It is not an understatement to say that the heritage of handlooms in India is priceless and has existed since time immemorial. Did you know that the history of bandhini from Gujarat can be traced to the Indus Valley Civilisation? A legacy that has not only facilitated trade and commerce since the ancient times but has also been the inspiration for many a writer and poet. A look at the 'fabric' map of India would tell you that almost every region and state in the country has its own distinctive history of weaving, making the handloom industry the largest cottage industry of the country. With millions of weavers in every nook and corner of the country working on creating some of the most unique textiles, handloom is the second largest unorganised economic activity in India, next only to agriculture.
From pashmina in Kashmir to kanjeevaram in Kanchipuram, muga silk in Assam to the exclusive reza textiles of Rajasthan, the uniqueness of each fabric is an ode to India's rich diversity. The lepcha of Sikkim, eri silk of Meghalaya, phanek of Manipur and kunbi of Goa are yet other exclusive fabrics that are fast gaining impetus. The tradition of weaving is so profound that there are several native handlooms found within a single state. For instance, Karnataka boasts of a rich tradition of textiles that include the molkalmuru saris of Chitradurga district and the Ilkal saris of Bagalkot in North Karnataka, apart from the world-famous Mysore silk saris.
In the holy town
In line with the country's rich footprint of textiles, the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are also prominent torchbearers. Apart from the ikat, kalamkari, Gadwal and Narayanpet, the elegant saris of Mangalagiri have earned a special place not only in India but also abroad. The origin of these saris is the town of Mangalagiri in Guntur district, whose name translates into 'Auspicious Hill'. Located on the Guntur-Vijayawada Highway, the town whose population is about a lakh, is situated about 15 km from Vijayawada and is synonymous with the Panaka Narasimha Swamy Temple that is located atop a hill in the town.
With a majority of the population belonging to Padmashali community, whose traditional occupation is weaving and textile business, it is no surprise that weaving is the most important industry here apart from paddy cultivation. The town has over 5,000 weavers and over 50 outlets selling the famous Mangalagiri saris, dress materials and salwar sets in silk, cotton and cotton-silk. The weavers work out of indigenous sheds, many of which are located about 5 km from the town centre in an area called Ratnala Cheruvu, or from their homes in the nearby villages. They either work for dedicated wholesalers or supply to multiple outlets.
Made from pure cotton yarn, Mangalagiri fabric is known for its durability, softness and elegance. This is due to the fact that most of the materials are made up of 80x80 count while few of them are of 60x40 count. The count here is a measure of the number of threads woven length- (warp) and breadth-wise (weft). Moreover, the fabric is woven tightly over pit looms with the weavers sitting at ground level with their feet firmly on the ground. This lends the fabric the soft texture and a characteristic sheen.
"The fabrics are breathable, light on the skin and great for all climates including summer," says Durga, a native of the town who runs an outlet called Poorna Saris, along with her father.
Another key feature of Mangalagiri saris is their famous traditional zari borders, also known as Nizam borders that are about two inches thick. The saris that are woven in bright hues have a thick gold border that has some very closely knit patterns like tiny inverted checks. The zari in these hallmark borders is superimposed by weaving them over the regular weave, unlike many handlooms where the zari itself is woven alone as the border. The body of the fabric has minute checks, stripes and devoid of any large woven patterns lending it a crisp, simple yet dignified look.
The raw material, cotton yarn, is sourced locally, largely from Guntur, Andhra Pradesh State Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society (APCO), and some districts of Tamil Nadu, while the zari comes from various cities like Ahmedabad, Surat and Bengaluru. The yarn is first cleaned by removing impurities like seeds, oil, wax, etc, by boiling it with soap and soda. This also removes the stickiness of the yarn. It is then made ready for the most important step which is dyeing. While vat dyes are mainly used for coloured saris, white saris are bleached. The most important feature here is that the warp and weft are dyed separately. The yarn is then washed, dried and starched after which it is distributed to weavers. Next, it is loaded onto a charka where the yarn is transformed in thread forming the warp and weft with the help of shift bamboo, pirn and bobbins. "It is indeed a complex process and there is the handiwork of at least 30 people before the yarn is ready for weaving," says Durga.
The traditional Mangalagiri saris are woven using pit looms wherein a pit is dug into the ground and the pedal of the loom is placed in the pit. The weavers, who normally acquire this skill from their ancestors, sit on the floor and use their hands and legs to operate the loom. With their feet firmly planted below the ground, weavers are able to apply the right kind of pressure to ensure the tightness of the weave that makes the fabric and zari thick and closely-knit sans any gaps.
This is the quality that sets these saris apart and due to this fact, there is a high demand for these saris. "We have a very good turnover and due to the growing demand, we have partnered with vendors to sell our saris online," says Ramu of Srinivasa Handlooms, who works closely with weavers and procure as many as 50 saris a week.
But like all handlooms, this is a laborious process that is labour-intensive. "Each sari takes about 1.5-2 days to complete and the workers earn around Rs 200 a day for their efforts. This is definitely not so lucrative and hence weavers are on the lookout for jobs that are easier and pay better. Since weaving using pit looms is tough, power looms have mushroomed these days. Using the latter, saris are churned out in large numbers and are less expensive, but they are not authentic," quips Durga.
Outlets like theirs face competition from the ones selling saris using power looms, which is partially the reason why the number of outlets has multiplied in the last decade. "When we started in the early 2000s, we were only the second shop but now there are 52 shops here," adds Durga.