In the first week of June, a shower had left a gentle chill in the air of Kuthampully. Lush trees lined the way leading up to the handloom village in Kerala, punctuated by billboards celebrating Kuthampully’s star product – the iconic kasavu saree.

Kasavu is the gold zari border on the traditional off-white saree. It is “what Kerala is known for,” claimed Suresh Unnikrishnan, a wholesaler of kasavu saree and mundu, a sarong-like garment worn by men in the state. Kasavu sarees have been part of Kerala for centuries. They can be seen on the women in the 19th century paintings of Raja Ravi Varma – be it the one of Saraswati or that of a woman playing the swarabat, a string instrument. They still remain popular, with top Malayalam actresses such as Manju Warrier choosing to wear it.

Kuthampully in Thiruvilwamala panchayat, about 50 km from Thrissur, is one of the few villages in India where the sarees are handwoven. In September 2011, the Kuthampully saree was given geographical indication status by the Indian government, endorsing its qualities and certifying its reputation.

Kasavu sarees

Community of weavers

“But the amazing thing about the saree is that although it is quintessentially a Kerala saree, it is woven by weavers who settled here from what is present-day Karnataka about 500 years ago,” said K Rajnikanth. His is one of the 300 weaver families in Kuthampully. “The Maharaja of Kochi wanted good weavers because that’s what Kerala lacked, so he asked my ancestors to come make garments for him and his family. The golden zari work on the saree border shows that the women of Kerala’s royal family were trying to use gold for fashion in ways other than just jewellery.”

About 60,000 handwoven sarees are made in Kuthampully in a year. “On average, a single weaver produces about 200 sarees in a year,” Rajnikanth said. Prices range from Rs 1,800 to Rs 12,000 for a handwoven saree, though a wedding saree can sell for more than Rs 50,000.

Rajnikanth’s ancestors were Devanga Chettiars from Bangalore and Mysore – “We’re known to have descended from Devala, an ancient Hindu sage,” said Rajnikanth. “Devangas are professional weavers and we make pure cotton sarees and other apparel.” Over the centuries, Devangas moved from Karnataka and are now concentrated in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and also Odisha, where they’re called Deras.

Preparing the thread to be woven on the loom.

“When outside, talking business, we speak Malayalam,” said Rajnikanth. “But at home, we speak a mix of Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam. Our language has no lipi, no script. It has been and continues to be passed down through generations.” His wife Kavitha is from a Devanga family in Tamil Nadu and the couple speak in what sounds like Kannada but with Tamil and Malayalam words mixed in. “Devangas never marry outside the community,” Kavitha Rajnikanth said. “If we do, we are ostracised.”

In 2004, the Devanga leaders of Belagur, a small village in Karnataka’s Chitradurga district, excluded 10 families for marrying outside the community. This was criticised for being illegal and unconstitutional, but it happened again in 2011 to five families in the Chikmagalur district. “We just wouldn’t take the chance,” Kavitha said. “Devanga panchayat is very powerful. Everything from crime, property to marriage, etc. is decided by the panchayat.”

The Devangas of Kerala also follow the same religious traditions as those in Karnataka. There’s a Sowdeshwari Amma temple in Kuthampully and the deity is known as Chowdeswari Devi in Karnataka. The community follows other similar traditions across states, said Santhosh Nataraju, Suresh Unnikrishnan’s business partner. “I married across the border in Tamil Nadu. My wife is from a family of pattu or silk weavers. But that makes no difference because no matter where the Devangas are, we stick to our ancient traditions.” One of these is not working on the loom on amavasya or new moon day. “We believe that Lord Vishnu kept cotton seeds in his navel, which were given to Devala, the first Devanga on amavasya day,” said Santhosh Nataraju.

Golden zari from Surat that is used to make the sarees.

There are 566,000 Devangas in India, and the majority of them live in Karnataka and about 700 in Kerala. In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu they weave silk sarees, in Odisha the community is known for the Dobby booti saree and also the Behrampur patta, which also has a geographical indication tag.

Labour of love

Rajnikanth was at his home, which also doubles up as his weaving workshop. He sat at the loom along with his 67-year-old father, Krishnaraju. “Devanga men sit at the loom, weaving,” he said. “Our women dye the yarn and spin the thread.” The yarn comes from Coimbatore and the gold zari thread from Surat in Gujarat. “We start work at 6 am every morning. A simple Kerala kasavu saree takes a day to weave.”

A single saree can fetch up to Rs 400 for Krishnaraju. The more intricate sarees worn at weddings can take up to a week to weave and can cost upwards of Rs 4,500. “I either sell these sarees directly to customers or to wholesalers like Suresh, wholesalers sell it at a much higher price than I get,” he said.

In another part of the village, Unnikrishnan was busy meeting the orders placed with him. His employees were packing 5,000 kasavu sarees for a big retailer in Kochi. “We have online retailers and big saree showrooms ordering from us in bulk,” he said, adding that not everyone likes handloom sarees because they’re expensive. “So we get the ones made at power looms in Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, infrastructure and labour are way too high to set up power looms here.”

Rajnikanth, a weaver from Kuthampully.

How do you tell the difference between a handloom saree and one woven on a power loom? “It’s nearly impossible,” said Rajnikanth. “But feel the weight of the saree – handwoven is always lighter than the one made on a machine.”

Changing marketplace

The weavers and wholesalers of Kuthampully constantly experiment with new trends to update the kasavu saree. “Hand- or screen-painted murals of Lord Krishna have been very popular last few years,” Unnikrishnan said. This year, they’re working with mirrorwork on the blouse. “It looks good with handloom sarees.”

The online market has brought about some change for these weavers, as evidenced by an anecdote Unnikrishnan shares – “A man bought a black and gold handloom kasavu saree for Rs 750 from us. A friend sent me a link to where he was selling it. The price there was Rs 5,150 plus delivery.”

The weavers and wholesalers of Kuthampully are not planning to counter this online market though. “We’ve got our hands full with the orders we get. There’s enough and more demand for our products from big retailers,” Unnikrishnan said. In fact, he doesn’t take card payments either because of the 5% transaction fee that he will have to pay. “The younger generation isn’t interested in taking it forward. They want to study further and take up professional jobs.”

At a wholesaler's shop, Kasavu sarees are prepared for shipment.

All images by Meenakshi Soman.