An enigmatic Indian woman wrapped in a beautiful saree is everyman’s dream. The eternal charm of Indian womanhood is kept alive and fresh in the variety and beauty of sarees worn by most of the women in India. This long strip of unstitched cloth measuring about five to nine yards in length is known by different names in different regions of the Indian subcontinent. In Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi, saree (or sari) is known as saadi, in Kannada as seere, in Telegu as sheera, and in Tamil as podavai. Saree is worn in various styles in different communities. The most common way of wearing a saree, however, is to wrap it around the waist, with one end draped over the shoulder. In the past and even today in some tribal communities, sarees are just wrapped around the body without any blouse or petticoats. As an aftermath of the British colonial rule over India, the westernized concept of petticoats and blouses crept in and today saree is always accompanied by a petticoat and a blouse. While some historians believe the blouse to have germinated from the British concept of modesty, others point at the ancient evidence of breast-bands and bodices in India. The petticoat again is known by different names in different regions – it’s a ‘shaya’ in Bengal, lehenga/ghagra in northern India and pavada/pavadai in the south. The blouse too has several names, one of them being a ‘choli’. It is generally accepted that wrapped sari-like garments, shawls, and veils have been worn by Indian women for a long time, and that they have been worn in their current form for hundreds of years.
The origin of saree is traced back to the Indus valley civilization (2800-1800 BCE). An ancient statue depicting a man draped in a saree like robe is one of oldest sources of this ethnic attire. Ancient Tamil poetry, such as the Silappadhikaram and the Kadambari by Banabhatta, describes women in exquisite drapery. This drapery is believed to be a sari. In 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 stomach of the dancer is to be left unconcealed, which some take to indicate the wearing of a sari. It is also believed by some costume historians that Dhoti – the oldest of draped garments worn by men is the precursor of a saree. Perhaps untill the 14th century, dhoti was worn by both men and women. Sculptures from the Gandhara, Mathura and Gupta schools (1st-6th century CE) show goddesses and dancers wearing what appears to be a dhoti wrap, without any bodices or blouses. Other cosume historians say that primarily the everyday costumes of Indians consisted of a dhoti or a lungi ( sarong) with a breast band and a veil or wrap that could be used to cover the upper body or head. The two-piece mundum neryathum (mundu, a dhoti or sarong, neryath, a shawl, in Malayalam) from Kerala is a survival of ancient Indian clothing styles, and that the one-piece sari is a modern innovation, created by combining the two pieces of the mundum neryathum.
Sarees are generally five to six yards long. They are woven with one plain end, two long decorative borders running through the length of the saree and a one to three foot section at the other end which continues and elaborates the length-wise decoration. This decorated section with elaborate designs is the most prominent of all. This section, known as the ‘pallu’ ot ‘anchal’ is flourished and is the most visible. In the past, sarees were generally woven of silk or cotton. While the rich people afforded the luxury silk sarees that often passed though a finger-ring, the poor people had to do with coarse cotton saris. Block printes, vegetable dyes, tie-n-dye (bandhani or bandhej prints), batik, zari, embroidery, etc are some of the common features of Indian sarees. Although previously Indian sarees were all made of hand woven fabric, presently, saris are increasingly woven on mechanical looms and made of artificial fibers, such as polyester, nylon, or rayon. The well known varieties of sarees including dhakai jamdani, tangail, benarasi, bandhani, chikan, tanchoi, kantha, baluchori and a host of other handmade sarees are famous.