Over the last three centuries, and more broadly over a millennium, there has been a remarkable surge in the number of artisans and their specialised craft in Banaras city, and their colonies have sprung up at Kotwa, Jalalipur, Alaipur, Lallapura, Rewari Talab, Madanpura and Bazardiha, and in the adjoining areas of the Lohta village. All these areas still continue to be central to the artisans and weavers of this fine art.

The production of rugs and carpets in Bhadohi, just about 40 km from Varanasi – formerly part of the Banaras district and now a separate district in an adjoining rural area – began relatively late but evolved into a hub for the carpet export business in the eighties and early nineties. The carpets of Bhadohi were particularly exclusive because of the close-knitted knots that were predominantly done by children, as their small fingers had better dexterity. Bhadohi faced a crisis when the ethical practices of their business were raised in various national and international forums. One of the exporters who spoke to me in the early 1990s, as I recall, who had returned from Germany, after attending a meeting with the International Carpet Classification Organisation, was horrified to find that everywhere at the official venue and even in the town, they had billboards and posters showing a blood-dripping hand of a child, denouncing the employment of small children in the carpet industry in Bhadohi. Of course, it was another business trick in favour of mechanised carpet weaving. Here, every single household is engaged in the task of weaving the world-renowned Bhadohi carpet.

The Mughals introduced the renowned zardozi and kimkhwab styles of needlework. In Dekho Hamri Kashi, Hemant Sharma notes that while this form of needlework has ancient origins, the Atharva Veda mentions that the cover of the palanquin of a newlywed was adorned with a golden artwork known as kalabattu, which actually was a silken thread covered with the golden or silken wire mesh. During the Gupta period, kalabattu was prepared by dipping these threads in a liquid mixture of gold. He also mentions an apparel that was called hiranya drapi (golden dress).

I found two similar words in Sanskrit that have the intonation of this drapery: hiranyatvac (having a gold covering) and hiranyatvacas (having a golden caparison). In their current forms, both these art styles were introduced by the Mughals, who also patronised the weavers through liberal grants and encouragement. Later, the Mughal kings and nawabs of Awadh further improvised the art by bringing in skilled artisans from Iran.

In Banaras, a variety of patterns were traditionally employed for brocade, initially intended for the sarees, but now creatively used for most of the ceremonial garments. They include the patterns of rosettes, poppy, pinecones, jangla works, etc. The rating of the garment is determined by the gold and silver used in it. Presently, most of the work involves plain silken threads, with some pieces retaining intricate patterns to preserve their heritage significance.

Zardozi, literally zar meaning gold and dozi meaning embroidery, refers to any form of embroidery using metal threads. The prevalent patterns of zardozi are the flora and fauna of the subcontinent. The Mughals and later, the Awadh nawabs, are known to have invited the artists from Iran who were called zardos. The zardozi workers in Banaras celebrate a festival called Huzur ki Miraj, which was started by their patron saint Hazrat Yusuf Alah-e-Salam.

Describing the city and its wealth, Lord Macaulay, even though he was the greatest bête noire of nationalists, wrote about the city’s fabulous fabric commenting that: “Commerce had as many pilgrims as religion. All along the shores of the venerable stream lay great fleets of vessels laden with rich merchandise. From the looms of Benares went forth the most delicate silks that adorned the balls of St James’s and of Versailles.”

Since the 18th century, when the Marathas and other Hindu royals were pouring their wealth into Banaras, this art form gained rapid momentum. The massive construction of ghats, temples and palaces, with their accompanying social ceremonies, many priceless garments of the idols of the deities, following large-scale religious ceremonies, involved the employment of a considerable workforce of weavers. The rush of the Hindu royals to Banaras also popularized this art form and the end products of the Banarasi weavers, to the rest of the subcontinent, bolstering the trade.

Sherring, too, noted the weaving activities: “Silks and shawls are manufactured in the city; and Benares is especially famous for its gold embroidered cloths called Kincob (Kimkhwab) and for its beautiful filigree work in gold.”

It was also at the same time, certainly not a coincidence, that the troika of the ruling elites of Banaras – Gosain priests, merchant bankers and Raja of Banaras – all gave liberal patronage to the weaving industry. Prinsep, in a letter to his sister in 1820, describes the costumes of Banaras as: “The dress of the natives here is far more elegant than in Bengal. Instead of the universal white muslin drapery, we have here the gaudiest colours and costumes displayed.”

Despite the policies of the East India Company, unlike Bengal, the silk and cotton industry in Banaras continued to ascend. The reason for this was its status as a traditional trade centre with liberal and active merchant bankers, a well-oiled business nexus and infrastructure for riverine trade and road transport, its role as a pilgrimage site and a retirement home for the royals and the super-rich. It was also because of the ingenuity and adaptability of the weavers and designers with the market forces.

Excerpted with permission from Banaras: A Journey Into the Heart of the City, Vertul Singh, Penguin India.