6 yards of history

History of sari-like drapery is traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation which flourished during 2800–1800 BCE around the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent. Cotton was first cultivated and woven in Indian subcontinent around 5th millennium BCE. Dyes used during this period are still in use, particularly indigo, lac, red madder and tumeric. Silk was woven around 2450 BCE and 2000 BCE.

The word ‘sari’ evolved from ‘saatikaa’ (sanskrit: शाटिका) mentioned in earliest Hindu literature as women’s attire. The Sari or Sattika evolved from a three-piece ensemble comprising the Antriya, the lower garment; the Uttariya; a veil worn over the shoulder or the head; and the Stanapatta, a chestband. This ensemble is mentioned in Sanskrit lterature and Buddhist Pali literature during the 6th century BCE. This complete three-piece dress was known as Poshak, generic term for costume. Ancient Antriya closely resembled dothi wrap in the “fishtail” version which was passed through legs, covered the legs loosely and then flowed into a long, decorative pleats at front of the legs. It further evolved into Bhairnivasani skirt, today known as ghagri and lehenga. Uttariya was a shawl-like veil worn over the shoulder or head, it evolved into what is known today known as dupatta and ghoonghat. Likewise, Stanapatta evolved into choli by 1st century CE.

The ancient Sanskrit work, Kadambari by Banabhatta and ancient Tamil poetry, such as the Silapadhikaram describes women in drapes or sari. In ancient India, although women wore saris that bared the midriff, the Dharmashastra writers stated that women should be dressed such that the navel would never become visible. By which for some time the navel exposure became a taboo and the navel was concealed. In ancient Indian tradition and the Natya Shastra (an ancient Indian treatise describing ancient dance and costumes), the navel of the Supreme Being is considered to be the source of life and creativity, hence the midriff is to be left bare by the sari.

It is generally accepted that wrapped sari-like garments for lower body and sometimes shawls or scarf like garment called ‘uttariya’ for upper body, have been worn by Indian women for a long time, and that they have been worn in their current form for hundreds of years. In ancient couture the lower garment was called ‘nivi’ or ‘nivi bandha’, while the upper body was mostly left bare. The works of Kalidasa mentions ‘Kurpasika’ a form of tight fitting breast band that simply covered the breasts. It was also sometimes referred to as ‘Uttarasanga’ or ‘Stanapatta’.

Poetic references from works like Silapadhikaram indicate that during the Sangam period in ancient Tamil Nadu in southern India, a single piece of clothing served as both lower garment and head covering, leaving the midriff completely uncovered. Similar styles of the sari are recorded paintings by Raja Ravi Verma in Kerala. Numerous sources say that everyday costume in ancient India and till recent times in Kerala consisted of a pleated dhoti or  wrap, combined with a breast band called ‘Kurpasika’ or ‘Stanapatta’ and occasionally a wrap called ‘Uttariya’ that could at times be used to cover the upper body or head. The two-piece Kerala mundum neryathum (mundu, a dhoti or sarong, neryath, a shawl, in Malayalam) is a survival of ancient clothing styles. The one-piece sari in Kerala is derived from neighboring Tamil Nadu or Deccan during medieval period based on its appearance on various temple murals in medieval Kerala.

Early Sanskrit literature has a wide vocabulary of terms for the veiling used by women, such as Avagunthana (oguntheti/oguṇthikā), meaning cloak-veil, Uttariya meaning shoulder-veil, Mukha-pata meaning face-veil and Sirovas-tra meaning head-veil. In the Pratimānātaka, a play by Bhāsa describes in context of Avagunthana veil that “ladies may be seen without any blame (for the parties concerned) in a religious session, in marriage festivities, during a calamity and in a forest”. The same sentiment is more generically expressed in later Sanskrit lliterature. Sudraka the author of Mrichhakatika set in fifth century BCE says that the Avagaunthaha was not used by women everyday and at every time. He says that a married lady was expected to put on a veil while moving in the public.This may indicate that it was not necessary for unmarried females to put on a veil. This form of veiling by married women is still prevalent in Hindi-speaking areas, and is known as ghoongat where the loose end of a sari is pulled over the head to act as a facial veil.

Based on sculptures and paintings, tight bodices or cholis are believed have evolved between 2nd century BCE to 6th century CE in various regional styles. Early cholis were front covering tied at the back; this style was more common in parts of ancient northern India. This ancient form of bodice or choli are still common in the state of Rajasthan today. Varies styles of decorative traditional embroidery like gota patti, mochi, pakko, kharak, suf, kathi, phulkari and gamthi are done on cholis. In Southern parts of India, choli is known as ravikie which is tied at the front instead of back, kasuti is traditional form of embroidery used for cholis in this region. In Nepal, choli is known as cholo or chaubandi cholo and is traditionally tied at the front.

Red is most favored colour for weddingsaris and are traditional garment choice for brides in Indian culture. Women traditionally wore various types of regional handloomsaris made of silk, cotton, ikkat, block-print, embroidery and tie-dye textiles. Most sought after brocade silk saris are Banasari, Kanchipuram, Gadwal, Paithani, Mysore, Uppada, Bagalpuri, Balchuri, Maheshwari, Chanderi, Mekhela, Ghicha, Narayan pet and Eri etc. are traditionally worn for festive and formal occasions. Silk Ikat and cotton saris known as Patola, Pochampally, Bomkai, Khandua, Sambalpuri, Gadwal, Berhampuri, Bargarh, Jamdani, Tant, Mangalagiri, Guntur, Narayan pet, Chanderi, Maheshwari, Nuapatn, Tussar, Ilkal, Kotpad and Manipuri were worn for both festive and everyday attire. Tie-dyed and block-print saris known as Bandhani, Leheria/Leheriya, Bagru, Ajrakh, Sungudi, Kota Dabu/Dabu print, Bagh and Kalamkari were traditionally worn during monsoon season. GotaPattis popular form of traditional embroidery used on saris for formal occasions, various other types of traditional folk embroidery such mochi, pakko, kharak, suf, kathi, phulkari and gamthi are also commonly used for both informal and formal occasion.Today, modern fabrics like polyester, georgette and charmeuse are also commonly used.