive in time for Rongali Bihu in April, be sure to wear your new mekhela chador and join the other women in the harvest dance.
More: Sualkuchi is 35km/1hr by road from Guwahati. It is suited for a day trip, but you can also stay in one of the three cottages atop a hill run by the Gondhmow Tourism Development Society (09864207439; doubles from Rs1,500; more here). Most families in the village are engaged in weaving, some of whom also sell their pieces directly to customers. Remember to make a stop at the local textile museum called Aamar Sualkuchi, where sculptures depict the different handlooms practiced in the village.
It’s hardly surprising that the double ikat silks of Patola are said to be magical: warding off evil and bringing luck to those who are fortunate enough to wear them. Their patterns—inspired by the symmetry and carvings of Gujarat’s beautiful stepwells—are so intricate, it seems that wizards not weavers have created them. It is believed that King Kumarpal of the Solanki dynasty brought over about 700 craftsmen from Jalna in neighbouring Maharashtra to Gujarat in the 12th century, and before long, Patola became a handloom capital and a symbol of prosperity. Even today, the vibrant weave is an integral part of Hindu and Jain ceremonies, passed on from one generation to the next as a family heirloom. Patolas woven in red and green with geometric patterns that include elephants and parrots, butterflies and flowers, can cost a small fortune, and the waiting period to acquire one can be over a year, since it takes up to six months for two craftsmen to weave a single patola sari.
More: Patan is 140km/2hr40min by road from Ahmedabad. To see the weaving process, visit the PatanPatola Heritage Museum run by the Salvi family, which has been practicing the artfor generations.
Draped in swathes of indigo, purple, and taupe, Bagru village is a sight to behold under the fierce Rajasthani sun. About an hour’s drive from Jaipur—on the Jaipur-Ajmer highway—Bagru is known for its distinct mud-resist printing technique practiced by the local Chippa community called dabu, who use a paste of lime, clay, natural gum and chaff. It is a labour-intensive process that involves several stages of block printing, washing, dyeing and drying of in open spaces—and it’s all done entirely by hand. The vibrant fabric is dyed with natural pigments using traditional methods to create bed linen, fabric for clothing, and of course, stunning, colour-saturated saris that billow in stark contrast to bleached landscape. The fact that bagrus have a “signature” or minor defect in the elaborate geometric patterns,visible only to the trained eye, makes them that much more special.
More: Bagru is 28km/1hr from Jaipur city. Make a day trip to Chippa Mohalla in Bagru to watch the entire process, including the intricate carving of the wooden blocks. As your hotel for a recommendation for a guide, or join “Journeys with Jaypore” one of their trips.