“There are moments when I hold the Paithani
Close to my heart as close can be,
Its soft, silken caress
Brings my grandmother back to me….”
The origin of saree may not be very definite. But the Vedic scripts and ancient Indian epics bear evidence of the fact that the early Indian women covered their bodies with the long and wide piece of cloths. With time, this long piece of garment has been explored in various ways and has been experimented with to transform it from a traditional attire of need to fashion fabric of appeal.
The word “saree” has been derived from the Sanskrit word ‘sati’ which means ‘strip of cloth’.
Mention must be made here of the ancient Sanskrit work, “Kadambari” by Banabhatta and an ancient Tamil poetry, “Silappadhikaram”. Here description of women in exquisite drapery or saree is found. Women in early India although were found wearing sarees leaving their midriff bare. Yet, the Dharmasastra writers stated that women should be dressed up in such a way that the navel would never become visible. This kept the navel hidden while wearing a saree for a very long time.
However, according to ancient Hindu tradition, especially according to the poetry “Natya Shastra“, the navel of the Supreme Being was believed to be the source of life and creativity. This followed the traditional value of keeping the midriff bare, while draping a saree around a woman’s body.
Dhoti, which is Indian men’s traditional attire, is believed to be the forerunner of saree. Until the 14th century, dhoti was believed to have been worn both by men and women. However, Dhotis are still being worn by some people in rural India.
Besides Dhoti, early men and women were also believed to have worn lungi in their daily lives. Women also wore breast bands to cover the upper part of their bodies. These breast bands were another unstitched cloth used to cover the shoulders and head.
Between 1st – 6th century, the Odissi Fishtail wrap was introduced in South Asian countries. In this style the saree was draped around the legs and the pallu hanged at the centre lengthwise. There are sculptures in some parts of India, in which gods and goddesses are found draped in Odissi Style Fishtail wrap. Some of the early men and women followed the Odissi Fistail style in parts of the country. And this style is still prevalent in some parts of Indian subcontinent.
There are variety of sculptures found in India which have, men and women draped sarees in various other styles.
However, sarees have also found its mention in the world longest epic, “Mahabharata”. The legend has it that, when the Pandavas lost their wife Draupadi to the enemy clan in a gambling duel, the winners caught one end of her saree and continued to pull and unravel the saree from her body.
But, traditionally and historically speaking the history of saree goes back in time to the Indus Valley Civilization (2800-1800 BC). The ruins of Indus Valley Civilisation have uncovered statue of a priest wearing a drape. A jewel – embellished woman’s figure has also been discovered from the ruins. She was found in a saree tightly wrapped around her entire body in a trouser style.
This therefore goes to show that sarees were originally born in the Indian subcontinent. And Cotton and Silk was first cultivated and woven in and around Indian during the 5th century B.C. as far as fabric of a saree is concerned. Use of Indigo, lac, red, madder and turmeric dyes may have begun early in that period, but it is still found prevalent for the Indian sarees.
The early Hindus also considered stitched clothes to be impure. However with the coming of the Muslims stitched clothes became very popular in India.
The sarees today, have gained new popularity through beauties like Aishwarya Rai, Shipla Shetty, and other Indian actresses and models. Even, Hollywood celebrities like Elizabeth Hurley, Oprah Winfrey, etc have worn saree in their own shows and international events.
Saree as a cultural heritage of India has also gained international popularity with time.
Over the millennia, it is the only garment that has not only captivated people’s fascination, but it has also enhanced women’s beauty and has brought out her femininity by draping her body from head to toe.