Floral motifs in Kanjivarams

Motifs offer a new dimension to the visual appeal of a traditional sari, upholding a unique creative expression within the craft. Plant and floral motifs have held a place of importance in textile designs since ancient times. They have been painted, printed and woven, drawing inspiration from the richness of the natural environment.


One of the most prized gift to an Indian woman continues to be a richly brocaded handwoven sari, illustrating the central role of the beautiful drape. Over the past 500 years, silks from Kanchipuram have formed a fundamental part of the cultural tradition of the South Indian world. The sheer beauty of the fabulous silks of the South, with jewel toned colours enriched with threads of gold – the Zarigai pattu – has  overwhelmed people. When we look at Tanjore paintings, temple murals and paintings of the royalties, we understand how the weavers have adopted and perfected temple art into weaving patterns in textiles. Kanjivarams showcase the beautiful incorporation of golden thread by way of zari – thin strips of metal wound around a fibre core (a red strand of silk).

There are striking differences in the way motifs are woven into sari designs in different parts of India. Kanjivaram weavers have derived these symbolic patterns into meaningful motifs suiting the nature of their traditional weaving methods. They describe them with the eye and hand of an artist and you can observe a variety of different motifs woven in supplementary warp or weft threads along the borders and enhancing the mundhanai or pallu. These motif designs are usually small and repetitive. The repeating patterns are descriptive, taken from nature, items of jewellery or everyday objects, and fit well into the overall design. Sometimes they also adorn the body of the saree as butas or buttis depicting a floating design element.

The remarkable motifs inspired from the architecture of a thousand temples and the natural environment of Kanchipuram are seen in the most recognised woven patterns of mangagopuramrudraksham and kamalam. Trees and plants have always played an important part in the myths and customs of India. Many parts of a tree, including its flowers, seeds, and sometimes even its wood or bark, are considered holy, and associated and identified with Gods, planets and months, among other things.

A traditional textile like a kanjivaram conveys to the knowing eye a great deal, not only about the artisan’s skills, but also about the roots and inspirations of the designs.


The temple motif has remained a distinct part of the design vocabulary of Dravidian and Deccani weavers since ancient times. The Dravidian style places importance on the towering gateways of South Indian gopurams, and one glance at this structure provides the entire history of the temple. The mere sight of the gopuram or Gopura Darshanam is an alternative for those who don’t have the time to enter the temple and offer complete worship to the deities – as  cited in a Tamil verse Gopura darshanam koti punyam.

The handloom tradition has imbibed this design, its meaning and value. The rows of large triangles, interlocked in korvai, resemble the temple gopurams and are referred to as reku (a bundle of grass) or mottu (flower buds) in the case of smaller triangles.

Indian culture cherishes flowers, and they also represent the female principle. It is in this aspect that, even today, malai matrudal – the exchange of flower garlands – is one of the first and most important rituals in a South Indian wedding. The thazhampoo is a heavily scented yellow flower with sharp petals that grows along river banks in Tamil Nadu and is used in hair ornamentation.

The temple design is interpreted as a reku in the dhotis and saris of South India, and it narrates the story of the sari as a key contributor to our identity and culture. If the reku is smaller, it is referred to as pillayar moggu.



Fabrics and weaving – particularly their motifs – inspired new concepts in spiritual thinking and contemporary material culture, and also defined the course of advancement for other arts and crafts. One such motif is the manga which is ubiquitous in a kanjivaram, as well as other craft traditions around India. This motif illustrates how even the simplest shape can be put together in an extraordinary way with varied contrasts by the clever use of indigenous weaving techniques.

The Sthala Vruksham is the mango tree of the Ekambareshwar temple, the main Shaivate shrine in Kanchipuram. One can still see the fossil of a 3,500-year-old mango tree in the temple premises, whose four branches are said to have yielded four different types of mangoes. This temple is one of the pancha bhootha shrines representing the Prithvi Lingam (earth), the deity is referred to as “ekamban” (one who manifested himself as a pillar of light) and also the one who resides under a mango tree (Eka Amram).

The mango motif is a perennial favourite of craftsmen all over India. In kanjivarams, it is woven in different sizes; not just on the border and mundhanai but also as small buttas dotting the body. The motif is referred to as kalga and ambi in northern India, and the iconic paisley internationally. A legendary design, used as prints and for embroidery, the motif was a part of the Persian repertoire made famous by Mughal art and fostered in the Kani shawls of Kashmir. The mangoes of South Indian sari designs are stockier and more stylised, while the Kashmiri version and the paisley have longer curves retaining their characteristic shape.



Skanda Purana mentions that rudrakasham beads originated from the tears that Shiva shed when the tripurars were destroyed. Tripurars were devotees of Shiva, but because of their atrocities, Shiva had to destroy them. It is also mentioned in mythology that when Parvati wanted to adorn herself in jewels, Shiva reached up and rudraksha fruits fell from heaven into his hands by the dozen. And she wore them as earrings, necklaces and bangles. The commonly held belief is that the beads dispel the evil eye and avert misfortune. Rudraksha beads are considered sacred by the followers of Shaivism, and they are worn during meditation and also used a japa-malas (rosaries). Rudra is the Vedic name of Siva and Aksha means tears.

This motif looks striking when woven along the border of a sari as an accompaniment to the main thematic design. Sometimes bigger rudraksham motifs are woven in the body as buttis too. This design element is yet another example of how weaver communities assimilated attributes from the physical environment and mythology, contributing immensely to the unique identity of the regional weaving traditions that we observe today.



The pundarika or lotus has been regarded in India as a manifestation of the divine, and associated with the Goddess of wealth Lakshmi, Saraswathi and also with Brahma, the creator. Unlike the lotus motif in Varanasi brocades, in Kanchipuram it is adapted as a kamalam – a small, but stylised eight-petal floral motif which invokes the Goddess of wealth. Like in Indian classical music, a sari’s design is always governed by a certain language of form and layout, retaining the weaver’s individual expression.


The concept of showcasing flowers is inspired by common sources of art, but their visual interpretation in the kanjivaram tradition stands out. Garlands of flower petals referred to as arumbulavangapoomadhulam(pomegranate), and sampangi ( Champaka) give fluidity to designs on the borders. Thuthiripoo is a corruption of the word utharippu meaning loose flowers, and this motif is used in between border compositions, lending delicacy and elegance to the drape.



These floral creeper designs elegantly link motifs and buttis. One can see a resemblance between the floral patterns on the sari and those adorning the South Indian temple lintels. The term kodi visiri in Tamil aptly describes the gentleness, and the way the tendrils cling and wind themselves around the surrounding trees.

A kanjivaram sari displays the unique design element of the creeper, fanning out along the borders or as a pattern of the mundhanai. Their patterning styles are unique, and they are precisely and intricately represented on the drape. One can see how the shape and size of the kodi visiri motifs synchronises beautifully with the overall design and its symbolism.



As we have seen, traditional weavers frequently derive inspiration from nature and their immediate environments; animals, birds, creepers and leaves, flowers and foliage, fruits and seeds and sometimes from ancient crafts like basket weaving. The regional artist communities of South India visually captured some of the most identifiable and unique weaves from basketry. The weave referred to as a paai madi is a panoramic view of the tabby weave.

Panai maram or the palmyra tree, is native to Tamil Nadu, and the leaves of the tree are used to make baskets, fans and other objects. The thick stalk of the leaf is cut into strips and used for making baskets. The basic structure of the weave in a kottan (Chettinadu baskets) is traditionally called the gundumani weave – the basic one up- one down plain weave. In this weave, the warp and weft are aligned so that they form a simple criss-cross pattern.

The ability to plait fibres together is not new to Tamil Nadu. The fine silk mats called pattu paai of Pattamadai in Tirunelveli district  are incredibly intricate and made of a special kind of grass called korai.

We also see the basket weave in cotton lungis, referred to as  payyadi lungis, which were once exported to Southeast Asian countries. The paai madi weave in a kanjivaram usually forms part of the ground fabric of a sari, playing with colour and contrast, and is sometimes depicted richly in zari in the mundhanai.



Mokku or moggu is the Tamil word for a flower bud. The jathi malligai is a part of everyday ritual – adorning a woman’s hair, forming garlands for gods and bridal couples. Malligai poo or jasmine is the single most used flower in Tamil Nadu, and these delicate long buds are always represented as buttas on the body of a kanjivaram. Referred to as ‘rain drops’, these were traditional designs which made the art of weaving truly original, drawing on local culture.The kanjivaram sari weaves together mythology, history and culture, rooting the textile tradition in its South Indian context, and telling stories through its motifs and symbols. The plant and floral motifs we have explored in this edition of Varna Sutra are a unique tribute to the natural world. Each of these motifs, apart from its aesthetic appeal on the silken drape, also lends the sari its rich symbolism.


As we trace the origins of the Patra Pushpam motifs – from plant to weave – we are struck not only by how beautifully nature influences design, but also by the way in which the kanjivaram weave interprets nature within its own context. By juxtaposing intricately executed botanical drawings against the kanjivaram’s interpretations of them, we observe that the motif is not a literal rendition of the plant or flower, but a uniquely stylised and msore elemental version, that fits seamlessly into the kanjivaram layout and embellishment. This skilful stylisation and adaptation of the motif, to stay true to the aesthetic of the craft, is a reflection of the power of design language to retain its authenticity while drawing inspiration from diverse cultural and mythological contexts. The weaver’s sensitivity to the traditional design and grammar of the kanjivaram is evident in the artistic, beautifully abstract rendering of the natural world on the sari’s drape.


Note : This is an excerpt from the Blog I wrote for Kanakavalli

The brilliant hand illustrations and pic credit goes to Kanakavalli.

Link : https://kanakavalli.com/blogs/kanakavalli-journal/varna-sutra-patra-pushpam-kanjivarams-motifs


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