Jewellery and Kanjivarams

Indian jewellery is as old as civilisation itself. Excavations of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation, in fact, yielded examples of beaded jewellery. In the art of adornment, Indians have used metals, precious stones and beads, shells, wood, ivory and much more. Jewellery was not a mere adornment; the designs themselves and the materials used were endowed with mystical qualities, and jewels were used for protection from negative forces. The intriguing world of Indian jewellery also comes alive in other art forms, including the weaving of the kanjivaram, and we delve into this source of creative inspiration.


One of the best examples of the intricate mysticism and divinity ascribed to jewellery are the navaratna or the nine gems, unique to Indian ornamentation, which are still set and worn in a particular order sacred to the nine planets.

Sundara kandam, the most recited module of the ancient epic poem Ramayana, is filled with richly detailed references to jewellery. This section describes the exchange of personal jewellery between Lord Rama and Seetha through the messenger Hanuman. These deeply personal items of jewellery represented the depth of feeling between the separated husband and wife. At one point, Hanuman hands over a “ Kanaiyazhi” or the signet ring of Lord Rama , and Seetha in return parts with her “Choodamani”(a hair jewel), while she is in captivity in Lanka. Each piece of jewellery is described in detail, and holds an important place in this story that is narrated with fervour and auspiciousness in every part of India. Earlier in the tale, when Seetha is abducted by the demon king Ravana, she leaves a trail of jewellery behind her, while airborne. The centrality of jewellery in this story is a reflection of its importance in Indian culture and legend.

The “Seedhanam” (gifts from a bride’s parents) to be given to a bride as part of her trousseau always includes gold jewellery. And our traditional jewellery from the South has a distinctive identity, just as our kanjivaram saris do. Artisans in ancient South India had experimented with and perfected the art of jewellery decoration so much that in the twentieth century, we have not been able to improve much further on the classic patterns and exquisite workmanship. Every single ornament used by a South Indian woman from head to toe is unique to this part of the land.

The use of particular motifs in jewellery making and in ornamental designs on the sari carries the signature style of the region. The singular inspiration for both these crafts stems from temple architecture. The wall paintings and frescos found in the numerous temples down south depicting goddesses and women draped in saris ornamented with different patterns, exhibit a strong regional form and flavour.

The ancient Tamil classic Silappadikaram talks of a society dealing in gold, pearls and precious stones. Evidence from ancient history illustrates the use of woven fabrics held together at the waist with the help of an ornamental waist band called “kamarband”, either a piece of cloth or in the form of jewellery. Studies of the Dravidian civilization suggests the use of unstitched fabric lengths worn with pleats and gathers by both men and women. A waist ornament called “Oddiyanam”, encrusted with stones set in gold, was used like a belt to hold up a sari.

The jewellery motifs used in a kanjivaram sari pay homage to the art of jewellery in South India, to our ancestors who conceived these jewels, and to the skilled artisans who handcrafted them. A South Indian bride’s trousseau traditionally includes these rich motifs as ornamentation, woven elaborately and holding within their intricacies a priceless heritage and an ancient culture. Here’s a quick look at the jewellery motifs used in a kanjivaram, evoking pleasure and delight in a sari connoisseur, whether for a traditional ceremony or for everyday wear.

Jadai Nagam

There are three important hair ornaments that define the elaborate ornamentation of a bride in Tamil Nadu. Referred to as “thalai samanam” (head ornaments), the “Chandra Pirai” and “Surya Pirai” adorn the two sides of the hair parting at the front, while the circular “rakkodi” sits at the back of the head, followed by the ruby and diamond studded divine cobra form known as the “Jadai nagam” (literally meaning hair serpent). These jewels, initially adapted by the Devadasis or the temple dancers, are still a part of the head ornamentation of Bharatanatyam dancers today.

The top portion of the jadai nagam is shaped like a snake’s hood and this part is depicted as a stylised floral design in the kanjivaram sari border. The motif goes beyond the visual, signifying the symbolic spiritual power of “Kundalini” lying within each person.

Muthu Kattam (Pearl checks)

Pearls, the gems of the ocean, were held in high regard, more so than diamonds and rubies, and used in the adornment of royal kings and queens. The milky white pearl, one of the richest gifts of nature, was the most traded commodity on the Tamil Nadu coast. The coastal area of Southern India, which extended from the ports of Thoothukudi (Tutocorin) to Kanyakumari (Gulf of Mannar), was referred to as the “Pearl Fishery coast” in maritime history. South India was famous for its pearl exports and this formed part of the main revenue for various kingdoms and colonies. The tiny white dots are woven as Kattams by extra weft either in white silk thread or zari throughout the body of the sari.

Vaira Oosi (Diamond needle)

The Vaira Oosi refers to the fine, needle-thin lines that always run parallel to the border and selvedge of a kanjivaram. This pattern runs all over the warp of the sari, along its entire length, adding glitter and texture to the drape. The parallel lines of fine zari interspersed with the colour of the body make it a truly splendid sight, the sheen and lustre spell sheer luxury.

Neli / Rettai Neli

Neli is the pattern of the toe-ring or “Metti”, which is placed on the bride’s toes during the marriage ceremony. The wavy double lines also adorn our floors as border designs to the kolams drawn in our houses. In a kanjivaram sari, this design is depicted as a single or double wavy line. And if there is a dot inside the bends of the line, it is referred to as “Veldhari”. The neli designs are stunning when they run all across the body of a kanjivaram. They are also woven as an accompaniment to the main thematic motif of the sari on  border and pallu.

Pavunpet (Gold sovereign pettu)

Pavunpet is the beautiful design of a gold coin, represented in four directions of a quadrant by “V” lines. Though it looks very similar to the Rudraksham motif, Pavunpet has a dot in the centre of the coin and is accompanied by two vertical lines on either side of the “Pavun” or coin. The larger “Pavun” motif set in a double-pet border of a kanjivaram sari is one of the most recognized patterns in the craft. Small circular buttis are sometimes woven throughout the body of the saree, and are referred to as the “coin buttas”.

Vairam (Diamond pattern)

This geometric design is characterised by a rhombus form with four sharp corners, corresponding to the shape of diamonds. The intricate design enhances the border and pallu compositions of the kanjivaram sari, forming broad bands.


A literal translation of Salangai is the “bell anklet” worn by dancers. Crafted in silver and worn by a woman on her feet, this everyday ornament has small droplets and tiny bells that delicately announce her arrival. On a kanjivaram sari, this pattern is depicted by a row of floral patterns, completing a linear border.


While armlets called “bajuband” are worn in different parts of India, the Vanki (armlet) of South India is unique because of its inverted V-shaped design. From old paintings and cultures, it appears that its origin is traced to Naga or snake worship. The motif has angular lines closely placed to form an armlet pattern on the border of the sari.

The unique depiction of traditional jewellery on the beautiful drape reflects both the myriad sources of inspiration for the embellishment of a kanjivaram, as well as the craftsmanship and creativity of the weaver. Whether a literal representation of a precious stone or a piece of jewellery, or a more symbolic interpretation, the forms come alive beautifully on the sari.


Note : This is an excerpt of the blog I had written Kanakavalli’s Varna Sutra Series

Pic credit : Kanakavalli

Kanjivarams – Checks and Stripes

The weavers of Tamil Nadu possess a skillful mastery over the weaving of checks and stripes. The simple concept of checks and stripes has been transformed by weavers in unique ways, infusing striking colours and flavours into the bold geometry of the drape.  The “Kattam and Kodu” which is a specialty of handloom,  gives way to a million combinations, as a result of using different yarns and zari in both the warp and weft of the sari. In kanjivarams, the geometrical foundation of the layout and the mathematical precision in arranging the colours is the differentiating factor.

Kattam means a defined space, which is enclosed, and has become associated with a sacred space. It is based on multiples of crosses, representing four directions and transforms into a magical grid. It is this grid which is drawn as “padi kolam” everyday by women in the households of South India, adorning the front of the main door to one’s home. The symbol created by astrologers as they draw an astrological chart is a reflection of this form as well. It is also the base of any architectural structure. The same symbol is woven into a pattern made for ritual clothes like Telia rumal and saris worn by women.

The long rectangular piece of the sari has always been clearly divided into three distinct parts – the body, the border and the pallu (or munthanai) with a distinct relationship between these three elements. A perfect “Mubbagam” is created when a sari’s width is divided into three equal parts, with the upper and lower parts forming the contrast border. If it is a perfect half, it is referred to as “arai pagam”.

The weavers of kanjivaram saris give shape to various sizes of checks in yards of fine silk fabric. In this edition of Varna Sutra, we take a look at the varied expressions of kattam and vari in the kanjivaram which have withstood the test of time.


Translating to “milk and fruit” checks, the traditional Palum Pazhamum combination is in the auspicious colours of  red, yellow and green. This design became popular in 1961 when a movie by the same name was released with the famous actor duo Sivaji Ganesan and Saroja Devi. If you watch the movie, you might notice that neither of the leading heroines (Saroja Devi and Sowcar Janaki) actually wears this particular design in the film. Yet everyone associates this name with the super hit movie.


The Kasa-Kasa checks resemble tiny poppy seeds (kasa-kasa in Tamil).The checks are tiny and so fine; their beauty visible only when the sari is draped.


The two toned sari with checks the size of tamarind seeds (puliyam kottai) – about an inch or less in size – patterned all over the body has an enduring charm. With checks in various combinations of colours, this sari, traditional to Tamil Nadu, has a distinct identity.

Interestingly, the tamarind and its seeds play a role in our everyday lives, rooted in South Indian culture. The seeds are used while playing  “Pallankuzhi’, which is a famous traditional board game of Tamil Nadu. Tamarind pulp is the basic ingredient for several South Indian delicacies like sambar, rasam and vatha kuzhambu.


The tiny white squares of the “Muthu Kattam” resemble pearls, providing an additional texture to the design which is stunning. Usually the kattam is in white silk thread, contrasting beautifully with the deep hues of the body and making the sari all the more appealing.


The perfect contrast kattams in the “Koorai Pudavai” with wide contrast borders are an evergreen classic in the kanjivaram tradition. A small village in Koorainadu of Tanjore district, transcended its borders, and earned a name for its vibrant checks woven in its coarse cottons.  No wonder it influenced the entire state and found a way in to the silks woven by kanjivaram weavers too.


This pattern is quintessentially Tamil, and kottadi is used to refer to the single and fine checks  woven on the silks, as well as the fine texture of zari kattams incorporated in the body of the sari. The delicate play of colours, contrasts and hints of metallic distinguishes this design.


Paimadi’ checks were inspired from the regional craft communities of South India. The unique tabby weave from basketry was common to various regions of Tamil Nadu. In a kanjivaram, it is featured as a simple criss-cross pattern within each check.


Referred to as “Aathi Vazhai” (plantain flowers) in Tamil, the linear lines of alternating colours run through the body. As we have seen, the elements of design were inspired by the familiar, and weavers incorporated the beautiful layering of these flowers into our weave.


Inspired by the parallel “railway tracks”, the Thandavalam lines are thicker than Aathi Vazai. These stripes are flanked by a line  in a contrast colour to make the visual effect even more attractive.


Woven on the warp of the saree, the wavy lines of Veldhari with dots in between have been popular since time immemorial. One can see a resemblance between the border patterns of kolams drawn by the women folk of Tamil Nadu and this geometric design


The fine, needle-thin lines that run parallel to the border of a kanjivaram are called vaira oosi, literally translating to diamond needle. This delicate pattern that runs along the entire length of a sari is woven in rich zari. Interspersed with the colour of the kanjivaram’s body, the design lends glitter and lustre to the drape.

As we unravel the roots and origins of the woven yards of a kanjivaram, we are left in awe of the diverse styles of weaving, and the distinctive design vocabulary that form this drape.



Note : This is an excerpt of the blog I had written for Kanakavalli’s Varna Sutra Series

Pic Credit : Kanakavalli

Motifs in Kanjivaram Sarees

Over the centuries, a range of several patterns has become characteristic of kanjivaram sari designs. These motifs and patterns were not just decorative, but also had strong symbolic connotations, both in mythology and folklore. Motifs play a twin role – of aesthetic appeal, and as a reflection of symbolic meaning.

Most traditional motifs in South India either serve a protective function – for example, guarding the wearer against the evil eye – or lend auspiciousness to special occasions. A closer look at these, particularly at the motifs of the kanjivaram, reveals the rich histories of the patterns, drawing from sources beyond textiles. Many of these symbols are recurrent across art forms – from painting and temple architecture to sculpture, Tamil literature and even dance. Not only do the shapes they take resemble each other, but these symbols also share cultural references, religious and other symbolism, and similarities in pairings and contexts.

Indian weavers are known for depicting classical motifs drawn from nature like the swan (hamsa), the lotus (kamala), the tree of life (kalpa vruksha), the Vase of Plenty (Purna Kumbha), the elephant (yanai), the lion (simha), peacocks (mayil) and others in their handwoven textiles, which have been in existence for more than two thousand years. The iconography of the Dravidian motifs was adapted from other regions and civilisations, but has been customised for our cultural design aesthetic.

Kanchipuram has long been commercially well known for its figured and brocaded silk saris. Royal and temple patronage, coupled with domestic patronage, kept this art alive. For generations, the weavers of this town have incorporated the rich ornamentation of the motifs, as depicted in the temples of Kanchipuram. The brocade weaving technique earlier used real zari to enhance the patterns. In current times, this has been replaced by silk and metallic threads in many cases, and the hand patterning has occasionally been supplemented by the use of jacquard machines.

Drawing from the flora and fauna of the natural world, as well as the rich tapestry of symbols adorning Kanchipuram’s numerous temples, the kanjivaram’s motifs are rooted in local contexts and artistic traditions. The land of a thousand temples, as it has come to be known, has contributed the unique temple motif– taking the form of rows of large triangles woven into the ground fabric, in the inter-locked weft technique known as korvai which is unique to kanjivaram saris. ‘Rekku’ refers to the design element which links the body of the sari and the border. The spired temple motifs are locally referred to as ‘thazamburekku’ (thazambu refers to the Kewra flower).

Another distinctive feature in a kanjivaram is the stunning contrast border –weavers create a characteristic raised effect on a ground weave. The clear demarcation of the border by way of a ‘zarigaipettu’ is a highlight of this drape’s bold format.

Apart from using motifs on the body of a sari, weavers also use a number of geometric patterns to break the monotony of a single colour. Checks (kattam), diagonal lines (vari), circular forms (buttis) and other shapes are used to enhance the background to the motif embellishment.

With this brief context of the kanjivaram, its history and its layout, let’s step into the world of animal and bird motifs that adorn this beautiful drape-

Annam (Hamsam) –  The beautiful swan, celebrated by poets and philosophers, is a recurring motif on the kanjivaram drape, drawn from the walls of Kanchipuram’s temples. The Annapakshi motif which appeared in the Gandharan and Kushan sculptures was later incorporated into temple sculpture and Hindu iconography.  Referred to as ‘Chakravaha’ these graceful and elegant water birds had higher connotations of fidelity in ancient literature.  Kumarasambhava, Kalidasa’s epic poem, refers to a garment as Hamsa Dukula, describing this bird as a feature of decoration on the heroine’s wedding sari.

Iruthalaipakshi (Two headed eagle) – In mythology, the ‘Garuda-dhvaja’ (dhvaja meaning flag) is used as an emblem of victory. Two-headed eagles have been present in imagery for millennia in various civilisations of the world. In India, the history of the Kingdom of Mysore records the title of ‘Ganda-bherunda’ – a double headed eagle – as one of the insignias and titles of the Wodeyars. Later on, it was used in Vijayanagara mints, and also found its way into textiles as motifs woven on the body and pallu. In the kanjivaram, this motif takes on a regal splendour, woven in rich gold zari or coloured silken yarn.

Kili (Parrot) – The parrot has always played an important role in Tamil culture, representing truth and the transmission of the teachings of sages. According to ancient literature, Sage Suka  and Sage Arunagirinathar took the form of a parrot to recite and record some of the greatest slokas. Adorning the favourite goddesses of the South, Meenakshi and Andal, this motif is also associated with the God of  Love – Kama. No wonder this motif finds a place in the bridal trousseau, not only in the kanjivaram, but also in Paithani and Patola saris. In the South, parrots are also used by astrologers to tell fortunes, emphasising the connotations of the bird with greater truths. Not only the shape, but the distinctive green colour of the parrot – kilipacchai – is also a favourite of the kanjivaram.

Mayil (Peacock) – Peacocks are associated with royalty and regal pomp. It is interesting to note that in the Bible’s Old Testament peacocks are referred to as ‘thukkiyam’ (in Hebrew), and the root word is derived from the Tamil word ‘thogai’ which refers to the peacock. The national bird is also associated with the worship of Murugan, who is depicted on a peacock vahana or vehicle.Yaperungala Vriti, a 12th century text, describes the city of Kanchipuram as a peacock. Athiyur, the place where the Varadharajaswamy temple is located, is referred to as the head of the peacock, while the Shaiva Kanchi temple forms the body. It’s no wonder that this deeply rooted symbolism paved the way for the famous ‘mayil chakaram’ motif in the kanjivaram.

Simham (lion) – If you walk into the Vaikunta Perumal temple’s outer praharam, you will be floored by the Pallava sculpted lions on the mandapam pillars. These are not mere adornments of temple architecture. The sculptural and textual evidence reveals that when the temple was consecrated (kumbabhisheka), these lions embodied the brilliant conquering power (tejas) of Goddess Durga. The lion sculptures are beautifully rendered in the seventh century monuments of the Pallava Port in Mamallapuram too. The king of beasts was an insignia in almost all civilisations, and in the textile design of Tamil Nadu it is also associated with the mystical yazhi.  The lion is used as a linear design in the border and pallu of a kanjivaram sari.

Yaali – This motif is ubiquitous in Tamil temple architecture and the kanjivaram sari. The yaali, a mythical creature depicted as a composite animal that is part-lion, part-elephant, or part-horse, is a popular motif guarding the corridors and entrances of most temples in Tamil Nadu. Regarded as a potent motif of power greater than the lion or elephant, the yaali is also a vehicle of Budhan (the planet Mercury), one of the Navagrahas. If you observe closely the majestic gopurams of temples in South India, you will find a row of lines specifically crafted for depicting the yaali, referred to as the ‘yaali varisai’. In textiles, the most common designs are the simha yaali (lion yaali) the yanai yaali (elephant yaalii) and the hamsa yaali (swan and yaali).

Maan – Deer – The golden deer is described in the Ramayana, and is symbolic of innocence and non-violence. The gentle nature of this animal comes to life on the silken drape of the kanjivaram sari. The graceful and delicate deer is Kanakavalli’s signature logo, and is rare but beautiful on the sumptuous silk. It is also connected with the iconography of Lord Siva and is the vehicle of Vayu, the god of wind.

Meen (Fish) – Fish are potent fertility symbols of tribal communities in India. This motif appeared early in the archaeological records of the Indus Valley – in pottery, Mohenjodaro seals and plaques. In the south, the Pandyas of Madurai used fish as their dynastic emblem. This motif is used along the borders of the kanjivaram sari, called ‘meenpettu’. The motifs are also important in the textile designs of Orissa and West Bengal, and are associated with Vaishnavism.

Yanai (elephant) – The elephant is considered an auspicious animal, traditionally associated with royalty and depicted along with the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi. In temple architecture, one often sees a row of elephants, as though holding up the entire temple structure; a symbol of their protective power. Associated with wisdom, courage, memory and ‘Pillaiyar’, the elephant god who has a temple in every nook and corner of South India, the elephant is a much loved motif. A row of elephants marching along the border or pallu of a kanjivaram is a visual delight.

Kuthirai (Horse) – Horses galloping across the border and pallu of a kanjivaram sari form a stunning pictorial panel. This magnificent creature is a predominant feature of the mandapams of temples like yazhis, and also forms part of the Vana Singaram – the hunting scene woven on brocades of the South. In South India, the predominant depiction of the horse is the visual image of the annual Chithirai festival of Madurai, where Lord Kallazhagar, mounted on his golden horse, enters the Vaigai river. The grandeur and festivity of this procession finds echoes in most Kanchipuram temple processions, where the horse is the vahana or vehicle. The horse is also closely affiliated with rural art. The huge terracotta horses known as ‘mannkuthirai’ of Ayyanar, are a part of the rural landscape of the country, from which kanjivaram weavers have drawn inspiration for a different form of the motif.

Kuyilkann and Mayilkann – The supplementary designs for borders inspired by the eyes of the kuyil and mayil (the cuckoo and peacock) are intricate and exquisite. The diamond mesh designs adorn the border ‘pettu’ in saris as well as veshtis (dhotis) for men. The ‘mayilkann veshti’ with a Ganga Jamuna border in red and green is worn by bridegrooms during weddings. The mayilkann motif is heavier, and slightly larger than the kuyilkann which has a small central dot within the diamond pattern; a favourite on kanjivaram sari borders.

Kanchipuram is a veritable text book of South Indian art history. The great dynasties of the Pallavas, Cholas, Vijayanagar and Nayak kings left their majestic imprints on temple architecture and sculpture. The richness and intrinsic beauty of these motifs have a timeless appeal in temple and textile traditions, and remain steadfast in their appeal, and constant in their representation.

Note : This is a blog I had written for Kanakavalli’s Varnasutra Series

Pic Credit : Kanakavalli.

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Colours of Kanjivaram – Black and white

The history of the colours of the kanjivaram sari is carved out of a lifelong fascination with South India’s traditions and social norms. Ritual, spiritual and cultural customs offer guidelines specifying colours to be worn for various significant events and to mark different stages of life. Shades of black and white, in particular, are symbolic of this.

Traditionally, a completely black sari is chosen for the “Valai Kappu” and “Seemantham” ceremony that mark’s a woman’s first pregnancy. She is presented with a new “masikkai” black sari and glass bangles. Masikkai is a medicine in Siddha, also referred to as “Bluejack” and used as “urai marundu” (a medicine) for new born babies.

Black is the colour used to ward off the ‘evil eye’ and new born babies are often seen with a black spot drawn on their cheeks, known as “drishti pottu”. Babies are also made to wear black bangles, again an ornament to protect the child from“drishti” or the evil eye. And that’s the exact reason why a mother-to-be is also given a pure black sari to wear on this occasion!

Weavers of the kanjivaram use black yarn more often in the weft pattern of a sari, infusing the warp colour with a darker hue. Black saris are a rare sight at traditional weddings and on auspicious occasions; more popular are shades that are darker but not quite black, like “Nagapazham” (the deep purple jamun fruit), “V.Paaku” (the dark brown of betel nuts) and navy blue. Even today, black saris are largely made only for specific occasions and on order.

The Mahabharatha refers to two people as “Krishna”, meaning ‘the dark complexioned one’ – the first being Draupadi, and the other Lord Krishna himself, whose dark complexion on a full moon night is the subject of poetry. Krishna is also referred to as Ghanshyam, drawn from ‘Shyama’, the colour of dark storm clouds While talking about the colour black, one cannot but recall Bharathiar’s verses in his beautiful poem describing Krishna as “Kakkai Sirganile Nandalala, Nindan Kariya Niram Thondrudayee Nandalala” (In the feathers of the crow I see your dark hue, Nandalala). He makes us see, hear and feel the fire in the quest of “Nandalala”. Listen to this evergeen song here.

In contrast, white or ‘Sveta’ is considered the purest of the pure, touched by the divine, and is traditionally the colour worn by Christian brides. The pristine cream and gold bordered “kasavu” and “mundu” were also the favourites of Travancore royalty. The kanjivaram wedding sari in lustrous shades of white with golden zari takes on various hues – of pearls, butter creams and ivory – making it truly stunning! The Chitra Sutra describes the different shades of white used in paintings as – “Rukma” (gold-like white), “Danta Gauri” ( ivory white), “Sphuta Candana Gauri” (white like the split sandal), and “Sharadha-Ghana” (white like the autumn clouds).

The goddess Saraswati is often depicted as a beautiful deity dressed in pure white, seated on a white lotus which symbolizes light, knowledge and truth. Her iconography is typically white in theme – from her dress, to flowers, to the swan – the colour symbolizing “Satwa Guna” or purity, and her Dhyana Mantra describes her as:

Yakundendu Thushara Hara Davalam, Ya shubra vastravrutham,

Ya veena vara danda manditha kara, Ya shwetha padmasana,

Ya brahmachyutha Sankara prbhruthibhi Daivai sada poojitha,

Saa maam pathu saraswathi bhagawathi Nissesha jadyabah

“My salutations to Goddess Saraswathi,

Who is white like a jasmine flower,

Who shines like the full moon,

Who carries a veena in her hand,

Who is seated on the throne of a white lotus,

Who is worshipped by the holy trinity,

With a prayer to drive away all my slothfulness.”

Interestingly, even today traditional wedding attire for men in South India is a “ven pattu veshti” or a white silk dhoti. Kanchipuram and Salem specialise in the pure silk “mayil kann” (peacock’s eye) veshtis, with the traditional Ganga Jamuna border in green and maroon. The yardage for the dhoti is still referred to and measured by weavers as 4 “muzham” or 8 “muzham” veshti. The “Pancha kacchams” (the more elaborate style of tying the veshti worn by bride grooms, with sections of the fabric tied through the legs) along with the “Angavasthram” (the fabric worn over the shoulder during ceremonies) are called as “Onbadhu Anju” (9×5) or “Pathu Aaru” (10 x 6), a localised reference to the yardage.

Combinations of black and white on saris in the form of checks or stripes highlighted with contrast borders, are also popular and striking in visual effect. “Palum Pazhamum” (or milk and fruit, named after a film) checks on kanjivarams have always been a timeless and elegant design trend that never went out of style. The classic pairing of black and white is especially notable in yesteryear Tamil cinema in which these saris stood out even in black and white visuals! There is an interesting bit of trivia about how craftsmen used to name designs and colour. E.B Havell was a British art historian and author of numerous books on Indian art, who initially served at the Madras school of Art for a decade from 1884. In his monograph, he describes the alternate black and white woven colours on a sari as “High Court Papli” checks since it resembled the flooring tiles of the Madras High Court. From ancient Rome, through to Versailles and more recently Hollywood, the checkerboard design of floor tiling is everywhere, and closer to home, most famously in Karaikudi. No wonder it finds a place on saris as well!

The checkerboard tiling inspiration, top left : Chateau de Versailles, pic courtesy : Bob & Jean, bottom left: Athangudi Palace, Karaikudi, pic courtesy: satyapicmaker and right, Kanakavalli “High Court Papli” kanjivaram sari 

Join us as we delve into the many facets of our Shyama Svetha collective in the Varna Sutra series –

Karuppu (Black)

Black is always in style in the West, and this trend has caught on with kanjivaram saris as well. In the traditional kanjivaram palette, “karuppu” or black takes on various shades categorised from “masikkai” black to ‘kanmai’ (kohl). “Kanmai” refers to the black material used to line the eyes, to make them stronger and more beautiful, and even today this is an ayurvedic medicine, which can be made at home. In fact, some weavers apply “mai” or kohl to the corners of a new sari before handing it over to their clients. Related to the deity Mahalakshmi, this material is considered auspicious and sacred.

Eiyam (Tin)

Even the colours of the vessels used to prepare and serve food in South Indian kitchens find a way into the kanjivaram drape. A shot of light grey and dark grey, “eiyam” refers to the metal coating of tin vessels, once seen in every household. “Rasam” which is unique to South Indian cuisine acquires a distinct smell and flavour when prepared in an “eiya Sombu

Cement Grey

The “English colours” in kanjivarams came much later; and ‘cement grey’ is perhaps a sign of the influence of the first cement factory in India being established in Madras in 1904. This cool and smoky shade of grey stands out beautifully on saris with contrast borders.

Yanai (Elephant Grey)

The Varadaraja Perumal temple at Kanchipuram is referred to as “Hastigiri” (elephant hill) in Vaishnavite literature and in the eleventh century inscriptions. A great peculiarity about this temple is that the main shrine of Varadaraja is not on the ground level, but on an elevated platform representing a hillock. The “Sthala purana” (legend which describes the temple history) states that it was the abode of the divine elephant Gajendra, whom the Lord saved from the clutches of a crocodile. Elephant motifs have always been a part of temples, their architectures and “Vahanas“, or processional vehicles of the deities. No wonder the colour of this majestic and gentle creature was an inspiration to weavers of kanjivaram saris!

Muthu or Pearl white

The lustrous white silk drawing inspiration from the colour of “muthu” or pearls. Pearl and chank fishing in South India, especially in Tuticorin, dates back thousands of years and contributed to a thriving economy in the region. The most classic combination on the sari is a pearl white body with an arakku border.

Butter or “Vennai

The golden white of butter which is used to make home-made ghee, and applied on idols of Lord Hanuman as appeasement in “Vennai Kaapu”, finds its way into the lexicon.

Sambal (ash grey)

Sambal in Tamil refers to the sacred ash or “thiru neeru” which Lord Shiva dons all over his body. The colour tone of “Sambal” is halfway between white and black.

Kumaran or Off- white

The spectrum of whites include creamivory  and vanilla. This colour is also referred to as “Kumaran” by the dyers.

Black and white represent a psychological force in the world of colour and design. Despite the kanjivaram being closely associated with more vibrant and deep jewel tones, these two hues still hold a firm place in the cultural and social symbolism of the textile heritage. Increasingly, as the kanjivaram is contemporised and reimagined for a modern landscape, shades of black and white are being interpreted in silk within the bold format of the drape.

Note : This is a blog I had written for Kanakavalli’s Varnasutra, Pic Credit – Kanakavalli


Colors of Kanjivarams – Blue

In this edition of Varna Sutra, we turn to the colour of infinity, a symbol of vastness: the universally loved shades of blue or Nila. This is a colour spectrum that combines ancient spiritual connotations with references to popular culture and a sense of the contemporary. The weavers of Kanchipuram claim their descent from the Sage Markendaya, believed to be the weaver of the gods who first entwined the fibres of the lotus, a flower worn by Lord Mahavishnu. As we continue to see, the kanjivaram tradition is deeply entrenched in the religion and mythology of South India.

The Pallavas of Kanchi were instrumental in building and patronizing two monumental architectural structures in the eighth century – Kailasanatha temple for Lord Shiva and “Parameswara Vinnanagaram” (translating to the supreme lord residing in ‘vinn’ meaning sky and ‘nagaram’ meaning abode) for Vaikuntha Perumal. Both these temples are characteristically Tamil in style, and indicate a vigorous local art tradition. The Lord of Vaikuntha resides in this ‘sky town’, and is represented in three forms on three tiers of this heritage temple.

As Parameswara, Vishnu is represented in a dark shade of blue which characterises most of his incarnations – the colour of the sky and the ocean on which he reclines. The Lord is referred to as the one with skin the colour of dark blue rain clouds or “Megha Varnam”, according to Vishnu Sahasranamam (the thousand chants of Lord Vishnu). While Vishnu is depicted in blue, the dual form (Ardhanareeshwara) of Lord Shiva is described as Nila Lohita, a deep purple complexion derived from a combination of blue and red.
Silpa Ratna mentions blue as Mularanga, the primary colour. India’s rich textile history and its mastery over indigo launched a thousand fleets of the world to trade with us. The tinted cloth of natural indigo was called Nila and remains, till today, one of the most loved dyes for fabrics in the country.

In Christianity, this sacred colour invokes the Madonna who is also draped in a heavenly shade of blue. When drawing parallels in a study of the roots of Nila or blue, the Scrovegni Chapel comes to mind, with its brilliant frescos in blue and gold on its walls and ceiling.

Closer home, our Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharathi weaves a romantic “Karu neela pudavai” for his muse, Kannamma:
“Suttum vizhi sudar than Kannamma, Suriya chandiraro? (Your eyes are so sharp and full of fire, Kannamma – Is it the sun or the moon?)
Vattakkariya vizhi – Kannamma! Vanakkarumai kollo? (Have your round and black eyes taken their darkness from the sky)?
Pattu karuneela pudavai Padhittha nalvayiram; Natta nadunisiyil theriyum Natchathirangalladi! (In the middle of the night, the sky resembles a dark blue silk saree, with the twinkling stars taking the form of diamond motifs)

These immortal lyrics have made every woman dream of owning that most desirable of kanjivarams, in a shade of ‘karu neelam’ or dark blue sprinkled with zari motifs like stars.
The very local names of the kanjivaram’s colours depicting nature’s richness, culture and mythologies have also found expression in Tamil film songs. Who can forget the famous song “Neela Vanna Kanna Vaada”from the movie “Mangaiyar Thilagam” starring Padmini and Sivaji Ganesan? Listen to this evergreen classic sung by Balasaraswathi Devi in a medley of ragas Mishrakapi, Peelu and Yamuna Kalyani, bringing out the hues of emotions.

The response to colour is fundamental in human beings. No wonder colour plays such a significant role in our lives: in the clothes we wear, the festivals we celebrate and the ways in which we represent our beliefs and cultures. From the colours we paint ourselves in for Holi to the palettes of our favourite kanjivarams, we are expressing our essential love for colour.

In this curation, we explore the many ways in which the colour blue and with it, shades of purples, are brought to life on the fine kanjivaram silk.

MS Blue – Synonymous with the legendary Carnatic vocalist and Bharat Ratna M. S. Subbulakshmi, this shade of “middle sea blue” is a must have in every kanjivaram wardrobe. In this clipping of MS’s famous song “Katrinile Varum Geetham” from the movie Meera (1947), she emphasises the words and refers to Krishna as “Neela Nirathu Balagan oruvan Kuzhal Oodhi Nindran” (the blue boy who plays the flute) in her beautiful voice. One can only imagine why MSS loved the colour so! ( 2:40th minute in this video)

Ananda Blue – This vivid shade of sky blue again has a reference to Lord Krishna, whose eternal presence and radiance brings happiness, or ‘Ananda’.

 Navy blue – The very dark shade of blue which was worn by the officers in the British Royal Navy as uniforms. The navy blue on the kanjivaram silk is like the midnight sky, often dotted with zari motifs like stars.

Nilambari – The dark blue-black hue of Benarasi and Jamdani weaves has influenced the naming of colours in the kanjivaram tradition too.

Ink blue – The deep blue of ink traditionally used in fountain pens, lends the silk a gorgeous glow.

Sky blue – A delightfully bright blue; a celestial colour resembling the sky at noon.

Krishna Meghavarnam – A beautiful two toned shade of violet shot with arakku or red. It is the colour of dark rain clouds associated with Lord Krishna, or “Shyama” as he is referred to.

Turquoise blue – This gorgeous blue green gemstone that is a phosphate of aluminium and copper evolved into an object of interaction and exchange among the empires of early Islamic Eurasia. The association with the Turks and the trade routes that carried the gem across the Ottoman Empire to Europe made this a “Turkish Stone”. Emperor Jahangir was gifted a turquoise stone from the Safavid Shah of Iran in 1613. The Cerulean shade which acquired significance as a sacred stone has found its way into our sari colours too.

Sapphire blue –Lovingly called “Sappair” (also ‘neelam’) in Tamil, this hue highlights our love for gemstones, in particular the nine stones of the Navaratna. This precious light blue stone is worn to ward off the effects of Saturn in astrology, and its colour comes alive on the exquisite silken drape.

Copper sulphate blue – this distinctive shade of blue, rich and vivid, draws its name from the chemical compound and is widely used in the kanjivaram.

Ramar Blue – This delicate blue hue with hints of green is very popular is South India, especially found in the Golu dolls of Rama during the Navarathri festival. People celebrate this festival for nine nights by displaying dolls creatively in their homes, and by dressing up in their finest silks.

Kathiri Poo – ‘Kathiri’, meaning eggplant or aubergine, has a profusion of regional names. Only in a kanjivaram sari can one identify the myriad beautiful shades of purple of both the fruit and its flower!

Lavender – Derived from the pastel colours of the flower, this light purple is a very rare shade in the kanjivaram tradition, but subtly accents the drape of the silk.

December Poo – December Poo blooms in the winter months, from December to February, and comes in yellow, white, light and dark pink and in light violet shades. The distinctive purple tone has found its place in the kanjivaram.

Vadamalli – The colloquial name for the colour of the globe amaranth or bachelor button flower. A beautiful purple shot with pink, this shade is a favourite among many kanjivaram collectors.

Naval Pazham – The crimson and purple hued berries of the “Jamun”, a fruiting tree indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, are considered auspicious in South India. This tree is the Sthala Vruksham (sacred tree) of the famous Thiruvanaikaval (Akilandeswari) temple near Trichy.

Naval Pazham – The crimson and purple hued berries of the “Jamun”, a fruiting tree indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, are considered auspicious in South India. This tree is the Sthala Vruksham (sacred tree) of the famous Thiruvanaikaval (Akilandeswari) temple near Trichy.

Ranging from the subtle to the startling, the gently romantic to the bold and dramatic, the varied exquisite expressions of the colour blue in the kanjivaram are celebrated in this curation. Taking inspiration from flowers and mythology, from ancient history and popular culture, each shade of blue weaves a story in silk.


Note : This is a blog I had written for Kanakavalli’s Varnasutra Series. Pic Credit : Kanakavalli.

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Colour of Kanjivarams – Yellow

The kanjivaram is made only more beautiful by the rich symbolism woven into its drape, which is in itself aesthetically lovely. Just as every mudra or hand gesture in the traditional dance form of Bharatanatyam is a visual equivalent of a word or concept, every woven pattern or motif along with the colour of the silk means something to both weaver and wearer.

In this month’s edition of Varna Sutra, we turn to the kanjivaram’s yellows and oranges, attempting to delve into the many meanings of this vibrant and magical palette. The significance of the colour yellow is deeply ingrained in the consciousness and culture of India. No ritual in Hinduism is complete without turmeric or manjal, a substance whose many beneficial properties were recognised early on. Yellow is given several names – Pitha (the yellow color), Ranjani (that which gives colour), Varna Datri (that which enhances the body’s complexion), and also Haridra (indicating that it’s dear to Hari or Lord Krishna).

Lord Vishnu is often described as the one who wears a shining and lustrous yellow silk, and referred to as Pitambaram. The colour of the “golden spice” of India, turmeric, has been held sacred from time immemorial. The “earthy herb of the sun” with the orange-yellow rhizome was considered an Oushadhi, a healing herb. Yellow was also produced from bright flowers, and the dyers of India are well known for the brilliant shade of yellow known as “Basanti”, achieved by mixing turmeric with a carbonate of soda or lime juice.

These vibrant, springtime colours of yellow and orange come alive in the following passage from “Ritusamhara”, the 144-stanza poem in which Kalidasa describes the six seasons of the Indian year. The verses below celebrate the colours of the good earth (Prithvi), trees and flowers; the wings of insects and birds; and most significantly, a woman’s world, describing her dress, jewellery, flowers, the colours she adorns her eyes, face and lips in, as well as her perfumes. No wonder then, that the harbingers of spring – bright floral colours – made their way into our garments too.

At the hint of spring

Lovely women blend the charm

Of their peerless figures

With colourful linen vestments

Dyed in the juice of the Kusumba bloom

And the region of the bosom is adorned

By fine raiment of ochre brown

Stained with saffron hue

The mango trees are a blaze of colour

The new foliage flecked with coppery sheen..

The clusters of flowers

Red like coral beads

Mingled with the leafage

Down to the ground

Of Asoka trees

The spring has adorned the earth, in a trice

With the groves of palasha trees aflower

Swinging in the breeze

Bowed with the load of blossom

Resembling flaming fire

The earth looks like a newlywed bride 

In lovely red attire

Ritusamhara or the Pageant of seasons by Kalidasa (Canto 6 – Spring), 5TH Century AD

Myths and legends are the dreams of nations. They form a precious part of India’s heritage, mirroring the past. More than an association with luxury and wealth, yellow, orange and saffron have a deeper spiritual significance.

Indian sanyasis and sadhus traditionally wear a saffron garb, referred to as Kashayam. Narayana Guru, a social revolutionary and the uplifter of the Ezhava community of Kerala, chose to wear yellow and made it the colour of the order of sanyasins that he established.

“Indian yellow” or Haridhra has many social and cultural associations. Turmeric and its colour, are both considered sacred and auspicious. It is associated with several rituals and, in South India especially, a piece of turmeric tied to a thread and dyed yellow with turmeric, is used as the nuptial string or the Mangalsutra or Thali. Even today in a South Indian household, you might find a ‘Haridhra Ganapathi’ or a simple prism made out of turmeric paste to propitiate Lord Ganesha at the start of a pooja.

In Valmiki Ramayanam there is a description of Sita, the betrothed of Rama, dressed in beautiful yellow silk. South Indian weddings are believed to reflect this ideal marriage of Rama and Sita, and even present day weddings are not complete without guests and relatives singing the famous song, “Sita Kalyana VaibhogamE, Rama Kalyana VaibhogamE””. This Kriti composed by the 18th century poet saint Thyagaraja, commemorates the beauty of love in Rama’s marriage to Sita. It is sung at the close of the ceremony to invoke good fortune and to wish the couple..

Being a centre of worship and weaving – “the town of a thousand looms and a thousand temples” – Kanchipuram’s temples have unique traditions of their own. The nucleus of Vishnu Kanchi in Kancheepuram is the grand temple of Sri Varadaraja Swamy. The place is also referred to as Atthi giri or Hasta giri due to the association of the image of original deity being made out of Atthi tree (fig tree). This wooden deity Atthi Varadharis preserved in a small mandapam built inside the temple tank. And only once in forty years is the image taken out for a special offering.

South Indian textiles are always seen against the social and historical context from which they have emerged. Interestingly, during the months of August and September, there is a unique festival for Varadaraja Swamy called the Pavitrotsava festival.  Pavitrotsava is a purification ceremony, and during this time the Lord is decorated with Pavitramala or purification garlands made of silk and cotton thread. This practice originated way back, found in the records of the ruler Achyuta Raya in 1533 AD when Kanchipuram was a temple town as well as a flourishing textile hub. In no other temple will you find this unique tradition of garlanding deities with yarn, which is such an integral part of the Kanchipuram life and community.

The bridal kanjivaram and its colours are charged with emotion and are rich in association; in fact, every element of the wedding ceremony can be tied to colour and the expression of moods for auspicious occasions. Again, turmeric plays a key role in special blessings bestowed on the couple. Just before the muhurtam, the bride and groom’s new clothes (the sari and the dhoti along with and the mangalsutra) are circulated to the guests along with rice coated in turmeric. The elders take a pinch of this rice, referred to as “akshadai”, and shower it on the newlywed couple, as the mangalsutra is tied on the bride during the most auspicious time.

Apart from the custom of smearing the body with turmeric at weddings, garments dyed or marked at the corners with the vivid yellow of turmeric are considered lucky and to possess protective powers. Manjal andkumkumam, both vivid hues steeped in spirituality, are offered along with Thamboolam to all married women who visit a South Indian household.

The striking and bold hues in this palette are also drawn from fruits and flavours typical to a South Indian kitchen, as well as from some of the most beautiful flowers that bloom in flaming hues of yellow and orange.

Let us look at the many ways in which shades of yellow come to life on the kanjivaram sari:

Srichurnam or Simham (Orange-yellow) – The colour of the central line of tilakam worn by the Vaishnavas, a sacred perpendicular mark (Thirumann) on their forehead. This streak represents the grace of “Sri” or Lakshmi and hence is called Sri Churnam.

Elumichai (Lemon yellow) – The delicate citrus colour is elegant and lovely on the silk, and is also considered a compliment when referring to the complexion.

Mambazham– Mango yellow is a kanjivaram classic. The king of fruits and its tree are also sacred in the context of “Sthala Vruksham” of the Ekamreshwara temple. Under this tree, Lord Shiva and Parvathi get married every year, and it is a major festival in Kanchipuram. The mangai motif and mambazha yellow colour are ubiquitous to the craft.

Kesari / Kunkumapoo   – The golden orange colour of saffron that appears on the Indian flag, is lustrous on our saris. It also refers to a popular south Indian sweet – “Rava Kesari”.

Pasu Manjal (tender turmeric colour) – Apart from its use in ceremony and ritual, pasu manjal is a key eement of South Indian cooking and the main ingredient for celebrating Pongal, the harvest festival of Tamil Nadu. This is also used as a cosmetic ingredient in Ayurveda.

Sandhanam (sandalwood colour) – The light colour of ground sandalwood is always elegant on the kanjivaram. This aromatic material found a place in the treasury of royals, along with precious gems. Its importance in our history is illustrated in Arthasastra’s definition: “ Light, soft, moist and greasy as ghee, of pleasant smell, adhesive to the skin, tolerant and absorptive of heat”

Kanakambaram (light orange) – The light orange shades of this much loved tropical flower is striking but delicate. The flower has no fragrance but a brilliant colour, and is strung into strands for the hair and for decoration.

Fanta Orange – One of the most popular beverages in India, distinctive for its colour, as well as its “ringed glass” bottles

Vendhayam – The double hued brownish yellow seeds of fenugreek are an important ingredient in South Indian sambar, and this colour has become popular on kanjivaram saris.

Then Colour (honey) – the lustrous, dark amber shot shade of the oldest sweetener on earth is a rare but stunning colour on the silk. The honeycomb motif (then koodu) is also featured in kanjivaram saris

Gold – Called “Goldu” by the weavers, the usage of zari in the design of a sari dictates its value. Like many civilisations in the world, India was also connected to this lustrous yellow metal, since it was associated with the power of sun, and the eternal shine which never tarnished. The lustre of the silk is accented by the use of zari, and a key element of bridal and heirloom drapes.

Ranging from the subtle to the festive, the Haridhra palette is versatile, adapting to varied occasions. Each hue in this collection is a unique symbol, drawing inspiration from history, mythology and daily life.


Note : This is a blog I had written for Kanakavalli’s Varnasutra Series. Pic Credit : Kanakavalli.

Colours of Kanjivaram – Red

South India has one of the finest textile traditions, one that combines the skill of master craftsmen with elements of design, colour and weave that are drawn from the cultural and mythological history of the region. The quiet sensitivity of the weaver rooted in custom, ritual and religious fervour creates a special relationship between him andthe cloth he weaves. Kanchipuram was an important centre of worship, and the heritage weaves were always linked with religion, mirroring existing cultural patterns.

As we have seen in the first edition of Varna Sutra, colours have always been closely associated with auspiciousness, symbolising varied social and religious factors, especially when choosing kanjivaram saris for weddings and special occasions. The poet saint Sankara describes to devotees how the object of worship and meditation should be beautiful and auspicious, in his work “Ananda lahiri” (meaning, waves of happiness) –

“Mukhe may thamboolam nayana yugale kajjala kala,
Lalate kashmeeram, vilasathi gale moukthilatha,
Sphuarath kanchee satee Prathu kati thate hataka mayee,
Bhajami sthwam gowreem nagapathee kisorimavrutham.
– Ananda lahiri, slokam 3

“Oh Gauri, daughter of Himavan, you are so auspicious with thamboolam (betel juice) in your mouth, streaks of collyrium in your eyes, kumkumam on your forehead, a necklace of pearls adorning your neck and a golden kanchi silk saree secured with a resplendent waistband around your broad waist. I am your devotee always (constantly meditating on you).”

These strongly held beliefs in auspiciousness are firmly rooted in the fabric of life in South India. Artists breathe life into these subconscious beliefs through choice of palette and techniques of weaving. The colours of the betel leaf (‘thamboolam’), the glorious form of the rising sun in ‘kumkumam’ and the splendour of the Goddess wearing it as her ‘tilakam’ ( a bindi on her forehead) are all perfect symbols of a colour that is a favourite for brides.

This month in Varna Sutra, we focus on the colour of passion – ‘Raktha’ (red) and the entire palette, encompassing varied shades of red and pink, the universal colours of love, passion and life.

The symbolic primary of Indian red can be found in two references – fire (‘agni’) and blood, the two natural elements that hold rich historical significance. ‘Agni’ or fire was perceived as a living being, and an early object of worship – as a source of light and heat like the sun. The mother goddess of India is depicted in red, because she is associated with the principle of creation.

Raktha or the colour red is the first colour humans mastered, fabricated, reproduced, and broke into different shades, first in painting and later in dyeing. Through the millennia it has been given primacy over all other colours. Red’s pre-eminence is found in every civilisation – in the bricks and tiles of buildings, fabrics and clothing, jewels and personal accessories.

The remnants of madder-dyed fabric in Harappa indicates the antiquity of vegetable dyes, colours and mordants (substance used to enhance the dye colour), and India’s mastery over natural dyes. The Coromandel Coast was famous for the red derived from the roots of “manjista” (commonly known as Indian madder, and the red dye derived from this medicinal plant). The British documented the famous “Madura Red” from the plant called Chay or “Chaya Ver” in Tamil. (Chaya ver is Oldenlandiaumbellata and the bright red is derived from its bark).


One of the unique things about the “real zari” in a kanjivaram sari is that a red thread runs in a single strand of zari. Not only does this lend a depth of colour to the zari, but it also adds a touch of the auspicious to the weave. In Tamil Nadu, using colour to make a statement is part of our social consciousness. We react not only to the visual impact of a colour, but to all its religious, social and historical connotations. And the local lexicon of shades is enriching, drawing from the various reds we encounter in daily life, mythology and the natural world. ‘Arakku’, a distinctive colour lying between red and maroon, marks the blossoming of pink into a deep red, and deserves a special mention for being a shade that is unique to Kanjivaram and an absolute favourite choice for the bridal sari.

Below, the very many shades of the colour wheel’s most passionate palette –

Kempu – the ruby red of uncut gemstones which adorned Tanjore paintings and temple jewellery of dancers

Arakku – the colour of lac (which is still used a sealing agent), largely preferred among most communities in Tamilnadu for the Muhurtham sari (worn by the bride on the wedding day while the mangalsutra is tied)

MilagaiPazham (Chilli) Red – The gorgeous and glowing red of chillies which makes brides stand out on their special day

Kumkuma Red – the vermillion colour of the powder used for religious markings, especially on our foreheads, to cover the highest of the chakras – the sixth chakra of the body locatedin the space between our eyebrows that is considered a “third eye”. A circular red dot, or ‘tilaka’ of ‘sindura’ of a married woman is a visual social statement.

Thakkali (Tomato) red – the fresh colour of ripened tomatoes with a tinge of orange

Brick Red – the earthen brownish red colour of ‘Sengal’ made from ‘Semman’, or red earth

Chemparuthy (Hibiscus) red – The bright reddish orange flowers used for daily worship finds a way into the palettes of our saris

Pattu Roja – the colour of the fragrant pink garden roses which are used in bridal garlands

Paneer Roja – the baby pink of the scented rose of South India used to make rose water and food flavourings

Vengayam (Onion pink) – The pastel pink of Indian onions

Thamarai (Lotus pink) – the sacred lotus is revered for its colour and is an ancient symbol with a divine connection to the gods Vishnu, Brahma and the goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswathi. One sect of weavers of Kanchipuram isreferred to as “Padma Saliyars” where ‘padma’ means lotus

Rani Pink – The unique Indian colour referring to a shocking pink

Any discussion of this palette, must refer to the brilliance of naming shot colours, in which warp and weft yarns of two or more colours produce an iridescent hue.

Meenakshi – Deep pink shot with blue

In the traditional art forms of India, the artist’s purpose is always to articulate deeper meanings and to draw parallels with the divine. In weaving, this symbolism is translated into colours, motifs and patterns, each having rich cultural or social significance.

The Goddess of Kanchipuram, Kamakshi, is the main deity of worship for most weaving communities in the town. Initially the weavers, bearers of tradition and craftsmanship, wove fabrics for the temple gods and royals; choosing palettes to adhere to specific deities and their symbols. For the Goddess they primarily wove reds, along with greens and yellows. From the historic temple facades they drew inspiration for symbolic designs.

In the opening line of the dhyanaslokam of LalithaSahasranamam, the Goddess is addressed as “Sindooraruna Vigraham” – she takes the colour of the rising sun, a resplendent vermillion. The‘AbhiramiAndhadhi’ also starts in a similar way, with‘Uthikindra Sengkathir Ucchi Thilagam’ – the one who wears the rising sun as a mark on her forehead.

The worship of the Devi or Goddess in South India brings to mind her myriad auspicious and beautiful forms, most often adorned with hints of red and pink. Remembering the mythologies and traditions, the weavers offered their salutations by weaving these into their fabric. 

In Kanchipuram, after buying the all important ‘muhurtam’ wedding sari, people offer the first wedding invite to the Goddess Kamakshi, sometimes along with a silk sarias an offering. They seek her blessings by placing the “thali” (Mangal Sutra of the bride) at her feet and receiving it in return with the ‘prasadam’ that is the divine “Kamakshi Kumkumam”.

Colours of Kanjivarams – Green

India has always been a country of colour; from the vibrant hues of our market places and the diverse palettes of our natural landscapes, to our colourful festivals and the vivid shades of the clothes we wear. In South India, traditional colours are deeply entrenched in the cultural fabric of our lives, their symbolism closely tied to what shades we wear on different occasions. The colours of the kanjivaram in particular hold immense importance – each one drawing from daily life and representing a mood or having historical and religious significance.

In this first edition of Varna Sutra, we turn to the colour green or ‘Haritha‘ in Sanskrit. Green, the colour of life, comes alive in a myriad shades on the lush silks of the kanjivaram. It was one of the essential colours of the ancient craft, at a time before synthetic dyes came to Kanchipuram. The colour has always been associated with fertility and new life, evoking a sense of freshness and positivity.

There are no colours more versatile or closer to nature than ‘haritha’ – the various shades ranging from brilliant jewel tones to soft pastel hues – and it is a delight to see the dyer’s nomenclature for the various shades of green in Tamil, drawing from daily life, food and culture….

  • Elakkai Pachai – the light shade of green which takes its colour from cardamom pods
  • Ilai Pachai – the vivid colour of chlorophyll in leaves
  • Kili Pachai – the vibrant colour of parrots.Kamakshi, the prime deity of Kanchipuram is represented with a parrot in her hand. She embodies the autonomy of nature, depicted holding symbols associated with Kama, the god of love. She holds the sugarcane bow, arrows made of flowers, and a parrot
  • Manthulir – a stunning “green-red” colour which symbolises the onset of summer, and best describes the beauty of tender mango leaves
  • Mayil Kazhuthu – a shade which brings together the shimmering blues and greens of a peacock’s neck in the warp and weft
  • Paasi pachai – a raw and earthy shade of moss green
  • Pon Vandu – the iridescent golden glow of the golden beetle, captured in a shot of green and yellow
  • Alli Pachai – the symphony of white and green of water lilies in a pond
  • Emerald green – one of the colours in Navarathnams or the traditional nine gems in jewellery, and representing planetary influence; this brilliant green stone is believed to belong to the planet Mercury
  • Bottle green – the rich colour of the dark green glass of bottles.

    Apart from its ubiquity in nature and our kitchens, the colour green also has a deep auspicious and spiritual connect in the South – consider these beautiful examples –

  • Set on the southern banks of the Vaigai river, the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple is a historic Hindu temple which forms the heart and lifeline of Tamil literature. Here, the deity Meenakshi takes the form of Raja Matangi (a form of the goddess where she is born as the daughter of Sage Mathanga), and she is always represented in a vivid shade of emerald green.
  • Meenakshi’s brother is the supreme Narayana, the lord of Azhwars (the Tamil poet saints of the Vaishnavite sect in South India), and is also depicted in green. In a beautiful pasuram (a hymn praising the Lord) – Pacchai Mamalai Pol Meni, Pavalavai Kamala Sengkann’ – penned by Thondarradippodi Azhwar, the Lord is depicted as a green mountain, with red lips and lotus eyes. You can listen to Bombay Jayshri’s melodious rendition here.
  • Kanchipuram is home to the temples of ‘Pachai vanna perumal and pavala vanna perumal’ – a twin temple of Divya desam which has an “emerald and coral hued Perumal”.

No wonder South India celebrates green as a philosophy, a concept and a way of life!

Colour is also an element of the auspiciousness or ‘rasi’ of a sari. Alongside green, people choose vermillion, kumkuma arakku and yellow for bridal saris. These drapes must also be complete with a classic korvai border and a grand pallu or ‘thalaippu’ for brides.

The Kanjivaram relies on a careful interplay, and deep understanding of the balance and tension between structure and colour – a typical Kanchipuram silk sari is known for its distinguishing characteristics of bright and contrasting colours in the body and the pallu or thalaippu, and uses structure to highlight and nuance colour play. The Kanjivaram’s distinct structural identity – the way they use two different warps to create different thickness and colour contrasts in the border and body of the sari – form the perfect framework for its use of colour.

This foundation of the importance of structure in form and design flows from the mindset of the Tamil heartland, in its grammar, defining its geographical landscapes (Kurinchi – Mountainous regions; Mullai – Forests; Marutham – Cropland; Neithal – Seashore; Palai – Desert) or even in something as elemental as the ‘pulli kolam’ (the starting point for any kolam design) in which a dotted grid is mapped out prior to the actual kolam form that is finally created, using the grid as reference for symmetry and balance.

In India, colour is everything – it bolsters our ideas, emotions and sensory perceptions, in our food, clothing, paintings and even in the ragas of classical music! A look at the pages of history shows us that colour has always defined our artistic compositions.


Note : This is a blog I had written for Kanakavalli (Varnasutra) Pic Credit : Kanakavalli

The West Bengal Textile trail


The British Museum website has a document from 1730 listing the range of textiles or the “piece goods” purchased in Bengal by the Company. During the 18th Century, Indian textiles comprised 60 per cent of the total value of the Company’s sales in London. Purchases included fine muslins, printed chintz, cotton and silk ginghams and embroidered quilts.

That textile tradition has continued to thrive. Even today, handloom clusters in Bengal are known for their unique designs and techniques. Which is why we set out on a sari trail (organised by Co-optex) to explore the handloom tradition of Bengal. Such a trail is akin to a combined treat of mishti doi and sondesh!

A weaving trail is quite an experience for a sari lover — you get to understand the tough conditions of handloom weavers and weaving societies, the technical expertise of weavers, the exquisiteness of the weaves, the success stories of clusters, and, best of all, you get to shop directly from the societies.

Jamdani has been declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The excellence in weaving has its base in the social, religious and natural environment, and it is translated through a particular technique and weavers’ skill. We witnessed this first-hand when we visited the well-known clusters of Begampur, Shantipur, Fulia and Kalna.

Today, the Begampur sari has bewitched wearers with its bright colours and tribal embroidery on the pallu, rendered entirely by hand. But, it was revived only in 2010, thanks to the measures taken by the Weavers’ Service Centre (WSC), Kolkata. The Centre found that though the cluster had skilled weavers from Dhaniakhali, the traditional ‘Matha Par’ saris were not in demand. It took them three years to enthuse the demoralised weavers. Today, the average monthly income of a weaver has gone up by about Rs. 7,000 to Rs. 10,000, because of focus on design development, weaving techniques, dyeing and printing interventions, and WSC’s branding and marketing advice. And, all this was possible with a Government sanction of just Rs. 50 lakh. Today, the Begampur cluster is a registered handloom brand. They also crossed the Rs.1 crore revenue mark within three years.

Shantipur in Nadia has been renowned for its handlooms from 1409 CE. Santipuri saris were the first-ever from West Bengal to receive a Geographical Indication. They use a “Do-Rookha” technique to weave a double-sided design — the sari looks the same on either side. The skilled weavers now also weave jamdani to boost their income, and were named ‘Model Cluster of India’ last year at the National Handloom Day celebrations in Chennai.

The flowy drapes of cottons and linens from Fulia, neighbouring Shantipur, have taken the market by storm. They are famous for Tangail saris, and Fulia weavers have developed their own version of the Daccai (tangail jamdani) on the pallu. Most weavers in Fulia are from the Basak community, and are supposed to be descendants of the famous muslin weavers of Dhaka, who migrated during Partition.

The highlight of our trip was a visit to the village of Kalna, a famous muslin weaving centre, in Burdwan district. We crossed the River Hooghly to meet Rajib Debnath, a sixth-generation muslin weaver. His father Jyotish Debnath is a National Award-winning master weaver. Rajib, who initially took up a job in Hyderabad, returned to his roots to produce the finest of jamdani muslins. It’s inspiring to see how he applies educated decisions in his business — to suit both the Indian and western markets.

The father and son specialise in muslin jamdani — they use the long-stapled cotton grown in the region, and skilled women weavers across pockets of Bengal spin hand-spun yarn from this cotton. The use of hand-spun yarn, lightweight translucent muslin and hand interlacing of the weft by jamdani without any loom attachments is the unique weaving feature. Rajib explains: “While khadi is simply hand-spun, hand-woven cloth, muslin is woven from very fine high-count khadi yarn.”

Sadly, there are only two people around who can weave 500-count fine muslin. Finally, Rajib performs the ultimate test of muslin — a 600-count muslin stole glides through a finger ring. There could have been no better way to conclude a textile trail than by witnessing tangible proof of fine craftsmanship.

Temple textiles at Chindradripet

The art of textiles designs flourished only because of royals and temples.There is a whole lot of oral heritage lying undocumented in the making of these sacred textiles!

Have you heard about Muthangi, Vairamudi, Pandian Kondai?


Iyaa mudali street specializes not just in the umbrellas but all the items required for temple festivals – right from the lord’s special ensemble like a “Muthangi” (a pearl coat), special crown or headgear called as “Muthu kondai”, “Pandian Kondai”,  which is entirely hand-stiched with pearls. The entire pearl work is done on a base of velvet. Based on the order and value spent by donors, they use real or cultured pearls.

This is the special “vairamudi” or the diamond headgear which is done only for Lord Rama.



Pandian Kondai is another type of “alangaram” of the headgear where the crown is adorned with a circular cap.


This is the “Kabai” – which is a frontal adornment piece of a jewllery for the deity. The entire velvet is designed with ornamentation resembling various jewellery.


The artisans make special temple cloths, and “thombais” the cloth used for temple cars. The sheer size and the handwork required for making different sizes and kinds is mind boggling.

These are the canopies referred to as “Asman giri” (under the sky) – under which utsava murthy deity idols are usually  placed.


The hand made fans used for the final upachara, made and embellished, in a velvet base.



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