Our footsteps are muffled by the incessant clacking and sighing of the machines as we make our way down the narrow streets of the Mughal town in Varanasi, India. This is a side of Varanasi most people don’t see, as it has very little to do with the main attraction: the holy Ganges. Sitting at a distance from the river, the little community focuses more on international exportation than tourism. In fact, the entire town is a cooperative of master silk weavers.
We wander from home to home, entering workshops to squeeze our way between the masticating teeth of the weaving machines in the cool, dark ground floors. Family members peer down the stairs at us from the lofty position of the living quarters upstairs. I run my hand over the smooth silk threads, fearing it will get caught in the giant maw of the machine running saffron and turquoise. But it never bites, only spits out inch after inch of lotus-covered silk sari.
The craftsmen working the looms are the result of 2,600 years of weaving tradition. In the 15th and 16th centuries, their Mughal ancestors made their way across the vast spaces of the Indian subcontinent seeking a better life. They found it on the sweltering banks of the holy Ganges. At the time, Varanasi was known as Kashi and was a major trading post on the great silk road from Asia to Europe. Around 2,600 years later, the descendants are still weaving delicate silks in the Mughal Town, albeit it with better technology.
As the times have changed, so have the methods. A trade once defined by its hand craftsmanship is now turning into a production line. The old hand-weaving ways are waning. Farooq Ahmad Khan, the head of the town cooperative known as Rozi Silks International, nods solemnly and confesses the trade is dying. He sits in a room surrounded by the vibrant labors of his cooperative, made up of 750 members and their families. Very few of the items on the white shelves are handwoven and some are made from synthetic silk from China instead of the pure silk from Assam and Darjeeling.
It’s no surprise the old ways are dying. One sari can take anywhere from 15 to 45 days to complete by hand, based on the material used, the complexity of the pattern, and of course, how much the weaver works on any given day. In the town, the members of the cooperative can choose how much they work, and thus set the pace of their own income. Not everyone in the old Mughal town is a member of the cooperative, but many, especially of the older generations, take advantage of the lucrative work they were born into.
Things are changing with the younger generations. With the Right to Education Act in 2009, India’s parliament deemed it compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 14 to attend school sans fees. The children of today’s generation are growing up with dreams of air-conditioned offices, suit-and-tie combos, and wealth. With the sharp sword of education in their hilt, they have the opportunity to escape the dark, dusty workshops their fathers, grandfathers and countless generations have toiled in before them.
Some of the work is skipping generations and passing right out of town, to the surrounding villages. The village people do not have the advantage of hundreds of years of generational knowledge, and their work is imprecise and amateur. Their products fetch a lower price but the cooperative buys them up, knowing that foreigners with smaller billfolds will walk out the door with them, not wanting to miss the opportunity of owning authentic Indian textiles.
But the craft hasn’t collapsed entirely. Among the cacophonous weaving machines, some almost 50 years old, you can still find the old handlooms and the masters that know how to orchestrate the thousand, minute threads into a masterpiece worthy of a Mughal queen.
We enter a tiny, sunlit room as if entering a vacuum. It’s a hand-weaving room eerily devoid of the clacking factory sounds that echo throughout the rest of the town. The room only has one loom hanging above the pit in the ground where the weaver sits as he works. It appears as if he’s taken off for lunch, or called it quits for the day, with about 6 inches of smooth black silk already woven and then left to wait. Our guide urges us to touch the silk, as he has in every other room. These people are very tactile, which is not surprising as texture is a determining factor of quality. Handwoven silk such as this fetches a much higher price than machine-woven or synthetic fabrics.
In the cooperative, experts are paid according to skill level, experience, and craft. Weavers who use the automatic looms are paid by the piece, whereas handweavers are paid by the day, and anyone in the cooperative can choose to work as little or as much as they wish. Automatic loom weavers can knock out about 5 saris per day and can make about 50 rupees per sari.
Handweavers, on the other hand, can only complete a few inches per day, so being paid by the piece is not efficient. Instead, Khan estimates the amount of time it will take to complete a piece and offers a fair price based on the estimated completion date. For example, he judges that one sari in particular will take 15 days to complete, working 6 hours per day. Khan offers 500 rupees per day for that period, resulting in a total of 7,500 rupees. If the weaver works only three hours per day and it takes more than 15 days to complete the piece, he will only get 7,500 rupees. On the reverse side, if he works faster and finishes in 10 days, he’ll still get the full 7,500 rupees. The cooperative is fair trade certified and ensures that its weavers always get livable wages.
The whole town functions like clockwork, with each of the 750 cooperative members acting as distinct but necessary cogs in the machine. Dyers dye the thread, spinners wheel it onto giant spools, designers draw patterns and feed it into a computer program that determines the thread count and size. And of course, weavers carry out the design. For those generations who do stick around, the whole town is their university. They have hundreds of masters to choose from and can apprentice for any job they want.
We’re guided into a spooling room where a large wheeled device rotates, pulling thread from about a hundred smaller spools on pegs across the room. Our guide turns to us and tells us that just like we dance, the thread dances too. To demonstrate, he takes my hand and places it on the threads being pulled onto the large spool. The threads are vibrating. He cracks a smile. “See? They are dancing.”
At the end of the tour, we’re shown the final product. We enter a blessedly air-conditioned room with cushions on the floor and Khan lays out the textiles one by one. Iridescent scarves and shawls saunter to the floor. Carefully threaded duvet covers and throws breeze down from the assistants’ outstretched arms. Colors, patterns, and textures form a patchwork of hand-stitched and machine woven masterpieces across the white cushioned floor. He calls out the prices as he explains the material used, the method employed, and the quality evident. The prices range from 200 rupees to 240,000 rupees. He explains that Rozi International Silks makes the bulk of its money through exports to the US and Europe, but that any wandering traveler is welcome to take the tour, learn the history, and view the pieces with a cup of masala chai.
The most fascinating aspect of India is that its traditions have endured throughout time, colonization, poverty, and even modernization. This Mughal town of master weavers is no exception. Though the technology may be changing, and some of the younger generations may be seeking work elsewhere, you can still take 2,600 steps back in time, drawn along the thread to the very first silk weaver in the Mughal town of Varanasi.
Ariana is a writer and world traveler. Her writing covers her three main passions: women’s empowerment, travel, and culture. The beauty of the world is not just in scenic mountain views or turquoise waters; it’s in doing the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. For Ariana, that thing is stringing words together.