Kalakshetra’s natural dyed Kalamkari sarees

Chemical dyes might come in zillion sophisticated formulations. But you can’t match the depth and uniqueness of colours derived from nature.

Mrs. Rukmini Devi Arundale started the Natural dyeing unit of Kalakshetra in 1970, and the person she chose to head it was Mrs. Shakunthala Ramani. I had an opportunity to interview Late Mrs. Ramani two years back and she enthusiastically showed her books on Kolam, and spoke a lot about her hobby, batik painting.

The Kalamkari unit of Kalakshetra was established in April 1978 with the sponsorship of Crafts Council of India and a small grant of Rs.50000/- from the social welfare board, to provide employment to women.

Mrs. Shakunthala had trained Mr. Prabhakar, who heads the pen kalamkari unit currently. Mr. Dakshinamurthy who heads the block printing department is a store house of information on natural dyeing and printing.

Here’s a video of an interview with Mr. Dakshinamurthy, on what differentiates a Kalakshetra Kalamkari as against the rest!

Interview with Dakshinamurthy sir, why Kalakshetra’s kalamkari is unique..

I have summarised the key points here:

  • No figures of Gods and goddesses in sarees or dresses – only floral or other prints are used
  • Gods/Goddess, mythological stories only for panels
  • 100% natural dyes
  • The block printing follows the Machilipatnam style and the pen kalamkari follows the Sri kalahasti style
  • While the original machilipatnam style uses dark colors for background, Kalakshetra sticks MOSTLY to beige background
  • The key colors used are maroon and black on the foreground

Thanjavur Kalamkari

The art of kalamkari took a southern flavor when the artists of sikkilnaickenpet made the temple wall hangings, thombais (used in temple cars) and as “asmangiri” (canopy cloth) – the colour of jet black is a secret composition even today.

Spotted a panel at Thiruvavaduthurai temple, traditionally these mutts helped to preserve this fine art!

Depicted in the panel is the Pradosha Shivan mounted on his Rishaba! And don’t miss the flying angels, a Victorian touch too..

Calligraphy in sarees

“The word is sacred. Sacred is the word” – “Sada sowbhagvathi bhava”

Saw a fantastic bridal heirloom Paithani saree at the Prince of Wales museum with the above words woven in the pallu!

Pic : A paithani saree with woven words of ” Sada Sowbhagavathibhava” at Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai

The practice of calligraphy in weaving is not something new to us- be it in Benares where they use Urdu or Devanagari scripts in a motif or Kabir’s poem!

A calligraphic logo in a benares saree!
Screen printed calligraphic text of the famous song “harivarasanam” in a kerala kasavu saree!

Did you see the video of Sabyasachi making a beneares lehenga for Deepika’s wedding which made news – https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=len1aAhGhYg , the above words were woven in her lehenga!


You thought croptops were the fashion of today?

By 1930’s the royal household women of Baroda wore this sleeveless waistcoat richly embellished, known as “fituhi”- above their blouses. It was made of brocade, tissue, chanderi and the fine fit was just like an european corset.

Image credit : CSVMS Museum, Mumbai

And was done by the tailors of Baroda itself, more the small fitting pockets too! Maharani Chimnabhai II used to wear this, and this waistcoat is from the royal collection of Royal Gaekwar family of Baroda.

Image credit : CSVMS Museum, Mumbai

Kodalikaruppur sarees

The famous Kodalikaruppur Sarees from Tamilnadu

Tanjore Painting original from Madras Museum – The Tanjore king Sivaji and his wife Saitamba Bai – The uniqueness of this painting is the gold gilt and gem setting and painted with ivory!

There are more than 10-12 karupurs in and around thanjavaur and trichy. The place we refer is the one near kollidam (trichy)- Kodalikaruppur, a village which was called as Neela Meghapuram earlier, which is surrounded by rich silk weaving areas of Kumbakonam and Thirubhuvanam.

The place was famous for its fine yarn woven into dhotis, sarees and angavastrams. The weaving was so fine that it attracted the Thanjavur royalties, and a new line of fabrics were produced for the king’s household.

Kodalikaruppur is actually the advanced weaving technique attributed to this village – the introduction of ornamentation on cotton ground woven fabric alongwith gold brocade! This was further embellished with natural dyes applied by kalam or the engraved wooden blocks.

The origin of this fabric is attributed to Raja Serforji of Thanjavur (1798-1832) who announced that a contest would take place to choose a best woven saree to be given as present to his queen for her birthday. A Kavarai chettiar creates this Karuppur prototype – specific characteristic being kalamkari being done on the shimmering textual quality (cotton interspersed with zari or metallic yarn) in the jamdani figures portions of the saree.

Hadway notes that the colours were predominantly in shades of black and red. The famous pallu motif is a take off from the Persian candle stand design.

The Persian candle design incorporated in a contemporary linen saree!

Source : Internet

Mission Mundu

Malabar was a province of Madras State – and had 3 districts Palghat, Calicut and Cannanore. The Basel Evangelical Mission, a religious missionary establishment in Germany set its base in Karnataka when East India Company permitted entry to all Europeans in 1833. The Mission workers entered Kerala through South Canara and Coorg, and established themselves in Cannanore.

The Basel Mission’s activities started on 21st Aug 1834 – with three missionaries Johann Christoper Lehner, Christian Lehnard Greiner and Samuel Heibich – converting natives to Christianity. In 1844, they started a small handloom weaving factory in Mangalore.

The Basel Mission Centre

A trained specialist came from Germany and introduced the first fly shuttle loom in 1851. The dyeing of yarns was done here, and out of the rind of cashew nut tree and an extract of heartwood of the catechu tree -they introduced the famous Khakhi dye!

The then Superintendent of Mangalore found this ideal for the Uniforms. Another indigenous product was the “Shikari” cloth by the Mangalore weaving unit, again this cloth was used for uniforms. Due to this success, they started the Cannanore unit in 1852 and Calicut in 1859. It was a landmark of the hand loom industry and was known as the Common Wealth Trust (India) Ltd.

Spinning unit at the Basel Mission weaving centre – Source : Internet

Trained carpenters from Germany made the local “frame looms” – and this helped them to weaver heavier furnishings and dress materials and they were called Malabar looms. The dhotis woven in the mission factories were called “Mission Mundu”

Basel Mission weaving unit, Calicut

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

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.

Link : https://kanakavalli.com/blogs/kanakavalli-journal/varna-sutra-mriga-pakshi-kanjivarams-motifs

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